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Monday, January 14, 2019

A Bridge to the Hills

by Gowri Mohanakrishnan

It was a day of bridges.

We decided yesterday that it was time we went to see the Bogibeel bridge. It is almost two weeks since the bridge was thrown open to the public, and we didn't want to miss out on a Sunday drive across the Brahmaputra.

After crossing the Bogibeel we drove on to Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh. And we discovered a little corner of the Dooars right there, so close to home. The Dooars! In three words, hills, rivers and forests.

To be honest, it was more like the Dooars of the eighties than the present day, since there was no dust, not much traffic and definitely fewer people.

Just another Sunday at the Pasighat bridge over the Siang River, Arunachal Pradesh
Where there were people there was cell phone noise, and there were discarded packets of aluminium foil and plastic bottles. Definitely not the eighties, then. But it was not a day to nit-pick.

The heat was quite intense, surprisingly, and it was a very clear day, which meant we could see many snow covered mountain ranges against the sky. A lot like Nagrakata in the Dooars.

Pristine - the colours were beautiful on this sunny Sunday at the Pasighat bridge over the Siang

We didn't climb very high up into the hills, but it was enough that we could do a day trip in the area. Cold weather Sundays in the Dooars had always meant day trips into the hills – either the Bhutan or Darjeeling hills, depending on whether we were in the eastern or western part. Bogibeel has made all this possible right here in Dibrugarh district.

In the Dooars, we purchased oranges by the pound (eighty oranges ) for many years. We'd pay a pittance for these freshly plucked oranges that came from Bhutan or Darjeeling near one or the other of the 'duars' or gateways into the hills: Totopara when we lived in Dalgaon district, Bagrakot when we were in the Western Dooars, and Chamurchi in the Binaguri (central Dooars ) area. Around the mid nineties, the orange sellers in Chamurchi went commercial. The oranges were now sold to exporters, and found their way into Bangladesh. We had to go to our fruitwala in Binaguri bazar and buy oranges that came from Nagpur, when we lived so close to the orange growing region of Bhutan! And did we complain!!

When we lived in the Eastern Dooars,we were very close to Phuentsholing, Bhutan, and we would take a drive up the hill to the international border check post. From there we could see the Torsa valley spread out below us, and the Rajabhatkawa forest in the distance. On our way down, we'd find groups of young women selling oranges. They were used to tourists who came in droves, and my husband would have to bargain hard with them in the local lingo. The ladies always smiled and gave in!

These ladies were beautiful; always well dressed and well groomed, with shiny hair, eye make-up and lipstick. Lipstick seems to be part of the dress code for women in the hills of North East India. When I go up there with my lips uncoloured, I feel almost indecent.
An interesting rock at the place where people stopped their cars to view the bridge
 When we drove up from Pasighat into the hills, there were the beautiful hill ladies - lipsticked, eyes made up, hair shining - sitting and selling plump, freshly plucked oranges. And, glory be, they sold them by the dozen! It's been years since we bought anything but bananas and lemons by the dozen - everything else is sold by the kilo.

Our driver mumbled a question at one of the ladies who held up three fingers in reply and pointed uphill. He told us he'd asked where the ‘Hanging Bridge’ was, and said she had indicated three kilometres. This driver is quite a traveller in his own right, and he’d heard some friends of his talk about the Hanging Bridge. The orange seller could well have meant three hours, or even three days, I ventured out loud.

'Fine, off to Lhasa then!' said my husband, who loves being in the hills more than I do!
Three kilometres in the hills takes more time than it does in the plains, but we reached a 'spot' or 'spote' as it's called in the Dooars, very soon. We saw several parked cars, and people looking down the hillside into a deep gorge. And there, deep down, we saw it - the Hanging Bridge, a rope and bamboo structure, and there were people crossing it!
 At first sight, this may look like a video of ants walking a rope, but do take a closer look!

On our day trips into the hills, we've always had a 'two o'clock rule': two pm is the time to turn back unless you're spending the night out. If only we'd had a little more time, said Mohan. He was all for climbing down to the rope bridge and crossing it.

I said a silent thanks to my watch. I'd had my fill for the day, and there were the oranges to look forward to on our ride back.

Meet The Writer/Editor: Gowri Mohanakrishnan  

I was teaching English at Indraprashta College in Delhi when I met and married my tea planter husband in 1986. He brought me to the tea gardens - a completely different world from the one I knew! Life in tea continues to be unique, and I began writing about ours many years ago.
Early in 2018, I started Indian Chai Stories to collect and preserve other people's stories from tea.

The first chai stories I ever wrote were for a magazine called 'Reach Out' which Joyshri Lobo started in the mid eighties for the Dooars planters. Some years later, Shalini Mehra started 'The Camellia' and I started writing there regularly. Shalini put me in touch with David Air, the editor of Koi-Hai, who gave me a page there. If you 'hover' over each name and you can go to the link/page.

My family has always believed that I can write, and that is what keeps me going, whether I agree with them or not.
Here is the link to all the stories I have written here at Indian Chai Stories -

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
If you've ever visited a tea garden or lived in one, or if you have a good friend who did, you would have heard some absolutely improbable stories! You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, 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! 

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. The blog is updated every two to three days. You will find yourself transported to another world!

Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Monday, January 7, 2019

Sojourn in Sri Lanka

by Sarita Dasgupta
As far as I’m concerned, it is not a coincidence that Serendip is the old Persian name (‘Serendib’ in Arabic) for the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. The word ‘serendipity’ stems from that, and it means ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’. When I told Gowri, Editor of Indian Chai Stories, that my sister Rupa and I were going to Sri Lanka in December and hoped to visit some of the tea estates in Nuwara Eliya, she suggested that I get in touch with Devaka Wickramasuriya, a planter from Sri Lanka who also writes for the blogspot. She sent me his email address and I got in touch. As John Barth wrote in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “…you don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings … serendipitously.”
With the hospital staff , Nadun (left) and Anura (right) at Pedro

When Devaka took matters into his own hands and organized our visits to the MJF Centre in Colombo and two of the most beautiful tea estates in the Nuwara Eliya area, I just followed John Barth’s advice, and left it to him!

We reached Colombo on the evening of 12 December and were struck by the cleanliness of the city and the friendliness of the people. Devaka got in touch to find out if we had reached safely and whether or not the hotel was satisfactory. I was touched by his concern and assured him that we were fine. The next evening, he and his charming wife Kamalini came to pick us up at 7pm on the dot. (The punctuality of tea planters everywhere!) Meeting them was like meeting old friends – we felt an immediate rapport with this warm and friendly couple.
Rupa, Kamalini, Devaka and Sarita

They took us for dinner to the Mount Lavinia Hotel. This majestic building dates back to 1805, when the 46-year-old bachelor, General Sir Thomas Maitland, sailed to the island of Ceylon as the second British Governor. He fell in love with a captivating local dancer called Lavinia, and built a mansion right on the seafront. A secret tunnel was constructed, leading from the cellar of his mansion to the home of his lady love nearby. Years later, the mansion was converted into a hotel and named after Lavinia, the reason for its existence.

