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Friday, April 3, 2020

Masala Chai

by Nandita Tiwari

Homemade goodies 
The car drove up to the tea bungalow located on a hillock. The driveway that led to the porch was flanked with palm trees on either side. As is customary of the plantations, half of the trunks of the palm trees was white-washed and they stood their stead in uniformity. As the car drove through the porch, one could view the beautiful jaali-kamra, with potted Areca palms in the corners. The bungalow had a colonial feel, complete with huge arches and a sloping roof. The guests got out of the car and were made comfortable on the cushioned wicker chairs of the jaali kamra. They were mesmerized by the view of the green mountains and the clear blue skies. The sun lingered on the horizon as if waiting for the closing clouds. They were full of appreciation for the well-kept bungalow and the neatly manicured lawns. That’s when my husband stepped in to entertain the buyer guests as well.

My husband started chatting with the buyers telling them about the nitty-gritty of the art of tea making, promising to take them for a round of the plantation after their cup of tea. I rang the bell and instructed the maid to start brewing the tea. The guests were enjoying the conversation as well as the homemade goodies which included freshly baked cake, cookies and sandwiches, served on white crocheted doilies. The quaint little bungalow and the gentle autumn breeze which was reminiscent of the smell of moist earth, spellbound one of the guests said “It is my first visit to the country,” and she added that she was overwhelmed by the varieties of Indian tea and the tea gardens. The other added that the aroma of the teas that they had been sampling pervaded their senses and they were sure of closing in a good deal here as well.

Meanwhile, since morning, I had been putting my best foot forward to welcome the guests in spite of all the chaos in the kitchen. One of the important bungalow staff had been hospitalized and a new maid had been inducted just two days ago! As all the tea mem-sahibs know, even when things in the kitchen go topsy-turvy, we wear a smile and greet the guests and pride ourselves for the guests not having an inkling about what goes on behind the scenes. To top it all, my hands were full as a dinner had to be organized later that evening with the other executives. However, that was a challenge to be dealt with later; as the present serving of tea demanded my attention.

Though all of us were having a delightful conversation, my thoughts were playing truant and kept running into the kitchen wondering why the maid was taking such a long time although I had demonstrated to her what was to be done, in the morning itself. I excused myself and as I stepped into the kitchen, I saw the maid standing in a nervous and confused demeanour. She asked me to peek in the teapot, in which she had poured boiling water almost ten to fifteen minutes back. As I bent forward and peeked into the pot, she told me the trouble. The brew even after the designated time refused to gain the desired golden colour. I set another pot of water on the stove for the water to boil, chiding the maid for over-boiling the tea or for doing something or the other wrong. I instructed the maid to wash the tea-pot and fill it with a new batch of tea leaf. However, the brew did not gain any colour, even after we had allowed ample time for it to steep.
A typical tea sample box
Considering myself somewhat of a tea connoisseur, after having spent many seasons in the tea gardens, this adamant pot of water had put even me on my wits’ end. So with a sigh, I decided to get help from the higher authority. I stole my husband from the company of the guests for a few minutes.

Grumbling as to what the fuss was all about that it needed his attention, he accompanied me to the kitchen. I opened the lid of the tea-pot and explained to him the predicament. Promptly, he ordered the maid to fetch the sample box of orange fanning tea which he had got that morning. The flustered maid rushed and handed over the box. At a glance, he announced- “How do you expect stupid black mustard seeds to do the job of tea leaf?” and flounced out. I kicked myself hard for missing out on this minute detail despite having seen to the arrangements many a time since morning. The maid giggled and I snubbed her for such a silly blunder which had lead to this episode- 'the episode of brewing tea'.

In retrospect I can say that many pots of tea have been brewed over the centuries, some malty, some brisk and some aromatic but tea life undoubtedly is spicy- like a cup of masala chai.

Meet the writer: Nandita Tiwari
Nandita joined the tea fraternity in 1991 when she arrived in Danguajhar, in the Dooars. She and her husband Akhil were in various gardens in the Dooars for over 30 years, and also in Amgoorie (Assam) for a brief period of time.They are now settled in Siliguri.

In 2019, Nandita decided to start penning down some of the unique experiences that came her way. You can read her stories on her own blog, here:
This is Nandita's first contribution to 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!

Monday, March 30, 2020

Mango Range but no mangoes

by Mirza Yawar Baig

In 1989, I was promoted and transferred from the Anamallais to Assam. I was in two minds about this as the idea of being next door (so to speak) to Kaziranga and Manas National Parks with their rhinos was very attractive. However, after reflection and some very good advice, I declined the posting. I figured that if I went off to Assam, which was about as far as you could get from our corporate office in Chennai, I would be forgotten, and this would have a negative impact on my career. In the corporate world it is important to be physically visible, not only visible through reports. Paradoxically if you are doing well and all your reports have nothing to make anyone concerned, you are not rewarded but forgotten. It is indeed the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and this is nowhere truer than the corporate world.

