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Monday, September 21, 2020

A Lucky Escape

by Larry Brown 

An earthquake gets nearly everyone’s attention, particularly if it is a severe one. The damage is spectacular and the event is meticulously recorded by seismologists and news coverage is given throughout the media. In a big earthquake, seemingly sturdy buildings and bridges collapse, roads subside , houses are razed, landslides occur and there can be a tragic loss of life.

Such an earthquake can be preceded by a roar that is like a hundred locomotives and as it approaches the ground undulates alarmingly, fissures appear, bushes and shrubs shudder and tall trees bend back and forth - all in all, a scary scenario. Planters who went to New Guinea after India experienced many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions particularly in East and West New Britain where there were many active volcanoes.

The tea districts in Assam have had their fair share of earthquakes too and perhaps the biggest that some planters remember is the one that happened in 1950. This earthquake wreaked havoc in Assam; huge landslides caused rivers to change course, rail lines were twisted into all shapes, bridges disappeared, roads became impassable and many tea factories were rendered inoperable.

It cannot be said that the same interest or attention is given to the floods that happen almost every year 

As mentioned, great attention and focus is given to a big earthquake and its aftermath and possibly this is because the tremors travel a long way from the epicentre and can be felt in large cities and this, therefore, elicits more interest.

It cannot be said that the same interest or attention is given to the floods that happen almost every year sometimes with a great loss of life. Of the 50 or so major rivers in India at least 18 are flood prone and can cause major damage to infrastructure, loss of crops and livestock, and tragically, human suffering and loss of life - and yet, some are miraculously spared, and this is my story.

The Teesta River near Gangtok. All pix by the author

The Teesta rises at 17,500 ft at the Cho Lhamu Lake in the Himalayas and winds its way through Sikkim ,down the Teesta valley, passing near Kalimpong and on to the plains of West Bengal at Sevoke. It passes many large villages and towns such as Jalpaiguri on its banks and flows on through Bangladesh before finally discharging into the great Brahmaputra.

I first saw the Teesta from the Coronation Bridge, an impressive structure which spanned the river on the road to Siliguri and Kalimpong. From the bridge, some hundreds of feet below, the river was a swirling mass of turbulent white water. An accompanying planter friend said it had the reputation of being an 'evil' river and this may have had its origins in a tragedy that happened in one of the early surveys in 1915 when G.P.Robertson, the Municipal Engineer of Darjeeling, was drowned after losing control of his boat in the turbulence. The boat struck a submerged boulder and was sucked into a whirlpool, leaving no trace of Robertson or his companions.

I can recall the year of the lucky escape, 1968, but not the exact month but I remember the events well. Myself and my wife went to Mal Junction in the Dooars in the evening to see a Hindi movie. It was raining as we set out from Bhogotpore and was fairly heavy by the time we reached Mal.

Shortly after the picture began we could hear the rain drumming on the roof and this steadily got heavier until it was almost impossible the hear the film dialogue – or the songs!

The film show was stopped and we exited the hall, hoisted the umbrellas and dashed to the car. The water around the car was ankle deep.

I had never witnessed rain like this before and as we made our way towards Chulsa, visibility decreased and we got slower and slower as the rain became heavier and heavier. When we turned into the Jaldhaka/Nagrakata road that would take us home to Bhogotpore, we were down to first gear and the wipers were on full speed. As we cautiously followed the black ribbon of the road we passed through the Chapramari Reserve Forest and had to gently nudge our way through herds of deer and other animals that were milling around in confusion.The road was much higher than the now flooded reserve forest and we encountered other groups of animals as we proceeded further. In one group two pairs of yellow eyes amongst the deer looked at us, two magnificent leopards, their coats sodden and bedragggled, just as scared and confused as their companions.

 On the relatively short distance through the forest new reinforced concrete bridges spanned the rivers. These stood out stark and white and the black ribbon of road that we were following led on to them. When we crossed the by now raging Jaldhaka river we were almost home.

 The rain pelted down all night and only ceased in the early morning hours.

So where's the lucky escape?

 Next morning I went to see how widespread the flooding was and as I approached the Jaldhaka bridge I could see that some temporary barriers had been erected. I walked on the bridge and looked downstream and there I could see a number of scattered vehicles that were partially submerged. I counted two buses, a jeep and at least five cars. There were more much further downstream. All the vehicles were found to be empty, there were no survivors.

When I got to the other side of the bridge I saw that at least 40 to 50 ft of the approach road had been washed away resulting in a long drop to the river below. The poor unfortunates from the vehicles I had just seen would have been doing the same as I had done - following the black ribbon - but for them, that ribbon concealed a gaping chasm. 

When the approach was washed away I have never found out. It could have been minutes after we passed safely or an hour but certainly not longer than that.

Later, when piecing together what had happened I found that the downpour had set in motion a chain of events that was to prove catastrophic.

This torrential rain (at its peak someone told me that 14ins was recorded in a few hours) had caused massive landslides in the deforested hill areas near Kalimpong and these blocked the river forming a natural earth dam hundreds of feet high. The Teesta backed up for miles, and then, at about two in the morning, the dam gave way. The railway bridge further down from the Coronation Bridge was swept away. 

The massive wall of water, travelling like an express train, reached Jalpaiguri at about 2.30am. It was reported that water levels in the town rose by 10ft in three minutes. Jalpaiguri was almost totally flattened. The waters careened on downstream causing further devastation and taking out whole villages along the way. The destructive run continued through the Rangpur district of Bangladesh before finally discharging into the Brahmaputra at Fulcherry.

