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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Fine Dining

by V.R. Srikanth

Silver Saddle is located around 57 kms from Coonoor and Ooty and at an elevation of around 6,250ft msl. It is also on the very south western edge of the Nilgiris as the range hooks eastward towards Kinnakorai village which lies 2.5 kms away.
Shola forest (all pix by Srikanth)
To reach the Saddle, one has to pass through some of the most dense shola or endemic forests that have been around for nearly 180mn years since the split of Gondwanaland. The forests are composed of native trees and ferns and dense undergrowth are so thick that, one can barely see a couple of feet inside them and they are virtually impenetrable. I hope the photos accompanying the story do the area justice.

I purchased the property that spans both the sides of the Saddle over a decade ago. It was in part an abandoned tea garden but the owners had thrown in the towel many decades ago, resulting in the area being overrun by everything neath the soil.
Off SilverSaddle
Silver Saddle
The area, as it is ringed by the celebrated neela kurunji plants (a species that flowers once in 14 years) and endemic Shola forests sustains all the wildlife that there is in this biosphere. Elephants do come up to the Saddle from the lower reaches, to escape the summer heat or endless harassment from insects or as in this case even for a romantic weekend.

The early settlers here gave up on the area and abandoned it due to the harsh climatic conditions because of the fierce winds, known to exceed over 120 kms per hour, quite frequently causing untold damage and creating almost inhospitable living conditions from time to time, especially during both the south west and north east monsoons.

Bewitched by the beauty of the land, my wife Sashi and I decided to brave all this and decided to take on all that the Saddle had to throw at us. As we were both over fifty, we were readily labelled as insane. It called for a real pioneering effort starting with clearing the area, making rivetments, terraces, creating water storage tanks, in other words just about doing everything that was needed to make a living here.

Finally we did plant herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano and seasonal vegetables. We maintained very little of the restored tea as labour was a challenge and there were many abandoned tea fields in the area where minimal maintenance was being done and only the leaf was being plucked, that too, infrequently.
Neela Kurunji or Strobilanthes Kunthiana at Silver Saddle
We did grow some exotic veggies, like iceberg lettuce, zucchini, rocket, kale, etc., for our table and the Ooty market. The Elephants from the valley did visit the area around our home and in the tea fields below but stayed away from our herb and vegetable fields due to some inexplicable reason.

After a season of fierce winds that certainly dried up the moisture on all plants instantly, we did have some settled conditions finally and we're looking forward to a sizeable harvest from our lower fields.

My wife and I in the meantime spotted a romantic pair of elephants in the area around the tea bushes and grassy mountain slopes about half a kilometer from our fields. We kept observing this pair comprising of one tusker, as they intertwined their trunks periodically and kept disappearing into and re - emerging from the sholas rather frequently. We were completely enthralled by the foreplay of the pair.

Hard economics came back to haunt us over the arranging of a shipment of nearly half a ton of zucchini to the Ooty market the next day which would hopefully result in some money coming in for payment of a few weeks' wages in those harsh times. Instructions were issued for an early morning harvest, the next day.

Which never happened. The romantic pair did dine out and laid waste to everything. A tigress and a cub ensured that we had to abandon the area for over a year subsequently. There is never a dull moment at the Saddle.


Meet the writer: V.R.Srikanth

I am a resident of the Nilgiris. I am a retired Corporate Management Professional having done two brief stint as a planter, nearly thirty years apart, mainly in Coffee. I live on my estate growing timber, organic herbs and vegetables. 

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
 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Across the Border

by Gowri Mohanakrishnan

Just how far would you go to play a game of Scrabble? We went to another country!

My husband and I had been married a few months when we played our first game of Scrabble one Sunday evening at Birpara Tea Garden. The atmosphere soon became unpleasant, and the competition deadly.

We had to pause to decide whether to continue playing or to give our marriage a chance.

Now it was quite difficult to work all that out because we'd stopped talking to each other during the course of the game. Eventually we picked up the board and tiles - which we'd hurled all over the jaali kamra - and put them into the bottom of a cupboard. There they stayed, and we resumed life as Mr. and Mrs. Mohanakrishnan.

Scrabble came back into our lives when our daughters were old enough to play. Once we had three generations playing in the bungalow - the girls, their grandmother, their uncle and mother - with father joining in when work permitted. We built up a whole lot of rituals around these games. We'd put on rock and roll CDs and eat pista nuts while we played in the February mid-morning sun.

The girls wrote down the scores in ruled notebooks, but there is no record of a single match between 'G' and 'M'.
Jayati and I enjoy the game!
My friend Jayati was in the eastern Dooars those days and we were in Moraghat in the Binaguri area. She told me she'd found a Scrabble playing friend in the first garden where she went as a bride. What great good luck!  A tea garden is such a lonely place for a young girl - imagine being able to play Scrabble at home with a friend!

We just had to play, we decided. Where, and when? The distance between our two gardens was considerable. The roads were terrible, and two dense forests (where elephants roamed and highway robbers lurked ) had to be crossed. We rarely travelled eastward, but Jayati and her husband had  to drive past our place to go to Siliguri or beyond.

One day when Jayati dropped in on her way back from one of these trips, we sat down to Scrabble without wasting a minute. We played two boards and Jayati battered me. Now we just had to meet and play again, so that  I could get even! We decided I'd take on the champion at a point which each of us could reach in less than two hours - the town of Phuentsholing, Bhutan.

Sounds strange? It's true! The geography of the Dooars is most interesting.

We met at the Druk Hotel in Phuentsholing, which has a peaceful and cosy atmosphere, with cheerful staff who take great care of you. We played the most enjoyable games, drank tea, and ate the kind of delicious snacky lunch that only women know how to order.

And Jayati won the day - again.
Map from Google Earth. Key by Swati Mohanakrishnan



Meet The Writer/Editor: Gowri Mohanakrishnan  

I was teaching English at Indraprashta College in Delhi when I met and married my tea planter husband in 1986. He brought me to the tea gardens - a completely different world from the one I knew! Life in tea continues to be unique, and I began writing about ours many years ago.
Early in 2018, I started Indian Chai Stories to collect and preserve other people's stories from tea.

The first chai stories I ever wrote were for a magazine called 'Reach Out' which Joyshri Lobo started in the mid eighties for the Dooars planters. Some years later, Shalini Mehra started 'The Camellia' and I started writing there regularly. Shalini put me in touch with David Air, the editor of Koi-Hai, who gave me a page there. If you 'hover' over each name and you can go to the link/page.

