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Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Lord of the Garden Gypsy

by Ranu Singh Taragi
Tea Garden bungalows are mostly huge and a plethora of staff, inside and outside, ensures their day to day running and upkeep. 
Each position is recognized by a name, which gives a clue to the duties that go with it. So you have a ‘bawarchi, a paniwala, a bearer( or two), a sweeper, the ‘babalog ki ayah’ , the bagaal (incharge of the cows and the ‘gohali’ ), a bada (senior) mali plus his team, the chowkidars (day and night) and so on. 
From my experience in ‘Chai’ there is one more person who enjoys a prominent and elevated position….the ‘Burra Saab’s driver.’ 

Walk into the bungalow kitchen around breakfast time and spot him, lolling comfily on a stool. While his ‘saab’ enjoys his porridge and eggs, this man is no less pampered by the kitchen staff. In all probability, he could be tucking into a hot paratha! Most instances, their rounded physique is ample proof.

Come weekends, when the Saab and his family visit another planter, looking forward to some sumptuous hospitality, the driver has an equally entertaining time, exchanging local news with the bungalow staff, the other end.

There are plenty of outings - the club suppers, the sports events, annual picnics...the fun list is long. But in all seriousness, this man has important responsibilities. Familiar with the garden roads, he drives the Manager on his garden rounds. More often than not, he has prior inkling of brewing labour dissatisfaction and impending gheraos, so diverts through alternative routes. He drives the manager to district meetings and union negotiations, and behaves discreetly when he is privy to important information.He receives the visitors from Head Office when they land at the airport, and his attitude and small talk makes them welcome. 

…And then there are times when he too enjoys letting his hair down ...on weekends. I recall our driver on a garden, which was positioned about an hour’s drive from Siliguri. We were quite happy to spend our Sundays catching the latest movie...or treating ourselves to hot dosas. Our driver, left to his own devices, had this incorrigible habit of imbibing a hearty amount of the local brew ‘handia ’ which was sold in the inconspicuous roadside shops. So most holidays, we’d drive back home, with Naresh at the wheel…..with a gently snoring driver stretched out...full length, in the back seat! 

My mind also drifts back to a time when I didn’t know how to drive.   Then, one morning, I caught sight of a young memsaab bride drive into a football do , smartly swishing her Maruti Suzuki 800 between two managerial Gypsies…and at that exact moment, the desire to repeat this fine feat, reached a feverish pitch.
I hounded Naresh into giving me driving lessons --utter disasters, enveloping us in clouds of dislike. Many of you will agree that personal cars are prized possessions on the tea gardens.

The next sensible course was to take help from our driver. So, a couple of times a week, when he could be spared, ‘Taetra’ would turn up at the bungalow….and this is how the lessons began:
Bungalow Six had a vast area around it, split into three sections. The middle housed the seasonal flowers and fruit trees and flowering annuals adorned the second, while the third part was a big bare field. It was here that the tractor-trolleys would trundle in, to off-load the firewood, gas cylinders  etc. Most mornings, the bungalow cow would be let loose for a gentle walk-about cum munching session.

Taetra  announced that we’d begin here. So with memsaab at the wheel and him settled as passenger, we began. We lurched up and down this field and my confidence grew. And then, all of a sudden, coming face to face with the cow caught us both off-guard. Instead of the brake, I accelerated in panic. The bovine was equally alarmed, and took off,  with her tail high in the air…and only Taetra kept his senses. He wrenched the steering to safety. Whew! As for the cow, she kept away during the lessons.

After a couple of days, Taetra decided that I was ready to tackle the garden roads. I welcomed the news with nervous excitement, but obviously my instructor had faith in my readiness.

However, there was to be a change in the seating arrangement. Having no second set of floor pedals, as in the vehicles of motor driving schools, Taetra and I would have to share the driving seat!! So with me at the helm and him towards the door we set off.