A few days later the 'Statesman' had the headline '2000 feared dead'. This was amended in the next edition to '5,000 feared dead'. Coco Das, a burly bearded planter, was engaged in relief operations along with many others in the district. Because of the stench of death and decay, he had doused his beard with after shave lotion. He and some of his fellow relief workers who knew also about the Teesta told me that the figure of those lost would be closer to 100,000, but the real figure will never be known.

Since that great flood, spurs have been built at Jalpaiguri so that the 1968 catastrophe would not be repeated.

 We had a very lucky escape indeed.

 This is the bridge over the Jaldakha in the 2019 “Siliguri Times” noted as neeing repair

Footnote: See Minoo Avari’s story “Darjeeling October 1968” under Correspondents on the www.koi-hai site. He and his friend crossed the ‘Anderson Bridge’ at Kalimpong literally seconds before it was washed away! There were TWO Lucky Escapes that night!! 

Meet the writer:

Larry Brown lives in Southport, Queensland, Australia. His story The Ghost of Namdang Factory Bungalow is a great favourtie with our readers. Here are two pictures of Larry - one from 1960, and the other from 2014 when he revisited Namdang.

At Namdang Factory Bungalow steps, 1960  

Larry revisits Namdang, 2014

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 : 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!


Monday, September 14, 2020


by Sarita Dasgupta

Since not many people know that tea is being commercially grown in Nagaland, I thought I'd write the story of the Wokhami family's enterprise. A school friend of mine who lives in Dimapur told me about this delicious tea was grown, manufactured and sold locally, and the main person behind this enterprise was a woman. Intrigued, I got in touch with the son, Ahuka, a delightful young man who was happy to tell me about his family's business. I was impressed by this 26-year-old living all alone on the estate, even cooking his own food, but diligently carrying out the responsibility handed to him by his father.

Nagaland lies like a beautiful emerald in north-eastern India, bordered by the states of Arunachal Pradesh to the north and Manipur to the south; the Sagaing Region of Myanmar to the east; and Assam to the west. In fact, this picturesque region was part of Assam until it became the sixteenth state of India on 1 December 1963, with Kohima as its capital city. Established by the British in 1878 as their headquarters in the Naga Hills, Kohima remains an important centre for administration, culture, and commerce.

Agriculture has always been the most important economic activity in Nagaland, covering over 70% of the state's economy. The Konyaks of the Mon area had impressed the British by serving them home grown and processed tea, but though tea was planted extensively through the length and breadth of Assam by the British, the Naga Hills region was perhaps too politically turbulent for them to do the same there. The practice of growing tea in Nagaland was limited to home gardens for domestic use only until quite recently – in the last twenty-five years or so.

Most of these estates are small and family-run, but through sheer hard work and diligence, these enterprising families have managed to make a mark for themselves in the competitive tea market. One such family is the Wokhamis of AKAA Organic Tea Enterprise, under the guidance of their matriarch, Amenla. 

Amenla plucking tea leaves

In 1983, an enterprising young man called Kihoi Wokhami bought 53 acres of forested land in Ajiqami Village, Zunheboto District, about 150 km from Kohima. He cleared and burned 20 acres (approximately 5 hectares) of the land according to the local practice of ‘jhum’ or ‘slash and burn’ cultivation, and planted paddy.

 In 1991, Kihoi married an intelligent and ingenious young woman named Amenla. After their two children – Avini and Ahuka – were born, she encouraged Kihoi to take a chance and plant tea bushes on their land instead of rice. A tea garden had already been established in a village called Litta in their district, and they decided to follow suit. Using the first initial of each of their names, they called their estate AKAA Tea Estate. 

AKAA Tea Estate

After harvesting rice for the last time in 1994, the couple prepared the land and in due course, planted it with 5000 saplings propagated in their nursery from tea cuttings acquired from the Tea Research Association, Tocklai (Jorhat, Assam). Initially, Kihoi and Amenla looked after the tea garden on their own, but once they harvested the green leaf for the first time in the year 2000, they had to employ someone to help manage the seasonal workers who did the plucking and processing of the tea leaves.

At that time, there was no local market for green leaf, so only limited harvesting was done. Kihoi and Amenla used the ‘handpound’ method to process the tea for local consumption.

The Aboshu Akhumu for hand pounding tea
Handpound tea

As their son, Ahuka explains, “Hand pounding is a labour-intensive process of tea making. After plucking, withering of the leaves is done for up to 18 hours at normal room temperature. When the withering of the leaves is completed, the leaves are pounded manually in the aboshu akhumu (a local wooden mortar and pestle) till the leaves are crushed and ready for the fermentation process. Fermentation of the leaves is carried out and then they are sundried. Sometimes, due to high humidity and dampness during or after the rain, the tea is ruined by moisture, especially if we are unable to dry it in the sun.” 

Since hand pounding is a manual process, the yields are low, so the Wokhamis were able to sell whatever tea they produced. The tea was packaged and sealed in plain plastic packets and sold locally to a few regular buyers.

A few years later, the Wokhamis decided to expand their tea garden by adding another five hectares from their forested land. The remaining area is still covered in forest, and remains as a buffer zone.

A 'hands on' Ahuka
In 2016, they started planting out saplings every year with the objective of setting up their own factory within their estate, which they did, in 2018. They started manufacturing orthodox black tea and green tea the same year. As of now, AKAA is the only company that manufactures these teas in Nagaland. There are other factories manufacturing CTC teas, and some tea growers processing green tea manually. 