My family has always believed that I can write, and that is what keeps me going, whether I agree with them or not.
Here is the link to all the stories I have written here at Indian Chai Stories - https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/search/label/Gowri%20Mohanakrishnan
 


Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
If you've ever visited a tea garden or lived in one, or if you have a good friend who did, you would have heard some absolutely improbable stories! You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them! 

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 or long, 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!


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Travails of a would-be proprietary planter

by Minoo Avari

These hills were the precursors to the Anamallais, where I had worked earlier as a tea planter, before being transferred to the Corporation’s coffee belt. I was still posted there, on Raigode Estate in South Coorg, but figured it was time to branch out on my own. Our three children were already schooling in Kodaikanal and we had come on a visit, which I combined with this reconnaissance mission. It would be nice to have the family together.

Part I: The Reconnaissance Mission

There was no wind and the early morning cool, having already surrendered to the heat coming up from the plains below, left a sheen of perspiration coating our faces. Strewn with rocks and stones, the path to the valley fell steeply from the road. Ponies, laden with farm produce, picked their way gingerly up the slope. Sweating from the heat, climbing with bulging gunny sacks strapped on both sides, they stepped nimbly on patches of clay, to avoid injury to their hooves: they had to be given a wide berth as we made our way down the narrow-broken track.

The watershed to our left, comprising largely of coarse lemon grass, had a few jackfruit trees with some scrub clinging to the shale. Makeshift clusters of banana cultivation, incongruous in this environment, appeared and disappeared in irregular succession, giving way to more lemon grass and dried out stumps of wild dates. To our right the hill rose sharply, culminating at its highest point: Perumalmalai. Clothed in grass and sporadic vegetable cultivation it is, for the most part, a dark granite escarpment cresting seven thousand feet: not at all like the volcanic peak it resembles when viewed from Kodaikanal.

Peon Balu whispered, 'Pethuparai'. He might well have exclaimed 'Philadelphia'!

Descending further into the valley, we stumbled upon a house … and then another. A little further there was a shop with a post box affixed to the outer wall. Peon Balu whispered, “Pethuparai”. He might well have exclaimed Philadelphia; such was the awe and reverence with which he introduced me to the village.

Standing outside the tiny shop we sipped tea from a glass. It tasted mighty sweet and, despite the hot sun, was invigorating. Balu had his own property below the village, which he had purchased while working as a peon in the government’s revenue department. Though he was now retired, he still identified himself as Peon Balu. His knowledge of government records and the lay of the land had prompted him to become a real estate broker.

He was attired in a white whaistie, which is a loosely tied tube of cloth wound tight around the waist, that fell to his ankles. Atop this he wore a white short-sleeve shirt. It is the attire of the older generation and worn for ceremonial as well as daily use. I never saw Balu in anything other than this traditional dress!

Thanking Rajan, the teashop owner, while adamantly refusing to allow me to pay, he placed the empty glasses on a roughly hewn wooden plank in front of the shop. In turn Rajan casually mentioned that the large acreage of land behind the shop belonged to him. Here a profusion of squash (locally known as ‘chow-chow’) vines, supported on latticed framework, allowed a bumper crop of the large prickly fruit to hang down and await harvesting.

The paucity of ponies determined how much fruit could be picked daily. A single pony was good for only a hundred kilograms – fifty on each side! With that bit of information, we continued on our mission. There were less stones now, as the path turned to clay and Balu began pointing out properties that were for sale. Actually, they all were, so he confined his remarks to only those that looked promising.
Shehzarin and I in February 1993.  All pix and captions by Minoo Avari
There were more trees and vegetative growth as we descended. The valley became narrower even as the gradient eased and a big bend, beyond the village, split by a mountain stream with little water trickling down, passed under a rough bridge below the path. After that there were no more turns for another two kilometres – when we came to a hairpin bend. The property abutting this junction was what Balu wanted to show me.

Earlier that morning, we had rendezvoused at the Kodaikanal bus station. Catching the six o’clock bus to Madurai we got off at Perumal, a small hamlet twelve kilometres away. From there we were on foot for two kilometres, before arriving at the junction, when we left the road to Palani and took the path down to Pethuparai and beyond.

It had been cold on the bus. There were no windows and the shutters had disappeared long ago. It got decidedly chilly as the bus passed the Silver Cascade and it was positively freezing as it made its way down through ‘Tiger Shola’, which earned its name, some decades ago, when tigers roamed this stretch of forest.
Amongst the oranges that brought us our first profit
I instinctively knew this property, below the village, was what I wanted – all twenty-four acres of it! The owner wasn’t there for he lived in faraway Pannaikadu; the ancestral property of the Chettiar business community. Nevertheless, Balu assumed the role of owner and we covered every inch of the property.

Facing East, this almost rectangular tract bulges with fertile soil in the centre, petering out to more stony and rocky outcroppings above. Located directly below Perumalmalai peak, the property starts from the entrance, by the hairpin bend, at four thousand feet and climbs to four thousand seven hundred feet. The peak can’t be seen from there but, standing at the top of the property, the temple town of Palani and the sprawling plains beyond, are clearly visible.

Balu told me those hills were the precursors to the Anamallais, where I had worked earlier as a tea planter, before being transferred to the Corporation’s coffee belt

A family of Black Eagles nested here. The parents took turns to sweep up from the plains, uttering shrill cries of alarm. Satisfied that we were harmless, they left in search of food which consisted mainly of snakes: a few large rat-snakes and poisonous vipers, along with the occasional hare, kept the family well fed. Standing there, at the highest point, looking at the hills opposite us, I tried to get my bearings.

Balu told me those hills were the precursors to the Anamallais, where I had worked earlier as a tea planter, before being transferred to the Corporation’s coffee belt. I was still posted there, on Raigode Estate in South Coorg, but figured it was time to branch out on my own. Our three children were already schooling in Kodaikanal and we had come on a visit, which I combined with this reconnaissance mission. It would be nice to have the family together.

A rumbling from my stomach brought me out of my reverie. It was past the lunch hour and I hadn’t eaten anything since an early breakfast in Kodaikanal. Balu seemed unconcerned, as he paused to close the makeshift wooden contraption that served as a gate, and I prepared to walk up the road back to the village. But Balu wasn’t going to have any of it. He was a big, well-built man, a few years older than I, but obviously very fit. Swinging a foot backward he caught the ankle length whaistie behind him and deftly folded it around his middle. Tucking this into the cloth already around his waist, he converted it to the nearest thing to short pants. I was in my working shorts and had on a sturdy pair of boots. He wore sandals below his well-developed calves!
Edwin was a duo-concert pianist who played at Carnegie Hall and the White House.  He and his partner Wilfred came to visit
Straightening up, he saucily suggested we go down, cross the river and see some estates on the other side. Not wanting to give him the impression I had already made up my mind about purchasing the property behind us, I followed him down to the river a few kilometres below. There was no bridge to make the crossing. It wasn’t really necessary though, for it resembled a burbling brook, with enough stones and boulders scattered across the water, allowing us to leap from one to the other.

