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Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Inimitable Dharmam

by Saaz Aggarwal

I was just 11 when we left the last place where Dharmam and my dad worked together (as they had done for several years), and we never met again. And, even though I had never had much contact with Dharmam myself, the memory of who he was appears to have remained quite vividly. I suppose that’s because my father always held him with such a great degree of respect

I began working on a book based on plantation life in April 2013, first interviewing Uncle Sin (NSV Sinniah), who had started his career as a tea planter in Ceylon before moving to E&A, followed by a few more with other Ooty locals that year. In March 2015, I interviewed Ravindran and Ram Adige in Bangalore, both former E&A employees and colleagues of my father. It was a wonderful session, but the book took a back seat to other projects. So, when Ravindran told me in June 2019 that he had a collection of stories he wanted my help in publishing, I agreed at once and have enjoyed the process of weaving in context and fleshing them out with memories from him and others, including my own.

Working on this book took me back to an idyllic childhood, its pristine air-quality, vistas of sloping valleys of smooth green from the sitting-room windows, brilliant night skies, and a certain formal grandeur and privileged way of living compounding the fundamental isolation of plantation life. The sunsets at Prospect were spectacular: one time, driving towards the fork in the road that led into the estate, the sky ahead was streaked with clouds that carried every colour of the rainbow, the entire spectrum from purple to red, a sight that remains fresh in my mind nearly fifty years later.
Seated: Dharmam (his son Bimal Rajasekhar is standing next to him), Saaz, Situ, Bob and Ravi Savur. from Saaz’s album. High Forest, 1967
Out of the blue I remembered Dharmam, a mechanic at Prospect. I phoned Victor to ask and he said, “Of course I remember him, he was your dad’s favourite!” Victor went on to give me a few examples of Dharmam’s ingenuity:

At Prospect we used motorized power sprayers and to start them, we had to tie a rope around the motor and pull. But it was so cold right around the year that a simple pull never worked. We had to keep pulling, it took a lot of time, a lot of tries and a lot of strength, and they still wouldn’t start. Until Dharmam came up with a brilliant idea: he hooked the rope to a V-belt on one of the machines. When the machine was turned on, its rapid revolution started the sprayer in no time.

From Planting Directory of Southern inDia, UPASI, Coonoor (1956)

As I wrote this down, an image emerged from the deep recesses of my memory: the door to ‘Aladdin’s Cave’, a dark and perhaps windowless restricted-entry room in the Prospect factory, Dharmam’s secret stockroom. When anything needed fixing, Dharmam would retreat into the cave and emerge carrying a piece of scrap or spare or strange-looking tool, and get it working in a jiffy. Victor remembered that he never threw anything away; that he used discarded lorry shock absorbers to make stools to sit on.

My brother and I even had a car, which Dharmam had made using discarded metal sheets, a marvel of technology with a working steering wheel, a discarded lorry horn and discarded bicycle pedals.

Dharmam was a genius and, in different circumstances, could have been an inventor who formed the backbone of a national space mission or corporate R&D department.

His father, PA Charles, had gone to work at Dunsinane Estate, Ceylon, and rose to be teamaker there. After some years he quit to return to the family home in Nagercoil, Tamilnadu, and subsequently worked as teamaker at High Forest and Seaforth. Dharmam, well qualfied and highly skilled, joined High Forest in 1954. These facts I learnt from his son Rajappa. I had made many attempts to locate Dharmam’s children, and it seemed like a miracle to do so just days before this book went to print – particularly because, on that 2016 visit to Prospect, I had been informed (mistakenly, as it turned out) that Dharmam was no more.
Dharmam's family: Rajappa Charles and Bimal Rajasekhar, in cars fabricated by their father. Rajappa grew up to be an engineer, and Bimal is a doctor with a Master’s degree in Public Health from London School of Economics. Their mother Helen was a much beloved teacher in the estate schools. Dharmam retired from Seaforth in 1987 and they continued living there until she retired four years later.
In fact, Dharmam celebrated his ninetieth birthday in April 2019. And in September I learnt from him that it was a rotorvane that took Peter Sausman’s finger. A rotorvane is the machine in which tea leaves are loaded after going through the rollers, forced through a barrel by a screw-type rotating shaft with vanes at its centre. Peter evidently got too close. He lost a finger, but his sense of humour, as Ravindran describes earlier in the book, stayed on.

Visiting Prospect in 2016 I had asked after Hutcha too, and was told that he too was no more. Hutcha was a lorry driver in our time, and of English blood, as I deduced from an email from Denis Mayne in 2015, followed by a conversation with others who knew. Denis now lives in Belfast, and I had come across his post ‘When I was in India’ on a Bangor Aye blog, in which he described his initiation on Prospect, less gentle than Ravindran’s would be a decade later, with a manager who sent him off saying: I’ll see you on Friday. In the mean time you are in charge of four hundred acres of tea and four hundred men. Only one man speaks English and you can’t believe a word he says. Good Luck!

I was delighted to get connected to him through the blog, and through him to Carolyn Hollis; their words and photos have brought parts of this book alive. As for Hutcha’s biological father, you could probably spot him in the photo on the last page, one of the last grand collections of British and Indian tea planters c1958. Most of them are no more.

Chittu is long gone too. One evening at Kodanad in the 1980s, he went off as usual to run around and do dog things, and never came back. “Dog eating panther,” as the butler English of our days described it, not an unusual end for an estate dog, much mourned by all of us, especially my dad, who would now have to ride out to the fields on his own.

Meet the writer:

Saaz Aggarwal is a contemporary Indian writer whose body of work includes biographies, translations, critical reviews and humour columns. As an artist, she is recognized for her Bombay Clichés, quirky depictions of urban India in a traditional Indian folk style. Her art incorporates a range of media and, like her columns, showcases the incongruities of daily life in India. Her 2012 book, 'Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland', established her as a researcher in Sindh studies. The book is called An Elephant Kissed My Window (and other stories from the tea plantations of South India) and it’s available on

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!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Just One Drink

by Indi Khanna

In 1983, working with Warren Tea Limited, I was the Garden Assistant on Dhoedaam Estate in Upper Assam in the Doom Dooma area. Regardless of the age difference and the disparity in our seniority levels, Himmat Singh - many years my senior and a Senior Manager on Tara, another one of the Warren Estates in the district - had become one of my very close friends. One of the many friends whose bungalow we would happily drop in to unannounced.

