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Monday, May 25, 2020

Back in the Day - Part XI

by Shipra Castledine

I am back after another gap! I guess it is because I am now in the timeframe of my last chapter, not living in the tea gardens but still very much in the tea industry and thus very much connected. Our holidays continued to be in the tea estates with one friend or another. The visits to friends in their bungalows was reciprocal as we would put them up when they needed to be in Siliguri. The close friends we would visit over and over again amongst others in previous years were Timmy Randhawa at Dam Dim TE and our trek to Dalsingpara TE to the Circars whenever possible.

We first started spending weekends at Timmy’s assistant’s bungalow when he was a bachelor. We would be comfortably put up in his large ground floor bedroom with a bathroom on that floor. Now, if any of you know Timmy you know that he was kind of OCD. Let me give you an example. Timmy would question if you did not clean out a tomato sauce bottle top before screwing it back on! So this leads to a funny incident which brings a laugh every time I recall it. The bathroom we used had a tub and a shower over the tub. There was a shower curtain that you drew around the bath so water did not slop all over the bathroom. We had all finished our baths and were outside enjoying the garden. Tubloo, my late husband, was the last to have his shower. I’m not sure why but I think Timmy came downstairs to check everything was alright for his guests and in that he visited the bathroom. As he came out to be with us his first question to Tubloo was ‘why didn’t you draw the shower curtain?’ I don’t think Tubloo deigned to reply. Timmy would have repeated the question to Tubloo a number of times in the course of the rest of the day ha ha.. I can walk into Timmy’s mind and envisage his horror at seeing water all over the bathroom floor!

And to this day we cannot forget Timmy’s cook Bahadur’s meringue custard! It would come to the table at the end of a wonderful dinner, in a big Pyrex baking dish, hot with wonderfully charred swirled blobs of meringue over a delicious baked caramel custard! I have never had anything that good since! And another thing I remember as a speciality at Timmy’s bungalow was a breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast which was a creamy mound of scrambled eggs on a well browned fried slice of bread! You were served toast separately too.

In the memories I must take you all back to Ozzie and Chinny and our special connection with them. I am talking of the year Chinny got pregnant and decided to go ahead with the baby at the age of 45 I think it was. Chinny, you can correct me if I am wrong. Then started the visits to her doctor in Siliguri. It meant that they would need to stay overnight in Siliguri and we gladly had them stay with us. We shared Chinny’s term of pregnancy with her. The trials of being at her age and yet wonderfully bearing the pregnancy.

Came the final days. Chinny’s due date was nigh. They prepared to stay at our place till Chinny needed to go into hospital. The day / night Raoul was born Chinny visited her doctor in the day and he told Ozzie to go back to the garden as the baby was a long way in coming. So off Ozzie drove. Well, as babies do, Raoul decided to come into the world that night! Tubloo and myself took Chinny in to the hospital and waited, pacing the floor like expectant parents! It wasn’t too long later that Dr Mukherjee I think it was came out and announced that Chinny had had a healthy baby boy! It was SO exciting for us! And we felt so bad for Ozzie not being there. Ozzie came back the next day and I am sure he was the proudest Dad. We still have the beautiful painting that Chinny presented us.
Chinny's painting on the wall at the back
Ozzie and Chinny followed up with more visits to Siliguri for baby check ups. These connections are lifelong. I re-connected to Chinny on Facebook several months ago after a long long gap and the warmth and feelings were just the same. I know I can visit them in Chandigarh whenever it is possible and the hospitality will be the same as we had in Dalsingpara TE. So much life has happened in between and life changes. It is very comforting to find people like Ozzie and Chinny who are just the same.

My daughters have perhaps a stronger connection to tea as it is more recent and they were brought up in their formative years in Siliguri. They recall times spent in Siliguri with a great deal of fondness and homesickness. It was not only the beautiful surroundings that we lived in but the quality of life. And as Tubloo and I were both tea baba-s our children felt at home in the tea estates. When we recall memories from our years in Siliguri they remember the picnics and the food we all pooled in. One family outdoing the other. One spot in particular we would visit was a divine spot we named Carritt’s Beach. It was past the Coronation Bridge on Sevoke Road and on the road to Kalimpong and Sikkim. We would park our cars on the top and trek down to the Teesta river. It wasn’t an easy trek down but we all managed along with alcohol and food and rugs to sit on. It was incredibly beautiful. I can’t even tell you how many times we had a picnic there. Not to mention the moonlit picnics we would have to other easier access spots on the same road around the mountains. Hard to imagine these blessings we had, to take full advantage of mother nature in all ways. The bounty of her landscape, the fresh produce we enjoyed, the climate.
On Carritt's Beach
Another picnic spot my daughters remember is one that was closer to Siliguri. I can’t quite recall which direction it was but we would bump along kanchha paths to reach a big ‘jhora’, not quite a river but a strong flowing stream with plenty of rocks in it. On a hot day we would all just get in the water and sit on those rocks, have chilled beer and drinks and the food would be passed around in their containers. One of these times my daughters never forget and neither do I, is one where one of the ladies had brought delicious large jumbo prawns simply cooked in garlic and chilli. OMG, sitting in that cold water and eating those incredibly succulent, delicious hot huge prawns was heaven! These sorts of days went by in a wave of hilarity and enjoyment. The world has become so difficult now. I wish we could reinvent days like those.

One occasion we always remember is a day all the tea broker families who were living in Siliguri decided to get together for a men’s cook off. The menu was Khao Suey with all the garnishings. Naturally much alcohol was imbibed, cricket was set up on the lawns of the selected house we were having the day in. Pre lunch drink time went by, lunch time went by, tea time went by and the men weren’t finished with their cooking!! Loud men’s voices in the kitchen arguing over the progress (or non-progress) of the cooking emanated and the girls and children were getting famished. Ladies visited the kitchen from time to time to give their advice but were shoo-ed away! Guess what time we finally ate lunch!! 6pm ha ha Was it worth the wait??? Debatable but it was a memorable day! If you have eaten Khao Suey you know that it is a challenge not to dribble gravy! Rajiv Puri did not dribble! We were in awe of his fastidiousness!! Regardless of the time, we had double helpings and the dekchi of chicken Khao Suey was emptied!

If I were to enumerate all the wonderful outings and drives it would truly fill up a book. I am sure some of these recollections will resonate. More in my next….