This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I couldn’t complain as it was my own doing. I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. I was sent off to the Mango Range until the management could decide what to do with me. I was assigned a bungalow on Caroline Estate, located in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time. Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed living in.

Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things: For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new managers. The system in the plantations at that time was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard results. I had been saying for several years that there was a need for a standard textbook on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.

During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market, and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. It has since gone out of print and to the best of my knowledge, it has not been reprinted. A big lesson for me was the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.

The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on manufacture, was a regular visitor and we became good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of manufacture hands-on further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing. In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though I was the Assistant Manager in charge of the Mayura Factory project, the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved to Paralai Estate as soon as the construction was over.

Consequently, my knowledge of CTC manufacture was weak. In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989, thanks to encouragement of Mr. Rawlley. Nikoo was to do this presentation and I had written the paper for him. On the day of the presentation, Nikoo said to me, “My throat is bad, and I think I have lost my voice, so please present the paper.” When you have friends like this, you don’t need enemies. I am being humorous, but he presented me with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was that he sprang it on me, but I guess his logic was that since I wrote the paper, how much prior notice did I need? The opportunity was that I could be noticed positively which could only do me good. Nikoo was a dear friend and mentor and we remained in touch until he passed away.

His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. But when he swung the club, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. 

Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. The key to contentment is not amassing, material but in being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it.

One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. I decided to learn to play golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Gymkhana Club (Ooty Gym) to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks.

His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. But when he swung the club, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Shows that it’s technique and not strength of the arm that works in golf. Also, in many other things in life. My club, on the other hand, would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of a hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking noises.

The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club. So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Gym has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it because if you want your ball back, you must pay by leaving your blood and skin on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother-hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.

Another one of my joys while living in Mango Range was the time I got to spend with Mr. Siasp Kothawala and his wife Zarine, at their lovely guesthouse in Masanigudi called Bamboo Banks. Masanigudi is in the foothills of the Nilgiris at the edge of the Mudumalai-Bandipur National Park, so there is a lot of wildlife around. You see a lot of Chital, some Gaur, and some elephant, the latter being dangerous as they are too close to human habitation and often in conflict with people.

I saw a Peregrine falcon hovering in the sky ahead of me. I pulled up to watch it and saw a dove break out of cover from a hedge and head for the safety of the forest flying very fast. The falcon folded his wings and stooped coming down like an arrow out of the heavens. 

Mudumalai is also supposed to be a tiger reserve though I have never seen a tiger in it. The gate of Bamboo Banks was an ingenious contraption. It was a pole, suspended horizontally across the road and had a plastic water container on one end. There was a sign for you to tug on a rope if you wanted to open the gate. The rope was connected to an overhead tank so when you tugged it, water would flow into the plastic can on the pivoted side of the pole, which then went down and lifted the other end. All this happened while you were comfortably sitting in your car. The water would then drain out of a hole in the can and flow into an irrigation ditch and into some fruit trees, closing the gate. Siasp was a tea planter and had worked for the Bombay Burma Tea Company (BBTC). He then went into the tourism business and did very well. We would spend lovely afternoons talking about the tea industry and the general state of the world and drinking tea. Siasp always had an angle to everything, which he would put across in a hilarious and entertaining way.

Siasp also had horses on his farm and having had tea I would take one of the horses and go riding in the buffer zone of Mudumalai National Park. This had its exciting moments and I recall two of the best. One day, late in the afternoon, I was riding out of the farm and into the dry fields that surrounded it before the track entered the bamboo thickets that bordered Mudumalai, when I saw a Peregrine falcon hovering in the sky ahead of me. I pulled up to watch it and saw a dove break out of cover from a hedge and head for the safety of the forest flying very fast. The falcon folded his wings and stooped coming down like an arrow out of the heavens. The dove had almost made it to the forest cover when the falcon hit it in middle of its back with a slap that I could hear where I was sitting on my horse. The dove must have died with the impact, but the falcon bore it to the ground and then holding it in its claws, looked up right and left, its pale yellow eyes scanning the world to challenge any takers. What a magnificent sight that was. The image is engraved in my memory.