This being well before not just mobile services, but also any other form of telephony, our normal mode of communication was dependent upon letters delivered to each other via the estate 'mail service' (a messenger who would carry official and unofficial letters and the like between estates); our terrestrial alternative to pigeon mail.

Received a letter one day mid-week from Himmat telling me that his wife Krishna was away on holiday in Jaipur and that since my wife was also away on a jaunt, would I like to drop in that evening for a drink. Never one to refuse a good offer, come the evening I headed off to Tara. It was one of those lovely Assam evenings when nature would routinely open all the sluice gates and send down enough rain to put the Niagara Falls to shame, all the while lighting up the sky with millions of volts of electricity and an equal amount of decibels of thunder. In short, just the sort of conditions which would have made Shakespeare rub his hands in glee and call on the three witches to make their appearance.
Tara Burra Bungalow
Drove into Tara around 2030 Hrs to find Himmat waiting for me in his 'Jalli Kamra', enjoying the lovely weather. Being almost par for the course, the thin spray of rain hanging over one's heads akin to a personal cloud accompanied by the occasional wisp of mist finding its way into the Jalli Kamra was never taken cognisance of.

 Settling down, my first statement to Himmat was that I wanted an early evening since I had a very early start (when was it ever not an early start for us?) and needed to get my beauty sleep before facing the formidable Bahadur Singh (my boss) in the morning, and to be well in time for my Kamjari.

Almost knocked the socks off me when Himmat tells me, "We'll have just one drink before khana" and then shouts "Jannu, saab ka aur mera drink lao". In toddles his faithful Jaanu with two VERY large brandy snifters and two bottles of our favoured tipple, Beehive brandy.
Himmat Singh. All pix by author

Quite obviously having been instructed in advance of what he was required to do when faced with this strange order, Jannu very nonchalantly unscrews the tops of the two bottles to break the seal and proceeds to pour the contents into the two snifters. To say I was aghast would be an understatement.

My "Himmat, what the hell is this?" was met by an almost angelic smile and a "Well, it is only ONE drink", following which statement Himmat decided to become stone deaf and took on the majestic appearance of Mount Rushmore!

By 2200 Hrs, one small sip at a time, I had managed to bring the level of the brandy down just below the rim.

"Himmat, can we eat?"

"Don't be silly, we have to finish our one drink!" And then back to being Mount Rushmore.

2400 Hrs
My "Himmat, I need to get back and am bloody hungry", was met by a glare which made me decide to shut my mouth for a mite longer.

0200 Hrs my next request for dinner met the same fate as did the one an hour later.

Finally at 4 in the morning, in total exasperation I was left with no option but to say to Mr Stone Deaf that this was it and that I simply HAD to leave.

 And what does my host do, "Jannu, Saab is not finishing his drink so cover his glass and keep it in the fridge for him as he'll be coming back tomorrow to finish it and have his dinner!"

Cold, very hungry and somewhat miserable Mr Khanna drives back to Dhoedaam. Got to my bungalow, wolfed down a packet of biscuits, changed into my shorts and dragged myself to my Kamjari office.

Oh yes, during the day Himmat received a letter from me by way of the terrestrial pigeon post thanking him for his hospitality and the "ONE DRINK"!

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!

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.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019


by Rajesh Thomas
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is not the result of chance. It is deliberate.
To be a successful planter one must be a concoction of unusual things. Firstly, a love for agriculture and a knack to make things grow. Then have a deep biased love for his garden and its inhabitants. Also be a businessman, legal brain and public relations officer.

Little bit mechanically minded to see the engines in his factory run smoothly and the vehicles keep plying on the dirt tracks. A dash of civil engineering to lay a new road or to build a new building. Become fluent in an alien language. To enjoy long stretches of loneliness, solitude, and boredom. And most important of it all to be balanced to take all his power with a grain of salt.

In spite of all the above, the gardens are full of cranks, oddities, and half-brained fanatics. It takes all sorts of characters to make the world and the world of tea is full of them. Here are a few and you are welcome to add to it.
The Rules Man
The Rules Man – A stickler for rules. He is very rigid, and lives in the shadows of the black and white ink of policies and procedures. In his estate, rules dominate and regulations have only one interpretation. Change is not only avoided and feared by him but also ridiculed and scorned. Very fond of Managers and Assistant managers of similar ilk.

The Disciplinarian – To him discipline is everything. His first love was the army and planting was his alternative option. Tries to run the estate like a regiment. Gets very annoyed if things are not kept in a row or when workers do not walk in a single file.

The Brown Sahib – if you close your eyes and talk to him you would be transported to old blighty. Will be immaculately dressed. He will have a fine collection of jackets and blazers; very fond of ties and cravats. Most conversations will start with “in the good ole days “ Sadly a dying breed.

The Hermit – The hermit is the most elusive of managers. The hermit likes to remain isolated from the rest of the estate and hide behind closed doors in the estate office, which is treated as the sanctum sanctorum of the estate with the access normally controlled by the Section officer or the Office Babu, who act as gatekeepers. Normally a very Senior Manager who has been bypassed for promotion to head office and has a few years to his retirement. 
The Spy Master
The Spy Master – A man of intrigue. He plays his cards close to his chest. Has spies all over the estate. Spies mostly will be the estate drivers and watchmen. Each spy will have his regular spot where the manager will meet him on his field rounds. Mainly to keep tabs on the activities of the Assistant Manager and the Senior Staff. But funnily the spymaster will rarely act on the tales carried on to him, as he will rarely have the courage to act on it or have a face to face confrontation. Nowadays his life has been made easier for him after the advent of the mobile phone, he doesn’t have to rely on the bush telegraph, he gets all the gossip straight on his phone before breakfast.

The Henpecked --This manager will be in office till very late in the evening, keeping himself busy with a list of silly tasks for himself and the office staff. While everyone else thinks he is very hardworking, the truth is he is scared to go home. Till a sharp rebuke on the phone from the missus will send him scurrying home.

Can’t take a Decision – Decision-making paralysis is his wont. Can conjure up impossible scenarios before making a decision. Even a making a simple decision stresses him out.
Mister Tough Guy
The Tough Guy - Public school educated, and mostly would have boxed in school. Walks with his chest out and stern face. Workers and Union Leaders are mortally scared of him. Loves a confrontation. Projects the tough guy image at the club bar too. Actually, in most cases, he is a softie at heart.