Halfway across a cool breeze ruffled my shirt. It was following the water, coming down from the hills above, but I paid no particular attention to this phenomenon; relieved as I was at the sudden cool that replaced the stifling heat. We were on the other side in quick time and now made our way up the western side of the valley. There was a broad path to begin with, which dwindled to a narrow grassy track.

I must admit I wasn’t paying much attention to my immediate surroundings. My thoughts were firmly across the river; on that rectangular patch of land we had left behind. All the same, we were making steady progress, leaving the stream further and further below. Knowing I wouldn’t have enough money to turn the entire estate around at once, I was mentally focussing on the bulging centre portion.

With its stand of coffee and young orange plants, it would be my first source of income. Yes, I would have to concentrate on that four - or five- acre section first. There were trees there too which could be used as a stand for pepper vines. A manmade channel breaking into my reverie, no more than two-feet wide, devoid of water, ran across the track. It was coming from somewhere above, running down from the South.

Another three kilometres up we came across a second channel. Roughly the same size, this had a trickle of water flowing down in the same direction. Balu told me this water, from the falls below Vilpatty village, would soon dry up. However, with the North-East monsoon coinciding with the coffee picking season, it would provide us with water to pulp the coffee fruit. The land now was black and fertile. There were large trees here and I was able to identify mahogany, oak and some others whose names I only knew in Tamil. We were standing on a fourteen-acre plot, with a good stand of healthy coffee growing below a thick canopy of tree cover. It certainly was a better plantation choice than the one I had set my heart on but transport would be a major problem.
The Swaraj Mazda I purchased and used for thirteen years - it was a dual cabin and served for personal transport as well as carrying, fertilisers, oranges and coffee to market
Only accessible on foot, with no possibility of motorised transport, it belonged to a Manadiar family who were also in the mobile cinema business. They went from village to village in the plains, to screen Tamil movies, when there was no work on the property. I suspected they made more money from that venture than they did with their coffee cultivation. Nevertheless, it was still a valuable property: certainly the most fertile I had come across since we started out that morning. Walking across the breadth of this fourteen-acre patch, we stumbled on pomegranate trees, some cocoa plants, and a useful field of well planted coffee bushes. A ramshackle hut of mud and stone, with a thatch roof, was the only shelter. It wouldn’t offer any protection from rain though as the thatch was old and rotten. It would have to be torn down and rebuilt if it were to serve as any sort of accommodation.

Sensing my interest, as I lingered to take a closer look at the variety of flora on offer, Balu suggested we climb to the top where there was a Dolmen. It wasn’t far and I was intrigued by the large flat slabs of stone, standing about six feet apart, with another massive piece atop, serving as a roof!

Still puzzled at this ancient edifice, we ambled toward the bottom section which touched the same stream we had crossed a few hours ago. Midway down it started drizzling, which effectively stopped any further discussion on the intriguing Dolmen. Some folk on the other side, who were cultivating cabbages, started yelling in our direction. Balu wasn’t dark but he visibly paled. Telling me to start running, he made for the water below at a furious clip.

It was raining hard now: the stream had swollen and water, gushing down, made it impassable. Undaunted, Balu grabbed a rope with a loop dangling at the bottom. The other end was tied to a branch of a tree that spanned the water. Shoving it roughly into my hands he told me to put my foot in the makeshift stirrup and swing across. People, waiting on the other side, encouraged me to do what I had only read about in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ mythical Tarzan!

It happened very fast. I clung to the vine and Balu shoved me hard. I was soon across the water but sceptical about not swinging back and getting stranded right in the middle of this torrent. The cabbage cultivators grabbed the rope by my feet and held it fast, allowing me to jump on the bank next to them. One of them had a large stone ready. Tying it quickly, to the end of the rope, he hurled it back to Balu who caught it expertly and swung across with evident ease.

It was obvious he wasn’t new to this but it wasn’t the time for talking. The rain was now coming down hard. We had no umbrellas and were soaked to the skin before even starting up the slope. Running much of the time, to keep warm and escape as much of the rain as possible, we slowed awhile when Balu, coming close, yelled into my ear that we were on his property. Then we started up the slope again slipping and sliding on the already waterlogged ground.

Pethuparai wore a deserted look. The shop was closed. We had stopped running by this time but walked fast to keep warm. The rain, now a drizzle, intermingling with sweat, evaporated with a light steam from off our warm bodies. Bedraggled, we reached the junction when the rain stopped under a still overcast sky. We still had to walk to Perumal, where we caught a bus that had conveniently just stopped en route to Kodaikanal.

Wet and completely frozen, when the bus let me off at the start of Fernhill road, I had yet another kilometre to walk before getting home. It was past seven and already dark, leaving me with just enough strength to have a hot bath before diving under the covers of my bed.
Photo of the house.  I just added the two foot wall to protect the veranda
It might well have been an empty stomach that led me to dream of a stone house, with two small rooms under an assortment of rusty tin sheets; with no toilet or kitchen but sporting an open veranda, leading into the middle of a coffee plantation. Not exactly Buckingham Palace, it was to be my home for twenty-five years.

Note: The author has promised to send Part II  in due course 


Meet the Writer: Minoo Avari
Minoo riding bareback in Ging, Darjeeling
In his own words: I was born in Calcutta on November the 26th 1945 though we were a Darjeeling based family. I studied at North Point (St. Josephs College - Darjeeling) and then went on to do my College in St. Xavier's College, Calcutta. I played a lot of tennis at this point, travelling around the country playing in just about all the tournaments then. 

Later I joined the tea plantations in Darjeeling and was on Ging and Tukdah Tea Estates till 1970 when I switched companies and joined The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. I had got married earlier in the year and my wife and I were posted to Oothu Estate in Tirunelvelli District of Tamil Nadu.  Now I lead a retired life - writing, playing tennis and enjoying riding my motorcycle. I am currently the President of the local Farmers Association and also the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal. I am also a member of the London Tea History Association. 

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!  
You will meet many storytellers here, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them!

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, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. 

Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : indianchaistories@gmail.com. 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Bungalows, Baga & Sibsoo

Aloke's story takes us to the beautiful Nagrakata area of the Dooars - and this time, we visit the bungalows!
by Aloke Mookerjee

The British owned companies took good care of their properties. The senior staff bungalows were fully furnished, comfortable and spacious, even if some had begun to show signs of quaint antiquity what with the groaning (DC) ‘punkhas’*, the creaking floor boards and sounds of the occasional snake or monitor lizard scrambling its way up, to find a new abode in the dark and musty cavernous space above between the hard-board ceiling and the tin roof. A garden all around, with trees and shrubbery, provided adequate privacy and distance from prying eyes. It all added to the flavour of a strange new land beyond the fringe!

The estate manager’s bungalow, in particular, remained immaculate at all times with the highest care in mind. To the young assistants, this was hallowed ground upon which they could tread only on invitation or calamitous emergency. The ample grounds around the bungalow provided the necessary privacy and calm for the ‘burra saab’, after his long and hectic day at work,. The open space and good ventilation, facilitated by the large windows in every room, allowed fresh air to wash over indoors and cool it down.
Jaldhaka river with Bhutan hills in the background Picture source https://dooarstrip.com/jaldhakaooarstrip.com/jaldhaka
In the ‘cook-house’, detached from the bungalow, the ancient cooking range used the company supplied firewood or coal to prepare all meals. If occasion demanded, these massive cast iron contraptions (which, would now be rightfully considered a wasteful and polluting piece of ultra-heavy hardware) could prepare, with ease, a party meal for a hundred or more revelers provided, of-course, the young ‘chota saab’ possessed the required utensils!

We assistant managers were expected to keep our bungalows and premises neat and clean as would befit members of the covenanted senior grade staff. Thus, the four company paid indoor servants (armed with their ‘jharoos’ and ‘jharans’*) worked through the day as did the three ‘malis’ with their lawn mower, garden scissors, pruning knives, hoes and sickles. With floor and furniture polish provided free of cost, the bachelor ‘chota saab’ was left with no excuse for a sloppy residence! The flower and vegetable seeds from Sutton’s of Calcutta and ‘Pocha’s of Poona, distributed to the managerial staff after the monsoon rains, helped in keeping the gardens looking presentable. The estate manager would occasionally invite himself in and wander through with his hawk eyes roving. Poor upkeep was severely frowned upon.

Most bungalow servants were well trained. One could occasionally strike it lucky by ‘catching’ a ‘Mog’/Mugh those renowned Buddhists (originally from Arakan in Myanmar) who, more than century back, wound their way to Calcutta via neighbouring Chittagong and whose unsurpassed culinary skills created wonders even from a young bachelor’s sparse kitchen. The more competent ‘bearers’ (trained by the discerning British memsahibs) were adept at laying the table and serving with style and grace. Immaculately turbaned and liveried, they performed by supervising the entire household work with quiet and unobtrusive efficiency. Furniture remained polished, the floors shining and window panes glistening. A splash of colour was often added by the ‘malis’, trained no doubt by the ‘mem-saabs’ to fill all flower vases decoratively with the seasonal blooms. Adding further to this life of indulgence was a resident ‘dhobi’* and a barber available to take care of the saab’s laundry and haircuts promptly on call!

Located within the premises of each estate was at least one grocery store that catered to the basic household needs of the managerial staff, the junior staff and the workers. Referred to as ‘Kyah Shops’, they were independently owned by small ‘banias’* who had by all accounts arrived decades ago, from their homes states of Bihar, U.P. or Rajasthan to set up shop (literally) under the aegis of the plantation manager. Our requirements of dry stores and other miscellaneous items were met by the Kyah (shop owner) who, for the sake of his own well-being, found it prudent to remain ingratiatingly servile in his relationship with the ‘Burra Saab’ and keep him satiated with lasting good services. This rather feudal tradition rippled across to the assistants and even if not nearly half as ‘pleasing’ as his services to the ‘burra saab’, it was good enough to make the young man’s life in the ‘land of tea’ ever so convenient!

The bachelor chota saab, thus, lived rather well what with his retinue of bungalow servants, the kyah, the dhobi and the barber at beck and call and ever ready to meet his domestic demands.
Martin stove and range coal burner. Picture source https://collection.maas.museum/object/9735
Traditionally, the cooks were responsible for the purchase of fresh food for the ‘saab’. The princely amount of seventeen rupees I handed over, once a week, for vegetables, mutton, chicken and eggs seemed quite adequate for my needs. A jute bag in hand, the cook would trudge to the local ‘gudri bazaar’ every Sunday morning and return in the evening laden with food stuff. Nothing ever fell short during the week. The home-grown vegetables did help in keeping the bazaar bills in control and many sold as ‘exotic’ in the supermarkets of today were quite commonplace in the ‘mali baris’ of the tea bungalows.

An understanding with the bearers and cooks, established over time, ensured that any additional expense incurred towards lunch or dinner parties hosted by the bachelor ‘chota saab’ would need to be met from the amount that had already been allotted for the week and the ‘saab’ was not to be pressed for extra funds. To the young bachelor this seemed a fair deal for it balanced evenly with the times he ate out. While the cook and bearer appeared gloomily downcast with this arrangement they were in-fact not worried at all and went glibly about their daily chores while surreptitiously fleecing the unsuspecting ‘saab’ of his food stuff and even filching a bit from his precious stock of alcohol if ever left carelessly unlocked in the drinks cabinet! Unaware of the loss he was incurring, life seemed just about perfect to the uninitiated and unsuspecting young Assistant Manager in the lush land of tea!
Electrolux kerosene operated fridge. Picture source Pinterest
The ‘luxury’ of uninterrupted power supply still lay languishing in the wish list. Thankfully, the company provided refrigerators that worked on kerosene oil independent of electric power. With due care, these ‘fridges’ performed reasonably well. A tip to occasionally turn the ‘Baraf-Peti’ upside down and leave it standing on its head, for a while, did actually (to our amazement) perk up its performance! Foodstuff remained eatable and ice and cold water available through the day.

Air-conditioners were conspicuous by their absence but the deep verandas and rooms with their high ceilings and large windows allowed cross ventilation and remained pleasantly cool most times. It did, however, turn uncomfortably hot and humid in May when, following the occasional pre-monsoon showers, the sun beat down fiercely through clear skies heating up the corrugated iron roof and the rooms below. The roofing sheets expanded in the heat of the day and in the evenings, when it cooled down, they would begin to contract with loud clanging sounds that continued intermittently for hours into the night. While somewhat disconcerting to the new comer, we soon learnt to live with it in those still and starry nights.