As I rode on, I took a path that went along the middle of a forest glade which had scattered clumps of bamboo. After a kilometer or two, the path passed between two very thick and large clumps of bamboo and dipped into a dry stream bed and went up the other bank. I used to like to gallop this stretch and my horse knew the routine. Strangely, on that day as we came near the bamboo clumps my horse shied and stopped and refused to go forward. This was odd behavior, but I have enough experience to know that in the forest your animal is your eyes and ears and you only ignore its signals at your own peril. I listened to the horse and turned around and then took a long and circuitous route to go around whatever it was that was bothering my horse. As we came around, I saw what was bothering him. It was a lone male elephant which was hiding behind the clump of bamboo. Now I have no idea what the elephant’s intention was, but I was not taking any chances. My horse obviously didn’t like the idea of passing close to the elephant and if we had continued on that track, we would have encountered that elephant where the path was the narrowest and where it was bordered and hedged in by the bamboo. In case of an attack, we would not have had any chance to escape. Lone elephants are famous for such attacks. A rather terminal situation which we were happy to have avoided.

On one of those trips to Bamboo Banks, I saw an elephant by the roadside, a little way inside the forest. As this was quite close to the Forest Department’s housing and elephant camp, I thought that it was a tame elephant and decided to take a picture. I had a small box camera at the time in which you were the telephoto – if you wanted greater magnification, you had to go closer to the object. So, I got out of the car and walked almost to the side of the elephant and took a photo. Suddenly I heard someone yelling at me, his voice high pitched in panic. I looked up and there was a forest guard, a good two-hundred meters away, waving frantically at me and yelling at me to get back into the car. Since it is not an offence to get out of your car on the main road in Mudumalai, I was irritated at this man’s insistence but since I already had my picture, I returned to the car. As we drove on and came up to him, the man waved us to a stop and still in an angry voice asked me in Tamil, ‘What do you think you are doing? If you want to die, go do it somewhere else.’
See also
I said to him, ‘Hey man! Relax. What is all this about dying? I was only taking a picture of one of your elephants. Who said I want to die?’ The man said, ‘Our elephants? That was a lone wild tusker that you were standing next to. I have no idea why he let you get that close or why he did nothing. Your lucky day. That is a wild elephant and a lone one at that. Don’t do these stupid things.’ And he went on for a while in the same vein. I was so shocked that I listened in silence. And of course, how can you get angry with someone who is only interested in preserving your life? But I still have the picture, which is very impressive.

Final story here involving my good friend Siasp. Siasp had a very good friend in Mysore who was the Commandant of Police in charge of the Karnataka Armed Reserve Police Mounted Company, called SG Mariba Shetty. Shetty was known for his high standards and a visit to the stables of the Armed Reserve Police Mounted Company was a delight to say the least. I love the smell of freshly groomed horses and fresh hay. Yes there is the smell of horse dung also but it is a pleasant smell. I spent a lot of my youth grooming horses, because that is how we were taught riding at the AP Riding Club in Hyderabad, by our ex-cavalry Ustaads, Abdul Hameed Khan and Sayeed Khan. Our training was rigorous. You started one hour before it was time to ride by mucking out the stable and grooming your horse. Then you saddled up and you were ready to go. All this was unwritten. Nobody forced you. If you didn’t want to do that and wanted to ride a horse like you ride a motorcycle by just getting on and getting off and handing it to a syce, you could do that. But then you were given the worst nag in the stable. If you wanted to ride the Thoroughbreds or the Kathiawari and Marwari horses, then the unwritten rule was that you showed your readiness by starting with mucking out the stables. Great character building, if you ask me.

To return to Siasp’s story with Mariba Shetty, let me tell you how Siasp told me. “You remember Mariba Shetty? The Mysore Mounted Police Commandant?”

“Yes, I do. What happened to him?”

“I heard that there was a riot during a Dussera procession, and he tried to stop it but was pulled off his horse and killed. I was very sad to hear this. You know he was a great friend of mine. So, I wrote a long letter to his wife, telling her what a wonderful man he was and how much I appreciated our friendship.”

A couple of weeks passed. Then I get a call from Mariba Shetty. He says to me, “Mr. Khotawala, I called to tell you that I am well and that report about my death was wrong. Thank you very much for your letter. I didn’t know you thought so highly of me.” Big lesson in telling people that we appreciate them while they are alive, instead of writing moving obituaries after they are dead. In this case, the man got to read his obituary but in most cases, it is a waste of effort.

Meet the writer: 

'Mirza Yawar Baig. President, Yawar Baig & Associates ( Business consultant specializing in Leadership Development and Family Business Consulting. Was a planter from 1983-93 in Anamallais and Kanyakumari. Author, mentor, photographer, speaker, inveterate traveler. Working across boundaries of race, religion and nationality to bring hearts together. I was in tea for seven years and in rubber for three. Also planted coffee, cardamom, vanilla and coconut.' 

You can read all Mirza Yawar Baig's stories on this blog here: 
It's My Life,  Yawar's book, 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.
 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The ssssssnakeman of Pannimade

by Rajesh Thomas

Prelude : This piece was the first one in which I had put my thoughts on paper - after repeated attempts by three of my close friends to make me write. It was published in my annual family in house magazine “Stars & Sands". Later on, after it got published, I refined the article further and made the end a bit more interesting. 
In case my relatives are wondering if it is the same story, yes it is, but please do read on; the ending is different!!

