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.
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.
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.
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