Dear Taetra, the perfect gentleman was now half out of the window -- much like a black cat commando atop a VIP car! From this vantage point, he kept survey of the garden roads and lo! if any tractor trolley loaded with fresh leaf or a brisk line of workers, bringing in the morning patti came in sight he would wave them off, never mind where they scrambled! He would vociferously holler, ‘MEMSAHIB  Ayunche….Rasta denu!’ 

The lessons gave me a taste of what Royalty feels like on a freeway, and needless to say left me ill-equipped for a venture into real ‘live’ traffic. It was only years later, in Dehradun, that I mastered the speedy juggle between ABC….accelerator, brake and clutch.

Life in the wilderness can take sudden frightening turns. We had barely settled in a garden, in the Birpara area of Dooars, where the workforce was notorious for its strong reactions. Each day brought us face to face with new emergencies: there was hardly any breathing space. 

One evening, hoping to get away from all the problems, we headed to our nearest neighbouring garden. There were four of us, the driver Ganeshi, our four year old son, Naresh and I. We set off in the garden Gypsy. Just about to drive out of the barra bungalow, our cook suggested diffidently in an aside , that we should halt at the garden temple and take blessings. We never found out why he said what he did, but we did take his advice.

Anyway, just as we prepared to sit in the Gypsy, something prompted Naresh to change the seating. He decided to take care of the driving….I seated myself in the passenger seat in the front, with our son on my lap…while Ganeshi was now free to sit behind the driving seat.

On the way, there lay a dry river bed, with a sharp incline ,in and out, both sides. So one had no way of knowing what lay in the depression, till you were already half way down the dip.

It was dusk when we entered the river bed. We were shocked to see masked men, racing to close in, around  the vehicle, brandishing country rifles. Naresh speeded up - the only way out was to race up the opposite incline.

Noticing that we had no intention of slowing down, the men raced of them gave a vicious knock to the windscreen. It was fortunate that Naresh shouted to me to duck low while he did the same. I pushed our boy to the floor of the Gypsy and crouched over him. Just in the nick of time - for a second later we were showered with the shards of the smashed front glass.

Naresh kept his wits about him and didn’t drop the speed of our car. At the same time he yelled at the hitherto frozen Ganeshi to lean over his shoulder and help him manoeuvre us up the incline. 

This presence of mind and teamwork saved our lives. We roared up the slope, on to the highway .and soon reached our friends’ place. Hot cups of tea, loving fuss to soothe us …it all felt good. But as long as we stayed in that area and every time we crossed the river bed, memories of that evening came back. Anything could have happened and only the blessings of God protected us.

Residing in remote locations, such shared experiences tend to dissolve boundaries and forge friendships, based on mutual reliance.

So today I raise my mid-morning ‘cuppa’ to the lord of the garden Gypsy! 

Meet the writer: Ranu Singh Taragi
Ranu Singh Taragi, with her husband Naresh
Ranu lives in Dehradun with her tea planter husband Naresh. They moved there after almost three decades in the tea gardens of Dooars and Assam. Ranu has been writing since her college days, and her stories for children have been published in 'Children's World' Magazine and the Hindustan Times. Have you read all Ranu's stories here on Indian Chai Stories? The Elephants Come Calling: Tumtumpara Tea Estate, 
 The Lord of the Garden Gypsy, The Dance by Barkha and Pavan  and Freshly Brewed and Packaged Beautifully (which was the first post to go up here on 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!


  1. Ranu thanks to your eye for detail, Oz and I are being transported back to tea again. Reminds me of our larger than life Naru “draver.” He still calls occasionally. Didn’t know you had such a traumatic experience. Would love to have you and Naresh over in Chandigarh!

  2. I loved reading about driver Taetra, the perfect gentleman! What good people there are in tea gardens. And as for your being set upon in that terrifying way! Everyone who's ever lived in Dalgaon district would feel shudders down the spine on reading this account of your experience.


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