Let me start with a disclaimer. As much as this story is about snakes, it is also about one of the many fascinating and colorful characters that I have come across in the plantations. This said, many of us have a deep aversion for snakes. Even a lone elephant, late at nights on the motorcycle at has not scared me as much as snakes do. Coincidentally, almost everyone hates snakes but almost everyone has a snake story to relate.

I had just taken charge of an estate named Pannimade (The estate for the most part of the year was perpetually covered in mist and hence the Tamil name “Panni & Medu” meaning mist covered mountain) in the Annamallai hills. It was a very pretty estate comprising of small rolling hills and situated on the banks of the Sholayar dam. Incidentally, when the dam was built, it submerged almost half the estate.
Athirapally falls. Pic from the Native Planet website

On the western side, bordering the estate was the thick verdant evergreen rainforest of Chalakudi which was infested with leeches and elephants. A single track ghat road wound its way down to the plains of Kerala passing by the picturesque Athirapally falls. An interesting feature of this road was that all the  milestones used to be painted black to prevent elephants from uprooting them. Elephants have a deep aversion to the colour white, especially in the dark, including white colour cars.

So there in this estate lived a worker named Thangavelu, whose claim to fame was his expertise at catching any snake, both venomous and non-venomous. Hence he was bestowed the title “Pambu Thangavelu” by his fellow workers.

"Pambu" means a snake in Tamil. I had heard many a tale about him from my colleagues when I had worked in the nearby estates. So after I had moved in, I was keen to meet him and one of the first things I did was to send for him. To my surprise, he was nothing like the snake catchers one sees on National Geographic or Animal Planet. He was an old man in his mid-fifties about five feet eight inches tall, dressed in khaki shorts and cotton shirt with a turban adorning his head.

At first sight, one could not discern anything special and it was actually a bit of a letdown as I had expected someone more imposing. As he greeted me politely, I started asking him about snakes. Slowly as the ice was broken I found out that he did indeed know a lot about snakes and their habits. The Field Officer who was with me asked him to catch a snake and show it to me.

I was a bit surprised by the instruction and I was wondering where he would catch a snake all of a sudden. Promptly Pambu Thangavelu disappeared into the tea field telling us to wait for about fifteen minutes. He reappeared after fifteen minutes with a common rat snake demurely coiled around his arm. He very proudly announced that it was a female (which incidentally I had no intention or means of checking, and had to believe his judgment).

The snake actually appeared shy and wouldn’t want to look at any one of us in the eye. And every time it tried to uncoil itself he would gently admonish it in Tamil like saying “Ai enge porai, suma iru” ( where are you going & keep still ) and the snake would obey him immediately. After about ten minutes he let go of the snake and looked beaming at me.It was quite an impressive show put on by the Snake Man and I thought that was the end of the whole thing little realizing that soon I will be witness to a bigger spectacle.
Some days later there was a big commotion in the Factory: a cobra was seen near the workers' restroom. The snake was chased and followed by some of the factory workers into a hole in a stone revetment (a wall made by loose stone rubble without cement to prevent embankments from falling).

Promptly the Snake Man was sent for and he arrived on the scene. Without wasting time the master started to work. He started to dismantle the stones near the hole where the cobra was last seen. Soon enough the cobra's head was seen. Incidentally, I realized that one of the old adages about a snake entering a hole, turning around and withdrawing its body behind was actually true as the cobra was facing the crowd. Now I thought that seeing itself cornered by the crowd, the cobra would lash out and try to escape and I among the crowd was preparing to put on my running shoes.

The crowd of estate workers had obviously seen the master in action, had full faith in him and were watching him confidently without moving from the spot. Then I realized that not only Pambu Thangavelu’s attire and personality was different from what I had seen on the television nature channels, his style of 'catching' was also different. He grabbed hold of a thin stick - the thickness of an average man's little finger - about one and a half feet length (none of the fancy Tongs which we see on television) and admonished the snake in Tamil like a stern schoolmaster admonishing his pupil.

The cobra literally cowered underneath that wisp of a stick and tried to get away. He then casually caught it and dragged it out of its hole. The cobra all the while did not try to be aggressive or try to escape. It was strangely submissive and obeyed him all the time. He kept talking to the snake in Tamil: at times he would admonish it and at times he would talk gently as if talking to a child. I still do not know what effect the talking had on the Cobra as snakes do not have any ears. Then the Snake Man tied a thin coir rope that is commonly called in Tamil as a “sanal kair” to its tail and proudly took it for a walk to the nearest jungle to release it there! The cobra followed him at his heel like a pet dog to the jungle.