Despite the isolation, thefts and break-ins were unheard of. Windows were devoid of iron grills and most doors could have been kicked open with the least resistance. The few strands of barbed wire fencing encircling the bungalow compound were erected essentially to keep stray goats and cattle out. Although quite satisfactory for its intended job, they remained woefully inadequate in restraining the odd panther from a surprise visit by leaping over with easy feline grace. The hope of a tasty morsel in the form of an unsuspecting pet dog, left carelessly loose in the compound after dark, was no doubt the motivating factor for these crafty carnivores. We would ensure our dogs were locked safely inside after sundown or face the consequences of a possible loss in the most brutal manner.

In the wide, open spaces of the plantations, silence descended quickly after sundown. The hush of the evenings amplified a medley of strange nocturnal sounds from far and near. In the dim bungalow lights, the rhythmic groan of a slow turning DC ‘punkha’ and the clanging of the roofing sheets mingled with the full-throated honking of bull frogs seemingly in a cacophonous competition with the piercing shrill of cicadas camouflaged in amongst the tall leafy trees all around. In the still of the deep night air, the distant sound of tribal drums, no doubt emanating from the hands of an inebriated worker in a faraway labour line would often waft in, sometimes accompanied by the eerie hoots of an owl or the riotous howls of jackals in a delirious chorus, loud enough to wake me up from my slumber. At other times, the despairing squawks of a hapless frog locked firmly in the jaws of a cobra or the distinctive ‘sawing’ of a panther would create enough excitement for the ‘bearer’ or ‘chowkidar’ to rush in and warn me of the presence of a ‘naag saap’* or a ‘chota bagh’* in close vicinity. But most times, with the servants out of sight and ear shot, a sense of allure and enigma shimmered in that solitary ‘splendour’, reminiscent of the ‘mystic orient’ in a Somerset Maugham tale.

My desire for the off-beat seemed to have been fulfilled with life here seemingly so much more exciting than my earlier drab city existence.

Rum Runner Baga Munda
Alcohol, of-course, was not included in our food list. We purchased this ‘vital sustenance’ ourselves, either from the club or ‘Dey Stores’. With a bottle of standard Scotch Whisky costing all of Rs.50.00, it was often necessary for the reckless young and perennially hard-up Assistant Manager to look for something that would not burn more holes in his pocket. Indian whiskies were quite undrinkable and thus ruled out. And so, it was rum that eventually came to the young man’s rescue. A bottle of the India made ‘XXX Rosa Rum’ cost around Rs.15.00. It was not bad and became the popular tipple till we heard of one that was distilled in Kingdom of Bhutan and available for Rs.7.00 across the border. Despite being variously described as a ‘varnish remover’ or ‘gut rot’ (remarks we promptly dismissed), the riveting price of the Bhutan distilled rum became the overriding factor with ‘quality’ relegated to the back burner! We went about figuring a way to acquire this questionable liquor for regular use.

And soon, a way did indeed open up. It appeared, one fine day, in the unexpected form of Baga Munda. Baga was a ‘Duffadar’* in-charge of a gang of a few male workers deployed for odd jobs round the estate. He was a small man with an impish smile and willing ways but otherwise of a rather non-descriptive personality. We learnt, one day, through the estate ‘grapevine’ that our small Baga had big connections with the rum sellers of a village called Sibsoo in the Kingdom of Bhutan, not very far from our plantation. Following this newly acquired knowledge of Baga’s ‘high worth’, his importance soared and services much sought after by the ‘thirsty’ Assistant Managers of Nagrakata!

When summoned, Baga would arrive promptly to collect our order and the required cash. He would return next day with the booty well concealed in a burlap bag. For his competent ‘rum-running’ services, Baga earned his due ‘bakshish’ of fifty paise per bottle and we acquired our rum rations. A happy ending indeed for all concerned!

Sibsoo
Apart from providing our regular tipple, Sibsoo was also known for its fair held once every year sometime in the cold weather. This tiny hamlet could be reached through ‘Hilla’, a plantation located immediately north of Nagrakata estate. From the upper part of Hilla, an unimaginably ill maintained dirt road, strewn with large rocks, stones and pebbles, wound steeply down to the banks of river Jaldhaka across which was the Kingdom of Bhutan and Sibsoo. From the river bank, the only way to this hamlet was to wade across the gushing icy cold, waist high waters of the stony Jaldhaka. And wade in we would, shoes and socks in hand!

Myriad lanterns twinkled on the bank across the river where tents, awnings and canopies had been erected to display and sell metal wares, handloom fabrics, wooden artefacts and so on. There were gymnasts, liquor vendors, con men, and prostitutes, all vying for a gullible customer amongst the milling crowds. Grimy prisoners with matted hair, ‘considerately’ released from their confinement in the prison cells of Bhutan for those few days, would be seen wandering and begging with their head and hands sticking out from the holes of heavy wooden stocks that they had been locked into. The clock seemed to have turned back to a strange time warped setting of the medieval days.

Years have gone by, yet Sibsoo remains vivid in my mind for its unique sounds and sights, its colourful ambience throbbing with energy and vitality.

This was surely an experience I could never have dreamed of in my earlier mundane city life.

*Editor's note:
punkha - in this case, ceiling fan 
jharoo - broom
jharan - duster, mop
dhobi - washerman
bania - merchant
naag saap - cobra
bagh - leopard
duffadar - supervisor


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. There are over 120 stories of tea life here, all written by people who have lived in tea gardens. 
Add this link to your favourites: https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/ 
Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!
Meet the writer: Aloke Mookerjee

Here's what Aloke has to say about himself : 'Long retired from tea, but still active in business. Even after all these years, tea remains to live strongly in my thoughts; they were the best years of my life. Other interests? Always loved Jazz music - still do and have written about this incredible genre. Love vintage airplanes (thus my love for Dakotas!) and cars, and intend to make this my next focus.'  Here is the link to all posts by Aloke - Stories by Aloke Mookerjee

Aloke has recently published a book, The Jazz Bug, which is available on Amazon. Read about it here: https://notionpress.com/read/the-jazz-bug?fbclid=IwAR2HjxSU2rY6sq5cX_lzBxJY5oat1i_Z22qKdRRP1Tm77Dqp48B2CAlnGvY

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Assistant Manager and the Curious Case of the Mysterious One Large Stone

by Rajesh Thomas

The Assistant Manager's bungalow was abuzz with activity.