The Golfer – As he is walking along the rows of tea amidst the pluckers he imagines that he is in the bunker at the fifth hole of the local golf course wielding a sand wedge. The pluckers have seen it all before and turn a blind eye. Common indicators his golf averages fluctuate in correlation to his crop and sale averages. A major variant is a cricketer who practices the forward defense between the withering troughs. A minor variant is the tennis player and the angler.
The Numbers Man
The Numbers Man –To him the world is numbers and spreadsheets are his things. Sits the whole morning in office twisting numbers to prove to Head Office that he is superior to his contemporaries. Specialist in formats. Normally one will find different colors of pens and highlighters on his table, to prove his point on the monthly statements. This type has become more common after the advent of the computer.

The Yes Man – Mostly a talentless manager, whose rise is based upon unquestioning obedience and loyalty to the powers to be. His motto in life is ‘above you God, below you dog'.

The Wiggler – The manager who cannot be pinned down. Any fault is the Assistants Mistake. His daily perspective changes with the flow of the situation. Statements like “I never said that” or “I didn’t mean it like that” are very common, especially when there is a visit by a higher-up.
Changing viewpoints is an everyday occurrence making the rest of the estate unsure of how they should view anything new. Every day is a new day under him.

Epilogue – The inspiration for writing this piece came when I was introduced to a senior army officer at a dinner and when he found out that I was a planter, he had this to say “ I thought I had seen all kinds in the army, till I happened to meet a few planters”.
 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!

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:

Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

I Have my Licence

Lataguri. Gorumara. These are names you see on travel websites advertising holiday stays in 'resorts' these days. There was a time when the forests were dense and forbidding: dark even during the day. Venk's writing brings that era to life.

by Venk Shenoi
Pic of Venk with the Tata Nano in which her went round India in 2013
Grassmore Tea Estate is spread over 2,000 acres of land and getting around on foot at all hours of the day was not practical. I had my trusted Hind bicycle which gave me four years’ service during my student days in Kharagpur. Pedalling up and down the Mela-tracks was hard work particularly in hot-weather and rain and you were dependent on others for lifts to the Club.

The company offered loans – up to 15,000 rupees for cars and three or four thousand rupees if you got a motor cycle. A Hindusthan cost Rs 11,000 and a Triumph Herald Rs 9,500. I opted for the cheaper option and preferred the freedom of the elements on my face at speed.
My motorcycle, the latest Rajdoot in 1963 (see photo) cost 3,400 rupees and arrived from the agents in Siliguri on the back of a lorry after a month’s wait. The driver gave me basic lessons – start, stop, turning my head looking for oncoming traffic and rudimentary hand signals although I was not sure how I could give hand signals at the same time gripping the throttle on the handle bar. May be the instructor was talking about driving a car.

I got the hang of it in no time. For a while I dashed around the estate tracks falling down occasionally on the slippery slopes crossing the jhoras and burning skin off my left calf on the exhaust pipe. That was really painful. Getting up after a fall and lifting the bike up on the slippery track was a skill I acquired after some practice.

I soon realised I needed a licence to take the bike on the road. The chief Babu in the office arranged to get me a learner’s licence from the District Office in Jalpaiguri in no time and I was on my way to train myself towards getting my first licence. No matter the falls and occasionally dashing against a cow or buffalo trying to cut across my path uninvited.

The day arrived when I had to present myself for the test. Getting up early I started for Jalpaiguri some fifty miles away via Mal and the kacha-roads through Gorumara forest on to Lataguri and Moynaguri to the Eastern banks of the Teesta River which was several miles across in the flood-season. An island which changed its shape with the water level lay in the middle of the river and you had to take two ferries to cross over to Jalpaiguri Town.

The first crossing brought you to the sand banks and the motor cycle wheels sank in the loose sand. So pushing hard with occasional help from those around, I made it at last on hard ground in Jalpaiguri. It had taken nearly four hours including the two hours walking and ferrying across the river. Excited, I managed to find the District Transport Office and presented myself to the chaprasi. It was 1.30 pm and the Licence Babu had gone for lunch.

Hungry, I managed to get some tele-bhaja and chai by the road side and waited for the Babu to arrive. He came at 3.00, and apologising profusely that I had to wait so long. took out his note book and wrote down my name and address and scribbled that this was a provisional motor cycle licence which required formalising within six months after Police checks. Feeling cheated I asked – ‘Thank you Babu, but what about my test?’

‘What test?’ he exclaimed. ‘How did you come here?’

‘On my bike Babu’, I said politely.

‘So that was your test!’ he retorted, somewhat annoyed that I had dared to question his decision.

Never one to give up, I insisted he gave me a proper test according to the Highway Code for which I had been practising for weeks.

‘Achha Paagol!’ he said and we went together to the field behind his office.

He asked me to do four rounds of the field and stop in front of him sharp which I did obediently. He then asked me to look right and then left and turn right and then left and return after two more rounds.

He was in better humour by now and asked me, ‘Are you satisfied with your test?’

‘Yes, Onek Dhonnobad’, I mumbled.

‘So you have passed your test now properly and can ride your motorcycle safely’, he said.
‘Thank you Babu’, I said as he handed me the hand written note which was supposed to be my licence. He also stamped the paper. I had passed my test at last.

It was four o’clock by now and I had to return and cross the ferry across the Teesta and it would be dark soon. The return crossing only took an hour and a half and I was on the Moynaguri side as darkness fell.

The road back through Lataguri and Gorumara was hell on earth as torrential rain hit me in the dark. Millions of insects splattered across my face and glasses as I progressed slowly, hardly seeing the road ahead and trying to keep my balance as I approached the edge of the road. The head light on the Rajdoot was not up to cutting through the rain and cloud of insects as I progressed towards Grassmore. It was a long, long journey.

Yes, I made it at last after three hours ride in blinding rain, soggy and wet.

Yes, that was my real test, and I knew I passed.

Meet the writer:
Over to Venk: 'Born in Chertala, Travancore (Kerala), grew up in Chertala, Calcutta and Bombay. Can read and write in Bengali (my best Indian language), Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi apart from English, smattering of spoken Czech, German, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and Konkani (my mother tongue, which I have forgotten for all practical purposes). 

Was a Dooars Tea Company Assistant Manager from 1962 – 65, posted at Nagrakata and Grassmore T.E.s.

Went round India on a Tata Nano in 2013. 

Member of the Conservative Party, and served two terms as an elected District Councillor in the Forest of Dean Gloucestershire where I live. Apart from travel, visiting museums and archaeological sites, history, radio, photography, vintage fountain pens, concerned about world population explosion and resource limitation leading to extinction of man on earth soon.' 
Read all Venk's stories here:

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai 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 : 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! 