'My name is Shipra Castledine nee Shipra Bose (Bunty). My parents were Sudhin and Gouri Bose. I am a tea 'baba' of the 1950-s era. I spent a part of my life growing up in the Dooars and another large part of my life married to a tea planter's son the Late KK Roy son of PK and Geeta Roy of Rungamuttee TE in the Dooars. I continued to be in the tea industry for many years as KK was a tea broker till he passed away in 1998.' Read all Shipra's posts here.
Is this your first visit here? 

Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 

Seema's Chalice

The very first video story on Indian Chai Stories - you will love it!!
by Seema Anand

Meet the storyteller: 

Seema is a London based mythologist and narrative practitioner and although her sanity is a little suspect she is a brilliant story teller. Seema's work in the revival of women's narratives is associated with the UNESCO project for Endangered Oral Traditions. 

 As part of her (not so) secret formula for world peace Seema lectures on the Kamasutra and is an acknowledged authority on the erotic literatures of the East. In her less peaceful moments she also delivers courses on Tantric philosophy.

Is this your first visit here? 

Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Our Writers - in Pictures!

Hello friends! Take a look at our latest picture collages.

There are forty three* storytellers/writers so far - and we have room for many more!

Collage No. 1, below, our 'latest' writers!
Clockwise from top left: Inder Nain, Shivani Taimni, Bipin Tandon, Saaz Aggarwal

Above, clockwise from top left: Gumi Malhotra, Indi Khanna, Dip Sengupta, Simran Sandhu, V.R.Srikanth, Radhika Tandon
Above, top row (left to right): Mrinalini Rautela Pahwa, Mamlu Chatterjee, Minoo Avari
Centre row (left to right): Mirza Yawar Baig, Venk Shenoi
Bottom row (left to right): Rajan Mehra, Aloke Mookerjee, Danny Pariat

And below, our writers' picture collage as of June 2018.
The names are on the pictures. Last year's technology!!   
Indian Chai Stories' Writers - updated June 2018
A handful of old friends wrote the first stories, starting March 2018 - and now there are forty three* writers here!
Waiting to hear your story - send it to me at
 - Gowri Mohanakrishnan

 If you have come to this blog page for the first time, please keep clicking on the link to 'Older Posts' or see our Blog Archive to guide you to more stories. A list of labels will help you find different writers.

Is this your first visit here? 

Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 
Happy reading!
Cheers to the spirit of Indian tea!

*and forty two pictures, because we don't have one for  Larry Brown!!

My Favourite Walk

by Inder Nain

My favorite walk happens a couple of times a week, or as many times I can return from work at least half an hour before sunset, which is a shade before seven pm round the year. When it does happen, my wife is always ready & waiting. I am as eager as the dog & we are soon on our way.

Getting out through the back gate, we climb the gentle hill behind the house and take the grassy road between the tea fields. The dog bounds on ahead chasing after birds. The 'caucal', a biggish brown bird, is the most vulnerable. The caucal makes its nest among the tea bushes. It has a low, clumsy flight. The dog does manage to knock one down once in a while when he takes it by surprise. Fortunately he doesn’t know what to do after that. With me yelling and screaming at him to leave the bird alone, he runs away quite content with the outcome of the game and the frightened bird scurries off into the bush.

Wife and I hurry along. The grass is still wet from the afternoon showers & our sneakers are soon soaked through. We talk continuously. The topics are many and varied. I tell her a little about work, she tells me a lot about her day, the children and their school, about our friends and everything else. 

It is wonderful; I soak in the stories and the scenery. Hills stretch into the distance in varying shades of green and blue. The land falls away towards the east. The view of this vast expanse is overwhelming. The rains have been good and it is green and lush everywhere. The cypress trees are tall and heavy with all the moisture. A gust knocks some water on to us as we pass. We walk on with the water now going 'squish, squish' in our shoes.

Suddenly the sun is in the gap between the clouds & the opposite hills. The whole area is bathed in the evening sunlight. The yellowish green of the tea bushes spread like carpets across the hills glimmers and glows as it catches the sun at that angle. The patches of red cannas scattered around the tea fields are ablaze. We stop and admire the grandeur as we have done so many times before, amazed at the beauty. The dog is still running up and down the road chasing after every sound and smell that tickles his senses. We reach the end of the road and turn around; the sun catches us straight in our faces. We pull our caps down a little to avoid the glare and start the walk back. The return, about one and a half kilometres, must be covered fast, as the sun will sink quickly now. We talk more than we look and walk fast.

A pale gray hue descends upon the valley as the sun vanishes behind the hills. I yell for the dog as we approach the house. The jackals will be out soon. The night sounds are picking up. The crickets start their cacophony, the doves coo as they settle back into their nests. The auger buzzard has taken post for the night on a telephone post opposite the house. A cold light mist is all around as we return through the back gate. The lights are flickering on. "Mbili, chai, please", my wife tells the cook as we peel our drenched shoes and socks off. Another wonderful walk .

 Pix of Kipkebe tea plantation at Kericho, Kenya, courtesy Shashi Menon

Meet the writer: Inder Nain

Inder in his own words: 

Inder's life & times

Little brains & ample mind,
No common sense to hold me behind,
I push on..

Lucky breaks & simple takes,
Keeps me smelling the roses - 
and whisky's fine,
Leaving little room to whine.

And here is the 'practical version' as his wife calls it: 
Inder Nain worked for Goodricke Tea for 15 years in the Dooars and Assam before moving to Kenya in 2000. He worked with Sasini tea and coffee before moving on to start his own rose farm in 2006.  He is now successfully settled in Kenya growing roses.

Is this your first visit here? 

Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 

Monday, May 11, 2020

New Pioneers

by Bipin Tandon

In the second half of the 80's, efforts were being made to bring Arunachal on  to the tea map. One enterprising man Mr.Basant Dube had taken the lead. He had persuaded an influential politician to plant a garden.

I got a call SOS at Lucknow, where I was living after a sack from DUNCANS after 19 years of service. I was disappointed with tea and was trying other means of making a living. However Mr. Dube told me come as leave vacancy for not over a month, as his manager had developed some medical problem. He would be back soon.

I could not turn down his offer. Third day I took a flight to Lilabari and then drove 250 kms! -to Jonah - last place in Assam. The driver took me to an abandoned saw mill. He said arrangements had been made for me to stay the night there. In the morning we would go to the garden.

At eight am the next day we set off for the garden. After driving 20kms or so we reached a river bank. Driver showed me that the garden was on the other side and since the river had a lot of water we could not cross. I am a non swimmer. CHALLANGE Number One!

I told the assembled locals to get a rope tied to trees on both ends of river. I got stilts made and crossed the holding rope.