A new Assistant Manager had just arrived at his new estate and was waiting impatiently to move into his new abode. The packed lorries of the departing Assistant were at the bungalow drive fully laden.

Only one more task remained - the formality of handing over and taking over of the bungalow between the two Assistants. They quickly went over the inventory. The incoming Assistant could not help wonder about the fine complement of furniture. Bedsteads of rosewood, the comfy planter chair in the corner, the three-seater sofa in the drawing-room and the gleaming teak dining table along with the other sundry polished brass fittings. His mind went to his college days when he had visited his elder brother's planting bungalow and was immediately attracted to the charming bungalow along with the acres of open space in the form of the bungalow garden.

They quickly went over the inventory, ticking off the items as they went room by room.

As they finished the kitchen, they came to the final item on the inventory, one large stone. Outside the kitchen was a large boulder, which was pointed out to the bewildered incoming Assistant. When he queried on the absurdity of handing over a large boulder, which was of no value and use, the reply came that the outgoing Assistant Manager also had had no clue as to how a stone was in the inventory but he was also handed over a one large stone and he was handing over the same faithfully.

The new Assistant manager took charge and life went on. But still, the conundrum of the one large stone continued to baffle him. He inquired about it to the bungalow staff, all of them were relatively new and they were unable to shed any light on it. He asked the staff at the estate office to no avail. Even his manager couldn't fathom the mystery of the one large stone.

Then one day he decided the suspense was too much for him to bear and he decided that he had to get to the bottom of this. So one afternoon he sat in the estate office along with the office peon and went back to all the old files pertaining to the inventories and pored over to them thoroughly.

He had gone through over twenty years of records and then something caught his eye. The final entry on the inventory list was one large stove and then it dawned on him. A canny Assistant Manager at that time had cunningly converted the V into N by a stroke of a pen and had handed over the large stone outside to the next Assistant Manager and had vamoosed with the large antique cast-iron kitchen stove. And thus the riddle of the one mysterious large stone was solved.


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.
 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Meet the writer:
  Rajesh Thomas introduces himself:
"A second generation planter. Born and grew up in the planting districts of Southern India. Started my career in the High Ranges and Annamallais Planting Districts for twelve years. Had a stint in Africa for two years. Since 2009 been planting in the Nilgiris.


Read all of Rajesh's stories at this link: https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/search/label/J.Rajesh%20Thomas



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Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Begonia

by Mamlu Chatterjee

This story, though fiction, has its core based on completely true events 
View from my kitchen verandah ( pix by author)
The move was uneventful, everything happened smoothly, we sang aloud with the radio on the drive up and none of the luggage got lost. The house was darling: painted bright yellow, with white framed windows and doors, it looked like a Lego house. Shaped like an L, it had a cosy, warm feel to it and I couldn’t wait till it was cold enough to light a fire, using the logs kept at the ready in big baskets by the fireplace. A row of tall hollyhocks lined the driveway and there was a white picket fence along the lawn from where the hills could be seen, some hazily in the distance and others closer. A long kitchen made up one end and the other rooms made up the other, broader arm of the L. An old blue fridge and a checkered floor made the kitchen quirky, just the way I liked it. Beat my city kitchen, with its miniscule space any day! I could see myself turn into a regular Betty Crocker here, rustling up Hotpots and baked goodies at the drop of a hat!

The wooden floors reverberated at our steps, and we realized how hard and noisily we walked. Unfortunately, the windows rattled as well, like an evil spirit was huffing and puffing to blow the house down! In truth, their panes were desperately in need of a fix, but did we mind, hell, no! We were just happy getting away from the frenetic pace of the city and breathe in the cool air up in the hills! Mihir was happy too and in a flurry of energy, we unpacked our seven bits and bobs that very night, put fresh sheets on the beds, made some Maggi noodles with cheese and chillies for dinner and sat under the little light in the kitchen smiling foolishly over our first dinner in our new home.

Tomorrow, he would go to his new office and I would pick fresh flowers and set about turning this yellow cottage into our home.
Pix by author
I saw a hooded person with the scythe. I saw him, (or was it a her? I couldn’t tell) hanging about behind the door to our bedroom. It was morning, early, but still, it was morning and I saw it clearly, looking in my direction. I realized that it was futile to even try and tell Mihir about it because he would, first, disagree, next, be terrified, and then, would walk up to the said door tentatively, show me his dark blue track pants hanging on a hook there, and explain in that kind, calm voice, “see, it’s my track pants you saw, nothing scary, see?” I would quietly acquiesce knowing very well that’s not what it was.

The next time, it happened again, while I was washing my face. Cleaning my face with hot water, I felt someone move the strand that had fallen on my forehead; my eyes were tightly shut against the hot water and as I turned the tap off to open the cold, my eyes flew open and the face I saw staring back at me in the mirror, was not my face. It was thin, with missing teeth, sunken cheeks and kohl lined eyes. Malevolent, evil eyes. With a single splash of cold water, it was gone, like I had imagined it all. I splashed some more cold water onto my face, and with great relief saw myself again, blackheads in place, and that strand of hair stubbornly back on my forehead. This time I didn’t dare touch it. I crawled into bed and fell into a deep crowded dream.

Whooshing sounds, sighs, knocks on doors, digging hard ground sounds (later reasoned out to be the blinds hitting the wall) abounded. We made excuses for each one. ‘It’s a wooden house, an old one at that’ I explained to myself over and over again. As I saw it, if houses live and have feelings, then this one was a tempestuous, spoiled little girl, all flouncy dresses and bouncy curls. She wanted attention, and a lot of it. She was prone to pouting and fits of indignation at every imagined slight and blamed her mother for everything troublesome in her young life. So who was the older, malevolent face in the mirror?

Days went by in a golden haze; we woke up to bird-song and slept with the moon rising from behind the dark hills in the distance; we ignored the odd thumps and knocks now and then and installed wind-chimes at the entrances to ward off any lurking evil spirits, opened all the windows to let the sun stream in, filled available vases with bunches of wildflowers and talked about getting a pup. All good.

Or not.

We had to go away for Mihir’s Official Orientation in the city and were away for 3 days, during which I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that the house was upset at being locked up and was keening and calling out to me. It had got used to being taken care of, and music playing through the day while I worked and was now pouting furiously at being left behind, slamming doors and gnashing its teeth like an angst filled pre-teen. I felt it strongly the moment we walked back into the house on our return, a heavy, smoky, ill-tempered feeling, curling in spumes at the corners and sending out indigo slivers of noxious fumes. Opening all the windows worked somewhat, but a reproachful air hung heavy everywhere. Mihir, thankfully, was oblivious to any of this and I wasn’t going to educate him on the subject. I would find out myself, the history of the house and anything else that I could.