Kihoi has retired after handing over the management of the estate and factory to 26-year-old Ahuka, who became involved in the business in 2017, a year after he graduated. Ahuka now lives on the estate permanently, looking after the ten hectares of tea, and administering the manufacturing process in the factory. 

The factory

Ahuka’s elder sister, Avini, is also involved in the family enterprise. She designed the company’s logo, and now takes care of the paperwork, packaging design, and content writing.

AKAA products

Although Kihoi has retired, Amenla remains actively involved in the tea company they worked so hard to establish. It is not uncommon for her to join the workers plucking tea on the estate on occasion.

Amenla with her workers

Mainly, though, she oversees the packaging of the green tea, orthodox black tea, flavoured tea and handpound tea manufactured in their factory. A room has been set aside for this purpose at the Wokhami home in Dimapur, where she directs the seasonal and part-time workers employed through her extensive network of contacts.

Amenla also looks after the distribution of the packaged teas. The handpound tea, made in small quantities, is only available to their regular consumers. Although most of the orthodox, green and flavoured teas are sold locally in departmental stores and outlets, there are some regular consumers outside Nagaland, such as in Delhi and Odisha, to whom the tea is couriered. The company has built up a good clientele due to word of mouth publicity from their satisfied customers.

Ahuka got the factory licensed in 2019, and, in 2020, he obtained a certificate which will allow them to attend tea auctions where they can find potential buyers. They attend expos when invited, but where they make a lot of sales and get a great deal of exposure is at the Hornbill Festival held every December in Kohima.

Amenla and Ahuka at the Hornbill Festival

AKAA is an example of what an ingenious woman, an enterprising man, and their small family of hardworking and dedicated members can achieve in just a quarter century – produce cups and cups of refreshing tea from the dreaming hills of Nagaland.

Meet the writer: Sarita Dasgupta
Sarita enjoying a warm cup of Kawakawa tea in New Zealand. 

Read about it here
"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 : 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!



Sunday, September 6, 2020

A Brush with the Past

by Murari Saikia

In the world of black and white there are always some shades of grey: clouded, imprecise and at times taciturn figures which are never seen full face but more often than not in silhouette. 

We were driving back to the garden from Jorhat, my wife Sruti, my colleague Pranjal, my driver and I. It was just about dusk as we left the town and coasting along the by-pass, the soft autumnal breeze wafted through the open window of my Ambassador and Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ was playing on the car audio system. We chatted and traded stories of the ‘good old days’ in tea. 

It was that time of the day when birds and humans alike are homeward bound and semidarkness wrapped itself around all objects…..the twilight! In the distant horizon the sky was darkening with clouds hanging low as if portending a storm. The song ended and it became ‘deathly quiet’, the only sound was of the wind swishing through the rolled down windows. Pranjal, sensing the mystical eeriness created by these sounds began his tale, which I now narrate to you, dear reader…

Pranjal was then a young trainee assistant in a garden near Jorhat and was temporarily billeted in the huge old burra bungalow (now rechristened the Directors’ bungalow) as his accommodation was under renovation. 

It was a cold winter’s evening and Pranjal was sitting in a deep armchair tucked in one corner of the cavernous sitting room waiting for the old bearer Jagganath to serve the ‘nasta’. It was Saturday and Pranjal was expecting his colleague, another bachelor assistant. Samir Handique to drop by for a couple of sundowners. 

Pranjal hollered to old Jagganath to hurry up; the old man had to fetch the tray from the kitchen which was away from the main house connected by a covered galley-way. Old Jagganath was of the ‘Raj’ vintage having started his career as a little ‘chokra’ in the very same bungalow, where his father was the burra sahib’s bearer, the major domo. Old Jagganath with rheumatic limbs and eyes whose lustre had dimmed somewhat was every inch the class of domestic staff that has now become extinct. 

The evening drew on and as it usually happens, the grid supply tripped and enveloped everything in a shroud of inky darkness; there was not a shred or pinprick of light nor any sound barring a shrill cicada pining for the warmth of summer to break the silence. Time ticked on but the back-up generator had not started up. 

“Damn, the engine attendant must be out in the bazaar, being payday”, Pranjal said aloud as he cursed himself for not bringing the torch with him from the bedroom. 

He was about to push himself up from the deep armchair when he heard the sharp click of boots studded with steel sole protectors climbing the verandah stairs. “Hey Handique, watch your step, man” Pranjal called out towards the verandah, certain that it was Samir making his way up. Samir was very fond of wearing those stylish ‘Beatles’ boots with steel sole protectors and had a couple of pairs made to order from the famous Chinese shoemakers of Shillong. 

It was still pitch dark, but the footfalls were surely making an entry into the sitting room. “Hey, I’m here Handique, watch your step”, called out Pranjal. The drawing room door seemed to have opened as a draft of cold air wafted into the room, the footfalls had momentarily stopped. “Come on Handique, quit the games! - and why don’t you strike your match and make some light buddy, and do sit down” Pranjal cried out. 

No response, and instead it became eerily quiet, even the lone cicada stopped rubbing its wings….time just hung, and once again the footfalls resumed and were nearing the chair where Pranjal sat. As the steps neared, Pranjal could feel and sense someone’s presence, and waving out his hand he cried out again, “Quit it Handique, you will now trip all over me”. Fear had forfeited control of his faculties and Pranjal wildly flayed and flung his arms across him to ward off Handique…but, despite feeling someone so close to him, Pranjal’s arms cut through thin air, once, twice, three times...nothing!! 
Nothing or no one was there!!!! But, he was so certain of someone or was it ‘something’ by his chair?? 