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Johnny Hodges & I

Here's a story that has nothing to do with tea - but I am sure our readers will enjoy it, because it is a planter's story after all!

by Aloke Mookerjee 

Soon after college in Calcutta, I joined the global commodities trading firm Louis Dreyfus, located in Brabourne Road. In India, however, Louis Dreyfus remained a small outfit headed by a Frenchman who resembled Kirk Douglas, or so I thought!

Their main business here was in the domestic trade and export of jute goods – gunny sacks and hessian cloth, which was then popular worldwide as an economical and durable material for bulk packing. While learning the ‘intricacies’ of ‘B’ Twill Bags (with three blue stripes!) and 40”/10oz. hessian cloth, I realised quickly that my work was as dry and unglamorous as the goods Louis Dreyfus was trading in! I decided then that, as a profession, this would not be mine for long. Being barely twenty probably accounted for such definitive views and paved the way for my escape to the Dooars in North Bengal about two years later.

Meanwhile, a regular salary coming in while ‘counting bales’ kept me going rather happily! A friend and I decided to share an apartment we found available on rent. It was tiny but very airy and very bright. We hired some furniture, a small battered fridge and a kerosene cooker. We bought some curtains for the windows and pictures for the walls. I remember the curtains as being rather loud and garish, matching well with our ways then, I guess. We also bought some china plates, cutlery and some cooking utensils. We hired a man servant. This was necessary for while we both loved good food, we were neither inclined nor adequately versed in this esoteric art. As a final and essential touch to the apartment, I set up my precious music system; my father’s old valve radio hooked onto a turntable that played my collection of 12”, 10” & 7” vinyls – all jazz.

Despite the ludicrous (by today’s standards) monthly emoluments and the crushingly dull work schedule (compensated partially by the vivacious Anglo-Indian secretaries spreading their smiles along with a huge wave of scent as they passed by!), life was good. The beer sessions on Saturday afternoons were now more frequent as were the weekend sprees to the famed (and gratefully affordable) Calcutta nightclub ‘Scheherazade’ for Sonny Lobo’s big band jazz sounds! Trincas, Mocambo and Magnolia filled in the other evenings with jazz and the Sunday mornings with their jam sessions.

We had no car but the public transport was reasonably efficient and when occasion demanded, the ubiquitous black and yellow ‘Ambassadors’ with their cheerful ‘Sardarji’ drivers were always available for the feel of being ‘chauffer driven’ to our destination. The distinctive charm of Calcutta had not yet faded.

One such Saturday afternoon was going rather well in our tiny apartment. Beer was flowing with Brubeck thumping (rather loudly) from my LP spinning on the turntable. Despite the absence of Eugene Wright and Joe Morello in this particular concert, ‘Jazz at Oberlin’ remains to be one of my favourites in amongst other Dave Brubeck performances. The high decibel sounds must have penetrated the apartment to reverberate outside with considerable force for suddenly, a loud knock overpowering the din inside, could be heard emanating from the entrance door. Expecting an irate neighbour demanding immediate consideration, I hesitantly opened the door and saw myself facing a white man towering over me. He turned out to be an American of at least 6’6” in height, with two long playing records in his hand.

“Isn’t that Dave Brubeck I hear?” he asked looking down from a great height! “Yes, so it is” I replied. “Well, I have never heard this recital of Brubeck's before. May I come in to listen?”. “Sure, do come in”. Soon, settled in our rather hard straight-backed sofa, he seemed comfortable enough and happy with what he was hearing – evidently for the first time. He then showed me his two LP records. One was Miles Davis’ path breaking ‘Birth of the Cool’ while the other was a Duke Ellington, the name of which I have forgotten.

He introduced himself as Johnny Hodges (not to be confused with the great African American alto saxophonist of many years in Ellington’s band), in the midst of his travels through South East, South and West Asia, primarily with an aim to promote jazz. A few cold beers and more music later, our Johnny Hodges realised full well my love for jazz. A lunch of hot chapatis with a mean mutton curry followed and was greatly relished.

Finally bidding farewell, he came over to me and handed the two records he had been holding on to. “Very happy to do so”, he remarked, adding that the vinyls “would surely remain well cared for in the good hands of a true jazz lover”. That was the first and last time I met our Johnny Hodges.

NB: I had those LPs for many years till my move to Papua New Guinea when I lost all my jazz collection in transit.
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. 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: 
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: 
Listen to Dave Brubeck's 'Jazz at Oberlin':

and here's a short piece, just to get a taste of the music!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Saga of the White Snake

by Simran Sandhu 
This one is of me in the maali bari and the tall dahlias I have mentioned
So we had moved from Sagmmotea to Nahorani ... Misa club to Thakurbari club. This was a bigger "chang" bungalow with a much longer, winding drive. It was nestled among mature, very tall trees and had some amazing shrubs some very tall dahlias, cosmos and many other varieties of flowers and come winter, the inevitable "baraf", those multi-coloured little gems edging all the flower beds.

I had a penchant for lamps ( I still do), a penchant almost bordering on a mania, so I had hanging lamp shades made in all shapes and sizes from a local craftsman ; the lamp shades ranged from being round to a square, a hexagon, an oblong, a rectangle and anything in between They were simply and perfectly woven in bamboo .

The next thing was to find a suitable corner to hang them from.. and of course what better place but my happy place- the " jaali kamra",a lovely square space with ageing floor boards and wooden beams and a (not very new) wire mesh to keep the various creepy-crawlies from creeping inside .

Very soon, a corner of my "jaali kamra "was adorned by the six hanging shades of varying shapes and lengths adding a rather mellow and magical ambiance in the evenings whilst we sat around the round table listening to Queen, Bryan Adams over GT's and Rum and Coke. My mother, on one of her rare visits to us counted 45 lamp shades in our house..!

The Jaali kamra with my mom and dad and the bamboo shade in the background
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and now when my very eco-friendly daughter hears of the 'lampshade saga', she is appalled and gives me a very well deserved dressing down for having wasted so much electricity and being one of the millions of individuals who are instrumental in causing the environment harm. 

I cringe, but in my defence, hasten to explain that I needed all these lights to light up the dark nooks and crannies of the huge rambling bungalow with its creaking floor boards,temperamental water taps, stained bath tubs and sometimes leaking roofs .To add more substance to my defence, I also add that these bungalows were more often than not inhabited by bats and lizards and snakes and apparitions in white... more so than humans!

This bungalow was not in the best condition, it was only the first and the last bungalow where I had kept a little "goru"a cow so I had a small “ goru ghar” i.e cow shed made of bamboo in one corner of the “mali bari”!