Pushpamma was a third generation worker in these parts and though originally from South India, had been born and bred in the town down the hill. She was in her late fifties, an energetic chatterbox given to doing everything at the speed of light; she knew everyone in the area; a devout Hindu, she went to the temple every Sunday with flowers in her hair and an ash coloured spot on her forehead. I would ask her, I decided.

I did and she dropped the pan she was scrubbing in the sink and looked as pale as she possibly could, slapping her hand over her mouth with an expression much like those cartoon characters whose eyebrows disappear into their hairline. I asked again, more gently this time. She turned off the tap, shook her hands and dried them on the dishcloth before she could look at me.

‘There was a child’, she said, ‘a girl. Her mother was too busy with her other activities to give the child the care she needed and left the child alone with the servants at home often; her father was busy at work and saw her for just an hour or so every evening before she went to bed. But in that hour he made her feel like a princess and showered her with gifts and gave her the love that kept the child going. Her mother was jealous and brought home a lover one day; when the child saw her mother with her lover, she threatened to tell her father, and in a fit of rage the woman pushed the child out of her way, sending her rolling down the steps leading up to the verandah, killing her. This is all I know madam’, she said, ‘maybe it is only a story, I don’t know’.

I sipped my tea while I thought about this tale. Something was missing, and I couldn’t figure out what. I took my cup of tea and went to the verandah and looked at the steps leading up to it; I had got hanging pots trailing Petunias all along the verandah and rather liked the way it looked; the wind was whistling today, and even though it was a bright day, it was cold. I took a step and lurched forward, tea cup flying, and hurtled down the steps. Somewhere a door banged shut.

When I came to, three worried faces were looking at me ~ Mihir, the girl with her mouth open and a bespectacled doctor with slicked back hair; he still had a torch in his hand, and I expected him to say ‘say aaah’ in a minute. I sat up, I was fine and impatient to get out of bed so I waved them all away and hid in the bathroom to gather my thoughts. For the life of me I couldn’t remember how I’d fallen; the ground was smooth, there was no rug or mat to trip me up, my head wasn’t swinging, so what happened? And why on earth did the doctor bring his daughter with him?

I sat bolt upright suddenly. The girl was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, looking at me; my questions yielded no reply from her and I wanted to shake her. I flung the door open and bellowed “OUT! out” I said, and she walked out the door very slowly, looking at me over her shoulder. Mihir came running, not used to hearing my stage voice for several years, looking perplexed; ‘what happened? Why are you yelling?’ he said and continued to stare at me, bewildered, when I said ‘Doctors aren’t supposed to bring their children on visits are they? Or is that the norm here?’

Next thing I knew, it was morning and Mihir was waking me up with my cup of tea and rolling up the blinds to let the day come in; he was already dressed for his day in the field, in his shorts and Polo tee, waving goodbye and telling me to have my warm water first. ‘The Doc will be in to check on you,’ he said, ‘stay in bed if you want to rest a little longer; I’ll get those banisters fixed and see you at lunch’ – and he was off, without answering my question about the doctor’s daughter. Aaah well, I had a busy day ahead myself, and needed to finish the manuscript I had been editing. The chimes in the verandah were making their usual cuckoo-like sounds and it looked like it was going to be another bright day.

The Banisters got fixed, and every now and then the Middle Eastern tourists would wander in on their rambles and stand at those very banisters and pose for pictures at the yellow house in the hills, no doubt a memorable part of their holiday in these parts. A Night-jar evolved from the forest behind, probably lured by the sound of the chimes that sounded somewhat like a brown bird in the trees; his solemn hoots at night were comforting, like a gruff uncle who looked out for us. We went about our quiet days un-disturbed, driving up to the little town nearby when we needed anything and early nights became the rule. I was almost convinced that I had let my imagination run away with me and fancied things where there weren’t any, when suddenly, out of nowhere, I had to think again.

We had gone to a young couple’s home for dinner and they had some elderly relatives visiting as well; our host introduced us to them, adding that we had recently moved into the Yellow Cottage up the hill; the look on the old lady’s face was a dead give-away – and I caught her husband’s look as well, while he tried to shush his wife, who was in no mood to be shushed. “Didn’t they break down that house? How can they be living in that house after everything that happened?” she quavered on, much to our host’s embarrassment. Mihir was alarmed, I could tell. “What happened there? What’s the story?” he asked, casually and over dinner, we heard the whole story.

“That woman had not a single maternal bone in her body”, she began in her quivery voice; “and so vain too ~ always worrying about her hair, her waistline and other nonsense stuff! I didn’t like her from Day one, stupid woman with raccoon eyes!” “That’s only because she admired my silk scarf my dear” mumbled her husband perhaps in an effort to halting her there; She carried on undeterred “she laughed at my chipped tooth you know? I was a new bride and so young, not even aware that it was something to laugh at, and she laughed, and not affectionately either. Just as well, she almost swallowed her dentures and died!” she ended with a flourish. “Now dear, you know that’s just conjecture” her husband said, looking around the table apologetically. “She actually had some kind of aneurysm and unfortunately was alone when it happened” By this time Mihir was almost apoplectic – and our host had to work very hard to veer the conversation away from his aunt’s ghoulish delight in telling the tale. By the end of the sadly unappreciated meal, we pieced together a story that sounded tragic, but not quite implausible.

On the drive back, I had a hard time convincing Mihir that this was all nonsense, made up in equal part by gossip and fantasy, embellished by each and every one who heard about it. “How do you manage to attract spooks every time? Everywhere you go?” he said tetchily, reminding me of the other times I’d encountered mysterious events. He was ready to leave the estate the next morning, convinced I was terrified and clinging to him for protection; for the first time, I saw him worried about leaving me alone at home – and I had to draw on all of my courage to reassure him that I was not in swoon mode; having sent him to work with some difficulty, I heaved a sigh and set about clearing my head and putting my thoughts in order.