Devaka had asked David Colin-Thome, Editor of the Dilmah Tea sponsored History of Ceylon Tea website, to arrange our visit to the MJF Centre (named after Merrill Joseph Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea) the headquarters of the MJF Charitable Foundation. David very kindly did so, and we went to the Centre on the morning of the 14th. We were taken around the Dilmah Conservation Sustainable Agriculture Research Centre which supports research on sustainable agriculture and promotes organic home gardening methods. The vegetable garden reminded us very much of our ‘mali baris’ in the tea estates of Assam. It was very interesting to see the aquaponic project - a system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals, such as fish, in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. We saw many different kinds of butterflies in the Butterfly Garden, a haven for butterflies in the midst of a busy city.

The Butterfly Garden
 We were privileged to watch the children of the Rainbow Centre (children with special needs) and the MJF Kids Programme (children from low income families) dance to catchy tunes, rehearsing for a concert to be held on the 16th. Seeing their smiling faces and enthusiasm as they responded to the affectionate encouragement of their teachers, was a heartwarming experience.

The next day, we drove through the scenic landscape on the Hatton road to Somerset tea estate (Talawakelle Tea Estates PLC). As we entered the beautifully located, stone-fa├žaded and elegant Manager’s Bungalow, we were warmly welcomed by Eranga Egodawele and his lovely wife, Tarun, who served us a delicious lunch. After a cup of tea, Eranga took us to the factory where we were welcomed with garlands made of tea leaves. I’ve spent almost my whole life in Tea but never seen a tea-leaf garland before! But what could be more appropriate?
With Eranaga at Somerset
 The Factory has a wonderful old wooden staircase connecting the different levels. Through the large glass panes of the windows, one can see an endless, undulating vista of tea bushes. Eranga, an expert tea taster himself, very kindly encouraged us greenhorns to taste the teas. Fortunately, having watched my grandfather, father and husband taste teas, I knew the ritual and managed a creditable performance (I hope!). Sujeev, who looks after the factory, took us around, explaining the process, which was as familiar as the smell of tea leaves undergoing the various stages of the manufacturing process. (As that is a fragrance dearer to me than the most exotic perfumes of the world, I inhaled it in lungfuls!!) I was happy to see the familiar Trinic (or Trinick) Sorter, named after its inventor, the legendary tea taster, late John Maxwell Trinick, who had a very long association with the Williamson Magor Group (McLeod Russel) and whom I was privileged to write about for The Camellia some years ago.

We were presented with packets of Somerset estate’s famous BOP tea by our courteous host, Eranga, as we took our leave. On our way out, we stopped at the Somerset Tea Centre to buy some strawberry jam but, alas, someone had pipped us to the post and bought the last bottle! We drove on to Nuwara Eliya which is very reminiscent of a small town in England, and walked around admiring the festive lights in all the buildings.

The next morning, after a quick look at the quaint (still functioning) Post Office, Gregory Lake and the beautiful golf course, we drove to the picturesque Pedro estate (Kelani Valley Plantations PLC) and straight to the factory where the Deputy General Manager, Anura Senanayake, and his ‘second-in-command’ Nadun Madhushan, greeted us most warmly. They took us to see the hospital where the lady doctor, midwife and other staff were happy to show us around and tell us about the wonderful work they are doing especially towards the welfare of women and children. Seeing some women plucking close by, I was struck by their lightweight baskets. Anura let us take a closer look at the innovative baskets which are strapped around the plucker’s waist, have a peaked cap attached and can hold 7 kg of tea. He mentioned that the baskets were Dr Rajadurai’s idea.
Pluckers at Pedro
 Anura and Nadun then very kindly took us to Pidurutalagala, the highest peak in Sri Lanka. As we drove through a thick forest (with signs warning us to look out for leopards!) we were fortunate enough to see the Nelu flowers which bloom once in twelve years.

After a sumptuous lunch at Anura’s charming bungalow, we took a tour of the factory, escorted by Nadun and a woman worker. The latter explained the various stages of the manufacturing process very professionally. Being fascinated by tea chests and their role in the history of tea, I was thrilled to see one displayed in the vestibule of the factory on our way out. Sitting on the deck of the Tea Boutique, we sipped on refreshing cups of Pedro tea and admired the breathtaking view. As we were leaving, we were presented with packets of the much lauded Pedro tea by our generous host, Anura.
On our return to Colombo after our travels around the historic sites of Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, I was pleasantly surprised to bump into Dr Roshan Rajadurai – Managing Director of both Talawakelle Tea Estates PLC and Kelani Valley Plantations PLC – at a wedding reception. Serendipity once again! I was glad of this opportunity to thank him for arranging for us to visit Somerset and Pedro on Devaka’s request.

A spot of 'tasting'

I was overwhelmed by the warmth, kindness and courtesy extended to us – complete strangers – by Devaka, Dr Rajadurai, Eranga, Anura and David. I have, of course, experienced the closeness of the tea community in our own country but now realize that it extends to the tea fraternity worldwide.
As a wise soul said, “We don’t meet people by accident… they were meant to cross our paths for a reason.” Our lives have been enriched by meeting Devaka & Kamalini Wickramasuriya, Dr Roshan Rajadurai, Eranga & Tarun Egodawele, Anura Senanayake, Sujeev, Nadun Madhushan, and the teachers and children of the MJF Centre. They played a major role in making our Sojourn in Sri Lanka such a memorable one. Ayubowan!

Meet the writer, Sarita Dasgupta

"As a ‘chai ka baby’ (and grandbaby!) and then a ‘chai ka memsahab’, I sometimes wonder if I have tea running through my veins! 

I have been writing for as long as can remember – not only my reminiscences about life in ‘tea’ but also skits, plays, and short stories. My plays and musicals have been performed by school children in Guwahati, Kolkata and Pune, and my first collection of short stories for children, called Feathered Friends, was published by Amazing Reads (India Book Distributors) in 2016. My Rainbow Reader series of English text books and work books have been selected as the prescribed text for Classes I to IV by the Meghalaya Board of School Education for the 2018-2019 academic session, and I have now started writing another series for the same publisher.
I am also the Editor of The WM Times, McLeod Russel’s bi-annual house journal." - Sarita Dasgupta

Sarita was one of the first 'Indian Chai Stories' writers - this page wouldn't ever have taken off without the wonderful tea memsaab storytellers (more on this later)!
Have you read Sarita's earlier stories? The Gracious Hostess,  followed by The Dastoor called 'Acting'  and River Escapade are all full of the irrepressible spirit of fun!
And don't miss Nick Flittner's story about the tea chest - Nick's Treasured Chest

A Word Of Welcome
Is this your first visit here?  Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
If you've ever visited a tea garden or lived in one, or if you have a good friend who did, you would have heard some absolutely improbable stories!