One of the three chowkidars (that we inherited) was a surly, middle aged chap, one of the very rare workers who supported a sizable belly. He was obviously very well fed and did not get much exercise. He was a man of very few words but over the months since we moved in he began articulating a bit more. I am not sure if was the locally sourced alcohol or the charms of my rather attractive, very slim,always pristine, clad in white mini (maid) who had travelled with us from the previous garden.

I was expecting my first born and prone to cravings and also quite moody (as is expected). In addition to the rather abnormal cravings for the very spicy "Haldiram bhujia" that the young mali Neelambar got packets of from the nearby town of Rangapara (in hordes without the knowledge of my husband), I was also a bit petrified of the dark nights and of being on my own - especially when my husband was in the factory.
Ranjiv with his sister and brother in law
The portly chowkidar had been instructed to stay upstairs in the lampshade “infested” jali kamra as I watched endless videos of the James Bond 007 series over endless cups of "ketli chai" that was constantly replenished, Marie biscuits and spicy Haldiram bhujia almost soaking in the spicy Maggi hot and sweet sauce ( something that I gorge on in times of stress even now twenty four years after ).

One night - and it was a rather stormy one at that - with the eerie sound of the wind amongst the tall trees...the occasional hoot of the owl, the shadow of the bats as they set about on their nocturnal flights, the rustling of the little rats that I knew had a permanent home in the confines of the “faltu karma” and the maybe even the kitchen amongst the grimy aluminium pots (on which no amount of scrubbing had ever worked) the chowkidar knocked on the door, gasping for breath. He stuttered that he had just sighted a “boga saamp” i .e white cobra near the “ goru ghar”.

He was pale and agitated and profusely sweaty. He said the “ boga saamp” is the undisputed lord of the garden and that it was bad luck to disturb / kill it. He had seen it slithering and moving and he was convinced it could easily slither across the garden into the house!!

I became agitated and tense and in incoherently "walkie talkied" my husband about this. Within ten minutes, I heard the sound of his car and his deep authoritative voice questioning the chowkidar.

Out came the big torch and armed with lathis ,the three chowkidars and my husband marched towards the corner of the garden near the lotus pond aiming to get rid of this white snake !

After a while they all came back ... with nothing to report except some very muddy boots and drenched clothing as it has started to rain. Assam and the blighty do have the one thing in common- the big W-vagaries of weather. The portly chowkidar, to his chagrin, got a firing for leading everyone up the garden path ( pun intended ) in the middle of the night!

Of course, by now it was the beginning of dawn and it being a Sunday, my husband without a second thought rounded up his Wilson 2000 and off he went for a round of golf leaving me, the “golf widow” to my own devices .. yet some more tea and biscuits ...sigh!

That evening, just as we were about to set off for the club, this chowkidar ambled up to me and without quite meeting my eye, said, and I quote,

“ ..Memsahib, hum maalom kiya hai .. woh boga saamp nahin thah .. Wo toh aapka mini thah, woh boga saree mein maali bari mien doosra chowkidar ke saath mohabbat banata hei” 🤣

Simply translated, “I have found out that it was your maid in her “white saree” in the throes of an intimate act with the other chowkidar.”

Of course our good man, this chowkidar, in his inebriated state mistook the writhing in the white saree to be that of no less but of the white snake !

Suffice it to say the bungalow was soon bereft of both ..the mini and her amour !!

As for the “ boga saamp” I am certain it still resides somewhere amongst the shrubs in the far corner of the bari !!

1.Chang bungalow-- A house on stilts.
2.Barf Phool - Mesembryanthmemum
3.Jaali Kamra - Deep verandah with mesh windows
 4.Goru- Cow
5.Goru Ghar -Cow shed
6.Mali Bari- Garden
7.Ketli chai -Tea in a tea pot
8.Faltu Kamra -Guest room
9.Boga saamp- White snake
10.Walki Talkie - Wireless
11.Chowkidar- Guard
12.Mini -Maid
Meet the writer: 

A Word from Simran:
Hello chai people
I left tea many years ago and life has been a real roller coaster; one that I have learnt from and loved every minute of , but the lush green of the tea bushes and the time spent in the “Jaali Kamra”,my happy place, is as vivid today as it was all those years ago. (Wish I could build one here but not sure if I will get the planning permission from the old fogies of the local county council 😊) 

I now live in the “blighty” with my two children and I work for the local government. I paint watercolours occasionally (time permitting ), love reading, antique fairs and long drives in the rolling Peak district. I often surprise all of my British friends when I bake cupcakes and scones , vol-au-vents and stuffed chicken, not to mention serving them in a tea trolley replete with perfectly starched napkins and bone china … a throwback to the "chai" days that I still hold very dear to my heart as I do all the lovely friends and memories made all those years ago. 

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories! 
There are over a hundred stories here, and they are all from the tea gardens! Our storytellers are tea planters and their 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 : 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, November 10, 2019

Burra Memsahibs

  'Never form your opinion on hearsay, be polite to everyone and keep your circle small.'
by Gumi Malhotra
During my fifteen years in tea, I was ‘under the wing’, so to say, of four Burra Memsahibs.

I came to Kakajan Tea Estate as a diffident newbie and met the Manager’s wife, Mrs Hanwant Singh. Tall and stately, she had an air of authority about her, and I noticed everyone straighten up when she walked in. Her daughter Ritu and I hit it off and shared many gups and giggles and I’d go to the Burra bungalow more to meet Ritu than her mother.

Mrs Singh treated me with the affection and indulgence due to an ignoramus. There are many little incidents I remember of those three months in Kakajan...hand written notes asking the ladies over for coffee, conversations on running a house and gardening, cooking lesson in her kitchen where the famed cook Surjit taught us his light as air chocolate soufflé. She told me once in a mild matter of fact way, 'Never form your opinion on hearsay, be polite to everyone and keep your circle small.'

She epitomizes the spirit of the tea ladies who were “Burra” not only owing to their husband’s position, but in stature and spirit.

In Nahortoli, I remember Afruza Chaudhury being fiercely protective of Imaan, who I brought to the garden as a one month oId baby. I told her once that he broke the only bottle of perfume I possessed and she looked alarmed and said, “ Oh God, I hope he didn’t hurt himself”!!

Later in Damdim, Mrs Meera Pandya, spoiling the boys with her motherly charm.

Roma Singh was by far the most chilled out Bara Mem ever! Always encouraging, never a negative word for anyone. We’d walk in for a chat or a swim anytime and were always welcomed with her signature laugh and a laden tea trolley!