Pranjal was now in a cold sweat chilling him down to his spine, his skin erupting in goose pimples and with the wayward impulse of a madman he sprang up from the chair and tore out of the room throwing peg tables asunder in his rush out to the verandah whilst shouting out to Jagganath at the top of his voice. When his hand hit the wooden railings, Pranjal stopped for some air and peering into the galley-way could see the feeble light of Jagganath’s torch as the old man shuffled towards the main house….and at that instant the lights came on. 

As Jagganath approached, Pranjal enquired “Handique sahib kaha hai?” “Woh to nahi aya hai sahib” was Jagganath’s reply. Pranjal was quite shaken up, and seeing him so, the old man peered at him with his old eyes and inquired “Kya hua sahib?” Pranjal narrated the incident which occurred during the last seven to ten minutes since the grid failure till restoration of the lights. As Pranjal was narrating the story, Samir Handique walked up the steps to the verandah with a cigarette hooked on to his lips and the steel protectors of his boots clicking away on the tiled floor. 

“Handique, you came here a while ago while the lights were off, didn’t you?” asked Pranjal, certain that it was Samir who might have pulled a practical joke on him. Samir replied in the negative and swore that he had just come in; he’d detoured by the factory to check on why the attendant was taking time starting up the engine. 

Jagganath, the wizened old faithful following the exchange between the two chotta sahibs piped in, “Sahib, aaj hamara Burra Sahib aya tha”, as a matter of fact. “kya bola, Jagganath? lagta hai aaj phirse bhaang charaya hai”, was Pranjal’s admonishment to the old bearer while sending him off to fetch whisky tumblers and the bottle. 

As the old man shuffled in with the tray, Samir, after having heard the whole story asked Jagganath, “tum kuch bol raha tha, Burra Sahib key baat?’ “Ji Sahib” replied the old bearer and went on to narrate the story which went like this… 
Pix by author

‘This garden was managed and partially owned by a middle aged Scotsman, who resided in the bungalow. He was married, but his firangi mem left him to go away to ‘Bilat’ when their only child was born. 

Burra sahib was a very good natured person and when the ‘mem’ was with him, there used to be lovely parties, full of fun, dances and songs, and Burra Sahib would entertain the other sahibs and memsahibs by playing the violin. 

Though burra sahib resided here for several years, the memsahib and baby never visited again. Sahib became very lonely, depressed and a sad person, he took to drinking quite heavily too. One winter evening, Burra sahib was very disturbed and distressed after he had received a ‘dak-tar’ (telegram). Sahib remained very pensive and after drinking quite a bit, retired to his bedroom without asking for his supper. 

After a while, there a very loud crack of a gunshot from the bedroom and all of us rushed to the door, which was locked from inside. We broke it down only to find our burra sahib sprawled on the deck chair, his head shot to pieces and his handgun hanging on his now limp hand.’ 

Jagganath with a forlorn look in his weary eyes as if transported back in time, shook his old head and mumbled that the burra shaib’s spirit sometimes visits the place he loved so much in the hope that his mem and baby have returned. “sahib ka atma bahut atcha hai, sirf dekh ke chala jata hai”. Having said that, the wizened old man straightened his back and slowly walked out of the drawing room to his domain in the kitchen and pantry, leaving two very puzzled young men, Pranjal and Samir. 

As Pranjal ended his narrative, we saw the lights of my estate ahead of us, the gates were opened by the watchman and we drove in to the welcome lights of the bungalow porch. As Sruti & I got off the vehicle, I was in a tizzy with a bit of awe and a concoction of thoughts crowding as well as clouding my mind after having heard this strange but true tale….truth my friends is often stranger than fiction!!

 Meet the writer:
Murari Saikia
I was born in Dibrugarh in 1959 and grew up in Shillong. After finishing school from St. Edmund’s College (School Dept.), Shillong in December 1975, went off to Delhi University and graduated from Ramjas College, in 1979. Joined FSL (Nestle) around mid-79 and was in Calcutta for a short while and thereinafter joined tea in 1980-81 almost by accident!! 

After a career spanning 36 years in the plantations of McLeod Russell & the Luxmi Group, I retired from the gardens in 2017. But, the love and the lore of tea have not left me. I am still actively involved with the industry currently with Parcon (India) Pvt. Ltd as a Visiting Advisor. 

It’s always a pleasure visiting the gardens and meeting up with some very good old friends who have weathered the storms together, and as always it’s also a treat to meet the younger generation of planters and get to learn a thing or two from these lads too, while throwing back the sundowners!!

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 : 

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!

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Polite Preacher...and Horsing Around

by Conrad Dennis

The year was 1981, and straight out of college I fell into the group of grads that didn’t sit for SAT and TOEFL or cram for the joint entrances to the hallowed institutions of IIT’s and the like. I hunted for a job, and as luck would have it my first interview was at the imposing Office of “Duncan House” at 31 Netaji Subhas Road, Kolkata. The job was for an Assistant Manager for their plantations which spread over Dooars, Assam and South India.

 After a series of interviews that tested my acumen rather than my intellect (fortunately for me), I did get the job and was overawed when at the closing it was whispered in almost reverential undertones (not to be shared with the less fortunate) that I would retire in the year 2014 with a princely pension of Rs 8000/-. With my air ticket to Bagdogra costing Rs 180/- I had visions of what all I could do with this monthly windfall. rained so much that I don’t think I was ever really dry and just remained in different degrees of wet and damp during the extended monsoons 

I was soon winging my way to Sam Sing Tea Estate in North Bengal. The flight landed in Bagdogra and I looked around surprised that the entire staff at the aerodrome was, without exception, looking longingly at the line of passengers deplaning; it was later I was told that this was the only flight that day and they were eager to lock up and get back to hearth and home !!!!