You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, 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 :
The blog is updated every two to three days. You will find yourself transported into another world!
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Tea and Me

by Rajan Mehra
Over the years, whenever I bump into my batchmates from Birla Institute of Technology (BIT) Mesra, Ranchi – they are all surprised and all of them repeat almost the same phrase – 'Rajan, after passing out from BIT as a first division Mechanical Engineer, how come you joined tea and eventually became a tea taster also?'

It is a long and yet interesting story. After finishing Engineering College as a Mechanical Engineer, I applied to all (engineering) companies and also to all the British sounding companies for a job. I got a letter from Macneill & Barry Calcutta. When I visited them for an interview - which in itself was rather unexpected- I had no clue about this company. There at Calcutta I came to know that they were interviewing youngsters for a job in the tea gardens of Assam. I was not interested, but talking to others there who had come for the interview, I learned that a tea job is very good – good handsome pay, lots of games and with several perks. The interview in itself with several Senior Executives was rather general & friendly. I was reluctant as in the interview I was asked, 'What do you know about tea?' and I replied, 'Nothing!...but I do drink it every day!'

Two days later I dropped into the office wearing a borrowed 'tie'. I was told that I had to meet the Directors of the Company -my interview with them was very light-hearted, which made me feel at home - and my confidence grew. I was asked if I drink & smoke if so, how much. How many girl friends I had – what games I played – was I fond of gambling? If the company gave me money to gamble and I win a lot of money, what will I do? My reply was I will have a wonderful time – then I was asked what do you mean by a wonderful time. All said and done, I was selected to join a tea estate named Salonah in Assam.
Tasting teas with Ian Brabbin at Taylors of Harrogate - Yorkshire. 2006
I joined tea on 15th Nov 1967, as the pay was too good (Rs. 1200/-) for a raw engineer and there were several perks – free accommodation in a big bungalow with five servants- but with a choice to leave if I did not like the job.

November 15th, 1967- A 22 year old 'fresh' Mechanical Engineering graduate, wearing a brand new 'blue pin stripe' suit, landed at Gauhati Airport. He was carrying a brand new Sony transistor in his hand. The transistor was imported and it was the latest model - and it was a gift from his father. The blue suit too was a special gift from his father for his birthday. The best tailor in Kanpur had tailored it and the 'Master' had made the coat with two 'side slits' at the back instead of the usual single slit in the middle. The suit fitted well and the wearer thought he looked very smart.

The last few days had been very hectic but he was feeling fresh and excited. There were no signs of fatigue; on the contrary, he was full of energy. There was this great excitement of starting a career. There was the excitement of getting a 'lucrative job' with a British Company, within just a couple of months of his passing out from the Engineering College. Engineering Graduates in the sixties usually got a job at a starting salary of Rs. 400/- per month but here this tea company, Macneill & Barry, was going to pay him Rs. 1050/- per month (of this Rs.50/- was the allowance for being a qualified Engineer), and that too with the designation of Assistant Manager. On top of this, he was also going a have free furnished bungalow all to himself with four free servants, not to mention the free electricity/ water.

On the previous day, the company's Personnel officer at Calcutta Head office had briefed him that he would be posted at Salonah Tea Estate near Misa Army Camp. At Gauhati Airport, 'someone' from Salonah would receive him. He was also told that Salonah's Manager was Mr. Dao Singh. During the flight, he was relaxed. Like many other young men of his generation, he was fascinated by the colonial life style of the British, but the fear of the unknown made him a little unsure. Now and then a few doubts kept cropping up; what would life in tea be like? Had he taken the right decision? He was told that the tea gardens were miles out from nowhere. No one in the family had ever been to Assam. Some friends had warned him about the 'Bengal Ka Jadoo'. A few wiser friends had cautioned him 'Wahan ladkian Jadoo kar deti hein' (The girls there – they cast spells). Be careful.

Looking out from the plane, he reminisced over the happenings of the last two days. Yes, the Calcutta Head Office was very pucca British. All the Executives at the Head Office were immaculately dressed. They were all wearing smart expensive suits & ties and almost all were wearing cuff links. 'Cuff links, yes, cuff links! I must buy some before I leave for Assam', he had decided.

The plane landed safely at Gauhati. He looked around, but there was no inquisitive look on the few faces that appeared to be waiting to receive the passengers. Slowly, all the co-passengers collected their baggage and moved out. Rajan became a little impatient and also started feeling a little uncomfortable in his new suit. It was surprising that no one around was wearing a suit. The twenty minutes wait suddenly became a little too much. Gathering courage he walked up to the Indian Airlines' enquiry counter asking if anyone was enquiring about Mister Mehra, Asst. Manager from Macneill & Barry Co.

'No', was the answer, but the man at the counter suggested that all cars and taxis were parked outside right in front of the Airport. 'Maybe the person is waiting in the car', he hoped..

There were many taxis and some offered to take him to his destination. He then realized that there was a serious language problem; most of the taxi drivers appeared not to understand Hindi. The taxi wallahs wanted to know where was Salonah? Rajan had no clue at all. All he knew was that Salonah was near Misa Army camp. No one there seemed to know where Misa was.

Luck changed; a Sardarji taxi-wallah arrived - imagine a Sardarji taxi-wallah in Assam! It was indeed a relief and Sardarji in fluent Punjabi volunteered to help. But his help created more confusion. He advised, 'You have landed at the wrong place, you should have gone to Tezpur. From Tezpur there is a ferry for Misa'. That created panic; the tie and the new blue pin stripe suit  suddenly became very very uncomfortable, and even the Sony transistor seemed a heavy dull weight. 'Now what, - yes, of course, why not phone Calcutta office - but what is the ' telephone number?'

Panic soared but Rajan told himself, 'No, no, you must not panic; the worst could be to fly back to Calcutta.' Then in a flash the thought came; of course, yes, the telephone number was there. It was printed on top of the Appointment letter, which was in the big black trunk.

Rajan, thought, 'Let me try the IA enquiry counter once again.'

The IA man said, 'Aarey, -there you are- someone came just now enquiring about you'. Feeling much relieved, he looked around, but there was no one nearby dressed in a suit or even in a tie. From a distance, a person wearing a white t-shirt and a white pair of shorts with white canvas shoes - that too without socks - leisurely walked up and enquired, 'Are you Mehra'?.

He introduced himself, and they shook hands and exchanged the usual introductory pleasant words. Rajan was very agitated and complained - rather in a rude manner - that he had been waiting for over half  an hour or so. So arrogant was Rajan's attitude that he did not even bother to gather the gentleman's name. He thought to himself, it was indeed a sad story that this pucca British Company had sent a man so ill dressed to receive him- no socks also!