After that, I decided that I would put the Snake Man through the ultimate test. The jungles to the west of the estate were supposed to have a sizable population of king cobras so I summoned him and asked him whether he had seen a king cobra and if he could describe it. He replied positively and described it. My next question was could he catch one to show me as I had never seen one. Promptly came the reply, “Yes, give me a few days”.

A few days after that, while I was having lunch I got a phone call informing me that the Snake Man was waiting for me at the Assistant Manager's Bungalow ( which was unoccupied then) with the prize catch - a king cobra. I rushed there and waiting there was the Snake Man holding a king cobra – tied with a string. As usual, as soon as the snake saw us it raised its hood and rose with a hiss. Then the Snake Man reprimanded the snake in Tamil, “Ai Sumu iru, Satham Podathey” ( keep still & don’t make any noise ) and waved his stick and the snake just slunk behind him.

After watching the show for some time we released it back in the jungle. I was also anxious that no damage comes to the snake, as the king cobra comes under the Schedule 1 animal in the endangered list of the forest department. Schedule 1 is the list of animals given the maximum protection and vice versa also the maximum punishment for killing or disturbing it. On the protection list, the king cobra is on the same status as the tiger or the elephant. So killing one you will get the same punishment as for killing a tiger or an elephant.

One thing that struck me was the king cobra that was very unusual  - different from any other snake I have seen. The eyes showed a streak of intelligence - very unusual in a snake. I had also learned that unlike any other snake they build a nest for laying  eggs and watch over the brood till they hatch.

The king cobra I saw measured nine feet nine inches in length. This I learned is only a mid-size king cobra.

It was amazing to watch how a simple illiterate man could know so much about snakes and the ease with which he handled them without any sophisticated tools. He would also dispense medicines to counter bites from poisonous snakes. He called his native medicines as “Pachai elai Vaithiyam” (a mixture of green herbs as treatment). I understood that they acted as powerful purgatory medicines and they possible purged the poison out of the victim’s body. Personally, I had never met anyone he had treated, so I really could not judge their efficacy.

It was interesting to spend some time now and then with the Snake Man learning a bit about the habits of the snakes and how to avoid them. Even now I marvel at the mastery the little man had over the serpents without any special equipment or fuss. Thanks to him I also came face to face with a king cobra at close quarters.
This is a picture from the estate I work on: Korakundah, Nilgiris. The unique feature of this estate is the elevation.The highest tea on the estate is 8,100 feet above sea level.                                                                                                       
The Snake Man had seen numerous Managers and Assistant Managers come and go in Pannimade and many like me were fascinated by him. It so happened that one Assistant in jest asked the Snake Man if snakes made good eating. I don’t remember what the Snake Man’s reply was but promptly that evening he was at the Assistant manager’s bungalow with a fresh rat snake.

This Assistant was taken back in surprise at this sudden gift didn’t know how to respond. He decided that the best thing was to share it with the Assistant in the nearby Malakiparai Estate. So he made the Snake Man clean the rat snake, got it cut into pieces, wrapped them up then jumped onto his motorcycle and he was off to see his pal to share the treat.

The Malakiparai Assistant was apprised of the circumstances and the pros and cons and possible after effects of eating the snake meat was discussed and Dutch courage summoned after a couple of shots of rum, it was decided to go ahead with partaking this slithery snack.

The cook was promptly summoned and given the parcel of meat to be fried. The cook after reaching the kitchen realized what meat it was and came running back to the drawing room and when he realized that the young masters were actually intent on eating the serpent, he thought they had gone insane.

Serious conversation between the cook and the house boy could be heard emanating from the kitchen, discussing the mental health of the Assistants.

Meanwhile, they downed a few more shots of rum awaiting the “snake” (snack).

Finally, the cook came in with the scaly delight and the Assistants promptly helped themselves generously and took the first bite. It didn’t seem too bad so the first plateful vanished swiftly.

It was then they noticed that the cook had not left the drawing room and was standing near the doorway and staring at them in disbelief. A brainwave hit both of them. In unison, they started to flicker their tongues in and out like a snake and rose out of the sofas loudly hissing. At which the cook dropped the empty tray and fled to the kitchen screaming in fear.

And that was the day’s entertainment.

Meet the writer:
  Rajesh Thomas introduces himself:
"A second generation planter. Born and grew up in the planting districts of Southern India. Started my career in the High Ranges and Annamallais Planting Districts for twelve years. Had a stint in Africa for two years. Since 2009 been planting in the Nilgiris.

