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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Back in the Day - Part II

by Shipra Castledine  
This is the second instalment of Shipra's 'Back in the Day' - recollections of her life as a 'tea child' of the 1950s-60s. Here is the link to Part 1 if you should wish to read it. -
The days in my father’s life as a new assistant and tea planter became a routine life of early morning rounds of sections of the tea plantation where he was taught about the tea bush and the tea leaf. He watched the work of the labourers who were mainly from the Santhal tribes of the Chota Nagpur plateau. The tea pluckers were predominantly women.
In those early years when people in cities had not heard of childcare and crèches, a crèche was set up in various sections on the plantation. Little ones and babies were cared for by a couple of adults and the mothers would come in when required to breast feed the babies. Every plantation had a ‘hospital’ and a rudimentary school for the labourers’ children. Life was quite simplistic for the labour. They received rations which provided them food staples like rice, wholemeal flour and lentils at highly subsidised rates. They also received a quota of kerosene. They were paid weekly. The women would spend their money on their families. Unfortunately the men tended to drink their pay away. They drank home brewed country liquor. 
My Dad turned out to be a quick learner and he had an ear for languages. He was soon picking up the Santhali that the labourers spoke. There were also a number of Nepali workers at Fagu TE. Nepali was a language my father picked up and spoke fluently for the rest of his life. It became easier to work on the tea estate speaking the languages of the labourers. There were times when the tribes celebrated an occasion and they would turn up at the Manager’s bungalow and perform their tribal dances. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. The women dressed in white saris with a red border, round cylindrical earrings through their ears which made the ear holes as large as the cylinder was. The men with a headscarf but otherwise dressed in shorts and colourful half sleeved shirts. The assistants would also be there and would get drawn into the rhythmic dancing. 
Continuing the day’s routine, the sahibs would get back to their bungalows around eight a.m. and have breakfast. Every meal was a proper occasion. Breakfast would start with porridge. Then a plate of eggs, sausages and fried tomatoes would be set before them. And of course toast. I must mention here that all baking was done in coal fired ovens.
The men would get back to their rounds by 9.30a.m. and back to the bungalow around noon for lunch. The bearer would be there to take off boots and socks and help salt off any leeches!!
Lunch was again a proper spread of rice, dal, a vegetable curry and a chicken or meat curry; always followed by a pudding, never called a dessert in those days. The sahibs would retire to their bedrooms for an afternoon nap. A cup of tea at 3p.m. and they then went to the factory to learn the workings of a tea estate from the head babu (clerk). They were not factory assistants at this point. There was always a rotation of duties and they all got their turn in the factory to learn tea manufacture. 
 The end of a working day for an assistant in those days would have been around 6p.m. Back at the bungalow a proper tea would be served with at least 3 delectable tea items like sandwiches, corn on the cob and pastries. Later if they wanted they would have a drink or two, usually rum or whiskey. Dinner would be at around 9p.m.
There was no TV, no other entertainment, which is why the area tea club was so important for the tea planters and their families. The nearest tea club from Fagu T.E. was the Western Dooars  Club. Three days in the week were club days, usually a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
The club days were looked forward to by everyone. Cars would be packed with sports gear, usually tennis racquets, tennis balls, golf bags. And a change of clothes. The sahibs would be released early in the afternoon on Wednesday. The planters and their families would dress in their sports clothes and games would be played through the afternoon. Every lady would take some yummy tea time eats. Competition was fierce amongst planters and wives mainly on the quality and standard of tea items. The bachelors too would chivvy up their bawarchis and bring in some wonderful tidbit.
After the sports, tea tables would be set up and everybody would gather around and there would be much enjoyment, eating and drinking of hot cups brewed from freshly manufactured Dooars tea. The club days were absolutely essential to the sanity of planters and their families. The isolation and routine working life of the plantations could play havoc. It was the clubs that provided the necessary release of tensions. My father played both tennis and golf. He would play tennis on Wednesdays and golf on Saturdays and Sundays. A lot of the time Saturday would turn into a big drinking night for many. I know of many a planter who would not leave the club till Sunday evening. I remember the famous big Donald Mackenzie saying, ‘You work hard boy, and then you play hard.’ 
I will tell you a funny incident. One of the British tea planters was with his bearer one day as they both stood before the fridge with the door open. The planter pointing to a block of ham asked the bearer, ‘Woh kya hai?’ The bearer without a flicker in his face said ‘Saab, hum hai’. The planter raised his eyebrows and said ‘Hum janta tum tum hai lekin woh kya hai?’ The poor bearer had no answer!! 
The months passed by and as my father was older than most assistants he got to a stage when he wanted to settle down. The assistants needed permission from the company and were instructed that they could not ask to get married before three years of service. Dad put in his application in two years. The company granted him permission!! He and my Mum had worked together in All India Radio in Calcutta so he knew who he wanted to be his bride. It was unusual in their days to find their own love but it speaks highly of my grandparents that they accepted not only that Dad wanted a ‘love’ marriage but that Mum was not of the same religion.
It was a choice for Mum whether she wanted to continue her career as she was Assistant Station Director at All India Radio at the time and at the doorstep to become Station Director. Without a thought she chose marriage and life with Dad. So from a working life in Calcutta she came as a bride to Fagu T.E. I admire my mum in many ways as she took to life in tea without a qualm. She had many cooking skills which she polished up in her days in tea. 
Within a year of their marriage I was born. It was a difficult birth and mum did not have any more children. She was 35 years old when she had me, in itself unusual to be having her first child at that age. There was no access to a doctor, forget about a paediatrician. She told me when I was a mum myself that she had relied on Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Childcare book on bringing up a baby all the way from birth to six months and I was not sick one single day! I had a Nepali ‘ayah’ whose name I cannot remember. Probably something like Jethi. She was a fairly old woman but had gentle hands and a soft voice. Dad would chat away to her in Nepali and she was a great help to mum. When I was a year old my Dad got a transfer to Zurrantee T.E., still in the Western Dooars district.  
My mum was becoming an old hand by now at being a tea memsahib. I can recall so clearly what her day was like. She would be in bed when Dad left for his morning rounds but when he came back for breakfast she was up and dressed in her morning clothes of a crisply starched cotton sari, looking cool and fresh. I would have been up too and dressed in a pretty smocked dress usually. 
Mum would have ordered my little frocks from Good Companions in Calcutta which would have come on one of the Jamair flights and delivered to the bungalow. At breakfast mum and dad would chat away about all sorts, not only garden matters and bungalow matters but world politics, India’s politics, the news. We had a Phillips radio which had a cat’s eye that had to warm up as you turned the knob and it would turn green telling you the radio was on. I remember listening regularly to Radio Ceylon which had all the music of the day like Cliff Richard, Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis and many more greats. My parents would also tune in to Voice of America and the BBC. And we had a simple record player probably also a Phillips brand.
Anyway, to get back to Mum’s day. After breakfast I would be sent out with the ayah to play in the garden. I would be kept in the shelter of a shady tree usually as Mum did not want my complexion to get dark in the sun! Mum would spend time writing letters to her family and friends or she would be knitting something. She was very good at knitting. She would also be giving orders to the bawarchi for lunch, tea and dinner. Once all the meals were ordered the bawarchi would come back with a tray full of the vegetables and meat or fish to show mum and get her approval. I would be brought in by 11a.m. or so, given a bath and my lunch would be by 11.30am. Naturally still being a baby I promptly went to sleep after lunch.  When Dad came home for lunch he would sit on the verandah whilst his boots and socks were removed and he and mum would chat again. They both had an afternoon nap after lunch.
After her afternoon nap which would be longer than Dad’s she would get up and dress for the evening. She would put makeup on her face and this is a scene I always remember. Mum sitting dressed in a different sari for the evening, at her dressing table stool, doing her makeup. I can still smell the face powder. 
 Usually one day in the week Dad would arrange either the jeep or a pickup to take Mum in to Malbazar to do some shopping. Thinking about the shops in Malbazar brings back memories of a then dirt street, no tarmac, with a clothes shop which also had linen and towels, some not really good quality ready-made clothes and bolts of materials. Next door to this was a grocery and next door to that a knick knacks shop with all sorts for the kitchen and other parts of the house. Any items that Mum and other planters’ families wanted that were more sophisticated was ordered from Calcutta via a letter and they would come on the Jamair flights. 
The evenings were a relaxed atmosphere sitting either in the jali karma if it was hot weather or in the drawing room with a fire burning depending how cold it was in winter. Dad would read the papers, Mum would carry on with her knitting. A record might be playing. I would be playing on the carpet. We did not have any pets when I was very young. I was fed dinner by 6p.m. and put to bed by 7p.m. My parents ate later. 
The same routine the next time, some excitement.  