We had a bamboo house for the manager's bungalow with GCI sheets. The house had electricity and a telephone. It had a thunder box cubicle with a bucket. Rain water was collected through the roof guttering.

We had a television and fixed what was a sofa for sitting - posts driven in. The ground floor was a kitchen. Beds made of bamboos. This was how we began.

Now imagine what would have been situation in 1880-90s! Salute to the pioneers. What a life, gone now - built up with hard work.

The writer introduces himself: 

Bipin Behari Tandon. Joined Duncans in 1964.
An agri graduate from UPAU Pantnagar.
Out from TEA since Jan.2018.

Is this your first visit here? 

Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Just GO For It!!

by V.R.Srikanth

Some of us have been privileged to do stints in tea and coffee estates. The story that I am about to relate, involves my station in a coffee estate in a predominantly coffee planting district although it could have happened in any plantation district.

My late father was always passionately devoted to all his cars. Which meant that the fastest way for me to earn some extra pocket money during my schooldays was to lavish his car with polish whenever the opportunity presented itself. There was no question of my ever learning to drive in his car. So I didn't know how to drive a car at all, except for the few times I had rashly sneaked his car out of the garage and driven it around our building compond at night on my own based only on my observation of his perfect driving style. My constant companion during a part of my College years was my Jawa motor cycle which I sadly had to part with once petrol prices went up drastically and I couldn't afford to run one on my allowance.

I had just taken over as Assistant Manager of OLS 'A' and 'B' Divisions of Coovercolly Estate, a coffee estate of around 1200 acres near Somwarpet, North Coorg, sometime in the 70s. Its highlight every year apart from the blossom onset, was the annual temple festival which took place sometime around Mahashivratri. This centred around a pooja in the estate temple followed by the reading of the Harikatha by priests from nearby Somwarpet and lunch.

As soon as the festivities concluded my boss, the late Shri D. H. Hegde, a great coffee planter and a thorough gentleman, who was also the Group Manager of all the Coffee Estates in our Company, asked me if I could drop the two priests who had performed the ceremony in his Ambassador car in Somwarpet town. This caught me smack right between the eyes and I was completely unprepared to even contemplate such a contingency. Having recovered my composure in an instant, I enthusiastically agreed to do. After all I certainly didn't want to lose face before the big boss so early in my tenure.

So I was quick to switch into the memory recall mode and having reversed the car from the parking spot, I quickly set off on the 2.5 kms of estate road we had to negotiate before we were to turn into the Mercara - Somwarpet Road, with the two priests whom I will refer to as Siji (for Senior Ji) and Juji (for Junior Ji) for the rest of the tale, seated in the back seat.

My start was a bit jerky and as we set off from the temple which was at the valley floor. Siji seemingly thrilled by his rendering of the Harikatha proceeded most exuberantly to acquaint Juji of that fact. I thought that they didn't notice in the meantime how perilously close I had come to depositing the Ambassador amongst the coffee bushes or for that matter contacting the hill side on bends which I had imagined would straighten sufficiently by themselves.
A typical road through a coffee estate, in this case Bedaguli in the B.R.Hills in Karnataka. We owned Bedaguli till we sold it in 2007. It is the meeting point of the Western and Eastern Ghats.
The monologue in the back seat having started initially as a raging torrent had managed to hit some impediments within the first kilometre of the journey and had definitely settled into a more sedate flow as I neared the 2.5 km mark before turning into the main road, with about 7.5 kms of black topped road to go ; as its protagonist had somehow by now realised that deviations from the straight en route hitherto, seemed unintended and definitely skiddy.

Like any instructor on the harikatha, Si ji was quick to realise that the time had come for him to take matters in hand and not leave it to the passive and philosophic resignation of his karmic fate. He broke his monologue intermittently and sought the refuge of his 'go to' mantras. The speed of his verbal delivery had now slowed down to an extent were he was decidedly less frenzied and casually more deliberate.

Meanwhile on taking the left turn to Somwarpet, I had discovered that there were still two forward gears that I had not used as yet and were crying for my attention. The next seven odd kilometre drive from the turn off point to Somwarpet was largely straight but for some curves that are a feature of any hill road but in the main, free of any major acclivity or declivity.

Having perilously steered my way through the twisting acclivity of the first two and a half  kms of the estate road, I took to the relative straight like a gazelle in full sprint.Something stirred within me and I soon engaged into third and shot off like a bat out of hell, missing a few pedestrians, cows and ongoing and oncoming vehicles by what seemed to me to be a fairly comfortable margin for the next couple of kilometres. I did admittedly toot the horn in the process a bit extravagantly.

With about five kms to go any conversation between the two tufted occupants of the back seat had ceased and Siji had settled into a low pitched yet moanful prayer that appeared to be desperate in its appeal. As I crossed Nagroor and headed into the home stretch in overdrive and sometimes alternating between the third and fourth gears I was exhileratingly hitting top speed. The tufts of the back seat occupants might have, I imagine by now, been standing vertically' but I did not dare to take  a peek in the rear view mirror.

With two and a half kms to go Juji had joined his Guru in prayer and both in perfect harmony did a high pitched Sanskrit rendition which will be forever remembered by me for its rapidity and escalated decibel levels while I by now grew in increasing confidence making the practice of rapid deceleration and acceleration my sole object and pursuit.

The final descent into Somwarpet town's old quarter is a series of very sharp and narrow bends and as I proceeded to negotiate this seemingly expertly, my passengers were now half screaming me into the home stretch with impassioned chants.

As I drew to a halt in front of their door, both got out of the car in an instant and disappeared indoors. They bolted their main door from the inside immediately, without either thanking me or blessing me for the great personal risk I had taken for their safe journey home.

The ride back, although pleasant and remarkably smooth, was somewhat mundane after the highs of the onward leg. By now I was handling the car with gear felicity to regard myself as a natural. I left the plantation industry later that year and joined Dunlop in the marketing department which resulted in my driving an Ambassador for over nearly 3,000 kms a month for the next few years as I covered my allotted sales and service territory.

My karmic wheel had turned.

Meet the writer: V.R.Srikanth:

I am a resident of the Nilgiris. I am a retired Corporate Management Professional having done two brief stint as a planter, nearly thirty years apart, mainly in Coffee. I live on my estate growing timber, organic herbs and vegetables.

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!

Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world!

Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Becoming a Planter

by Minoo Avari

CALCUTTA – Circa December 1965: THE INTERVIEWS

It was pretty much the same group that did the rounds, from one agency house to the next. Fresh out of college, we were going for interviews with the big tea companies. There were strapping lads from Delhi; a few from Bihar, Assam and Uttar Pradesh … and then there was me. We paraded the streets of Calcutta, checking appointment times; feeling important; talking loudly, while waving at passing ubiquitous Ambassador cars, and hiding our anxiety as best we could. Becoming an assistant manager on a tea plantation was a coveted post and certainly a big deal. Everyone was suited and booted. Flashy ties, bowties and multi-coloured shoes were frowned upon. Indeed, the unwritten dress code could be summed up in a word: sombre! This immediately eliminated the unwary, who came up short in colourful socks. However, there was still a large contingent in the fray. Seated in lounges, outside the offices of the Directors, the silence bore testimony to jangling nerves as candidates were summoned, one at a time, to enter the offices of those who would play God.

It was an inexplicably heady feeling, entering the portals of Duncan Goodricke, Williamson Magor, James Warren, Octavius Steel and, of course, James Finlay. Aspirants, called in for interviews, came out five or ten minutes later with brave smiles hiding obvious concerns, intermingled with audible sighs of relief. It was scary. Once inside, four or five solemn gentlemen, on the opposite side of large desks, glared imperiously down their noses. They always waited awhile, before asking you to be seated on the lone chair facing them.

Fidgeting, looking down at one’s shoes, or staring at the ceiling, guaranteed a quick exit. In my case, to add to my discomfiture, I knew most of them. They were friends and acquaintances of my father and grandfather. For all that, they appeared not to know me at all! Asking questions, to which they already had the answers … and I had to reply as best I could. These interviews ended with a curt thank you and, the added, “we will be contacting you shortly.” This required a polite thank you in return, followed by a nod and a wink at the lads outside, still awaiting their interviews in the lounges.

In the weeks that followed a flurry of official stereotyped letters poured in, thanking me for coming to the interview. Some said vacancies for assistant managers had already been filled. Then there were those that said I was found acceptable and asked me to report to their respective head offices, where I would be given an allowance for crockery, cutlery, curtains, bedsheets etc. After giving these letters some thought, I chose The Darjeeling Company – I had had my fill of the big city and wanted nothing more than to get back to Darjeeling. Though I had never been below the Superintendent’s bungalow, at the top of the estate, I had already been to Ging tea estate on social visits. That was comforting and, so it was, I trooped across to James Warren & Co. They were the forwarding agents for The Darjeeling Company, where I collected a generous allowance. With my mother and aunt Kitty keeping me in tow, we spent days at the New Market where I was a mere spectator to reams of curtain materials being unravelled: there were tempting Noritake china crockery sets on display and, of course, the cutlery just had to be Rosenthal! They looked genuine enough and came in within my allotted budget. With that I was all set to go to Darjeeling.
Ging: Showing dad the new rotorvane
GING TEA ESTATE: On the last day of January 1966, the company jeep pulled up in front of Kenilworth, our home on Ashley Road, just below the Darjeeling Gymkhana club. I didn’t have much by way of luggage and we were soon on the road. Saudhan, the driver, drove fast, obviously enjoying the new jeep and we were speeding down the narrow stretch, below the Lebong Race Course, in quick time. Turning off on the Estate road below Ging Bazaar, with impeccable tea fields on both sides, Saudhan told me that the Hardingham’s had retired and had already left for the United Kingdom. David Little, he told me, now occupied the Superintendent’s bungalow. I was aware of all that but nodded anyway.
Marjorie Lancaster
Riang: with Shree, Jas, Tom and Uttara
It was about 4:00 pm, on that cold winter’s day, when we pulled up outside the kitchen entrance. Assistant Managers never entered the Superintendent’s front door unannounced. I stood outside the jeep while Saudhan offhandedly told the kitchen staff that we had arrived. Someone came out, telling me to walk around to the front of the house: a clear insinuation that, in the pecking order of things, the Assistant was below the Superintendent’s bungalow staff. Walking around gave me time to compose myself, before knocking timidly on the front door. A liveried bearer opened it with a flourish.

I was ushered into the familiar cosy sitting room, there was David Little puffing on his pipe, peering at me from under bushy, ginger eyebrows. I noticed a huge British planter seated alongside. He smiled dutifully but it was his wife, Marjorie, whose smile was reassuring. I stood by the door not knowing quite what to do, other than reminding myself not to fidget. It was intimidating. Richard Lancaster, at six feet five and a half inches tall, occupied the entire sofa. Seated, he was taller than I, still standing with my arms behind my back and awaiting an invitation to sit.

Just then Celia Little, the Superintendent’s wife, came bustling in with hot scones and crumpets. Laying them on the table she said, “Well, for heaven’s sake sit down. We don’t want the tea getting cold, do we!”

David frowned as I hesitated. “When the Burra Memsahib tells you to sit, you snap to it ,young man,” he bellowed. I was seated in a flash. It turned out rather pleasant after that. The conversation was centred around me, with David telling Richard about my parents, my knowledge of Nepali and my prowess on the tennis court. All very flattering undoubtedly; I still had to keep in mind I was on probation and that there would be little leeway for any slipups.

The scones were delicious and the tea the best I had tasted. I tried to keep the cup from rattling on the saucer, while Richard, noticing my reticence to attack the crumpets, laughed out loud.

“Eat up, we’ll take it out of your hide tomorrow,” he said, still chuckling disconcertingly.

Richard was the Acting Manager on the estate. He had come from the plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and joined Ging a few months prior to my arrival. Still struggling to speak Nepali, his vocabulary was speckled with Tamil and English thrown in the mix. I was to be his Assistant for the next two years, before he was transferred to Bannockburn and Baljit Sukarchakia, who was on Bannockburn, came to Ging as my manager. Reaching out for yet another scone I was arrested in the act, with David Little telling me about the forthcoming tennis tournament in the Dooars. “We take this very seriously. There has never been a winner from Darjeeling and we want to change that statistic.” I wondered if that was why the Company wanted me! Sports were an essential component of working in the plantations and tennis, undoubtedly, was at the top of the list. It was followed by cricket and soccer.

I knew several tennis players from the Darjeeling contingent. There was my buddy, Harish Mukhia, with whom I had played an exhibition match against the visiting Calcutta players, Premjit Lall and Jaideep Mukerjee, some years earlier. David Little was a keen player himself, as were the Hardingham’s before him. Gordon Fraser, Som Kochar, Hemi Rickye and L.B. Rai were some of the others who were regulars at the Gymkhana Club courts. Of course, there were ladies too but this tournament, down in the Dooars, was only for men! That didn’t prevent the women from accompanying their husbands, it being a gala event that nobody wanted to miss.

