by Madhu Nair
Hello again, dear readers! Time to welcome another new writer/storyteller here. I'm delighted to bring you a story from a 'tea garden visitor' once again. We have had a few of them telling their stories and I love the visitors' perspective - they see tea life in a way that's different from those who've spent a lifetime in the gardens! You will love Madhu's humorous and engaging story, so read on!
In the early 90s, fresh out of college, I had joined a consulting firm which used to handle the internal audits of a number of tea companies. As part of their routine assignments, the senior chartered accountants used to visit the tea gardens located in Dooars , Darjeeling or Assam to conduct audit of the stores and the factory accounts. Normally the work in a single garden would take three to four days, but as was the practice- multiple garden visits would be scheduled one after the other , resulting in each trip stretching for about 12 to 15 days, covering three to four gardens. The CAs would be put up in any of the estate manager’s or assistant managers' bungalows during the duration of their stay at these gardens. To assist them in their work, these CAs would sometimes take young assistants along with them. The assistants would be paid some stipend for their efforts.
One such CA in our firm was Mr Banerjee ,a middle aged Bengali gentleman, shy and reticent, a quiet number cruncher who was extremely thorough with his work , but when it came to interacting with the garden managers during the evening drinking sessions, he was distinctly uncomfortable.
Moreover, being a teetotaller didn’t make matters any easier for him. I first got to meet him at Jardines, a company which had multiple tea estates across NE India. Sitting at their office, he taught me some of the nuances of tallying various reports and conducting audits. However, during lunch breaks , he would enquire about my hobbies, my family, and about my home state which was Kerala. Since I was fluent in multiple languages and was good in GK, he would listen intently to my “discourses” on various topics under the sun. Once on the topic of Scotch, I mentioned that I do drink whiskey once in a while – a statement which instantly brought an appreciative smile on his face.
Needless to add, I seem to have won him over in his decision to choose an apt assistant to accompany him on his garden visits. Very soon he scheduled one such visit and recommended my name to the partner to accompany him. The approvals and the air tickets came within a week and on a hot July morning, Mr Banerjee and I embarked upon on what would be our first amongst numerous sojourns in the tea gardens together.
I had been to several places in India, but never to the North East. I was never aware of the culture or the history of these tea estates, and so when I first set my eyes on the vast acres of neatly trimmed tea bushes carpeting both sides of the road, I was completely mesmerized. It was on that long journey from Bagdogra Airport to a tea estate named Rydak TE , that I fell in love with Tea and everything that tea encompassed; Right from its beginnings , to the Bungalows, the British legacy, the planters' way of life, the process of tea manufacture, the tea tasting process , the different varieties, in fact every single aspect of tea. An enduring love affair that has remained with me to this day.
We spent an eventful ten day trip to these estates and completed our assignments on time. Daytime would be spent in the factory or stores area and once work got wrapped up at 6pm, we would return to the bungalow, freshen up and sit with the Manager on the verandah over drinks and listen to his endless tales. Mr Banerjee would let me handle the conversations and occasionally make a point or two in between his sips of lime juice. The same pattern went on in all the gardens.
On a weekend we were invited to the club, where after a drink or two, I was able to show off my dancing skills in the company of the estate manager’s daughter. Mr Banerjee forbade me a third drink, worried I might go overboard and create a scene.
“Remember we are on official duty, and they are our clients”, he whispered in my ears as I was heading for a refill. However at the last garden that we visited named Baradighi TE, we were put up at a young Assistant Manager’s bungalow and as it so happened ,our host was a Malayalee and he was absolutely thrilled to have one of his brethren put up as his guest for couple of days. His name was Mr Alex and he happened to be from the Northern part of Kerala, where I too had my ancestral home, and moreover his brother was a lecturer at the same College in Kolkata, where I had passed out from.