Once after a very late night, about ten of us landed up at the Bara Bungalow at 2 am and asked the chowkidar to wake up the Manager Kuljit Singh, demanding coffee, an unheard impudence in tea! Not only were we not thrown out, we were plied with drinks, coffee and warm lemon tarts!

By the time I found myself living in the Bara kothi, I was a pale imitation of these stellar ladies. I’m much more myself living in a small apartment reminiscing of a way of life long gone.

Meet the writer: Gumi Malhotra

Gumi Malhotra
Hello chai people! Here’s one more attempt to pen down some of the million memories I carry with me. We came away from the gardens twelve years ago with our hearts full ( not so much the pocket) of such nuggets. 

We live in Bangalore now and what started as a hobby in the gardens has become my calling. I paint pet portraits. The happiest days spent in tea were in the Jali kamra with my paints, the boys occupied with make believe cars and a steady stream of tea flowing from the kitchen. Cheers!

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, October 28, 2019

Travails of a Proprietary Planter – Part II

by Minoo Avari

My ex-Bombay Burmah colleagues: Late Ricky Muthanna, Subbu (his nephew), Late Nickoo Rawley and Late Dinshah Daruvalla, when we met up in Coorg for a reunion.  They are all well known in planting circles in South India.

"You will have to meet the Brake Inspector," the Motor Vehicle Inspector said, pointing to the room across the corridor from his office.

I had waited two hours to meet the Motor Vehicles Inspector at his office in Palani. There was a huge crowd around his desk. When it finally came to my turn, I was told to meet the Brake Inspector! There were snide chuckles from the battery of people who had come, with cash in hand, to have their new vehicles registered. I got up to leave and was shoved aside by a ruffian who had come to have his commercial vehicle inspected. I found out later he was the self-appointed leader for a group of local van owners.

The scene at the Brake Inspector’s office was no better. Thronging with humanity, I couldn’t get anywhere near his desk … but I had the whole day. I waited. At 2:00 pm he got up from his chair and said he was going for lunch. Abruptly everyone left the office with him. There was only one chair for visitors and I immediately occupied it. A peon, busy cleaning the floor, told me that the Inspector would only come back at 3:00 pm and that I should go and have lunch.

Seeing me still sitting there and relenting a mite, he dropped his gruff demeanour and asked me the purpose of my visit. I told him I had a Light Commercial Vehicle and had come for the first fitness test. That interested the peon. “Where is your vehicle?” he enquired.

He accompanied me outside, and I pointed out my double cabin Swaraj Mazda. He looked suitably impressed, before turning back to the empty office where I occupied the chair once again. I asked him what else he did for a living.
The Mazda parked outside the Motor Vehicle Inspector’s office in Palani before the shenanigans began.  I was the first to arrive for the inspection & fitness certificate
“I am a government officer so I don’t do anything else but my wife cooks food for many people coming to this office.”

That gave me an idea.

“Does she cook non-vegetarian food?”

He nodded. Taking out fifty rupees, I offered it to him telling him I wanted an entire chicken with gravy wrapped in foil. He took the money and was off in the instant. He returned half-an-hour later with the chicken. It was hot so I put it on the table. Overwhelmed with the fifty rupees I had given him, he asked if he should open the foil, urging me to eat before the chicken turned cold. I told him I wasn’t hungry as yet and would wait till my appetite returned. He frowned but went about his business.

At 3:30 the Inspector returned. He was followed by a horde of people who pushed themselves in front of the chair and began thrusting papers and documents at him. I got up and my chair was taken immediately. Pushing my way to the desk, I sat on it.

This didn’t please the officer. Consternation creased the lines of white, saffron and green, painted across his forehead. Indicating he wanted me off the table, he resorted to a series of clucks, waving his hand dismissively the while.

Instead, I opened the foil and ripped off a leg of chicken from the main body of the bird. Some gravy splattered and, in the immediate silence, the officer looked dumbfounded. Finding his voice, as I began to chew on the chicken, he spluttered in Tamil. I understood every word but pretended I didn’t speak the language. Frustrated he broke into English.

“You cannot sit on table. You cannot eat here.” He said with belligerence.

“I saw you eating bondas and drinking coffee before lunch. You didn’t offer me any and I am hungry. I was the first person to come to the office and have been waiting since 9:30 am!” I retorted with equal ferocity, taking another bite off the dripping chicken leg.

Completely nonplussed he said I could not eat meat in this office. “I am vegetarian and you are eating meat in front of me.” “It’s a free country. You eat what you want and I’ll eat what I want.” I retorted.
At a complete loss for words, amid looks of amusement from the gathering in front of his desk, he said, “Come, I will inspect your vehicle now.”

I said I was not ready, stating I would first finish my lunch. This left him in a state of acute embarrassment and he decided to turn to the next person. All of a sudden, nobody seemed to be in any hurry. They were intently observing someone taking the mickey out of this corrupt department and wanted to witness it to its conclusion. The officer turned and forcibly took a document from someone’s hand. Proceeding to mutter under his breath, he quickly finished with him.

There was a gasp of astonishment from the onlookers. He had not asked for any bribe, which had been going on openly before lunch! Hastily, people started thrusting papers in front of him and he despatched them as quickly. Hanging around outside the office, their business completed, nobody was ready to leave the premises. When I finally finished the entire chicken with a supreme effort, someone whispered, “Thank you sir. Can you please wait until I finish? He is not taking bribe in your presence.”

Stepping out of the office the Brake Inspector demanded to know which vehicle was mine. Nobody had left and there were scores of vehicles still lining the road outside. My one-year old Mazda, just serviced in Coimbatore and gleaming in the evening light, stood right in front of him. A large crowd, waiting gleefully to see what would happen next, surrounded the vehicle.

Not knowing what to do, he gave me the registration documents and got under the vehicle to examine the chassis number. Having verified that, he asked if I had changed the engine. I told him I had.
“What?” he screamed, lying on his back under the vehicle. “What engine have you put?”

“I have put in a Rolls Royce engine,” I replied nonchalantly.

“You cannot change engine without informing this office.”

“I have just changed it and am informing you, in accordance with the rules.” I really had no idea about the rules!v “How is the old engine number and this number the same?”

“I don’t know. You will have to ask Swaraj Mazda and Rolls Royce.”

By this time the Bus drivers Association, the Lorry drivers Association, along with the commercial owners Association, were doing everything possible not to roll on the ground with unbridled laughter. A brigade of private car owners, with their vehicles already certified, were reluctant to leave and a swelling crowd of bystanders was blocking the road by then.