Scarcely a few weeks as a tea planter, Harish and I drove down to the club in the plains. We were to be hosted by the different planters there. L.B. Rai and I were put up on Bagrakote, as guests of Donald (Big Mac) and Betty McKenzie. At the club that evening, the Dooars planters successfully drank us under the table! Nevertheless, both Harish and I, fortunately on opposite sides of the draw, entered the finals of the “A” Meet. It was the first time any player from the hills had actually got past the quarter-final stage. That final was a real battle. We knew one another’s strengths and it was only a question of who would perform better on the day. It was my day. After the match Farookh Aga’s wife presented the trophies. I remember Dougie Armstrong won the ‘B’ Meet, which ran concurrently and there were celebrations through the night. After that it was back to work. I had to check the stores and make an inventory of the tools and equipment on the estate. Then I had to familiarise myself with Kaffiebarie division.
Badamtam, with Jiwan Pradhan and Sonnam Topden
There were three divisions. Ging, on top all by itself, with Gelongtar, on the Badamtam Estate border to the North and Kaffiebarie on the Southern side of the plantation. Both these lower divisions touched the stream, separating us from Tukdah, which was also part of the company. It was a prize property, with Derek Royals managing the tea that sprawled to the East in front of us. More importantly, it wasn’t affected by any labour problems, as the Communist Unions couldn’t get a foothold.

It wasn’t a happy time though for planters on most estates. The Congress government had fallen and a coalition of Congress and Communists, calling themselves the United Front, pretended to govern Bengal. There was no law and order and Gelongtar division, with its fully communist union, proved to be the most turbulent in the district. There were strikes and ‘go slows’ almost every day, accompanied by ‘gheraoes’, where planters were surrounded for several days with nothing to eat or drink.

The entire district was affected. Managerial staff were targeted and there were instances of limbs being amputated by workers, armed with kukris or pruning knives: the grievously injured, callously left to their own devices. Every weekend most planters congregated at the Planter’s Club. From there they often drove en masse, to rescue some Manager or Assistant who, surrounded in his bungalow, had no lights, no water and nothing to eat. I remember one such incident on Mim where Gordan Temple was the manager.

Somehow, he got word to the Club that he was in trouble. I got into Willie Campbell’s Land Rover and, with a string of vehicles following, got to the estate bungalow. There were no lights. Willie was able to start the generator and then we all trooped in with food and water, but couldn’t find Gordan Temple. After a while we heard a voice from the attic asking: “Is it safe to come out?” We spent the rest of the night there reassuring him but had to leave at daybreak to get back to our own estates.

The lawlessness spread to even docile Kaffiebarie division. One November evening, Richard Lancaster and I were surrounded by an angry mob in the pruned tea field, just below the factory. Standing there in short pants and short sleeve shirts, we were freezing. To make matters worse our mouths became dry and we were both incredibly thirsty. My little ‘paniwalla’, Birbhadur, was watching all this with obvious consternation. With gestures I signalled we were thirsty and he was off like a shot.

Arriving a half-hour or so later, he tossed me a bottle which he had pulled from the refrigerator. Protocol demanded that I give it to my senior before it was snatched away. Richard hastily poured half the contents down his throat before handing it over to me. I drank with equally large gulps, even as the labour, becoming agitated, were about to wrest the bottle away.

Before they could get to us, the bottle was empty and that ended the ‘gherao’. It was a bottle of gin; the label had peeled off in the refrigerator! Both of us, standing there in the gathering darkness, had our arms around one another’s shoulder’s, singing “Last Train To San Fernando” and desperately pleading with the workers not to leave. Disgusted, they left nevertheless; leaving us singing in the moonlight and nursing enormous hangovers the following day. Richard and I were to become good friends thereafter!

However, chaos, confusion and violence were the order of the day. Businessmen, not wanting to invest in Bengal anymore, began flighting capital to other States. However, they were forcibly restrained from shifting their head office’s elsewhere. While there were innumerable horror stories, coming from the plantations on a daily basis, I can best relate a few incidences that had to do with me. I must admit, I was one of the lucky few who got away unscathed!
Ging Chotta Kothi

A year after the Kaffiebarie incident, I was attacked in the office by a kukri bearing Kalamaan chaprassy. There was little I could do. Seeing his kukri raised above his head, prepared to strike, I was taken completely by surprise. Instinctively, I pushed the desk between us, as hard as I could. That knocked him over and I quickly jumped to my feet to disarm him. Getting the kukri out of his grasp and nudging him out of the office, perhaps none too gently, he couldn’t stop himself from stepping over the factory plinth area. With giant strides he couldn’t arrest, he fell into the tea bushes about ten feet below.

Of-course, he was as drunk as a Lord and put up to this by the Union. Nevertheless, that resulted in his collarbone getting broken which, in turn, led to the entire division going on strike the next day. Ken Hutchinson, who was the Secretary of the Darjeeling Branch of the Indian Tea Association, swung into action immediately. He registered a First Information Report against the errant chaprassy and that took care of the problem. After two days the workers were back in the field as though nothing had happened!

The communist party gained in ascendency through the mid-sixties and into the seventies. As Bengal became an even more lawless and sordid mess, many plantations insisted their managerial staff were armed at all times. Weapons had to be surrendered to the secretaries of clubs, as they couldn’t be taken into the bars, parlours or billiard rooms. Neither could they be left unattended in vehicles dotting the parking lots. One Saturday morning, while driving my jeep to town, I had to stop at the outskirts of the Darjeeling bazaar. Deo Prakash Rai was making a speech on behalf of his Gorkha League party: when he spoke, the whole town turned out to hear him. An ex-British Gurkha soldier, he had served in the World War and was a friend of my father. He was fond of me too but I never saw him anything less than intoxicated. Inebriation notwithstanding, he was a powerful force in Darjeeling politics and would have been an excellent alternative to the mindless and violent communist party.

His animated speech continued interminably. I waited but there was no sign of the crowd parting. A small yellow triangular flag, affixed to a rod, proudly fluttered in the breeze on the bonnet of my jeep. The pennant was a gift from my father but, what followed, made me wish that he hadn’t! It signified I was part of the Sherpa Association, which I wasn’t, even though he was the President at the time. The fluttering pennant appeared to have distracted one among the crowd.

Standing on tiptoe, to listen to the leader, he suddenly turned and ripped the rod off the bonnet. Not content, he flung the entire kit and caboodle away in a fit of rage. It struck someone standing alongside and, pretty soon, there was a melee of fists and shoes energetically growing larger and larger. Needless to say, I too was enraged. Jumping out from the jeep, I more than just grabbed his collar.