 On the flight was another Duncan recruit - Sandip Nagalia, who became and remains a dear friend. He was a second generation planter and landed, armed with a lot of luggage, cutlery, crockery, linen (he told me)… an umbrella tucked under his arm, a book on Pests and Diseases in Tea and an extremely legal looking binder which later I realized was the Iconic Tea Encyclopedia. I had gone by the anachronistic list of Duncans - black lounge suit, six khaki shorts, six white shirts, six toweling socks, Bata Hunter boots a three cell torch and a transistor radio ( battery operated!!) the rest I don’t remember but it did fit into one small suitcase. If there was a parallel to being underdressed in terms of being prepared for what awaited me… boy did I fit the bill.

 We parted ways, he off to Dalgaon and I to Samsing, the second Cheerapunji, where it rained so much that I don’t think I was ever really dry and just remained in different degrees of wet and damp during the extended monsoons. I was to share the bungalow with Tarit Mahapatra, the Engineer Assistant who had joined a month earlier. He is a good engineer and a wonderful human being. 

Conrad at Samsing. All pix by author

Every bungalow had a Jeeves and they loved working for bachelors, who would depend on their financial and culinary skills to make it through the month. Our chap was a Nepali called Tikka, he remained in an alcoholic haze with brief moments of sobriety where he would complain vehemently about the pittance he received to keep us “fed up and fulfilled” through the month. 

One day we found Tarit’s only suit missing, and my Ambassador Black shoes had also disappeared. These were back in their respective places the next day. The mystery was solved a week later when we heard a few of the factory workers speaking about how Tikka Ram was immaculately dressed in formals at a wedding in the lines. Tikka got himself a second wife soon after.

Part of the regimen was the “Annual Inspection”, a three- or four-day period, prior to which there was maximum managerial trespass into all the nooks and crannies of the estate and factory and where the performance in terms of production and profitability of the Manager and his team was assessed by the VA. He would also interview each of the managerial staff both in the field and in the bungalow before the high tea on the final day. This was distressing for the wives - each one would be waiting anxiously in the sitting room or her husband to come out from the Den… fair speechless messages would fly betwixt the two thereafter.

 Mr. Dev Raj was my VA, a tall impressive gentlemen with a handlebar moustache and a booming voice to match. I had heard that he had just lost his mother in law, and to garner a few brownie points, I conveyed my condolences for the loss of the dear lady before my interview started. He growled, stroked his moustache and told me that his mother in law was in fine fettle; it was his father in law who had passed away! My interview, well if I was a steak I would certainly have been classified as “well done”. Some solace was he asked the next Assistant how many banks the estate had - apparently State Bank and Punjab National Bank was not the answer he was looking for.

The first year in those days was akin to boot camp. We worked hard and learnt from the worker by doing the multifarious tasks ourselves from plucking to spraying to pruning and it stood us in good stead. After a particularly bad day when we had got the short end of the stick from both the workers and the manager we rode down to Matelli Bazaar in the evening to do a “wee” bit of shopping. I say wee bit since the Chulsa Polo Club bill took the lion’s share of my salary.

 I was convinced it was my roll being called up yonder ...Pearly Gates or the hotter alternative 

I had joined tea with a Bullet motorcycle and on our way back in the pouring rain; both were cribbing about life in general when I missed a turn and slammed into a post at full speed. We were thrown off and I landed on my back stunned and with the breath knocked out of me. When I got my wits together I could hear my name being called from above… again and again and again. Being a devout Christian I was convinced it was my roll being called up yonder ...Pearly Gates or the hotter alternative, who was to tell?!! Fortunately it was only Tarit who had landed on the branch of an Indigofera tree above me who was checking if I was alive. All’s well that ends well, and men and machine mended fast.

Soon after, Tarit was transferred to Dumichpara Tea Estate and I was left rattling around huge Chung bungalow no 3 in Top line. A while later the Company decided to sell Samsing (this had nothing to do with my performance on the property) and with less than two years of seniority I was moved to the old VA’s bungalow in Yong Tong and designated the caretaker to ensure that there was no damage or removal of assets from the property till the consideration was paid in full.
All the old files and documents were removed from the office and stored in one of the bedrooms. It was on a bitterly cold wintry evening sitting by the fireplace while imbibing copious amounts of the cheap Bhutan “Apsoo” rum that I chanced upon a veritable treasure trove of old yellowed correspondence between the old planters and the Head Office. 
Another pic from Samsing
In the old(er) days there was a priest based in the Chalsa Manse who would traverse the Dooars from East to West offering spiritual solace( it was certainly not the spirit that the planter was looking for) and attempting to keep the lonely planter on the straight and narrow ( oh how terribly he failed on both counts). All his correspondence with the managers had to be copied to the Archbishop in Kolkata so that His Grace could keep a tab on his travails and tribulations.

This priest had, one evening, been invited to have a meal with Mr. Tucker, the Senior Manager of Samsing and his wife. While he was leaving Mrs Tucker presented him with a bottle of cherry brandy. The man of the cloth had to thank the generous couple and also copy the letter the Archbishop. I do not remember the exact words but there was a beautiful calligraphic note in the file. The essence of which was :

Dear John and Sarah, 
I thank you for the wonderful evening of food and fellowship. I also thank you for the fruit and the spirit in which it was given. 
cc His Grace The Archbishop Kolkata

In the good old days (whenever they were) all planters got a loan to buy a horse to carry out the daily Kamzari. They also got a pony allowance and a wife allowance. The pony allowance was more than the wife allowance and this was not something you could neigh about. The next anecdote is about one such gentleman.

