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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Lost Sounds Of ‘Tea’

by Sarita Dasgupta

 “I hear the sounds, of distant drums…. Far away, far away…………………….”

I remembered these words from an old Jim Reeves song, and thought nostalgically about the rhythmic, hypnotizing sound of the drums that would waft to our bungalow from the workers’ Lines every evening, borne gently on the breeze. It was an integral part of an evening in the tea estates of Assam during my childhood. In those days of simpler living on the estates, sans such things as TVs, the workers would sing and dance to the beat of the drum after a hard day in the field. Now, the drums come out during festivals only. Whenever I hear them, I’m taken straight back to the halcyon days of my childhood. We used to join enthusiastically in the ‘jhumur’ dance when the workers came to the bungalow to dance on a special occasion. By the time we learned the steps of one movement, the dancers had moved on to another! But it was great fun, and as the song says - “The rhythm is gonna get you” - it did!
Dancers, photograph by Venk Shenoi, Nagrakata area, Dooars, c.1963-'64 
Speaking of drums and music, we had a sweeper once, who tied his hair in a small bun at the nape of his neck, a little towards the left. This was sufficiently out of the norm to intrigue us. He was a taciturn man, so we didn’t have the courage to ask him the reason. During one of the festivals, a party of musicians and dancers came to the bungalow to entertain us, and lo and behold, if it wasn’t old Budhu, with hair down to his shoulders, playing the ‘ektara’ and singing folk songs! My excited brother kept calling out to him, but he completely ignored us. The next day, the old, taciturn, Budhu was back, wielding the broom instead of the ‘ektara’! But my little brother looked on him with new eyes. It was rather like having a Pop Star working ‘incognito’ in one’s house!

Another sound one hardly hears nowadays, is the howl of the foxes. One of my younger sister’s favourite words, (‘sounds’, rather) was ‘hukkahuwaa’ - this being her take on the foxes’ cry. I must say, it was a fair imitation! We were taken out for a walk every evening, and it was the first call of the fox which told the ayah that it was time to turn back home. First, one fox would call, then another, and another, from different sides, till there was quite a chorus going on, happily joined in by my sister! After I got married in the early 80s, I wondered where all the foxes had gone till one shot across the garden road one evening sometime in 2005. My husband was surprised at my excitement, which, to him, must have seemed rather excessive. But, to me, it was like seeing an old friend after a long, long time. My only regret - the fox hadn’t howled!

An old dastoor on the estates was for the factory chowkidar to beat a gong (ghanti) on the hour, every hour. Other strategically placed gongs all over the estate would follow suit, till everyone knew the time. The sound of these gongs was another integral part of life on the estates. I had quite forgotten this, till some years ago when I spent the night at an estate that still follows this practice. At first, I was happy to hear this lost sound from my childhood, but, I must confess, it became less and less enchanting as the night wore on… my sleepiness wore off… and my nerves wore thin! However, after I’d recovered from the experience, I was nostalgic about the gongs all over again!

The other sounds I miss are the sounds of words no longer heard on the estates. Everyone says ‘factory’ nowadays, but when my father was a mistry sahab his duty lay in the kol-ghar! In those days we had someone called a din-chowkidar, who came on duty in the afternoon when the other bungalow servants went home for lunch. One rarely hears of a maliani (female mali) these days, and certainly not of the gobar-buri who used to come to the bungalow every day to make fuel cakes out of dried cow dung and coal dust for that huge cooking range! Gone are those ranges. In fact, gone are those kitchens, separated from the rest of the bungalow by a long passage-way. Now, the kitchen and pantry are one entity, and so the word botol-khana is going out of the bagaan vocabulary too.


I suddenly and most unexpectedly heard the sound of a cricket (cicada) two nights ago on my 7th floor balcony here in Kolkata. I was rooted to the spot physically but taken back to the tea estates mentally…that constant, shrill sound that irritated me no end while I was there, is actually music to my ears now!

Most of all, I miss the sounds of birds cheeping and chirping early in the morning. Here, it’s the hoarse ‘caw caw’ of the crow that awakens me! I would welcome the sound of the factory siren any day in place of that!

Change is inevitable, and most changes take place for the better. However, like scents, sounds are also evocative, and these lost sounds, if heard unexpectedly, take one back to certain places or happy times in one’s past, where one dwells in spirit for that infinitesimal moment, and comes out smiling.

Editor's note:  The video ( of the cicada in the tree ) was shot at Burra Bungalow, Thanai T.E., Assam

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.

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 : indianchaistories@gmail.com. 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!