Some Sherpas nearby, seeing their flag cast aside, took umbrage and came to my assistance: it was a merry, free-for-all, right there on the market square. Deo didn’t take kindly to his speech being terminated in this rude fashion and complained to my father. I had to go to his house the next day and apologise. I don’t know what time I got away, but we were the best of friends by the time I staggered outside his door. Shortly after, Baljit Sukarchakia, as a full Manager, came to Ging. I was his assistant for perhaps a year before being transferred to Tukdah. Balli, as he was affectionately called, was hardworking and expected the same from me. We divided our tasks before getting together each evening to discuss the work. Sometimes it got late to meet at the factory office, which required me to go to his house. While he was busy reviewing the accounts and other books, his wife, Pali, an excellent cook, treated me as her personal guinea pig. I feasted on tandoori chicken, accompanied by thick delicious parathas and washed it all down with large mugs of lassi … sometimes I purposely got home late, avoiding the factory office discussions!

This is not to signify there wasn’t any trouble. There was plenty of it and with Gelongtar division in particular. At one-point Baljit declared a lockout and we had Punjab police do a lathi-charge on the property. The Punjab police were sent in by the Central Government to quell the chaos in the State, with a large contingent of Sikhs posted on Ging. As long as they were there, that entire fortnight, there wasn’t a murmur from the workers and everything from pruning to plucking the tea bushes, hummed like a well-oiled machine.

Shortly after the Punjab Police left, to quell riots in Bilaspur, Baljit decided that all the tea pruning, hitherto left in the field for the workers to gather as firewood, should be buried. This would act as nutrient, as they broke down under the soil, and be beneficial to the plantation. It created another uproar on Gelongtar. A long strike followed with workers marching up to the factory, yelling obscenities, flashing kukris, pruning knives and even large iron rods, used for prising obdurate stones from the ground.

Balli stuck to his principles and there followed another lockout. Soon the workers had to start selling their pots, pans and chattels to survive. They were disillusioned with the Union but afraid to challenge them; what with communist goons camped on the division, encouraging and even compelling them to remain resolute. The Union strongmen didn’t face any difficulties and indeed forced the starving workers to feed and look after them. It was an untenable situation that was not fully resolved when I was transferred to Tukdah. A few months later, they returned to work: Balli had had his way and it broke the backbone of the continual unrest.
Tukdah Chotta Bungalow
TUKDAH: Tukdah was another world. Derek Royals spoke fluent Nepali, which he delivered in strong Queen’s English. His work was meticulous and, away from the daily strife on Ging, I actually got to learn a lot about planting. From him I learned how to create large tea nurseries, construct labour quarters and make quality teas in the factory. It was an education in itself. He was rigid and followed protocol, wherein the Assistant didn’t mix with the Manager, which pretty much left me on my own.

Tweedie had by then become part of Tukdah. It had belonged to a Mr. Tweedie and was purchased by the company several decades ago. I enjoyed riding my black stallion, Toofan, to this outer division, which was a completely separate entity from the rest of the estate. Located below the main road to Teesta Bazaar, it harboured a perfect stand of tea, with a huge tree that had been struck by lightning many years ago. The tree was already dead but served as a prominent landmark. The road above continued to Kalimpong, on the other side of the Teesta river.
Tukdah: the road above
By then the rupee had been devalued. It made it difficult for expatriate planters to stay on in the Country. Sterling companies too started diluting their stakes and wealthy Indians began mopping up shares, eventually becoming sole owners of several large holdings. At the same time, my parents were getting increasingly concerned about my future. The violence and dangers on all plantations showed no sign of respite, instead they were precipitating with each passing month. Many of my expatriate friends encouraged me to immigrate to Australia and I applied to the Australian High Commission.

About that time, my young cousins in South India, were having their thread ceremonies performed on one of the tea estates there. It was their initiation into the Parsee Zoroastrian community. Having just joined Tukdah I couldn’t go, but my parents attended the function. They came back full of praise for living conditions in the South and were keen I apply for a job on the plantations there. I was to get married in a few months, and they were adamant about not wanting me to bring up a family surrounded by such mindless violence, orchestrated by a bloodthirsty Bengal government.

I was happy on Tukdah and in two minds about moving to the South of the country. It would be quite an upheaval. What with having to learn a new language, which was something I was never good at, and then learning to ride a motorbike; make new friends … there were a lot of uncertainties connected to such a move! I procrastinated awhile, when the government announced there would be a twenty-four-hour strike. No estates or businesses were to work. There would be serious consequences should they choose to do so. The workers on Tukdah had never been on strike and were adamant about working.

It was a dilemma. Derek Royals decided that we would work and not have our workers unnecessarily lose a day’s wage. He consulted David Little and David’s advice was to keep the estate open but remain alert. On the day of the strike, we got word that workers from Ging were planning to cross the river and stop Tukdah from working. Derek rode his horse, Crusader, down to my bungalow early morning, telling me to accompany the estate contractor to the river. Apparently, the contractor was an expert with explosives and would blow up the bridge across the water. The contractor and I walked down, while Derek rode back to his bungalow with instructions that I should call him as soon as I got home.

The contractor was clever and in no time the company bridge, connecting the two estates was floating down the water. I called Derek on the intercom and told him the work was done. Two hours later the workers from Ging, having constructed a makeshift bridge, crossed the river and surrounded my bungalow. Yelling slogans and telling me to come out of the house, I informed Derek about what was happening. “Try and keep them from coming up to the ‘Burra Kothi’. I don’t want that riff-raff coming here and disturbing my family.”

It was fortunate that I had worked on Ging and knew the workers by name. Waiting till the hullabaloo died down, I started talking to them. The parleying went on for a few hours, by which time workers from Tukdah came to my assistance. It looked like a clash could be brewing, right there, outside my bungalow. Ananda Pathak, the chief of the communist union, seeing that this might erupt into something serious, spoke to the workers and calmed things down. After the workers from Ging left, he had a cup of tea with me and said he was having ‘a hell of a time’ on nearby Rangaroon estate.

Rangaroon was a government estate. The workers there had cleverly switched loyalties and formed a non-communist union of their own. Pathak was left helpless. He was a small built man who lived in the communist commune close to our house in Darjeeling. Before leaving he asked why I chose to continue planting in Bengal. “Things are only going to get worse,” were his parting words. That did it and I started looking at Companies down South.