The gentleman said in a gruff manner, 'Sorry I got delayed. I was playing a tennis match, I did not even change', and in the same breath he added, 'Go get your stuff, my car is parked there, we better move.'

There was some authority in that tone and Rajan was taken aback. Better sense prevailed; after all he KNEW ALL, -he had learned from his Engineering course how to tackle these difficult subordinates. Rajan had studied Industrial Management, which said, 'Be patient' with your people - Use Effective Team Management: it was in Chapter 5, he recalled.

The bulky luggage was somehow stuffed in the dicky of the good old faithful Ambassador car -that too a white one. Rajan got in the front seat, as the gentleman, who had come to receive him was driving. 'What no driver also? Poor show – may be the company is not as good as I thought', mused Rajan.

As the car came out on the main road, Rajan was naturally relieved that at least he did not have to go back to Calcutta or even phone up the Head Office. All's well that ends well. He took out his packet of '555' cigarettes purchased at Calcutta Airport and lit the cigarette in grand style that too with the new fancy lighter recently purchased.

Even before the first good soothing puff was taken in, the gentleman driving the car said, 'Mehra, let me put you in the picture. Mr. Dowsing, the Manager of Salonah, has gone to UK on leave and I am the Acting Manager. Perhaps you did not get my name. I am Barua, Tapan Barua.'

Rajan gulped. The newly lit un-smoked cigarette was promptly thrown out and the words came out, 'Yes--- Sss—ir'.
Mr. Barua added, 'You may smoke if you wish.'
Very sheepishly Rajan, replied, 'No, Sir, I am sorry, I rarely smoke'. A lie- ---a blatant lie!.


Well readers, that was how I arrived in Assam and this was the beginning of my journey into tea. To Mr. Barua, I did not know what to say. All kinds of thoughts came to my mind. Acting Manager- dressed like this???.

And what happened to the Manager Mr. Dao Singh?

After answering a few queries regarding my hometown, family etc. I gathered some courage and enquired, very politely, 'Sir, I was told that Salonah's Manager is Mr. Dao Singh –a Sardarji'
Mr. Barua lit his non-filter cigarette and smiled.
'You have got it wrong - the name is Dowsing, Bill Dowsing and he is from the U.K.'

Tapan Barua, whom I got to know and admire in the days to follow, took me to his parents' house at Gauhati and there I met his parents and also a very beautiful and charming lady, Mrs. Barua- Mamoni Barua. Compared to Tapan's gruff manner Mrs. Barua's smile was so welcoming that I felt as if I had known her for years. Tapan then told me that the drive to Salonah would take around four hours but before that we were going to watch a cricket match.

Off we went to the stadium at Gauhati. There was a cricket match going on. Several people came and shook Tapan's hand. He was treated like a VIP and we sat down at a reserved special place in the 'pavilion'. In just five minutes, we saw a batsman bowled out. Suddenly, five or six persons came and started forcefully and literally picking up Tapan Barua from his place. There was some commotion. I figured that these were Tapan's friends insisting that he play cricket and Tapan was resisting.

Tapan eventually went away with them. I wondered, 'How could Tapan play! What is this cricket! I have played a lot of cricket. How can a spectator be forced to play? Rajan - c'mon, you are in the wrong place. Go back home'.

There was a shout and a roar - the next wicket fell - an 'lbw' decision disapproved by many spectators. The next thing I saw with utter disbelief -- Tapan Barua, my Acting Manager, all dressed up in full cricketing attire, including cricket shoes, coming out of the pavilion and walking up to bat.

The applause was thunderous. Obviously, Tapan was the local hero. And could Tapan bat! He hit the ball all over. I too joined in the clapping. There were several hits to the boundary from Tapan's bat. In no time Tapan was raising his bat for his fifty – half century. I was equally excited. Cricket was the game I loved and still love. Here was this 'Acting Manager' of mine, who first borrows clothes, even boots, and goes out and hits a whirlwind fifty. A hero was created overnight. Yes, I thought I could work with a cricketer! Maybe, tea will be good.

Tapan seemed to be in a great hurry and went out to smash every ball. He soon got out. Within minutes, he came wearing his own clothes and said, 'Let's go to Salonah'.

As we came out of Gauhati, the landscape reminded me of my Engineerg College in Ranchi. Four hours is a long time. We chatted for some time but then we ran out of conversation. During the silent journey, strange thoughts kept coming up: 'Where am I heading - what I am in for - why did I join tea?' After all, in my interview, I had told everyone that I knew nothing about tea except that I drink it. The selection Board had then asked, 'But why did you apply for the Job?'

Without any hesitation I told them the truth that after completing my Engineering exams I had applied to about twenty-five companies. I had selected all companies with a British name. I had this fixation about working in a 'British Company'. I had no clue whatsoever that Macneill & Barry had asked me to come for an interview for a Tea job. After this statement to the Board, I had taken the interview very lightly, knowing that I won't be selected. What transpired is another story.

The journey was uneventful. The sun sets early in Assam and that too in November. It was totally dark by now and there were no lights to be seen. My thoughts were broken when Tapan announced, “Well now we are turning into Salonah-another six miles to go". By this time all my exhilaration and thrill had dwindled.

Tapan announced that first we would meet the Superintending Manager, and then go to Tapan's bungalow at Langteng Division, where I would stay the night. We drove through the gates of the SM's Bungalow. The bungalow was huge and was all lit up. Tapan, casually pointed out at the tennis court and the huge swimming pool in the bungalow compound.

The Suptd. Manager, Edgar Deighton, was a big, tall man. He was more than double my size and at least over 8 inches taller than me- or so it appeared at that time. Introductions were made. I found his English accent a little difficult to understand. He did remark, 'So you are the laddie, the Mechanical Engineer, who does not know anything about tea- by the way how long are you planning to stay here?'

Then we were off to Langteng, on a very lonely, dark, bumpy road. Finally, we arrived at Langteng Bungalow. The Bungalow looked like a long Railway platform. From the verandah, I saw that outside there were no signs of any life or lights – there were lot of trees and I could faintly make out that there were hills, not too far away. I thought, 'Have I finally arrived at the End of the world?'

Before going to bed, Tapan told me we would go the office in the morning at 6 AM.
'But why 6 AM?' I enquired. I was told that in the tea gardens office starts at 6 AM and should I be posted to the factory, and the factory always starts at midnight.

Next morning, I got up very early and after a very cold water tub bath - the first ever tub bath - quickly got into my new 'Kamjari dress'. At 5-50 A.M. sharp I went to the drawing room and wished Mr. Tapan Barua in the best 'schoolboy' manner with hands clasped behind the back, 'Good morning Sir.'