This young planter had just been confirmed and wrote to Duncan Brothers requesting sanction of a loan to buy his steed - which was promptly sanctioned. It is here that there is the proverbial twist in the 'tail' develops. The Assistant then wrote to the company to kindly get his horse insured. They promptly wrote back saying they would be happy to do so but this would be in the name of the company since he had taken a loan and till the last installment was paid the horse belonged to them. He wrote back saying that they could recover the loan amount from him but he animal must be insured in his name. There were many letters back and forth and the horse had yet to be insured. The last letter in that file was from the Assistant to the company.

 Dear Sir, I refer to my letters dated… And your replies dated … I regret to advise YOUR horse is dead. I still wonder how this was resolved or if he ever survived his first contract??

They say the shortest distance between two people is a story and this is definitely my attempt at drawing us all together. During this difficult time when we are on uncharted waters and there is no clarity on the new normal it is important to communicate and stay strong. To quote a young friend of mine...” If we can’t reinvent the wheel, lets as least learn how to change a tyre”. Stay strong and stay safe.

Meet the writer:
Conrad Dennis is a professional with over 39 years of experience in the plantation sector. He has worked in Darjeeling, North Bengal and Assam and has headed a team setting up new tea estates and a factory in non-conventional areas of the Dooars. He oversaw the production and profitability of the Amalgamated Plantations Tea Estates in North Bengal and the Packaging. Division. He also is the Editor of the APPL Foundation’s E- Journal “Organic Growth” which seeks to connect organic Entrepreneurs and share the innovations and benefits of a shift to Organic Agriculture. 

Conrad is on the Institutional review Board of the Tata Cancer Hospital (Kolkata) and is part of the Ethics team that clears any Research and trials on treatment and drugs that seeks to control/cure the dreaded disease.

 After having retired as General Manager of Amalgamated Plantations he has moved to the social sector and is the COO of Mission Smile a Medical NGO that conducts free Compassionate Comprehensive Cleft and palate Surgeries to underprivileged children throughout the country and on Missions abroad.

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 : 

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!

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Darjeeling Days

by Radha Madapa

Kanchenjunga as viewed from Barnesbeg. Picture courtesy Barnali Gupta

Early 2005 found us moving to Barnesbeg Tea Garden, Darjeeling. From the verdant, lush flats of Assam (Nonaipara Tea Garden, Darrang) to the lofty, fog enshrouded spectacular mountains of Tukvar Valley.

Vikas Gajmer who was moving out and also a good friend was there to welcome us along with Lakshmi Limbu (the first lady assistant in Darjeeling). They were good enough to have a nice hot lunch awaiting us after the long journey. We had travelled by an overnight train from Gauhati to Siliguri where our car, having been sent ahead, was waiting for us.

When Vikas realized we were incommunicado, he introduced us to the cell phone age! That very evening we set off to Darjeeling, to the mobile phone shop. Barnesbeg bungalow is situated just off the main road that connects to Sikkim and is as steep as can be. 

Now it was time for Vinod's initiation into driving in the mountains, with Vikas in the passenger seat. 
One needs to take off from the gateway at full speed, top gear. Vinod didn't get it quite right, the Gypsy ran out of momentum and we careened back to base! The first trip to town was rather nerve-racking, with narrow, winding, precipitous roads and vehicles hurtling down hill pushing us to the edge. Soon I learnt to blank out and just enjoy the beautiful passing scenes of tea gardens, cypress groves and clusters of little houses, beautiful potted begonias and geraniums spilling over the window ledges. Also the rosy cheeked children and pretty women.
Barnesbeg Bungalow. Picture courtesy Barnali Gupta 
The bungalow was short staffed so Laxmi, ever so helpful, brought in a maid to be interviewed. Having worked in the bungalow before she was the perfect candidate. Only she wasn't interested and the pretext was the language barrier insisting she couldn't speak Hindi, only Nepali. 

Anyway what stunned me was how she was turned out. Around 40 years old and quite pretty, she had on bright pink lipstick, big danglers in her ears and palazzos that had prints of palm trees going up the legs! I whispered to Laxmi from the corner of my mouth- but why is she dressed like that? Is that how she'll turn up if she works here...? She grinned and said- that's how it is- welcome to Darjeeling!! A decision was taken and I declared I would learn Nepali and Rita was to begin the next day. 

We got accustomed to Rita who proved priceless- pink lipstick, danglers, palm tree palazzos and all. She was very quick and efficient at her chores. Clearing the plates after breakfast and lunch was one of her jobs, then we learnt we needed to literally hang on to our plates because she came in quietly and hovered behind you and snatched yours away just when you were contemplating a second helping. Her being fluent enough in Hindi was never referred to.

Early days and our first outing with the garden driver Kapil to Darjeeling Chowk Bazaar. He was leading us down the bylanes when I noticed a marked limp. On further enquiry learnt he had only one good leg, lost the other just below the knee in the GNLF agitation in the mid 80's. In the blink of an eye he pulled up his trouser leg and we were quite taken aback. Raghav, Hari and me wide-eyed and open mouthed admired Kapil's Jaipur leg. Little wonder he was heavy footed on the accelerator and pelted on those cliff hanger, winding steep roads like Godzilla was behind us! 