It was only after Shehzarin and I got married in January 1970, that I applied for and got a job with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in South India. We were in the Tukdah ‘Chota Kothi’, for a few months, before leaving for Tamil Nadu, in the April of 1970. In the interim she was horrified by the weekly visits to the hospital, to see fellow planters lying on hospital beds with varying degrees of wounds. It did come as a shock to her, and I knew I had made the right decision to leave my beloved hometown.

AUTHORS NOTE: The complete absence of law and order continued unabated in Darjeeling till the early eighties and only subsided with the death of Geoffrey Johnston. The town revolted, horrified by the ninety wounds on his body, which were over two inches deep. It was premeditated murder by the government, who wanted to take over this prize proprietary estate. The butchered body had to be wrapped in plastic sheet, to bring it to Darjeeling for autopsy.

For once, even the politicians were aghast and condemned the State government for this act of brutality. Geoff, born in Rungmook, was killed by his childhood friends … he had played with them as a child and later bent over backwards for them, almost going bankrupt into the bargain. This was his reward by the so-called protectors of the people! He was my friend, a friend to all the people of Darjeeling: a good kind-hearted man, slain by an egregious government!

Meet the Writer: Minoo Avari
Minoo riding bareback in Ging, Darjeeling
In his own words: I was born in Calcutta on November the 26th 1945 though we were a Darjeeling based family. I studied at North Point (St. Josephs College - Darjeeling) and then went on to do my College in St. Xavier's College, Calcutta. I played a lot of tennis at this point, travelling around the country playing in just about all the tournaments then. 

Later I joined the tea plantations in Darjeeling and was on Ging and Tukdah Tea Estates till 1970 when I switched companies and joined The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. I had got married earlier in the year and my wife and I were posted to Oothu Estate in Tirunelvelli District of Tamil Nadu.  Now I lead a retired life - writing, playing tennis and enjoying riding my motorcycle. I am currently the President of the local Farmers Association and also the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal. I am also a member of the London Tea History Association.

Read more by Minoo Avari here:

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!  
You will meet many storytellers here, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them!

My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true( always ), maybe a tall tale, or long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. 

Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Turbulent Times

by Shivani Taimni

Happy to welcome young Shivani Taimni to Indian Chai Stories. Her grandfather, the late S.K.Shivpuri, was a tea planter with Octavius Steele in Cachar.   

Shivani's grandparents (Nana and Nani ) 
A typical tea estate would be a sprawling mass of land, spread across many acres, with a majestic bungalow in the middle. An imposing sahib, his elegant, sharp but perpetually bored wife, a small brood of children, well-educated, well-groomed, well-in line, enough pet dogs to take down an average tiger (and often trained for that very purpose), an exotic pet or two, and at least one attendant to each one of them, not to mention the plethora of maids, cooks, gardeners, other forms of domestic help, farmers, lorry drivers and daily wage labourers, all made up the vibrant populace of that little world.

Of course, this ecosystem was not always the most symbiotic, and a hilarious hiccough or two were always the order of the day. A woman recalls how she, as the newly-wed, young, clueless North Indian wife of a tea garden assistant manager in Dullabcherra, in the Cachar district of Assam asked the Bengali watchman to take her Alsatian puppy for ghumana (a walk) before breakfast. The lazy watchman took advantage of the ambiguity of this command, to the end that the next day the wife saw both him and her beloved puppy napping peacefully by the wall. When reprimanded, the watchman justified it with a straight-faced, “Memsahab said ghumana. That means sleep in Bangla (Bengali language). I did as I was told.”

Linguistic barriers aside, differences of opinion were frequent even between perceived equals with common frames of reference. Often, these differences were rooted in the stifling, sometimes arbitrary but much-needed norms of behaviour that each individual was expected to adhere to without question. In times of social, political and economic turmoil, when hope and faith in humanity is being tested and the very ground beneath ones feet seems unsteady, the individual, and consequently, society as a whole, tends to find solace in the last system that worked.

They align themselves to it involuntarily, regardless of any irrelevant facets or fallacies it may have. The strictness with which they cling on to these norms and etiquette is directly correlated to the instability of the days, and as such, it is understandable that someone even stepping toe outside of these boxes was received with much hype and scandal.

In one incident, two sprightly young men inadvertently got themselves temporarily ostracised. The tea estates were interspersed with clubs, that is, recreational centres where upper class residents would come to socialise and negate the effects of the overwhelming isolation, an occupational hazard of the tea gardens. Each evening, these clubs would be abuzz with the sounds of laughter and merrymaking, of children frolicking and playing, women gossiping gaily and men discussing the events of the day over a drink or three. It was an awe-inspiring sight to behold, the indomitable spirit of the celebration after a long and difficult day, during long and difficult days.

The managers of the club, guided mostly by the desires of the ladies, made special efforts to keep this spirit alive. Every so often, they would put together a gala evening or ‘do’. A special favourite amongst these were the fancy dress dos, affairs that were as lively as they were distinguished, with unspoken rules guiding the festivity without quelling the enthusiasm. It was on one such event that our heroes, Wallerstein and Anderson, in a faltering attempt at humour, arrived at the Longai Club among polished individuals in faded, torn and purposefully muddied clothes, each carrying a broken bucket half-filled with lime cordial with pieces of sausages floating inside them.

Uninhibited, they had dressed as jhaduwalas, the sewer cleaners, who delved into the deepest filth and garbage, keeping human waste and contamination at bay, and were thus considered the lowest of the low. Interaction with them, or, indeed, even with someone dressed as them, was unthinkable. Our heroes were thus asked to leave. Hungry, dejected and finding no alternative, they proceeded to take a seat on the entryway staircase and make a meal of the lime cordial-soaked sausages in their buckets. This anecdote would spread like wildfire, narrated over and over again long after Wallerstein and Anderson themselves were dead and gone.
Any account of pre and post Colonial India would be incomplete without a mention of the frequent interactions of the people with the rich fauna of India, the much-loved shikar trips, which unfortunately led to the eventual endangerment and extinction of various Indian animal species. Packs of boisterous men astride sturdy horses, surrounded by muscular hunting dogs would leave for the wilderness, and not return home without the carcass of some hapless animal to add to their collection.

In an age of heightened awareness, struggling as we are with the repercussions of various forms of environmental damage inflicted over centuries, it is easy to dismiss these men as callous, primal monsters. However, the fact remains that many of the globally renowned conservationists and avid naturalists such as Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett would enjoy their fair share of game every now and then. Many of these men were genuine animal lovers, passionate about nature and its bounty and were highly vocal about condemning animal cruelty outside of their shikar trips. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this was a different time. The Indian subcontinent was so abundant in its biodiversity that they may never have conceived of a time when their favourite sport would cause terror-struck animals to disappear and never be heard of again, either migrating into deeper reaches of the forests or perishing.