We came out, and I got my first view of a tea garden.

Beyond the bungalow hedge there were lush green tea bushes; yes a carpet of green as far as the eyes could see, with a lot of tall trees in between. The air was clean, cool and freshest of the fresh. I could see the hills- they seemed very near and very green - the view was breathtakingly beautiful.

We walked out of the bungalow on the grassy road to the office- Tapan pointed out at those tall green trees and said, 'These are shade trees, known as “Albizzia Chinensis”'. Then from the nearby tea bush Mr. Tapan Barua removed some leaves and handed them over to me - and I got to hold - my first 'two leaf and a bud.' I knew then 'the tea journey' had begun.

This was a journey, which on its way enriched my life through associations with some wonderful people, with immense learning, satisfying achievements and most of all a happy qualitative life. It was 51 years ago but it seems 'just the other day' when I had landed at Gauhati.
The Nudwa Bungalow we stayed in for 28 years  

A recent picture of Rajan with his Memsaab, Shalini
 Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!

You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, 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! 

 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, December 24, 2018

A Bond with India

by Rajesh Thomas
It was interesting to see the article about actress Julie Christie of Dr.Zhivago fame and her connection with Indian tea*. Little do people know that another world-famous personality owed his origin to the Indian planting community - this time in the world of sports and from Southern India.
C:\Documents and Settings\KKD\Desktop\_1055956_cowdrey150.jpg

As I sat down to write this piece, I realized that coincidentally, this famous person was born at Christmas time. The little lad who played the first of his many handsome drives amidst the lush tea gardens in the rolling hills of Wayanad was none other than Sir Michael Colin Cowdrey, who went on to captain the England Cricket team in the sixties. An old-school cricketer and a perfect gentleman on and off the field, Sir Colin Cowdrey was a stylish right-hand batsman who led England in twenty-seven test matches. He held a plethora of test match records including the first to play one hundred test matches and the then world record for the maximum catches (120 catches). He eventually ended with 7624 test runs and 120 catches from 114 test matches. He played his last test match in 1975 aged forty-one in an Ashes test match against the feared duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

His father was E.A.Cowdrey, an English planter who worked as a manager in the tea estates of the Wyanad planting district. The estates ( Chundale and Arrapetta ) where the senior Cowdrey worked are all owned in the present day by the Harrison Malayalam group and I presume they were owned by them at that time also. Cowdrey Sr. was no mean cricketer himself, having played for the Surrey Second XI, and the Berkshire County Cricket Club. Running a tea plantation in the hills, he was a good enough batsman to score 48 for a European XI against the visiting MCC at Madras in 1926-27.

Sir Colin Cowdrey was born on December 24, 1932. The place of his birth is not clear, as in some places it is mentioned as Bangalore while in his autobiography Sir Colin mentions Ooty. Probably the senior Cowdrey did not trust the primitive medical facilities on the estate.

Mother Molly had considerable prowess in hockey and tennis and displayed more than a passing interest in cricket. Hence when Ernest Cowdrey asked whether she was okay with their son being invested with the initials of the world’s most famous cricket club, she readily agreed. He was baptised at the famous St. Mark's Cathedral in Banglore. Hence, Michael Colin Cowdrey came into being and the senior Cowdrey promptly put his son’s name down for membership at the hallowed club. Fifty-four years later, this newborn would go on to become the President of the very same Marylebone Cricket Club.

Surrounded by tea estates, and with the yesteryear planters blessed with a penchant for outdoor life, Cowdrey spent his early days enjoying a colonial life style, and was introduced to sports early. On the lawn next to their bungalow, Ernest Cowdrey built a miniature golf course, and father and son practiced in the morning before the former went to work. When he returned in the evening, attention switched to the unused tennis court where cricket soon took precedence. Cowdrey Jr was taught the basics of wielding the willow. The wicket was shifted towards the side netting of the tennis court so that the natural leg-side swipes could be purged early in his cricket education and he was taught to play with an orthodox straight bat. If he still indulged in an ugly slog, the boy had to forfeit his innings and spend a long afternoon bowling to his father. It is said a genial teenaged servant named Krishnan bowled to his dear little master for hours during the day and their adopted mongrel Patch did the fielding.

In 1938, Colin’s parents decided that he would be schooled in England. He embarked on his voyage in April of that year and the next time he was to return to India was in 1964 as a member of the touring English Cricket team. Incidentally, Colin was originally to captain the team on that tour, but due to injury, he withdrew from the touring party.

He was later included midway through the tour as a replacement as many of the originally selected players were injured or sick. He played in the last three test matches, scoring two centuries each at Calcutta and at New Delhi. A few years after Colin was sent to England for schooling, his parents decided to return to England for good. Unfortunately, the senior Cowdrey did not live to see his son reach the summit. He passed away a few weeks before Colin played his first test in Australia.

Colin Cowdrey’s association with India continued as his first test as captain of the England cricket team was against India in 1959.

Cowdrey's exploits were not really limited to cricket. He was an excellent performer in squash, led the England Colts rugby team and went on to captain the XV in his final year at university. He was also an excellent golfer who held a six handicap. During his years at Oxford, he won his university blue for rackets and in 1953 was runner-up in the English Rackets Championship at Queen's Club, falling only to the then World Champion (Rackets is a game very similar to squash.)
The sporting lineage of the Cowdrey family did not stop there and his son Chris also went on to play for England  - and also captained England - for a brief period. They made a rare pair of father and son who played for and also captained the country.

An interesting anecdote of  his son's debut against India: Cowdrey was listening to the radio in his car, when debutant Chris scalped Kapil Dev in his very first over in Test cricket. In his excitement, Cowdrey took a wrong exit from a roundabout and was flagged down by a police officer as he went down a one-way street. When the circumstances were explained and young Cowdrey’s success was discussed, the English bobby sportingly let him off.

Colin Cowdrey was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1972, received a knighthood in 1992 towards his services to the gentleman’s game. His last great service to the game was to initiate the inclusion of “The Spirit of Cricket” in the Preamble to the 2000 Code of Laws. The MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture is an annual and one of the most prestigious events of the cricket calendar.

Sir Colin Cowdrey passed away in December 2000. He is the fourth (and so far the last) sportsman to be honored with a memorial service in Westminster Abbey, following Sir Frank Worrell, Lord Constantine and Sir Bobby Moore.

Editor's Note: Readers might enjoy this You Tube video  of Cowdrey's wedding!

*Many thanks to Alan Lane for the link to the story - Editor

Meet the writer: Rajesh Thomas

Rajesh is a second generation planter who was born and brought up in the planting districts of Southern India. His Learning to Drive takes us to Annamalai Club. Don't miss out on his earlier stories - Click on this link to read them: 

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

You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, 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!

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! 