ADD THIS LINK TO YOUR FAVOURITES : https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/Indian Chai Stories
 
Sarita mentions this lovely old song - for those of you who started humming it, here's the video!

27 comments:

  1. A great story. Typifies the East in a number of ways. In our block of flats in Calcutta, just below the servants quarters was a great place to be. Servants from Orissa and Bihar would play their music when the days labour was done. I can just imagine the lilting tunes wafting towards the tea garden bungalows. Thank you for bringing this to us again.

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    1. Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed reading the story.

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  2. This was lovely, Sarita....an audio visual memory of a beautiful period in our lives.
    Didn't you have the 'tokay' at dusk, as we did in the Dooars? No love lost here, just another nostalgic relic!

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    1. Thanks Roma. 'Audio-visual' is a great compliment for a piece of writing! Not sure what a 'tokay' is. Perhaps it had another name in Assam...

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    2. Sarita, do see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokay_gecko

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  3. 'Kol-Ghor' or 'Engine House' was part of the 'Factory' which processed tea. To avoid smells from burning coal or oil from spoiling the tea 'Kol-Ghors' were usually separated from the main Factory.

    In the Dooars (1950s) power was transmitted from the engines (either steam or diesel) to the factory machinery via long runs of shafting, pulleys and belts to each driven equipment. You could hearthe noise all through the Estate on a clear night.

    Needless to say a modern electrified factory does not require a separate engine shed although I bet there are standby diesels in all factories.

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    1. Venk, thank you for the photograph - just one of lovely set that you sent last year.

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  4. Lovely audio memory of the days and nights of the gardens. Many thanks. In the South the sounds were different. We don't have jackals (foxes) at our altitudes. Too cold and wet for them. But we have the Malabar Whistling Thrush (Whistling Schoolboy bird) to wake up to. He also announces that it is officially evening now, before he retires to his nest in the Golden Showers flower wine on our veranda. Cicadas, we also have. And the same sound which is among the loudest in the world. Many thanks for this article.

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    1. Thank you, Mr Baig. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it. I suppose each region has its own particular creatures and sounds. You have your Whistling Thrush and we have our Indian Cuckoo which insists that the planters "Make more Pekoe!"

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  5. Enjoyed your evocative prose very much Sarita. The aroma of milky chai, as well as the sights, sounds, and most of all the scents of small town India wafted across the years and across the world to me here in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. Thank you.

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    1. I'm so glad my article reached you in Canada and brought you back to India, Margaret. At least in spirit! Thanks for writing in.

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  6. 'Kol-ghor' generally used to refer the factory by the labourers and also by the 'babus', even today. "hamaar bahu bagaane aar beta kol-ghore kaam kori" - meaning the factory. And engine room referred as "engine kamra" or "engine ghor" by workers - in most gardens I worked.

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    1. Terminology differs - the factory was a factory in the Dooars and the Factory Babu was called that. We called the Tea Estates 'Tea Gardens' Garden Babu, etc.

      By the way 'Kol' was the general term for water taps in Bengal. We had a pump man in Calcutta whose job was to start and stop the water pump. Kol-walas came to repair the plumbing. Then again such terms vary across India.

      Kol

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  7. Delightful to read a new story each week - brings back so many memories - and sights, sounds and smells were so much a part of those old days. Keep 'em coming!

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  8. Very interesting reading -takes one back to old memory lane !

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  9. Brought back memories. The sounds you describe are unique and I have also some of these written in my 'ramblings'. Tea was unique in its ambiance and the 'sounds of tea' added to its mystique! Thank you for sharing

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    1. Yes, life in 'Tea' is unique in so many ways. Thank you for your comment.

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  10. Subconsciously buried memories of childhood memories so beautifully brought out. I remember as I write the sweet smelling green green grass of home as the' mali' shaved the broad leaved Assam grass off the lawns with the lawn mowers they no longer use. .. the fragrance ligers in my being even now as does the smell of tea leaves withering in the 'kolghar'. Thank you for leading us to memories of our fairytale childhood.

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    1. Yes, scents are as evocative of sounds... I'm glad my article led you back Memory Lane to happy times, my friend!

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  11. So many memories.A lifetime spent in those most beautiful parts of the subcontinent.It just came alive again whilst reading your article.

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  12. So many wonderful memories,scents and sounds wafted back whilst reading this article.Another lifetime on those estates in the north east ?Most definitely ,I would opt f
    .or it without hesitation.

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  13. Loved it, Sarita. Brought back memories of sights, scents and sounds of days long gone. Thank you and keep writing.

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