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Friday, December 18, 2020

A Christmas To Remember

Hello, again, dear readers! I'm delighted to welcome Sudipta Bhattacharjee to Indian Chai Stories. Her story will make you smile even as you wipe a tear from your eye: it's all about what makes Christmas really special -- family, love and sharing. 

'There was an aura about Christmas in Kolkata...but I got my first glimpse of a real Santa Claus in a tea garden in north Bengal's Dooars !'  

There was an aura about Christmas in Kolkata, possibly induced by my schooling at La Martiniere, where 'carol evening' was an event to cherish just before the school closed for the winter vacation. The midnight Mass at St Paul's Cathedral, the festive mood on Park Street and plum cakes from Nahoum's made the occasion memorable.

But I got my first glimpse of a real Santa Claus in a tea garden in north Bengal's Dooars and had the joy of opening my first gaily-wrapped Christmas present from under a tree at the Damdim Tea Estate Club in 1975. The joy of that occasion is imprinted indelibly in my mind.

The 45-minute flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra in December offers a view of the snow-capped Himalayas and in those days, sumptuous meals were served even on short-duration flights. My cousin Joydeep, a wee bit older than me and a class senior, was returning to his parents in the tea garden from Mayo College, Ajmer, and I accompanied him from Kolkata. Two young teenagers enjoying their first flight on their own, a joyous Christmas break from boarding school, with a new class to look forward to on our return. 

The late Tanima Sengupta, wife of Damdim Tea Estate manager late Sukumar (Dhruba) Sengupta, with her son Joydeep and niece Sudipta (the author) in the bungalow garden on Christmas eve, 1975. Don't miss the roses, Tanima's pride! Pix by Sukumar (Dhruba) Sengupta, captions Sudipta Bhattacharjee

Damdim was picture-perfect

My uncle, Sukumar (Dhruba) Sengupta, worked for the Tata-Finlay garden at Damdim and was at the airport with my aunt Tanima to pick us up. The drive to the garden near Malbazar was picturesque, especially with the tea belt stretching out for miles on either side.

Damdim was picture-perfect, the manager's bungalow set in sylvan surroundings. My aunt's green fingers were much in evidence; winter blossoms adorned the flower beds around the lawn and much to our delight, there was a tennis court adjoining the swimming pool on the grounds. My cousin and I both played tennis in our schools and were delighted to be able to practise before the American-style championships to be held at Chalsa that week. 

Joydeep and the author (Sudipta) take a break after a practice match on the tennis court of Damdim Tea Estate in Dooars,  West Bengal, in December 1975. Photo by planter late Sukumar (Dhruba) Sengupta, Joydeep's father, who was the garden manager at the time
I had lost my mother to cancer on Christmas eve the previous year, and my uncle and aunt were both very caring, helping me heal as the anniversary of the greatest loss of my life drew close. To keep me from brooding, my aunt asked me to accompany her to the club as she made arrangements for Christmas. I helped her pack the presents for children, as well as prizes for games. Stalls were set up, the club was readied for a grand party and my spirits imbibed the joyous ambience.

Almost simultaneously, we headed for Chalsa every morning for the tennis meet. My cousin, an excellent player already, won the singles final easily, while I got a tome of the Webster's dictionary after winning the girls' doubles. It was the only 'book' prize I ever earned for sports (the others are usually trophies), so I have preserved it to this day.

On the last day of the tennis tournament, there was to be a party. The young boys and girls who had met for the first time at the contest were looking forward to the social. As we headed back to Damdim to change and return, our car met with an accident on the hilly terrain. We walked to the nearest tea garden, whose manager was courteous enough to let us sit while another car came to pick us up, but we had to miss the party.

So it was only in the fitness of things that I got to experience a wonderful Christmas at Damdim's Club. We reached the venue on Christmas to find a fairytale setting. And then came Santa (later I learnt it was the manager of the neighbouring Rungamuttee Tea Estate) roaring his ho ho ho and ringing a big brass bell! He took the children on his lap and handed them the large gifts I had helped my aunt pack so beautifully. After all the children of the garden staff got their Christmas presents, he beckoned me. I hadn't expected a gift as I wasn't really a 'garden child' but he handed me an oblong box and patted my head as he wished me a Merry Christmas.

I tried my hand at the various stalls set up on the ground and won a bottle of pineapple jam at the hoopla! The fete-like atmosphere culminated in a Christmas party where the elegant ladies and dapper men danced their way into the night. We youngsters merrily shook a leg too!

On returning to the bungalow, I opened my gift. It was a Scrabble, much to my delight. I tentatively picked up two of the wooden alphabets, face down: an M and an A. I knew my mother was blessing me from heaven. I have the Scrabble board and every one of those alphabets still. 

After all, that Christmas gift from a distant tea garden ultimately made me a wordsmith!

-- Sudipta Bhattacharjee 

Meet the writer:

Sudipta is a career journalist who joined The Telegraph in Kolkata as a trainee in 1985 and retired at the end of August as Resident Editor (Northeast). She moved to Shillong in 1992 after her husband was transferred to Meghalaya on a three-year posting and continued to report for The Telegraph from there. She travelled to the United States on a Fulbright Research Fellowship in 2004-5 and returned to base thereafter. Her tryst with tea gardens began as a four-year-old to Kakajan in Upper Assam, where her uncle, Sukumar (Dhruba) Sengupta was posted. She and her family visited him in Majuli Tea Estate in Assam in 1970 and 1973 and by herself in December 1975 to the Dooars, when he was posted at Damdim Tea Estate. She has visited gardens in Darjeeling (where a tea tasting session was hosted for her), the Nilgiris and Munnar, Sri Lanka and hopes to share her experiences through this blog, of which she is an avid follower.

Sudipta is now adjunct professor of media science and journalism at Brainware University. 

 More Christmas stories here:

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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! 



  1. A wonderful heart warming read. Short and crisp and yet very well written. Your bio explains your skills no doubt. Reading it took me into the scenes your eyes saw, and the feelings you felt Thanks again

  2. Wonderfully written, the first two alphabets the M & an A she picked up from the scrabble board is poignant and as beautifully descriced by Sudipta, a Christmas Blessing from her dear departed late Mother! Thanks for sharing your story Sudipta , look forward to more. Merry Christmas and a happy new year

  3. Lovely piece. Nostalgia. And I bet the writer used the Webster to help her play Scrabble,

  4. Thank you for a lovely Christmas tale. The Yuletide bandobast on the tea estates was always on a grand scale. We all miss it. You brought back some beautiful memories.

  5. What a lovely and poignant story, Sudipta. Thanks for sharing your experience of celebrating Christmas on the tea estates. Our cousins from Kolkata and elsewhere used to visit us over Christmas and they too, treasure those memories.

  6. Very nostalgic read especially as we were very close to Tanima Mashi and Dhruba Mesho. Being a tea child can relate to all this with feeling.


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