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ratan Munshi the Duck Breeder

by Aloke Mookerjee
Ratan was the Head Sirdar of Nagrakata when I started my life in ‘tea’ from this estate. He was a tall, lean and slightly stooping man with wavy salt and pepper hair. With his advancing years and mild manners he was no longer very effective with the boisterous workers of the estate but with a track record of honesty and loyalty at work, he was still retained in the company rolls.

Ratan’s father, Lal Mohon, had brought in a large number of workers from the Chota Nagpur plateau when the plantation first opened up. He was accordingly promoted to the position of a Sirdar. Years later, on Lal Mohon’s death Ratan inherited his father’s position. Now at the stage of semi-retirement, Ratan Munshi bred ducks and geese in the compound of his company quarters for the extra income their sales provided.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, during my first cold weather season of plantation work, Ratan appeared in the office veranda one afternoon. As he stood before me in silence after the customary greeting, I wanted to know the purpose of his appearance. He politely stated that with the ‘Burra Din’ approaching I would most certainly need a ‘burra battak’. All ‘saabs’, he added, purchased at least one ‘battak’ from him during this period and he had a goose fattened and ready that would be just right for me as a young bachelor.

Much as I was tempted by the thought of a well fattened goose roasted to perfection, I was not quite sure of my cook’s ability to do full justice to the ‘bird in hand’. I explained to Ratan, perhaps a little too tersely, that a goose would not be necessary for my Christmas lunch as I was not a ‘gora’ saab!
Decidedly disappointed at the diminishing sales, Ratan departed as quietly as he had arrived but not before I spied a rueful look on his weathered face. Quite clearly, times were changing for the old Munshi what with dwindling numbers of the magnanimous ‘gora saabs’ shrinking his much anticipated seasonal fortune.

Both Christmas and the first of January were working days according to the government gazette. Expatriate managers were still a plenty. Indians, however, were now replacing the expatriate assistant managers in larger numbers. It, thus, became the norm for Indian assistants to work on Christmas day when the ‘burra saabs’ (along with the ‘left over’ expatriate Assistants) indulged in their special lunch of roast goose, mince pies and plum pudding. To balance out this apparent ‘discrimination’, the Indian Assistants were given the day off from work on the first day of January while the burra saabs
ostensibly remained on duty. Our ‘31st night’ was thus one of merriment and revelry without the despairing thought of work the following day. The widespread presence of Scotsmen in the plantations impacted our lives in several ways through traditions established over time. One such was ‘Hogmanay’; a word of Scottish origin that had become our normal term of reference to the celebrations of the last night of December.

The Hogmanay dinner and dance at the club was an organized event with a live band from Calcutta in attendance. Ladies arrived in their finery for this special night while the men turned up in their dinner suits complete with stiff fronted shirts, black ties and cummerbund. Those not possessing the formal ‘DJ’ wore their best dark lounge suits while the die-hard Scotsmen turned out in their kilts of tartan checks with the indispensable sporran dangling in front displaying their fierce Scots loyalty.

Close to midnight, all the members would begin to gather in the main hall of the club, to form a circle and with their hands crossed link up with the persons on either side. Exactly at the midnight hour, the band would strike up to ring in the New Year with Robert Burns’s ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Of Scottish origin, this song was known to many of us. We would, thus, join the band for a traditional farewell to the old and spent year while welcoming the new.

Very foreign and colonial perhaps but it was as much an emotional and joyous moment for us Indians as it was for the expatriates. All communities present, the Indians, Anglo Indians, Englishmen, Irishmen, Welshmen and Scotsmen mixed and mingled with genuine happiness and good will in that first dawn of the bright new year.

Meanwhile, back in the estate, ill health abruptly cut short old Ratan Munshi’s work. He never really recovered and quietly disappeared from our lives. In his absence, curtains finally fell on the glorious seasons of ‘Burra Battaks’ to a sad and silent end.

To me, the old munshi’s departure appeared as the harbinger of an era that was fast fading with the last bastion of the Brits beginning to yield to the inexorable force of the new inheritors.


Video: 'Auld Lang Syne'- performance by Indian Army Madras Regiment Symphony Band

Editor's Note:

Sirdar/Sardaar - supervisor, one who oversees workers in the garden ( please note, 'garden' and 'estate' are interchangeable terms) 
Munshi - head supervisor 
Burra Din - Christmas
Battak - Duck
Burra Battak - Goose
Gora - White, British 

Meet the writer:

Here's what Aloke has to say about himself : 'Long retired from tea, but still active in business. Even after all these years, tea remains to live strongly in my thoughts; they were the best years of my life. Other interests? Always loved Jazz music - still do and have written about this incredible genre. Love vintage airplanes (thus my love for Dakotas!) and cars, and intend to make this my next focus.' Aloke's also written The Eager Beaver , A Spiritual Encounter, Gillanders and the Greenhorn and Unto the Unknown for Indian Chai Stories. Here is the link to all posts by Aloke -

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

You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, 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!

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, December 10, 2018

A Cup of Tea and a Slice of History

Venk has written an informative and interesting account of the beginnings and development of the tea plantations in India. Some of our readers may like to go on to read the books he mentions here.

by Venk Shenoi
History has shaped the world we live in. The East India Co (EIC), founded December 1600 during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I in England and Emperor Akbar in Hindustan, started trading from its factory at Surat following grants from Emperor Jahangir (1615/17). The Company’s activities centred on trade in cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre, and spices, initially from Surat and later from Madras (1644), Calcutta and Bombay (1661) which was ceded to England by the Portuguese. Following Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and breakup of the Mughal Empire the EIC was drawn into the chaotic politics of the times mainly to safeguard its trade. The Company was not interested in acquiring and administering territory but following Clive’s victory at Plassey (1757) over the Nawab of Bengal, became Jagirdars under the Mughals that were the paramount power of Hindustan.

By the early 1800s the Company was the supreme power in India and controlled its own territory within the Presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay and also the many Rajas and Nawabs on the sub-continent who --- although given internal autonomy--- were under the watchful eye of the English Residents. The EIC, initially as traders and later as Empire builders, moulded Indian history as much as the Mughals, Marathas and all the others that ruled over the subcontinent from the beginning of time. Tea was already known in Europe including Britain from the 1600s and imported from China via the Dutch East India trade. The late 18th Century saw the likes of botanist Joseph Banks proposing to grow tea in India. Trials with Chinese varieties (Robert Kydd, 1780) were not successful under Indian conditions. The EIC lost interest in growing tea as China provided a profitable source and Chinese tea could be bartered for Indian opium.
          Wild tea was discovered growing in Assam in the early 19th century (1823), reportedly by a Major Robert Bruce, who had a keen interest in botany and in exploring the territory of the Ahom Kings (then within the Burmese Empire). Bruce was helped by Maniram Diwan a local noble, to meet Beesa Gaum, the Chief of the local Singpho hill tribe who were known to brew tea from leaves of wild bushes. Bruce planned to grow the tea from seeds provided by the tribal chief but died soon after.