People trying to get to Dindigul from one end and Batlagundu from the other, now left their vehicles in the middle of the thoroughfare on either side. More onlookers joined the crowd and, as though by magic, tea, coffee, sweetmeat and bonda vendors appeared, adding to the carnival atmosphere.
Realising that he wasn’t going to get much joy from delaying the proceedings, the officer got out from under the vehicle. A huge blob of diesel smeared his face. Not amused, he said he would sign the inspection certificate immediately.

“You have to try the vehicle,” I reminded him. “If there is a brake failure or any other mechanical misfunction, you will be liable!”

The view from Khoram Estate
He really wanted to disappear by then. In no mood to argue, he got behind the steering wheel and asked me to get in. Sitting next to him in the passenger seat, I watched him fumble and helpfully instructed him how to start. It was obvious he had never driven anything this size and falteringly moved through the mysterious gap, which suddenly appeared in the midst of what was, perhaps, Palani’s entire population. I insisted he drive for a kilometre, reverse without my help and drive back to the office. He signed the certificate then, instructing me to never come back. He would come to Kodaikanal instead and do the needful. I told him that wouldn’t do. I would be back for the annual inspection. That October he sent me a box of delicious Indian sweets as a gift for the Puja holiday. These are some of the hi-jinks that are a prerogative of a propitiatory planter!

But I am getting ahead of myself. I had already purchased my Estate and named it Khoram, after my in-laws, Behram and Khorshed. Then, the following year, I purchased the prized property, on the opposite side of the river. We named it Avenbi, which are the first two initials of our immediate family, adding those of an aunt and uncle who looked after my wife when she was a schoolgirl in Bombay.

It had been a long, tough road. It was like nothing I had experienced working in the corporate sector. I couldn’t do everything I wanted to at once, and had my work cut out just looking after the four acres in the middle of the estate. Staying on the property without electricity wasn’t the least of it. I couldn’t afford a toilet for two years! Bathing in cold water in a nearby stream, performing my ablutions out in the open, while it was still dark; using a manvetti to dig a daily makeshift commode … needless to say there was no telephone either.
 Family outing at the Golf Course in Kodaikanal
 The comforts of home in Kodaikanal beckoned. Walking back and forth, to catch the bus at Perumalmalai every three or four days, became routine. Never having learned to cook, my staple diet was Maggi Noodles interspersed with MTR packets of ready-made bisibele bhat (rice), to which I added the company’s other products. Not exactly gourmet meals, it was convenient. All I had to do was add the sealed foil bags to boiling water and wait for a few minutes, before devouring the concoction ravenously.

I worked from ‘can-see-to-can’t-see’ and, at the end of each day, dragged my weary carcass, unenthusiastically, to the nearby stream for a bath in cold mountain water. This got particularly exhilarating if it was raining! Sleeping early, I would get up between eleven and midnight to do a round of the estate, equipped with a torch and shotgun. Waking again to take in the sunrise with a hot cup of tea, I would once again prowl the upper reaches of the estate to chase destructive monkeys away.

At times a few rounds from the shotgun acted as disincentive; when as many as two hundred bonnet monkeys leapt from the trees and raced away, to return roughly a fortnight later. It was an ongoing battle to protect my crops. I often wondered how long I could keep up with this pace. It was a brutal existence but, the pleasure of owning my own property kept me going and I was happy with everything I was able to achieve.

The irrigation tank at the top of the estate, half full. It was an enormous tank and the life blood of the estate. The well that was supposed to always hold water was empty a few months after I purchased the property and led to this huge engineering project.
Help though was around the corner. Out of the blue, Shehzarin got a job with the Kodaikanal International School, which effectively took care of the children’s education. Shortly after, one of my colleagues from the Corporation appeared and spent the night with me. He had been asked by the boss to find out how I was doing. He must have painted a pretty grim picture because, a few days later, one of the company staff rode down on a Jawa motorcycle. He had a letter for me from the Mudis Group engineer.

“This bike is for you for a thousand rupees and is payable when able.” That felt mighty good. I was now mobile. At about that time, several Sri Lankan labour who fled to India, were given land in Pethuparai and the village grew exponentially. They were looking for work and I had plenty to offer by then. One of the older women working in the fields, said she would cook for me. Using a broken-down room adjoining the house, she started producing delicious native meals.

When I thought it couldn’t get any better, Thangamuthu Chettiar, the former owner, arrived at my doorstep. I hadn’t seen him since he sold the property a year and a half ago. Looking around proprietorially; hamming an attempt at pity, he said he would take the oranges on contract.

Offering twenty thousand rupees, as a special concession, he said he would begin the harvest within two weeks and offered a thousand rupees as advance. I didn’t know much about oranges but realised they had benefited from the fertiliser and sprays applied to the coffee. What he didn’t know was, I was still acutely aware that he had thrown a grand party in the village, after selling the property to me. He had made it a point to tell everyone there that I was an idiot to have paid so much.

Our initial agreement for purchase of his estate was seventy-five thousand rupees. By the time I resigned from the Corporation, I came armed with one lakh of rupees – by way of gratuity and provident fund. He made a fuss, insisting on one lakh. There was no way I could give him that much: it was all I had! After dickering for a day or two, he came down to ninety thousand.

Without a job, anxious to get on with my life, I agreed. Now he wanted me to let him have my oranges. I declined. Sighing heavily, he raised his bid to twenty-one thousand and offered a two-thousand-rupee advance. Seeing that he wasn’t making any impression, he went higher and offered an even bigger advance. When I still shook my head, he asked how much I wanted. Not wanting to spare his feelings I said I would let it got for a lakh of rupees. He was taken aback:

“I sold the property for ninety thousand and now you want a lakh only for the oranges!”

When I shook my head in the affirmative, he walked away muttering threats and curses under his breath. Well, I harvested the fruit myself and was surprised at the outcome. I made two lakhs after all expenses were deducted! The coffee plants didn’t yield much that year, though I did get a little over a tonne of parchment from across the river on Avenbi. The pepper vines were still growing and, when they came to bearing, made a huge difference.

At about this time our rutted road came under the rural development scheme. Supervised personally by a few new landowners, who had come into the valley by then, it became a beautifully laid tarmac stretch all the way to the river. With that came the plantation inspector! I was walking down to Khoram when a jeep slowed down. It was going in the same direction and I thought I might be offered a lift. However, the person seated next to the driver, waved him on. I noticed it was a government jeep and found it waiting for me by my estate gate.