Vinod recounted the most terrifying trip he had returning from tea tasting with Kapil at the wheel racing down the precipitous roads after dark, pouring rain and only one wiper working of the good old garden Gypsy. There were two other garden drivers who drove the pickups and often chipped in to take us to town for the weekly purchases. On our trip to town we were aghast to discover one guy was pretty deaf and the other had only one good eye!! Fortunately both were skilful drivers and our fears were needless. 

I've always loved throwing open all the windows in the morning to let in fresh air and sunshine One misty morning I did the same and it was ethereal, the swirling mist floated in. I was in bliss, hardly a moment later Rambrish the Jaduwala, stormed in and admonished me- "Nahi Nahi Memsahib! Math kholiye!" and shut all the windows with great haste. I was then told the mist brings in the damp. How foolish could I be.
Raghav and Notty after the Darjeeling Dog Show
Raghav and Notty after the Darjeeling Dog Show
Rambrish was a stalwart of Barnesbeg bungalow. He was past retirement but was retained, being invaluable with his services. The only Bihari family we found there amidst the Nepalis. He was like a big bear lumbering up and down the stairs with his cleaning equipment. Together with his wife he had a jalebi and samosa stall at the weekly Bazaar. So standing order- paid for in advance - was the supply of 2 kgs of jalebis every week, out of which at least three jalebis would be devoured by Notty, our drooly boxer, who escorted Rambrish and the packet of hot jalebis in from the back door. 

Rambrish knew every floor board in every room and every nook and corner of the bungalow. The master bathroom upstairs was oh so quaint. Bathtub that had claw feet and lovely old knobbly faucets. The windows were the best- huge double shuttered and glass paned - the view was breathtaking and so picturesque. Hills and dales of tea gardens and pluckers dotting the hillsides, baskets on their backs. The wooden floor boards in the bathroom were covered with linoleum. On no account could you spill water said Rambrish. Unknowingly I insisted he give the floor a thorough scrub with detergent and water. Very cleverly he chose the time of day when the children and I were at study in the office room directly below. We had to abandon books and scramble as water was cascading down on our heads!! He proved his point and I never doubted him ever again.

My favourite place at Planters Club was the library. You nudged open the door and the bell went 'di-ding' and this quaint gentleman, the librarian, shot up and welcomed you in

Sunday afternoon siestas have always been a much guarded tradition. In Barnesbeg however, the afternoon peace was shattered by Gurung Busthee's custom of Bingo afternoons. Gurung busthee was a little settlement nestled on the fringes of Barnesbeg, located just below the bungalow. The MC announced the numbers on a loudspeaker that seemed like it was directed towards the bungalow. Nothing could drown out- "Assi... pachathar... thirsat" and so on and the cacophony of the busthee players. We tried plugging our ears and piling pillows on our heads too!! There on we made it a point to get away to Darjeeling for late lunch. The sights and sounds of town were so exciting for us folk who had emerged from the woods so to speak - Nonaipara being tucked away at the back of beyond.

My favourite place at Planters Club was the library. You nudged open the door and the bell went 'di-ding' and this quaint gentleman, the librarian, shot up and welcomed you in. The room was well stocked with books to suit all tastes and there was a brazier with hot coal keeping the room warm and cosy. In spite of it I would discover some books were pretty damp in the wet weather.
The view of Kanchenjunga from the upstairs windows of Barnesbeg bungalow was breathtaking. From October to March the visibility improves and each day we were treated to a different view. Some days cloudy, on others just a peek of the icy caps. On clear days we would be dazzled by the awesome majesty of the range of icy peaks. The changing hue as the sun rose from pink tinted to a fiery orange and then a brilliant white. The early morning bhajans reverberating in the hills added a sacred aura.

The most stunning view of the Kanchenjunga range was on our very last day at Barnesbeg. Crystal clear and magnificent, we could see an even wider expanse of the mountain range in all its glory as if to bid us farewell. These fond memories of Darjeeling will be cherished forever.

Meet the writer: 
Radha Madapa
Born into a plantation background, I was happy to marry a planter. My father and grandfather before him both worked for Consolidated Coffee Limited (now known as Tata Coffee).
Vinod was with Goodricke and most of his tenure was in Dooars, couple of years in Assam and a year in Darjeeling. 
Fourteen years later we moved South and Vinod joined the Woodbriar Group. Five years in the Annamalais and then two years in the Nilgiri- Wayanad region.

I count myself fortunate to have lived and experienced plantation life in so many diverse zones. We've met so many interesting people and have so many friends, lost touch with most but it's wonderful to reconnect. 
It's been five years since we've settled on our own property in Coorg and it's been the best phase of my life. Living near our parents and reconnecting with family and community has given us a sense of purpose and contentment. Also it's as close to paradise as I imagine. 

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 : 

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!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Hundred Years of Planting in Munnar

by Manjit Singh 

When the founding fathers of the company first came here, the High Range was a vast tract of jungle land....

I joined Tata -Finlay in November 1978 and in the very next month the company was to commemorate a hundred years of planting in the High Range. It was decided that at the end of the celebrations a big bonfire would be lit on Anaimudi peak,which would be seen at night in two planting districts - the High Range and the Anamallais. 

The Anaimudi is the highest peak south of the Himalayas and is at a height of 9000 ft above sea level.