In the tea gardens as well, shikar was a commonplace activity. Each bungalow would be resplendent with the heads and skins of exotic carnivores and herbivores, mounted up on the walls or spread across the floor, tame and terrifying. Besides this, the tea estates, vast and green as they were, served as breeding grounds for species of mammals, birds and reptiles that, in later years, one would only hear mentioned by the droll voices of their science teachers.

One morning, a tea estate in Longai was up in much hullaballoo as the gardeners and labourers had come across a full-grown python resting on the premises. Fearful but fascinated, they set up an elaborate bamboo cage and brought it to their sahib, much pleased with themselves.

The sahib and memsahib, unsure of the appropriate protocol, decided to consult the authorities. However, the Calcutta Zoo, the nearest reserve that was well-equipped enough for a python, was understaffed and overcrowded, and at the moment could not spare a pilot to transport the reptile away from the remote tea gardens. Thus it came to be that the python was to remain within the tea estate compound, until something could be arranged. A chicken pen was cleared for it to live comfortably in and ample food and water provided. A few hours passed by and the residents began to grow concerned, noting that the snake lay very still and stubbornly refused to acknowledge the delicacies laid out for it. Not long after, the mystery was cleared when the memsahib rushed outside to find the source of a strange huffing sound, “like that of a steam engine.” Much to her awe, she found the python curled into an inverted cone, evidently about to deliver its eggs. Needless to say, this sight was rare at best, and the news spread like wildfire. Locals from far and wide congregated at the estate to witness the miracle.

As the whole event turned into one big carnival, the distressed centre of attraction, the female python herself, was unable to cope with the noise, stress, fear, unwanted attention and, most of all, hecklers, and left her recently delivered eggs one night to break out of her prison and escape into the night. She was discovered the following morning slithering about the grounds. Decisive action had to be taken but the sahib refused to authorise the killing of an innocent animal on his turf. The workers, ordered to take her outside and leave her alone, took matters in their own hands and put the python to her death. The abandoned python eggs were also quietly done away with, by those wishing to close a chapter that had ended on a rather sour note.
Even when the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War broke out, life amongst the tea leaves remained supremely unaffected, which was no easy feat....
As it always has, life in the tea gardens would go on, slow, mysterious, unexpected and spectacular. Despite India’s tumultuous relationship with its Eastward neighbour, East Pakistan, and the steady influx of refugees, the people of Assam were by-and-large a peaceable lot, and chose to stay away from the greed and violence that many seemed to relish. Even when the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War broke out, life amongst the tea leaves remained supremely unaffected, which was no easy feat, when one considers that not only did they share a border with East Pakistan, thus becoming a war frontier, but also that at many strategic locations, the boundary line between the two nations was demarcated merely by one-foot high painted milestones, set a 100 metres apart.

In the days leading up to the war, as the entire nation awaited the dreaded announcement with bated breath, tensions would be building up in Assam as well. Massive trucks carrying military personnel began to arrive and unload; and seven army divisions were set up. Bunkers and bomb shelters were constructed, and training drills organised, so as to maintain civilian security. Despite this, in another example of the cheerful nature of the tea garden dwellers, the situation was never as sombre as it may appear to be. Jovial young military officers would participate in the evening merrymaking at the clubs, killing time until provided further instruction. Children rather enjoyed the drills, secretly hoping that if a missile ever came whistling nearby, it should happen in the middle of Math class.

Then one fine day, an important announcement was made by the President on the All India Radio, and India was once again at war with Pakistan. Laughter was replaced by the constant rattling of gunfire in the distance, and brave troops on either side of the border were being martyred each day. Patriotic sentiments soared, and the residents of the tea gardens grew cautious, each eager to do their part.

One morning, in the Chand Kheera area of Longai, as a lorry driver was carrying his usual truckload of tea leaves to the storage unit, he came across a fatigued looking youth staggering down the road. As he drew closer, he noticed the markings on the man’s uniform and immediately placed him for a Pakistani military officer. Their eyes met and the man began to gesticulate, trying to wave the truck down. Thinking fast, the driver pulled up and offered the officer a lift, promising to take him to the nearest army outpost. The grateful, exhausted officer lay down on the soft tea leaves at the back of the truck as the vehicle started up again. Inside, the driver’s mind was racing. This Pakistani officer obviously had wandered off his path and did not realise he was on Indian terrain. The driver was aware of a Border Security Force outpost at a short distance and made a beeline for it, praying that the officer remain blissfully unaware of the danger he was in. The military man may not be a threat at the moment, but he was armed, and one wrong move could cost the driver his life.

As they trundled on, passing by expansive farms and small stores, the soldier hailed the driver to stop and buy him a pack of cigarettes. The driver obliged, not wanting to create a scene, and even took the Pakistani currency he was offered, deftly exchanging it for an Indian rupee. As the lorry revved up a second time, the soldier in the back found an unlikely clue: the alien language etched on the cigarette box. He screamed out for the lorry to stop, but the panicked driver slammed down the accelerator and drove at breakneck speed to the BSF outpost. In the nick of time, just as the soldier pulled out his weapon and tried to open fire, the driver alerted the authorities and the Pakistani soldier was overpowered and taken into captivity. It was another day in the military life, but one that the lorry driver would never forget.

Seasons have flown by since the tea estates of Assam saw the comfortable resentfulness of entire families of helpers and workers, the restrained freedom of tiny footsteps on holiday from boarding school, followed by the raucous bark of best beloved Butch. No longer does the air quiver with precise commands that have never known disobedience.

No longer does routine run the clock and the clock run everyone else. Amid tea leaves that united a troubled nation, a little corner of the world ages and flourishes for its own sake, dignified, recluse, melancholy, graceful.

Meet the writer:
Shivani Taimni has recently completed her masters degree at Durham University and is a writer-in-making. Her stories around the tea gardens are inspired by those heard from her grandmother, Mrs. Veena Shivpuri, wife of the late S.K.Shivpuri who was in the tea gardens from the mid-fifties onwards, and had worked for Octavius Steel in various tea gardens of Cachar like Dullabcherra, Longai, Kumbirgram and Kallinecherra. This is Shivani's first story for Indian Chai Stories.

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
Do you have a chai story of your own to share?  

Send it to me here, please : 

My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull.
 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!