So, there was this unkind, self-centered mother who had no time for her only child, leaving her to her own devices, not caring a whit that she was growing up troubled and willful. The father, though kind, was far too busy to give his wife the kind of life she wanted and too timid to stand up to her demands; he adored his little girl but had to hide his feelings because that inevitably led to jealous tantrums and severe attacks of nastiness meted out to the poor child; into this mess strode a lover, given to smooth promises and soft hands; and a horrible accident ensued when the child stood up to her mother ~ this much was true then, it corroborated Pushpamma’s story as well, so what happened next?
Debutantes at a Ball - the corner where the Bird Bath used to be ( pix by auhor )
The father, overcome by grief, turned to alcohol and turned a deaf ear to his wife’s ranting, thus further infuriating and alienating her; they said he stood for hours at the corner of the garden where his daughter’s Bird-bath stood, and one afternoon, opened the secret gate that led from that corner and vanished, never to be seen again. Some said he had leapt to his death, knowing he wouldn’t be discovered for days. Alone, the woman, turned more and more bitter, her real colors showing through her sculpted face and beautiful clothes, repelling any admirers she may have acquired along the way; her bejeweled fingers gnarled and her cheeks sunken hollows, her eyes glittering and unseeing, she wandered around the house like a shadow, turning furniture over if it was in her way; hurling abuses at the help;

Little wonder then, no one came to her aid when she had her stroke, poor thing. She was found later, with her eyes wide open, gnarled fingers at her chest and her dentures lodged in her throat. Did she even realise that she had created this life, and its end for herself?

I would have to do something to release them, I thought, I couldn’t have them banging on my doors and upsetting the glasses at will! The little girl had taken to sitting on my bed while I did my prayers now – and that drippy faucet, falling drop by fat drop into the bucket placed strategically to catch those drops, sounded exactly like Boot-steps across a wooden floor – and lately, I could swear I heard a large dog flapping his ears at night just outside our bedroom door on windy nights.

I should have been scared, but I was not; by the end of our first month, I had got used to the little girl following me around, and on occasion, I would speak to her – she never answered though, but once she did give me a shadow of a smile – sweet and crooked, which disappeared almost as soon as it appeared. I prayed for her, her mother as well as her hapless father, hoping to release their troubled souls wherever they were; in turn, she started doing little things for me and Mihir; no, of course she didn’t tell me she was doing them, but I knew. Mihir’s old phone that had been out of use since we got here had died a natural death, it’s battery fading and sighing, it’s charger malfunctioning; it had been safely tucked away in Mihir’s bedside table, till one evening when it suddenly rang out shrilly. Startled, Mihir ran to answer it, quite forgetting it was out of use; it wasn’t an important call but once it was over, Mihir’s face was a picture! “It’s fully charged” he said, “I haven’t charged it in four months and it’s fully charged. How is that possible?”

I had no logical answer, and didn’t tell him what I thought because I didn’t want to freak him out.

And so it went on, days blending into evenings, dinners by the fireplace, trips to the city every now and then; the broken banister repaired (not to Mihir’s satisfaction though) and my little collection of plants growing, as was Mihir’s vegetable and herb garden. The trumpet flowers fell, leaving the tree bare briefly, and suddenly there they were again, looking like debutantes at a Ball in their cream, frothy dresses. Luscious Ferns grew in the rains, all over the hills like filigree or lattice-work, their delicate ends curling, and the stubborn ones even grew out of the tin roof, peeking over shyly. I stood often at my little verandah, watching the rain come over the hills – and perhaps an hour later, at the same place, watching the setting sun shimmer on the velvety hills, casting all kinds of interesting shadows.

Would I get tired of this one day, I wondered. Would it all pall? Would I really wake up one day and no longer hear the trilling conversation the birds had everyday outside my window? Not smile at the sight of the brave Red Canna soldiers along the path to the convenience store? Would my breath continue un-caught on those shiny sunny days when the sun streamed in through the guest room windows? Would we give in and finally bring a Wall Clock to tell us the time instead of just being carried along by the pace set by this house?

Right now, the wind is blustering; It’s being a bully; the bougainvillea is used to it but the poor red bush gets terribly agitated, like an interrupted Ballet class; but I’m unfazed. I’ve learnt that this blustery wind pushes your buttons to see how much you can take before you cave – and if you don’t, if you can say ‘look I’m all wrapped up, I can take this’ it rights itself soon enough and does an about face soon – as if to say gently, ‘I was only teasing’.

I felt Begonia’s presence (yes, I’d named the little girl Begonia) less and less and I wondered why. I looked for her over my shoulder, from the corner of my eye, but she wasn’t there; was she hiding? But where could she hide, even my curtains were light and blew in the slightest wind – and there were no secret spaces where she could hide, really. I called out to her sometimes, but got no indication of her presence. The house felt light and airy too, and even when the winds were howling outside, we were warm inside, with a lovely fire going, and roasting corn cobs on the fire became one of our favorite pastimes.
Pix by Gowri Mohanakrishnan
One day a large, furry, beige and pink Moth came in, and refused to leave. I tried everything – left the doors open, windows ajar, but there it sat, unmoving; I continued my chores keeping an eye on it, ready to shriek if it flew at me; it didn’t. It moved from the door to one of the walls in the living room, almost blending in with it ~ and when Mihir got home, it allowed him to pick it up gently and hold it, outside the window, willing it to fly away. It took its own time and flew away slowly, settling onto the grass near a rose bush. “That’s odd. It should be trying to get out of the rain, go under some leaves or something” said Mihir, adding sagely, “it’s dying, probably” as he rubbed his hands on his pants.

I realized in that moment that Begonia wasn’t hiding at all, she was standing against the wall the whole time and I wasn’t able to see her because she was the same colour as the walls! I looked around in all the rooms and called out to her, telling her I knew she was here, and was answered by silence. The crickets in the Pine trees were louder than usual and I disliked them intensely at that moment. I wanted Begonia.

She never came back. I missed her and in a frenzy planted Begonias everywhere, in Pots, at the edge of the lawn, in the corner by her Bird-bath, everywhere. White and pink Begonias everywhere. Three years later, feeling somewhat guilty for having removed all the Cannas when I had first moved here, I left detailed instructions for the future occupants of the house asking them to tend to the Begonias with care, hoping they would.

The day we left was a bright, still day. I looked back for as long as I could, memorizing the house, the hills, the red gate, the bird houses Mihir had made, the sun glinting off the windows.

My Begonias were all a flutter, waving their pink heads at me – and I knew she was there, and she was at peace.
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.
 Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

Meet the writer:
This is Mamlu Chatterjee, and here's what she has to say : 'Mamlu is a Mum, an editor, an avid reader, loves dogs and baby elephants and lives in a red cottage on a hill, in the tea plantations of Malaysia. 
Discovering new things is a favorite pastime, whether it’s a favourite fruit (dragon fruit and mangosteen currently😉) or a new artist or a new gadget. She's been writing ever since I can remember! 
Currently going slowly bonkers trying to prepare for her son's wedding by remote control!'