'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 more stories by Shipra here:
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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, or long, or short, maybe 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!



  1. Bunty you’re such a good raconteur and historian. Looking forward to a published book with all these articles. I think it is a necessary exercise for the education of future generations! We must not allow life in tea to be forgotten.

  2. Shipra your narrantion summed up our life in those good old days in Tea - our daily routine... club life .....that went on same way days after days yet there was beauty in its slow pace. later technology gradually walked in changing the scenario with Tv, and then internet. Well the change is inevitable and had it not been for internet we would not be sharing our stories. keep penning down.

  3. This brings back memories of my childhood

  4. Great! You do know how to write. Totally engrossed in your tale. Waiting for more....

  5. Nostalgic.Nice Read.Can so well relate to this as my Father, brother , cousins and uncle are tea planters.

  6. I was at Zurantee with John Mackenzie and Donald "Big Mac" Mackenzie(my Shikar companion) was at Aibheel.Your story takes me back!

  7. Amazingly authentic and evocative description of life in tea in the Dooars, as true in the 1970's as it was in the 1950's. Your recollections of breakfast, lunch and tea times, and of slow evenings in the taar kamra with father reading the newspaper and mother knitting, are so identical to my own experiences, not to mention the excitement of playing Tennis in the Club followed by the delicacies that were spread our for tea. Thanks for bringing back a whiff of the beautiful life in tea..

  8. Thank you all for the encouragement. I have gone into a flood of memories so there will be lots more chapters!

  9. Thank you for weaving such beautiful lines about tea life.It was really nice going through your writings.

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  11. Shipra , your father and mother have truly come alive in this post . What a delightful window into an enchanting world. A day in the life of a tea baby indeed . So evocative when you write about your mother getting ready for the evening .
    An honour to share this on Chai for Cancer

  12. Hi Shipra. I wanted to ask whether you are the same KK Roy's wife who was my School Prefect in SPS? Dolly was his sister and GK his brother? Fascinating!


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