Assam and Manipur, then part of the Burmese Empire, came under EIC control following the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824 – 26) and the treaty of Yandbo. Robert’s brother Charles Bruce later (1835) obtained seeds and plants and the Calcutta Botanical Gardens studied these to ascertain prospects. The plants were found to be different from the Chinese varieties but more suited to growing in Assam. The EIC experts examined commercial potential for growing tea in the newly acquired lands of Eastern India. Initial trials with the Chinese varieties and Chinese methods of manufacture failed and a hybrid version developed from Chinese/Assam plants proved successful in the local climate.

Politics came into managing the new wilderness, new laws brought in by the EIC (the infamous ‘Wastelands Acts’) dispossessed local land owners and tribals renting the newly acquired lands to venture capitalists. A system of indentured labour put local tribesmen and others brought later from the tribal lands of Central India to work in the new plantations along the river valleys of Assam, later in Bengal (1860 onwards).

1837 saw the first consignment of Bruce’s tea being sold in London and attracted venture capital. Although it owned land the EIC did not have monopoly of the Indian trade in the early 19th century. The Bengal Tea Company was formed in Calcutta in 1939, and a joint stock company formed in London to purchase the EIC’s plantations and establish tea estates in Assam. The two companies merged to form the Assam Company (1839). The market for Assam tea developed in London through the 1840s and 50s. Private capital saw new opportunities and the Indian Tea Industry was born. Indigenous tea was also discovered in Cachar and cultivation spread (1859) to Tripura, Sylhet, and Chittagong, Jorehaut Tea Company was set up in 1859. The number of tea gardens expanded from 50 in 1859 to 160 in 1862.

Plantations in the Dooars, previously part of Bhutan, were started after the Anglo-Bhutan War of 1864/65 when the territory was annexed later to become Jalpaiguri District of Bengal. Books like the ‘Planter Raj to Swaraj’ by Amalendu Guha provide a historical narrative of the development of British control over Assam during the 19th century and its political undertones.
‘Assam - yes beastly unhealthy hole; better not go there’, appears to have been the prevailing sentiment in the 19th century. Experiences of an early Planter George Barker are given in ‘A Tea Planter’s life in Assam’ published by Thacker Spink & Co Calcutta in 1884. The book is a guide for aspiring Planters intending to work in the jungles of Assam. Barker’s story starts in an overcrowded England short of economic opportunities prompting the young to seek their fortunes in the colonies. By 1869 the Suez Canal was completed and sailing ships from England which previously took over a hundred days around the Cape of Good Hope now took about a month under steam. 150 rupees a month (£150 a year) and an increase of 500 rupees a year for the first three years appear attractive compared with wages then prevailing in England for junior grades.

The sketches on these pages are copied from Barker’s book. To the best of my knowledge there are no copyright restrictions. Railways and steam powered industries were opening up in India. Coal was being mined at many locations; Post and Telegraph were established in the 1850s with Railways connecting the main cities by the 1860s. By the time the young George Barker arrived in Calcutta in the early 1880s, river steamers were plying on the Ganges and the Brahmaputra connecting Goalundo (present day Bangladesh) with Dhubri, Goalpara, Gauhati, Tezpur and Dibrugarh in Assam.

Attracting workers to the the eastern jungle infested with wild animals, snakes and insects was problematic and expensive. The capital needed to clear the jungle and open up plantations needed long term finance. Clearing jungle and planting tea took time. Tea bushes took time to mature before sufficient leaf could be harvested, processed and transported to the markets of Calcutta or London. Trusted workers were sent to their homelands of Central India to recruit labour; some absconded with the allowances they were given for travel. Others returned with family groups to work in the plantations. Barker’s observations on the native people and their diverse ways make interesting reading. He describes Calcutta and was impressed by its fine parks and buildings a reflection of his native London. His dread of animal and insect life of the jungle particularly the mosquito, and other creeping, crawling and flying life forms would be familiar to those living in rural Assam and Bengal today.

Barker’s book covers advice to newly arrived planters on managing the coolies described as a troublesome lot. Imported canned products were exorbitantly priced by the Calcutta merchants and making do with local produce was essential to survive. Labour contractors in Calcutta charged a premium and interest on loans was punitive; many were bankrupted in the process. Diseases were rife and many succumbed. The book provides advice on medicines to take and also basic sanitary advice regarding drinking water, sunstrokes and things to avoid.

Barker describes operations in growing and processing tea before steam or oil engines and mechanical process equipment were introduced in the early 20th Century. It is interesting to note that planters had to adapt local techniques and construct process equipment such as screens and firing kilns. Locally available materials such as ‘bet’ (reed) was used for construction and charcoal for firing tea was made on site from jungle wood. Rolling, etc, involved manual processes. Early bungalows are described as of kutcha-construction over a raised floor and constructed of timber and reed materials and thatched roofs. The monsoons brought heavy rains and leaky roofs and a profusion of insect life.

Elephants and bullock carts were used for land transport, also horses and gharries. Transport of tea chests to Calcutta utilised steam boats. The ever changing river beds and seasonal flooding required temporary depots to be created in the dry season on the sand banks, a risky business.

In contrast to George Barker and his 19th century Planters’ Guide, Rod Brown in his ‘Tea and Me’ (2014) gives his personal experience of post-Independence 1950’s life in Tea. Brown, who worked for Lister Engines in Dursley as a young apprentice was recruited by Goodricke (then Duncan Brothers) in 1951 and worked in Zurrantee, Satkya and Bagracote. He sailed first class from Tilbury on the P&O 'Strathaird' to Bombay via the Suez Canal and thence by rail to Calcutta. He also flew by Jamair from Dum Dum to the Dooars an experience many of us went through in the 1950s and 60s.

His description of Bombay and Calcutta would be familiar to those that grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Brown even brought his 78RPM jazz records but had to wait awhile before he could afford a record player to listen to the music he loved. The starting salary of £33 a month was not a lot better in real terms than the 150Rs that George Barker got seven decades earlier in the 1880s but life was much easier and essentials of modern life such as refrigerators, radios and motor cycles and cars affordable. Rod loved the Dooars and had a more enlightened approach to dealing with his workers. Attitudes were changing and the Sahib was expected to be more sensitive to native cultures and ways of life. Shikar was his favourite pastime and boars, deer, leopards and even the occasional tiger were to be found in the jungle surrounding the Dooars Tea Estates. Relationships with the native (Indian) staff and workers also appear to have changed from that described by Barker in the 19th century.

I am still reading Rod Brown’s book and will post a review next time round.

