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Saturday, November 7, 2020

It’s always Tea-Time in my World

It's family time at Indian Chai Stories! Please welcome Noreen Wood - last month, Noreen had  sent us her brother Norman's story 'Shobha the Bison'. Three generations of planters in their family, and you will love reading what Noreen has to say about growing up in the tea estates of the Nilgiris in the 1950s: ' Life on a tea estate in Southern India was unique... everything a child could ask for.'

It’s always Tea-Time in my World

by Noreen Wood

Twenty-two miles up from the hot, dusty, South Indian town of Mettapalayam is the quaint hillside town of Coonoor, nestled 6000 feet above sea level in the Blue Mountain Range called the Nilgiris. The eucalyptus trees and green tea gardens growing in abundance give the mountains their blue-green colour. With no airport, the town is accessible by cars, buses, or lorries using a narrow, winding road with sharp hairpin bends cut into the hillside. Coonoor is not accessible by broad gauge trains either, the slope up the mountains is too steep for that. The narrow- gauge train track is fitted with a rack and pinion device between the two rails to keep the train from slipping as the track is the steepest in Asia with an average gradient of 1 in 24.5 (4.08%) and maximum gradient of 1 in 12 (8.33%). The little blue and yellow train starting from the Mettapalayam Terminus, crawls up the mountain and takes roughly 3 hours to reach Coonoor and then on to Ooty, a popular Summer resort and tourist attraction for families who flock to the Hills to get away from the heat of the plains.

I was born in the Nilgiri Hills and spent my childhood on one of the tea plantations in the area. Growing up on the tea plantations was a way of life that was handed down from one generation to another in my family. Life on a tea estate in Southern India was unique to a few Anglo-Indian families who loved the call of the wild and the adrenalin rush of big game hunting in the thick jungles that surrounded most tea estates. The remoteness of the place often dictated the way we lived. It was the 1950s and there was no electricity in these remote places, so we made do with kerosene lamps and battery- operated radios. However, the hydro lines were soon brought to our area and we ran around the rooms switching on every light in the house.

Boarding school was never optional for children of planters, so we went to school in Coonoor under the stern discipline of the nuns and we were allowed to go home on the weekends. From the close confines of the convent walls to the open fields and wilderness of the tea gardens, it was everything a child could ask for.

The big event was always the shikar hunt, organized by my father and other family members into the dense jungles that stood on the periphery of the tea gardens. Hunting deer, wild boar, and wild fowl was routine. My grandfather, father and brother all kept and maintained guns in their homes on the plantations. They were kept away in a safe place under lock and key and were only taken out when a hunt was on. The red cartridges were as commonplace to us as toys on the floor of any other child. My uncles and cousins were also good shots, and after one of their hunts we had enough fresh meat to last a week, and sufficient dried meat (“ding-ding”) to last a month.

My life on the tea estate is many, many moons away and now that I have lived in Canada for almost 40 years, the memories keep flooding back into my mind like warm April rain. The taste of tea never leaves my lips. Coffee has always been the beverage of choice for many Canadians and tea is seen as a brew to be taken when one is feeling sick or under the weather. During my career as a chartered accountant in Montreal and Toronto, my colleagues soon got used to seeing me put on the kettle for a cup of tea in the late afternoon and brush the eccentricity aside with a remark that “she is sort of British” (as opposed to Canadian).

The assortment of teas from Fortum & Mason (UK). The teas from Assam, Darjeeling and Ceylon topped the list in flavour and fragrance. The painting in the background is the painter's impression of the Nilgiri Hills which we had commissioned to a well known local  artist, Deepa Kern.

All through the years that I have lived in Canada, I have continued the tradition of afternoon tea with my family or alone at the office when I was working. Recently I received a gift of an assortment of teas from Fortnum & Mason, a store in the UK that specializes in tea (see picture). Canisters of tea from Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and teas from China, Kenya, Rwanda and Russia arrived in the package, enhancing and expanding the pleasure of sitting down to tea with family and friends. My daughter and I sit down for a chat every week over a freshly brewed pot of tea. 

My 4 year- old grandson loves to sip tea from my cup and he says, “I love it” smacking his lips. The Japanese have their Tea Ceremony and we have ours. It’s always Tea- Time in my house. Tea is and has always been a strong link to my roots with the tea gardens of Southern India. In a coffee drinking world in North America, tea still has its place in my life and over the years I have got my Canadian friends to appreciate the taste of tea. At lunch and dinner parties in my home, the coffee machine sits silent in my kitchen while the kettle sings sweetly as the water comes to a boiling point for the tea pot.

There have been times when I am driving home on the straight three-lane Highway, with the snow blowing across the lanes, making it hard to see, and I imagine, if only for a moment, that I see green tea fields stretching as far as the eye can see, the yellow buttercups dancing at my feet and my father far away in the distance, instructing the coolies to start the day’s roll-call.

Meet the writer: 

Noreen Wood is a retired Chartered Accountant living in Montreal, Canada. She currently is the Financial Trustee for her Family Trust School in Coonoor, Nilgiris which is run to benefit disadvantaged children in the area. Her experience of eight years as a teacher in Frank Anthony Public School, Bangalore teaching Physics and Mathematics and her 30 plus years as a Chartered Accountant with CA Firms in Montreal and Toronto gives her the ability to run the school's accounting and financial affairs from her desk in Canada. The school employs 58 staff members and has a student body of 925 from LKG to Grade 10. 

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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!


Murari said...

Very well written Noreen

Rajeshwar Singh Karki said...

Such a emotive and full of memories narrative. Greatly enjoyed reading about your childhood experiences in the Nilgiri estates. Being a ex tea planter from Assam, it is always a delight to read the reminiscences and stories from the south Indian estates. Thank you Mrs Noreen Wood.