Our drinking sessions stretched right upto midnight, and the second night Mr Banerjee could take it no more and retired by nine pm. Before going to his room, he again whispered in my ears to stop at two pegs. I literally lost count that night as Mr Alex kept on pouring one after another. Anyway, he was so happy to have met me and able to converse in his native language that the next day being a Sunday, he proposed a day trip to the adjoining forest reserve of Gorumara. Mr Banerjee excused himself citing some wrap up work and so myself and Mr Alex went out on a jungle safari , spotting wild elephants, bisons and rhinos.
Post every garden visit , we would be given a small packet of tea of that particular garden as a token, which was much appreciated. Mr Banerjee had been visiting these gardens for many many years and hence it was routine for him. But for me, it was quite overwhelming.
On that trip we visited a total of four gardens and Mr Alex was our last host. While departing from his bungalow, along with our customary tea packets, Mr Alex handed over a cardboard box full of fresh lychees, requesting us to hand it over to his brother Paul at Calcutta. Since we were not carrying too much luggage, we said fine. Mr Banerjee promptly put the onus on me to take care of the box and its contents, and ensure proper handover to Paul the next day.
We reached Bagdogra in about 3 hours and checked in due time. Back in 90s , Bagdogra Airport was as chaotic as it is now, and the whole process of issuing boarding pass and check in of baggage was pretty remote. We were booked on a Vayudoot Dornier aircraft which was coming from Aizawl. In those days there was a system of verifying our luggage on the tarmac itself, before physically boarding the aircraft. Post verification, the luggage would be heaved manually onto the Dornier’s hold. While verifying our luggage on the tarmac, I noticed that the strings on the lychee box had snapped open. I somehow managed to re-tie the same, and told the attendant to keep this particular box on top of the luggage pile. Unknown to me, he hadn’t heard me properly and he stashed the box in some corner, with disastrous results.
Upon landing at Calcutta, Mr Banerjee and I waited at the baggage carousel for our luggage to arrive. The first few suitcases which landed on the carousel had running stains on them. Passengers started grumbling at the sticky mess and straightaway started heading towards the washrooms, tugging their luggage along. To our horror, Mr Alex’s lychee box came out, completely smashed and leaking juices all over. The strings had all come loose.
We collected our individual luggage, but neither of us had the courage to pick that box up. It went on for several rounds. We could hear our co-passengers cursing the owner of the box, whoever he was, for the sticky juices hadn’t spared any of the flight’s luggage. We waited patiently for the all the other passengers to disperse. By this time the lychee juices were staining the entire conveyor belt too . For a moment we thought of dumping the box and maybe buying couple of kilos of lychees at Calcutta’s local markets to hand over to Paul. But we had to rule out the thought, since Mr Banerjee had a doubt that maybe Mr Alex had inserted a personal letter for his brother inside the box. Hence we decided to wait.
Once everyone else had left, I gingerly picked up the box of lychees and kept it on a trolley to be rolled out of the Airport. The moment I came out, I literally bumped onto a big group of co-passengers who were waiting outside for their vehicles to arrive. Upon seeing the lychee box on my trolley, each one of them literally rained the choicest abuses on me.
Looking around, Mr Banerjee was nowhere to be seen; clever guy had ran towards the parking lot, leaving me in the lurch. After conveying a thousand apologies, I decided then and there that this box full of smashed lychees had to be delivered right away. No way was I going to carry it home and deliver it the next day.
Getting into the car, I gave the driver Paul’s address and in an hour I was at his door. Instead of my apologizing for the state of his lychees, it was the other way around. Paul was extremely apologetic at the trouble I had to endure to bring a box full of lychees all the way from Dooars to Calcutta. However Mr Banerjee’s hunch was proved right. There was indeed an envelope inside the box. Enclosed were several photographs and a letter, relatively undamaged by the juices all round. A dozen lychees too had survived and I had the privilege of eating couple of them. Needless to add, they tasted heavenly !!
|This picture from https://www.thespruce.com/grow-lychee-inside-1902624|
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