We were six Assistant Managers who were selected to make this climb to light the bonfire.We congregated at Nyamakad Manager's bungalow and after an encouraging word from the Manager, Mr Baig, we proceeded by jeep to Vagavurrai Estate, where Rangasamy, the venerated leader of the local Mudhavan tribe, joined us to guide us to the peak. 
Anamudi - Wikipedia
Anaimudi Peak, image from Wikipedia. Pix c M D Madhusudan, 2013
Accompanied by six porters we gradually made our way towards Anaimudi peak, halting at frequent intervals to conserve our energy. Some of the porters were quite sceptical about whether we would make it in time to light the fire.Their doubts were allayed as we reached the peak by 1.00 pm. Anaimudi was covered with mist and there was a slight drizzle . We rested in a makeshift tent and it was only after the mist cleared that we were able to get a clear view. 

When the founding fathers of the company first came here, the High Range was a vast tract of jungle land, and what we viewed was a thriving plantation industry.What a brave and determined group of men they were who faced the hardships of the early days of plantation life,when horses were the chief mode of transport,when medical facilities were lacking and isolation made working conditions unenviable. But they strove hard and the High Range over the years witnessed the introduction of the railroad, ropeway, schools and hospitals. A hundred years of hard work had brought about this transition. It gave us a sense of pride to belong to the High Range and Munnar. 

Our emotions however did not overwhelm us and when we proposed a toast to the success of the High Range we did propose one to another hundred years of good boozing! At five we lit the bornfire and made our descent.We arrived at club exhausted, to join the party which was to continue till late into the night. 

Deep in our hearts there was a feeling of triumph that in our own little way, we had made history.

Meet the writer: 
Manjit Singh
I studied in the Lawrence School, Sanawar, and passed out in 1970. I then did my B.A (Hons) and M.A in History from Hindu College, Delhi University. I joined Tata Finlay in 1978 ( in 1983 it became Tata Tea ) and worked in the Plantation Division in South India- mainly in Munnar and a brief stint in the Anamallais in Tamil Nadu. 

I retired in 2014 as General Manager of the Tea Division of Tata Coffee a subsidiary of Tata Tea. I am a keen sportsman and represented the Club,Company and Upasi ( United Planters Association of South India) in cricket, squash and golf. After retirement we have settled in Chandigarh and my son and daughter work and live in Delhi. 

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 : 

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!

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Missing Sibling

 by Indi Khanna

While he was born in Simla, our son Madhav's formative years were spent on an estate in Upper Assam before he went off to a boarding school. The upshot was that Madhav naturally grew up with and adopted the 'garden Hindi' as his mother tongue. A language which I describe as the 'estate lingua franca'. 

A beautiful amalgamation of Hindi, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Bengali and a bit of 'huh?' to end up with the lilt and cadence of a 'musical composition' almost akin to the sweet sound of Swahili. 

There being no access to either a nursery or a kindergarten, as was the case on all tea estates in the North East and in South India, home schooling was the norm. Practically 24x7 my wife Kitty would, while not educating me on what the idiot Dr Spock had to say about bringing up kids, spend her time reading fairy tales and singing nursery rhymes to Madhav: nursery rhymes which were Madhav's only window to the world outside the estate. 

The first time we did our five day odyssey from Delhi to Upper Assam was when Madhav was all of two years old, which is when we purchased our first second hand Ambassador car in Delhi. Those were the days when roads, after one had emerged out of the 'big' city, used to be almost like a figment of one's imagination. 

In Eastern UP and extending into Bihar the 'highway' used to be liberally peppered with what were, for lack of a better word, called 'potholes', but were in fact craters from the surface of the moon magically transplanted on the highway. Potholes so generously expansive that when one drove one's car into one (there was no way one could circumnavigate the monstrosities) the roof of the car was well below the rim of the crater. But I digress, so let me get back to the main plot. 

While I was busy removing the wheel, we noticed Madhav going around the car in circles every now and then bending down to peer underneath the car

On the third day out of Delhi as we were getting close to Siliguri, the car had a flat. Just the fact that the tyres had brought us all this way having actually survived the UP/Bihar experience was in itself a miracle. Got the car to the side of the road, emptied out the boot and pulled out the jack. Once the car was jacked up, this being a part of his ongoing education, his mother informed Madhav that what 'Dada' had brought out from the boot and had put under the chassis was a 'jack'. 

While I was busy removing the wheel, we noticed Madhav going around the car in circles every now and then bending down to peer underneath the car. His search having yielded no results, he finally came up to his mother and in his most educated good garden lingo and with a very serious look on his face asked, 'Agar Jack waha hai, to Jill kaha hai?' (If Jack is here under the car, where is Jill?) 

Took us quite some time to stop rolling around in laughter and for the tears to dry up so that I could get back to changing the wheel and put Jill's brother back in the boot to drive on to Siliguri. The pleasures of growing up on an estate!

Meet the writer:

Indi Khanna with Xerox
With an industry experience and a tea knowledge base of four and a half decades and counting, I literally live and breathe tea. 

Starting my career in 1975 as an Assistant Superintendent with Malayalam Plantations Ltd, rolling up my sleeves by 'dirtying' my hands at the grassroots level and having literally 'grown' in the business, my experiences have matured me into a ‘one of a kind’ unique entity in the industry.

My journey which literally starts from the tea nursery and stretches all the way up to the consumer shelf, is in many ways unique. Regularly roaming the tea world, delving into the most remote areas wherever tea is grown or consumed, constantly interacting with Tea folk, I have always been learning and innovating. The invaluable experiences along this very interesting route have culminated into a unique new venture, a one-of-a-kind specialty tea manufacturing facility unit in the Nilgiris -

My life has been and continues to be blessed.

Thankfully this very interesting Tea journey continues as an ongoing learning experience.

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 : 

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!