Read all of Rajesh's stories at this link:

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

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Back in the Day – Part X

by Shipra Castledine

I was in boarding school at Loreto Convent, Darjeeling to 1966. At the end of the school year I was taken out and my mother and I moved to Kolkata and I was admitted to Loreto House. My parents made this decision as they wanted me to be with them and not go through my schooling and further education from boarding facilities. We initially moved in with my Sejokaku, Sejokaki and two cousins. I found a girl across the road who was at Loreto House so I started going with her to school and she became my best friend. We were quite inseparable and our families became really close. She lived in this huge house in a joint family. They were from a small princedom, what we called a zamindari family. Her extended family and friends became mine too and vice versa. My Dad would visit us as often as he could. Sometimes he would come on an official trip and go visit the Duncan Brothers head office in Dalhousie, Kolkata.
Kolkata General Post Office, Dalhousie Square. PC
It was good to live with relatives. There was a lot of shared responsibilities amongst the adults and also a fair amount of sibling and cousin rivalry! After some time my parents felt it best to live independently. At this time we rented a small flat in Kolkata, near my Chotokaku (father’s younger brother) and Dad carried on in Baintgoorie TE. The change from a manager’s burra bungalow to a flat in South Kolkata that had Indian style toilets was quite radical! But my parents made nothing of it so I didn’t feel that there was anything to whinge about! Mum and I managed. The quality of part time domestic help was excellent in the South Kolkata localities. We had part time cooks who would, with practiced ease, produce yummy Bengali food! Quite a change from what we ate in Baintgoorie. As we were always foodies intrinsically, we appreciated the shuktos, charcharis, maacher jhols and other delicacies with as much enjoyment as we had the roasts and stews and other Western food we would have along with the curries and Indian food in tea. Life was affordable in those days in Kolkata. We could afford to eat good prawns, excellent quality river fish, mutton and chicken and wonderful vegetables galore.

Dad continued being Manager at Baintgoorie TE. He would visit Kolkata frequently and we would go out on the town. He was so good with children, in fact all of my mum and dad’s family members would do anything for us children. Anything that I have sight seen or experienced has been because of my Dad. And he would always make it exciting with street food and enjoyment. Later on he did the same for his grandchildren. And mum would join in everything. She always kept the home steady and comfortable and running smoothly, something I learned from her to practice in later years. No matter what turmoil I was facing I would ensure my home was running smoothly for members of my family so that there was some balance in our lives.

He was learning words and one of them was ‘ass’. So he was reading out ‘A – S – S – ass maane gaadha!

In that little, ordinary flat we became friendly with all our neighbours. And of course my Chotokaku and Chotokaki and their three little girls would be around all the time. The landlord lived upstairs. He had three children. The practice of Bengali children in families like theirs was to do their studies aloud. One evening when Dad was visiting we were hanging around in our drawing room and we could clearly hear the boy upstairs, around 11-12 years old, loudly studying English. He was learning words and one of them was ‘ass’. So he was reading out ‘A – S – S – ass maane gaadha (meaning ass in Bengali) and Dad says ‘gaadha maane aami (ass meaning me)” and we cracked up!!

My transition to a day school from boarding was quite big. But once again, as my parents made no fuss and treated everything as normal, I made the change reasonably easily. However I was an A grade student in Loreto Convent, Darjeeling but got a shock in my first examinations in Loreto House, Kolkata when I dropped to below the middle of the class in ranking! The competition was much more fierce in the city! And that became the story of my academics from there on! I did improve but never to get to the top of the class!

Soon after I started attending Loreto House we celebrated an event that had students representing as many Loreto branches throughout India. I was selected to represent Loreto Convent, Darjeeling as I had all the uniforms. So there I was in the smart winter uniform of warm long sleeve blouse, warm cotswool, pleated grey skirt, red and white striped tie, a smart matching grey blazer, grey warm stockings and black buckle shoes. When I arrived in school dressed in the uniform all the city Loreto girls crowded around me and oohed and aahed over such a beautiful, smart uniform! I can still remember that. And they commented on my pink face as I had the rosy cheeks from the cold climes of Darjeeling which I lost over the next few weeks of living in Kolkata.
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Loreto Convent girls

Loreto Convent, Darjeeling
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Loreto House, Calcutta
When we were still living with my Sejokaku’s family and I had got very close to my best friend and her brothers we decided to all visit Baintgoorie for our school holidays. As we started arranging the holiday more young people got added on and ultimately it became my friend and her two younger brothers, my two cousins who I was living with and another cousin brother on my mother’s side. My mum was the chaperone for all of us children aged between 8 and 13. There was much hilarity and joyfulness on the flight from Dum Dum Airport to Bagdogra Airport. My Dad was there to meet us with 3 cars / jeeps and we made the journey to Baintgoorie TE. The young people were keenly looking around at a very different landscape to the city.

With four boys in the mix there was never total peace and tranquillity!