 Meet the writer:

Over to Venk: 'Born in Chertala, Travancore (Kerala), grew up in Chertala, Calcutta and Bombay. Can read and write in Bengali (my best Indian language), Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi apart from English, smattering of spoken Czech, German, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and Konkani (my mother tongue, which I have forgotten for all practical purposes). 

Was a Dooars Tea Company Assistant Manager from 1962 – 65, posted at Nagrakata and Grassmore T.E.s.

Went round India on a Tata Nano in 2013. 

Member of the Conservative Party, and served two terms as an elected District Councillor in the Forest of Dean Gloucestershire where I live. Apart from travel, visiting museums and archaeological sites, history, radio, photography, vintage fountain pens, concerned about world population explosion and resource limitation leading to extinction of man on earth soon.'

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, 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! 

 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! 


Saturday, December 1, 2018


by Roma Circar
The slender mauve envelope stuck out like a sore thumb on his untidy office table. That it was scented as well was only discovered after its contents were read, remarked on, and ridiculed. The addressee himself did not find it risible enough to warrant the spasms of laughter that it evoked, but his colleagues had always appeared to lack good sense and sound judgement over things essentially classic – like deportment, height, complexion, six-packs, a Roman nose and a leonine head of hair. While a couple of them could indeed lay claim to some attributes, none of them possessed them all in the abundant measure that he did.

It was a love letter, and it was anonymous. Like most amorous epistles, especially introductory ones, it was flattering to its recipient. Written in rather battered English prose, it nonetheless got its message across. Harish (name changed) was thrilled beyond measure. He had been on this garden at the junction of Hasimara and Phuntsholing for almost a year, but nobody had quite appreciated him in the manner that he expected. This letter would change perceptions of him from a general garden dogsbody Assistant to a Don Juan!

After the initial euphoria subsided, Harish’s Roman nose busied itself with ascertaining who the letter writer was. Where had the letter originated– Hasimara? Phuntsholing? A neighbouring garden? His colleagues, my husband included, were only too happy to assist him in this endeavour. Who in their right mind would write a love letter to a dolt such as Harish, when there were so many handsome hunks among the management staff populating the Dalsingpara office? Even the Manager was a trifle curious – he was quite a titbit too, if memory serves! A tacit vote supported an investigation!

However, all investigative leads were at a dead end and attention refocused on loopers and helopeltis when the second billet-doux arrived. The first one had been dismissed as an aberration – the girl had evidently changed her mind after a second glance in Harish’s direction, but the second one put a clattering lid on that line of thought! Either the letter writer was a nitwit in the mould of the recipient, or they had overlooked something overwhelmingly dashing in their colleague. The management staff began to look at him with renewed interest and just a shade of envy.

There was no stopping the spate of mail after the arrival of billet doux 2, and the management crew was frustrated at being unable to identify the letter writer. The Gentle Reader has inferred correctly: Harish’s mail had descended to the level of garden property, and all were privy to its contents. What’s more, everyone was involved in unearthing the possible author of the purple prose in mauve envelopes. The list of suspects was long – even the name of the Fitter Babu’s daughter, who went to an English medium school in Hasimara town, was on it. Then, there was the retinue of Bhutanese princesses who often dined at the Druk hotel in Phuntsholing, and the daughters of army and air force officers, and GREF, based in and around the district. Why daughters alone? Caesar’s wife may have been above suspicion, but the same courtesy did not extend to the wives of the defence personnel in the area, and nor to, horror of horrors, the sorority of Dalsingpara wives and the lady members of Torsa Gymkhana Club!      

We, the estate wives, were kept in the loop. When Harish wanted a pat on his shoulder and time to soliloquise in peace, he came to one of us for a cup of tea and a slice of gingerbread with a drizzle of syrup or its equivalent. But after a three month deluge of scented mail, we were all growing a trifle weary of the entire affair.

“She should stop this!” remarked a wife at one of our frequent hen-gatherings.

“She will!” squeaked another. “Or she’ll switch to envelopes of a different colour – that’s 23 letters in mauve already! Maybe one more, to finish the pack!”

“Tell him to toss the next one in the bin without opening it!” said wife no.3 in grim tones.

Even as we were speaking, the 24th letter had been delicately slit open with a paper cutter in the office. The men came home in a great state of excitement. Apparently, Emily Bronte had suggested a meeting the next evening at the level crossing in Hasimara town. Come alone, she had written, at 5pm. Harish was beside himself with glee. At last he was going to meet the girl whose dreams, over the last trimester, had been populated by one hero alone – himself!

In the plantations, the men rarely if ever call it a day at 5pm, but the Manager readily gave the young man permission to set off on his metallic steed to Hasimara town at 4.30. Fifteen minutes thereafter, he was followed out of the lofty estate gates by all his colleagues!

A telephone call from the office had ensured that the bevy of belles on the estate congregate at Beech Kothi with a dish each for the revelry to follow. It took roughly a drop of a hat for us to gather together for a chinwag as a rule, and this was a special occasion! We outdid ourselves in the culinary department and took up our positions on cane chairs in the large red Beech Kothi veranda. The children played happily at one end while we fortified ourselves with cups of ginger tea in view of the still chilly weather.

A shiny moon struggled all evening to ward off competition from the stately row of newly installed halogen lamps leading to the bungalow, and it was at a low slung position when the bikes roared in through its gates. The removal of crash helmets revealed grins as wide as Halloween pumpkins, but of our leading man there was no sign. We craned our necks to spot another headlight, and strained our ears to hear an engine roar.

“Where’s Harish?” asked a memsahib, perplexed.

“Chatting up the besotted lady?” suggested another.

But our men were too busy sputtering and quivering like their motorcycles to provide a coherent reply. What was tickling them so pink?

Harish had ridden to Phuntsholing, we were told eventually.

“For a drink!” added an Assistant.

“But who was the letter-writer?” we chorused inquisitively.

There was stone cold silence for a moment before a second round of sputtering and quivering began, but one among our men deigned to assuage our curiosity.

“It was the Hasimara teashop guy!” he said, before dissolving into helpless chuckles again!
Meet the writer: Roma Circar

Says Roma, "At a fairly tender age, in 1979, I traipsed into the magical wonderland of Camellia Sinensis and shade trees.It was in this exquisite space that I began to give vent to my feelings, albeit in miniscule doses. A number of my short stories found their way into Eve's Weekly, the Telegraph,and The Statesman.

My experience with work in the organized sector, once we moved to Kolkata after three decades out in the sticks, was with e-learning in the corporate sphere. However, the long hours of slavery were not exactly my cup of tea. I now work from home. In addition to books, I am now turning more and more to reading what is churned out in this blog. It transports me to a slice of life that is already on its way to becoming an anachronism. Let us endeavour to record it for posterity."

 Click here to read all Roma's stories on this blog

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, 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! 

 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!