“I am the plantation inspector. I request your permission to visit your estate, which I have heard about.”

Naturally, he had every right to visit and I invited him in for a cup of coffee. We walked through the property, from top to bottom, inspecting the backbreaking work in progress on the top section. We had made drains, fifteen feet deep and ten feet wide along the contours, covering the breadth of the property. Over a dozen workers were busily pushing the numerous rocks and boulders into these trenches. At the same time contractors were digging a water storage tank which would gravity feed water to the coffee pulping unit six hundred feet below. Later this would also be used as a swimming pool! “I’m doing this because the bottom section is already planted and we can’t roll these enormous rocks down the hill. They will damage the plantation below.”

He nodded and seemed to appreciate the work being done. After his inspection I walked him to the gate where his jeep was waiting. It was coming toward the lunch hour and I fancied another cup of coffee, when a worker came rushing up to tell me the plantation inspector, standing on the road, was inciting workers to strike and demand more pay. He also told the workman he wanted five hundred rupees from me every month ….

I was already paying more than the government prescribed, and much more than the Planter’s Association of Tamil Nadu had negotiated with the unions. Furious at his double standards, I grabbed my shotgun and rushed to the gate. He was in full flow, telling the workers they weren’t being paid enough and he was going to take action against me. I didn’t say a word but opened the bonnet of his jeep – it gave him pause in the midst of his premeditated oration. Watching intently, his jaw dropped when I removed the radiator cap and flung it into the bushes.

Still fuming I opened his distributor cap and pulled out the rotor. I flung this in a different direction and proceeded to deflate one of the front tyres. Stunned, he offered no protest. When the tyre was almost flat, I straightened from my task and told him to start running. I pointed my gun at him but that seemed to have no impact. He stood frozen and only the sudden quiver of his mouth betrayed his state of anxiety. Firing at the ground between us, the blast had the desired effect.

He turned and started walking quickly up the hill. The workers clapped and laughed and I thought I would provide them some more amusement. Using the second barrel, I fired again, this time a mite nearer his heels and he started running. Chasing him and reloading the while, I let him have both barrels this time. He was off like a jackrabbit, with a turn of speed that would have left Hussain Bolt still kneeling at the starting blocks!

The jeep was towed away the next day. I never did get to see that amazing athlete again, though I was told he was inciting workers on other nearby plantations. That was enough to get us together and it was the start of our Farmer’s Association. It flourishes till today. Under M.S. Francis, who was the founder President, we went on to tackle the toll-gate issue. Peasant farmers had to pay toll to go into town to purchase their daily requirements: it included access to the post office and police station. They had to pay even to fill petrol, as the petrol bunk was on the other side of the tollgate.

Numerous visits to the land record (Taluk) office was another case in point. The government slogan in place at the time was – “Come tomorrow!”

The Coffee Board was another pain. All coffee growers had to collect TP3 forms from the Central Excise office in distant Pannaikadu: without these forms no coffee could be taken out from the estate premises. It was a mandatory exercise, in collaboration with the Coffee Board, to ensure all coffee was necessarily supplied to the Board. To add to our woes, the officer in-charge, at Perumalmalai, was an unmitigated rascal. His only function was to weigh coffee sacks on his rigged weighing scale; deducting three to four kilograms, from each forty-kilogram sack. On top of this payments to growers were staggered. The last of these instalments coming as late as six years after supply.

We were able to take down this odious monopoly imposed by the Coffee Board and it allowed us to sell our coffee to whomever we pleased. I paid for the bike soon enough and went on to buy a Land Rover. When that became insufficient, I attached a second-hand trailer but, when even that no longer sufficed, I purchased the three and a half tonne, double cabin, Swaraj Mazda.

The Mazda had been flown out of Japan as a demonstration vehicle. It was exhibited in Coonoor, over the weeklong seminar of the United Planter’s Association of Southern India, culminating with their Annual General Meeting. A lot of haggling went on but, my late friend, W.P.A.R. Nagarajan, had the last word and I got it for two lakhs. It was the first Light Commercial Vehicle in the country. He insisted on accompanying me back to Kodaikanal in the lorry but, by the time we got to Mettupalyam in the plains, he decided to give his aching backside a break and transferred it to his car which was following.

I managed well enough on my own but it really was like riding a bucking bronco. Equipped with double springs in the rear, with no cargo as ballast, the slightest bump turned the scene into something out of the Wild West. Gritting my teeth, I got her back to Kodaikanal in one piece but wasn’t quite sure if, in the bargain, I wasn’t broken in half! We removed the upper backup springs (all made in Japan) and, with sufficient cargo by way of sandbags, when there was nothing else to transport, it made for a smooth ride.

There was a problem with registration. The Regional Transport Officer had never registered such a vehicle before and was completely flummoxed. Again, as a commercial vehicle, the cost of operating the Mazda would have been prohibitive. I was somehow able to wrestle an endue certificate from the then sub-collector of Dindigul, posted in Kodaikanal, which exempted me from all taxes: I had only to pay one hundred rupees for the fitness certificate each year. It was cheaper than owning a car! She served me well for twelve years and, at the end of which, I got the same amount of money I paid for her.

In the final analysis, the estates taught me to deal with government departments: to drive the lorry hundreds of kilometres to purchase fertiliser and equipment and, to combine these trips with taking produce to market whenever possible. Gruelling as it was, I quickly learned how to do everything myself out of necessity. I understood the need to work alongside the labour, getting to know each and every one of them, including their families and their problems.

For over a quarter of a century, both Khoram and Avenbi taught me to be sensitive and responsible – to never back down, and do the right thing in the face of often intractable odds!

Some more photographs from Minoo Avari's collection:
Late Eric Karumbaya (Engineer on Mudis Group – BBTC) with his late wife Tara and son Naveen along with Rakhyee, Naveen’s wife, during Naveen’s wedding in Coorg.  I represented Eric and had to go to Mysore to fetch the wife-to-be attired in complete Coorg attire – known as a Kupsa.
The Mya Palanimalai Farmers Association – Meeting atop the new godown I built on Khoram.  Photo of Victor Vigour from Iceland, Peggy Rustomjee and Yours Truly doing the minutes.
The Mya Palanimalai Farmers Association (MPFA) has members from India, the U.S, Iceland, New Zealand and Sri Lanka

Here is the link to Part I of this story -

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.

Read more by Minoo Avari here:

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My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true( always ), maybe a tall tale, or long, short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. 

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