The drive straight away took us past tea gardens to the left of Bagdogra Airport. Then came the drive down Sevoke Road past Bagdogra township, so simple in its one street with shops on either side. Past North Bengal University on the left and on down to Siliguri. We did not get into Siliguri town but drove down the bypass, past a well known Buddhist monastery at Salugara township where the Dalai Lama visited frequently and was known to have been visited by celebrities such as Richard Gere and Steve Siegal. Then on to Sevoke where there is a big army cantonment. By this time the children were all quiet and taking in the beautiful surroundings. I still get homesick remembering that drive through forest on either side of the road, army quarters nestled between then the turn on to the range of hills with the Teesta River below that would take you either to the Dooars or up to Kalimpong or Sikkim. The drive to Baintgoorie TE took approximately 2 hrs. All the way we breathed clean, clear air, saw nothing but greenery, rice paddy fields, little towns like Oodlabari and the tea estates which were on either side of the road once we were past the hill range.
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Coronation Bridge
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The beautiful plantations in the Dooars
With four boys in the mix there was never total peace and tranquillity so inspite of their interest in the landscape there was still leg pulling and giddyacks happening in the cars! Anyway we finally got to Baintgoorie TE. The drive through the gates of the burra bungalow which were drawn open by two maalis was enough to impress the whole lot of us in the cars. Up a gravel driveway to this fabulous massive bungalow. As we all tumbled out of the vehicles Dad allocated our rooms to us. 3 of the older boys were assigned to a very large bedroom downstairs. Dad had put together 3 large single beds, more than enough room for all of them. The guest bedroom was given to my Sejokaku’s children and my bestie and I were given my bedroom. Thus started the most memorable, enjoyable holiday for all of us children.

We had a puppy at the time. His name was Chicko. That little puppy gave the boys a real run for their money as he would tear around the substantial gardens and through the bungalow, upstairs and downstairs with the boys racing after him! Taking tumbles, leaping over things and generally providing much entertainment for everyone else! Mum laid on meals by the gallons, delicious, comforting food that no-one fussed about. The physical activity, the unpolluted environment and the bountiful joyousness had appetites at their best and moreover mum was a good disciplinarian. She would be empathetic to a child’s complaints but firm and fair in her dealing of it. As a result though there were incidents of rivalry and taunting between the many children that we were, on the whole the holiday of two weeks went pretty smoothly. Many outings were had. Picnics, trips to the game forests, into Siliguri for a meal at a restaurant and of course the club days at Western Dooars Club.
A more current photo of the Baintgoorie Burra Bungalow

'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!


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Teatime in Tajikistan

by Sarita Dasgupta

Anytime is teatime in Tajikistan! I discovered this when I stayed with friends in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in September-October 2016. Incidentally, the nation had completed twenty-five years of Independence on 9 September, so Dushanbe was in a celebratory mood. The streets and parks were lit up at night, and I noticed that the colours on their flag were the same as on ours!
At the statue of A.A.Rudaki
Like in the whole of Central Asia, tea is the most popular beverage in the country. Every meal begins and ends with a cup of tea, and the brew is drunk throughout the meal as well. Green tea is known as ‘kabood’ or ‘zeliony chai’ and tea with milk is called ‘shir chai’.

This universal habit of tea drinking is responsible for the tea stalls and stands in places like Hissor Fort which are frequented by locals and tourists alike, and the popularity of the tea house – the ‘choykhana’ – where people gather over cups of tea and snacks like ‘sambusa’ and ‘shashlik’, exchange pleasantries, and watch the world go by.
 Choykhana Rokhat
The oldest ‘choykhana’ in Dushanbe is the open-plan Choykhana Rokhat. It is an attractive place with columns, decorated ceiling and a grand staircase. Tables are set along a gallery which overlooks the main street – Rudaki Avenue. (Here I must mention that this extremely long, central street, as well as a beautiful park located on it, are named after the 9th century CE Tajik poet, Rudaki, considered to be the first great literary genius of the modern Persian language.)

Choykhana Rokhat has an indoor restaurant as well, which has beautifully carved wooden pillars holding up an ornately carved and painted wooden ceiling. Musical evenings are held outdoors in pleasant weather, and sometimes weddings too. I met a retired government official, nattily dressed in a suit, tie and Tajik hat, proudly sporting his decorations, and drinking a leisurely cup of tea with his friends. He was curious to know where I came from, and when told that I hailed from India and that I had spent most of my life on tea estates, he happily took a photograph with ‘the lady from Hindustan who grows tea’! (It would have been too tedious – and probably lost in translation- to explain that the nearest I’d come to growing ‘tea’ was nurturing camellia plants in pots and drums, so I let it pass.)
With a Tajik gent at Choykhana Rokhat
The Choykhana Saodat, also on Rudaki Avenue, is newer and less frequented, I found. Although different from the Choykhana Rokhat, it too has a decorated ceiling with a beautiful chandelier, and a fountain in the front courtyard.

The newest and grandest Choykhana in Dushanbe is the Kokhi Navruz, situated near the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Prospekt Ismoili Somoni. (Somoni was another larger-than-life figure who ruled the area around Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the 9th century CE. The Tajik currency is named after him.) Kokhi Navruz was recently completed and although the restaurant hadn’t started business when I was there, one could go on a conducted tour of this magnificent building. The decorated ceilings, chandeliers, cupolas with paintings of eminent Tajiks, fountains and lake give it an air of grandeur more in keeping with a palace than a tea house! Although, tea is worthy of being drunk in a palace too!
Choykhana Kokhi Navruz
Interestingly, there is a very popular ‘choykhana’ at the Palais am Festungsgraben in Berlin (Germany) called the Tajikistan Tearoom. After being displayed in the Soviet Pavilion at the Leipzig Fair in 1974 (when Tajikistan was The Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic and still a part of the Soviet Union) it was donated to the Society for German-Soviet Friendship and moved to its present location.

Tea drinking is a centuries-old practice around the world. It has a rich history and, in many countries, it is steeped in tradition. In the Central Asian countries like Tajikistan, tea is more than just a drink that quenches thirst – it is a basic necessity! They believe that “teatime doesn't end when the pot is empty; you carry it in your heart.”
Lunchtime is tea time!

Meet the writer:

"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.

Have you read all of Sarita's stories on this blog?
Click 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!


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Cakes & Curry Puffs

by Aloke Mookerjee
This piece was written a long time back. A recent short trip to Goa during which a visit to the lovely ‘Mario’ shop in Candolim where amongst all the wonderful Mario Miranda themed items, was a picture of a lovable dog holding a flower by the stem between its teeth. Its caption was so very appropriate to my article that I felt the urge to include it.
Image result for TO Err is Human, to forgive, canine mario miranda
Ghatia Tea Estate, bordering Bhutan in the Dooars was, at that time, a small compact plantation of 900 acres with a well laid out factory that boasted of two functional gates – the IN and the OUT! Not to be outdone, the factory building also had its own two entry/exit doors; one at the drying room and the other at the rolling room.

As the 'KAMJARI SAAB' of Ghatia, I was required to be at the office in the afternoons after my field work, to dispense with the day's paper work and dole out the minor 'bichars'* to workers who appeared before me after having escaped the Burra Saab's severe growls and snarls! Through all these proceedings my yellow Labrador Tippy would remain quietly by my side.

Having dispensed with the chores, I would walk down to the factory, with Tippy following at heel, and enter the premises through the drying room door. On my instruction, Tippy would sit outside and wait for me to reappear which I invariably did from the same door. We would then walk back together to the bungalow for the now long gone ritual of evening tea in the veranda!

One balmy October evening, after completing my office work, I entered the factory, with Tippy, as usual, sitting and waiting outside the drying room door. Inside, engrossed in an animated (and typically irrelevant) conversation with the 'Kal' Saab (as the Mistry Saabs in the Dooars were known as) I forgot my devoted dog and left for my bungalow by exiting through the rolling room door.

In the bungalow veranda, the vintage trolley pushed on by my vintage bearer creaked out laden with the pot of tea, cakes and curry puffs. After the busy work day, peace and quiet prevailed. A feeling of well-being was seeping through me gently while relishing the spread prepared by the old ‘Mog’ cook (I seemed to have specialised in old and dated house help!). Despite the tranquillity in the air all around, a feeling of something amiss kept nagging me.

Over my second cup and curry puff, the nagging suddenly yielded results and the benign mood jolted on realizing that my drooling and lovable Labrador by my side was missing! I left my tea instantly and rushed out fearing the worst – that she might be lost, wandering and desperately looking for me. I headed quickly, first for the drying room door where I had last left Tippy waiting.

I needed to look no further for there she was still sitting in exactly the same position as I had last seen her, only now with a distinctly forlorn gaze at the door! Ecstatic at the sound of my urgent call and appearance, she bounded up jumping all over me as we quickly began our walk back with her romping by my side in doggy delight.

Back in the bungalow, Tippy earned a well-deserved extra share of cakes and curry puffs that evening. Elated by the larger than usual helping of the delectable treats, I was happily granted a full pardon and my serious (never to be repeated) sin quickly forgotten.

Tippy lived on for many more years greedy for ripened bananas, curry puffs and cream cakes. She now lies in peace under a luxuriant (still the same I hope) Mary Palmer in the compound of the Borjuli Burra Bungalow in the North Bank of Assam.
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. There are over 120 stories of tea life here, all written by people who have lived in tea gardens. 

Add this link to your favourites: 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!
Meet the writer: Aloke Mookerjee

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.'  Here is the link to all posts by Aloke - Stories by Aloke Mookerjee

Aloke has recently published a book, The Jazz Bug, which is available on Amazon. Read about it here: