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Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Rogue Black Monkey of Kundlay

by Rajesh Thomas
The Nilgiri langur - more commonly known as the Black Monkey - is one of the more interesting denizens of the south Indian jungles. Found exclusively in the Western Ghats, these langurs are common in many South Indian tea gardens which have access to tracts of jungle. They are normally found in troops of eight to ten individuals, with an alpha male as the leader, and they feed mainly on leaves and fruits. They are very shy animals and can easily be startled. Their loud calls resonate through the jungle when alarmed and they are called the sentinels of the South Indian Jungles.

The reason why this particular primate went rogue and started attacking people is unclear. The most common version of the story going around was as follows.There was a government firewood felling camp above Kundlay estate.One of the workers there got friendly with the monkey and used to feed it regularly. One day he had got drunk, and when the langur troubled him for food, he beat it with a stick in his drunken stupor.The workers maintained that from that day onwards it developed a hatred for humans, or that it went insane after the beating.

There were reports of sporadic attacks on workers, but no one was injured and no one took it seriously. Until one day, when Simon Vasnaik, a good friend of mine and the manager of the estate got attacked. On a cold wet monsoon day, Simon was coming downhill on a steep field road on his motorcycle, when he suddenly felt something large land behind him.

Picture from the internet : 'Vanishing Troops of Nilgiri Langurs from the Western Ghats of India'
 A startled Simon turned around to look into the glowering face of a large simian. As it tried to sink its fangs into Simon’s shoulder, he elbowed it in the stomach and pushed it off the motorcycle. The Langur gave Simon some more anxious moments as it made several more unsuccessful attempts to attack him. A shaken Simon finally managed to reach the estate office and realised how narrow the escape was. A closer inspection of the fang marks on his raincoat revealed that the jacket and sweater he was wearing under his raincoat, along with the timely elbow had prevented the teeth from reaching his skin.

On the following Wednesday, the club night at the Kundlay Club, we listened incredulously to Simon's tale.

After the attack on their manager, the entire estate became wary. All workers from the Theerthamallay and East divisions of Kundalay estate begun to move around in groups armed with sticks and pruning knives. Pluckers moved from field to field only in groups. Supervisors began to be extra watchful in the plucking fields, seeing to it that none of the women were left alone. Watchmen were posted at vantage points to warn the approach of the rogue.

The attempts by the Forest Department staff to trap the rogue by means of fruit proved futile. The suspicious primate never took the fruits - probably due to the earlier bad experience with the worker at the firewood camp.
Simon, while handing over the estate, categorically warned me not to monkey around with this particular langur and to be careful while in the fields.

There were some more aborted attacks by the rogue, during which it was driven away by blows from sticks. By this time it became more cunning and desperate. Finally, it made a bold attempt to bite the leaf transport porter who was traveling on the tractor trailer. Fortunately, this attack also ended in  failure, as at the right time the tractor went over a stone and the porter managed to push rogue off the trailer and escape unhurt.

About this time Simon was going on annual leave and I, an Assistant manager on the nearby Yellapatty Estate, was deputed as acting manager for this period on Kundlay. Simon, while handing over the estate, categorically warned me not to monkey around with this particular langur and to be careful while in the fields.

I for one had no intention of getting monkey bites and took his advice seriously. I always took one of the estate watchmen armed with a stick and pruning knife on the motorcycle when I went to the fields. Fortunately, during the three weeks I was acting in Kundlay, there were no attacks and I breathed a sigh of relief as I handed over to Simon.

The rogue finally met with an ignominious end. One day it jumped on a tractor and attempted to attack the driver. In doing so,it tried to hold on to the silencer and the silencer being blisteringly hot, it couldn’t hold on; it fell down and got run over by the trailer.

Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : indianchaistories@gmail.com. My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. Stories from the tea gardens are one of a kind! A chai story is 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.  Our wonderful storytellers are all from the world of tea!
 


 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.


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Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!  

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Of Butlers and other superior life forms




by Mirza Yawar Baig
Mirza Yawar Baig writes a touching tribute to Bastian the Butler, a gem of a man from a bygone era; his 'friend and a very good guide for me to ease into plantation life'.


Our servants in the plantations were wonderful people. Many were old hand downs from the British planters who had trained them in their ways. Some had special attitudes inherited from the British, who they imitated faithfully. The pecking order of servants was very strict. At the top was the Butler. He was cook, waiter, and until you got married, the valet; all rolled into one. He would cook your meal – usually to his own satisfaction. He would serve you at table; supervise those who took care of your clothes, house, car, and garden. He would more often than not iron your clothes himself and would cook some of the special things, especially the puddings. He would ensure that there was always soap in the dish and that the towels in the bathroom were always freshly laundered.

The Butler was followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the Butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager. The Butler made sure that there were always flowers arranged in every room. Some Butlers were excellent artists at arranging flowers, having learned these and other skills including cooking European meals from the wives of British planters. Most useful for us of course.

Bastian at his best – service from the right side
This experience also gave them a sense of standards that is almost impossible to find today. For example, my Butler Bastian would always be dressed in clean white shirt and dark trousers with a belt. He would always be clean shaven, would always have used something to hide the smell of the cigarettes he used to smoke, which I would never have imagined if I hadn’t actually seen him once without his knowledge. As a courtesy, I never walked into his pantry without making some noise on the rare occasion that I did go. It was always more polite and convenient to ring the bell, conveniently located in every room in the house. He would not wear shoes inside the house no matter how much I tried to force him to do, especially in the cold winters.

When we had guests and he could not serve from the correct side, he would say, “Sorry, wrong side Sir.” Nothing was taken for granted, including the fact that most of those who heard this statement had no idea what he meant. They hid their confusion by laughing. He would always greet me at the door when I came home, push my chair in when I sat at table, and then serve me with a towel on his arm. And at the end of the day when I had eaten dinner and he knew I was not going to need anything else, he would come and say, “Good night, Master.” This would be followed by the other servants in strict order of precedence.

When you decided to have a party and invite some people, a very essential part of plantation life, your Butler would advise you about who you should invite and even more importantly, who you should not invite; either because of the wrong image that would give you or because that person did not get along with the other more important guests. He would advise you about what each one liked to drink and what anyone was allergic to.

Bastian was horrified when I told him that we would not serve any alcohol. For a long time, he was convinced that he was working for the wrong person because the Butler’s prestige would go up if I was promoted quickly and we moved into the Manager’s bungalow. He held the popular opinion that without serving Scotch whisky at parties to the bosses, I would get nowhere. I suppose he also did not like the thought that he would not be getting his quota free of cost either. I, on the other hand, was of the opinion that promotion must come as a result of performance, not on account of the amount or cost of whisky served. Mercifully, my career progression bore me out and proved him wrong. What - if anything - he did about his quota I never discovered and neither did he ever appear to be under the influence, as it were. So that part of Bastian’s life remains a secret.

When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order, which remained the same, was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the Butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money.

People spoke with great respect about managers who were seen as incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt.

Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many Butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss). Many British managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their Indian subordinates who added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt ‘ship’ as it were.

One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were seen as incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference.

I had two Butlers during my stay in the Plantations. Bastian was with me when I joined in Sheikalmudi as Assistant Manager and remained with me for two years. Then he left and Mahmood (more about him later) joined my service. Mahmood was with me when I got married and stayed with me for a total of about three years. When I returned to Lower Sheikalmudi as the Manager, Mahmood left and settled down in Ooty, his hometown. Bastian then returned to my service and remained with me until I moved to Ambadi Estate in Kanyakumari. He then left and settled in Kotagiri.
Lower Sheikalmudi Manager’s Bungalow where we lived with Bastian in charge

A few months later we learnt through the grapevine that Bastian had passed away. I was very sad indeed to hear about his passing. Bastian had been a friend and a very good guide for me to ease into plantation life. A few months later I was in Kotagiri visiting my dear friend Berty, when driving down the road, who do I see walking up the hill, but Bastian. I was so delighted that I yelled out his name and swerved the car to park it, almost making the rumor about Bastian’s ending true in the process. Passersby must have thought it very strange indeed to see this Peria Dorai (Big Boss) jump out of his car and hug an old Butler. But that was my Bastian. A man who served faithfully and who was a friend more than a servant. He was completely loyal to me, preserved confidentiality in all matters, and treated me with utmost respect.

Bastian was a brilliant cook and claimed that he knew more than 100 recipes for soufflés and puddings. I have no doubt he did, and I was the beneficiary of many, if not all. His cream soups were brilliant. So were his fruit soufflés. He would top some of them off with caramelized sugar like an elaborate web. Very stylish. But for the love of anything, he wouldn’t teach anyone else how to cook those things. My wife and many other ladies tried every trick to learn. Bastian would very politely say, ‘Of course Madam. I will teach Madam. Madam come when I am making it.’ But when Madam went there, at the final moment, he would do something to distract attention and there it was all ready and made and Madam would have to wait for the next opportunity.

After a few such attempts, Madam got the hint and satisfied herself with eating Bastian’s cooking without trying to learn how to cook it. On one occasion, my wife suggested to Bastian that he should teach the houseboy who was his assistant in the kitchen. Bastian’s response was classic. He said, ‘No Madam. Chokra dull Madam. Can’t learn anything.’ And that was that. Chokra dull Madam. I sometimes say this to my wife about myself, when I am feeling a bit under the weather, “Chokra dull Madam,” and we both have a good laugh remembering Bastian.

Bastian like most of his tribe spoke ‘Butler English’ and was very snobbish. My wife used to speak to him in the same way to make it easier for both to understand what was going on. So sometimes I would come in to hear, ‘Bastian, tomatoes got, not got?’ And Bastian saying, ‘Got Madam. But when Madam going Valparai please kindly bringing cream Madam. Need to make vanilla soufflé for Wood Dorai Madam’s dinner party. If Madam want, I am coming to Valparai with Madam.’ And life would go on.
Image result for finger bowl images
To understand the snobbery of this breed of Butler, let me tell you about something that happened one day. I was informed at about 10 am that the Tahsildar (a District Administration officer) was going to come to the estate to check on some land matters. I was to give him lunch at my bungalow (most estates had no guest houses or hotels and so all official guests had to be entertained at home for which managers were paid some token amount). So, I drove my old Royal Enfield Bullet, kept running mainly due to the daily attention of Thangavelu the mechanic, up to the bungalow and said to Bastian, “Bastian, the Tahsildar is coming for lunch so please make some extra lunch.”

“O God, Master!” said Bastian.

“What happened? Why are you O Godding, Bastian?”

“Master, I had planned to make fish in white sauce for Master,” said Bastian.

“So just make some more, Bastian!” I said with some impatience.

“Unh! What that man know about white sauce!” snorted Bastian.

So duly, rice and Sambar with two other curries was made. At the end of the meal, Bastian in his usual style, produced crystal finger bowls with warm water and a small slice of lemon on the edge. The Tahsildar, who naturally knew nothing about finger bowls and who came from a place (Pollachi) where people drink warm water, squeezed the lemon into the water and drank it up. As soon as he left there was Bastian with a big grin on his face telling me, “See Master! What I told Master about that man?”

The interesting thing in this story is that the standards that Bastian exemplified were the standards of the British, taken from their culture. The Tahsildar was actually a man who came from the same culture as Bastian himself, yet Bastian identified with and got his own sense of significance from the standards of the British rather than from his own people. The power of indoctrination and identification with the ‘ruling class’ was very visible in plantation society where the culture of the White Sahibs was very much alive and followed to the T by their successors, the Brown Sahibs.

Not to say that all these standards were bad. Not at all. Many of them referred to manners, ways of dealing with subordinates with fairness and dignity, the importance of appearance and presentation and the power of the ‘Covenant’ that made the managers ‘Covenanted Staff’ as against all the other staff who were called Non-covenanted. But there was also the element of superiority of race, caste, and more importantly, class. Social class.

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : indianchaistories@gmail.com. 

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


Meet the writer: 

Mirza Yawar Baig. President, Yawar Baig & Associates (www.yawarbaig.com). Business consultant specializing in Leadership Development and Family Business Consulting. Was a planter from 1983-93 in Anamallais and Kanyakumari. Author, mentor, photographer, speaker, inveterate traveler. Working across boundaries of race, religion and nationality to bring hearts together. I was in tea for seven years and in rubber for three. Also planted coffee, cardamom, vanilla and coconut.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Water Diviner

by Aloke Mookerjee
Aloke has shared a number of stories here on Indian Chai Stories. You'll find a link to these at the end of the page.
'I have another 'tea tale' for you', writes Aloke. 'This time it is in Assam, when I took over Borjuli T E as Manager. I was there for eight years!The story I tell here is true in every detail.'

Image result for water diviner stick
Back in 1976, two years into what would become a long tenure at Borjuli, I realized that an additional tea nursery was needed to accommodate a greater number of plants required to meet our planting targets of the coming years. Thus, along with my assistants, I went around the estate in search of a suitable site. Sooner than expected, we located a plot of level fallow ground, not far from the estate office and the garden assistant’s bungalow alongside the main tarmac road leading to Rangapara town. Its convenient location would allow for close supervision – a critical requirement for raising a nursery of healthy plants.

The North Bank area of Assam, where Borjuli is located, is a drought prone belt in this land of copious rains. The few showers that occurred after the monsoons had receded were too unpredictable to rely upon. Irrigation of the nursery and the ‘young tea’ was therefore essential, and already an established practice here. The need to locate a water source nearby therefore became a critical issue for the success of our nursery in the newly found site.

Apart from the Borjuli nadi flowing through the eastern edge of the estate, water for our irrigation systems was drawn mainly through bore wells from subterranean reservoirs. Local contractors were incapable of boring more than a depth of twenty feet or so. In any case, this was the deepest we could have gone what with the finances available in the estate budget. The cost of boring deeper wells, being considerably higher, would have needed the approval of the head-office which I knew, would not have passed. It therefore became imperative to discover a spot close enough to the nursery site where adequate water would be available in the shallow subterranean strata – a tricky proposition. We would need surely ‘Lady Luck’ for such an outcome!

My assistant, Subrata ‘Bacchu’ Bhattacharya (may his soul rest in peace) suggested ‘water-divining’ as a means to locate a water source here. Quickly adding credence to my doubtful response and before its outright dismissal, he reminded me of an incident when our erstwhile Visiting Agent, Bill Morrison (as a Manager) had accurately discovered a viable ground water reservoir through in his estate by ‘water divining’. It earned him a lofty reputation of being a ‘Water Diviner’ – a seemingly obscure gift that, I gathered was apparently inherent in only a few ‘select’ individuals. But with Bill retired and back in Scotland, no one else was known to possess this esoteric skill. I was now persuaded to try my hand at it.

Occasionally, people on the main road passing by stopped to watch me with curiosity. ‘Johnny Walker’ could not have been any prouder of my resolute strides as I repeatedly reminded myself to ‘Keep Walking’!

So, what did this ‘skill’ entail? Bill Morrison had evidently explained all in some detail to Bacchu some years back and he now educated me of the procedure. For a successful outcome, a ‘Y’ shaped branch, not too green and pliable nor too old and woody was needed first. I was to then hold on to the two arm ends of this branch at waist height and spread them out with the third arm pointing straight ahead and parallel to the ground. Holding the branch thus, I was to walk over any selected site and hopefully locate a pool of water hiding somewhere beneath my feet! If ‘Lady Luck’ decided to smile and I did stumble upon such a pool, the third arm of the ‘Y’, I learnt, would be pulled down by a kind of a magnetic force. The force of the pull would depend on the quantity of available ground water. Having heard all this and with nothing to lose but a bit a time and energy, I agreed to ‘give it a bash’. My ‘team’ rushed about and before I could change my mind, a perfectly suitable branch from a nearby Indigofera Teysmanii tree was found, cut to shape and handed over to me.

With head full of my newly acquired knowledge of dubious authenticity, I began my walk with the two branch ends of the ‘water divining device’ held firmly in the fists of my hands. I strode systematically in straight lines, along the entire length of the plot, starting from the north-east corner. Occasionally, people on the main road passing by stopped to watch me with curiosity. ‘Johnny Walker’ could not have been any prouder of my resolute strides as I repeatedly reminded myself to ‘Keep Walking’! Sadly though, my resolve seemed to have little effect. In time I had, almost entirely covered the plot, yet the branch in my hands remained a lifeless piece of wood. My hopes were rapidly waning and I was ready to give up this futile exercise.

With such gloomy thoughts flashing, I finally reached the last stretch in the south west corner. As I stepped on to this bit of the land, the branch in my hand suddenly seemed to wake up with a gentle tug! Did it really happen, I wondered, or was it just my wishful imagination? Not so, the branch had actually moved for at my very next step the tug got stronger in its downward pull and with my third step, I could barely hold back its force. The third end of the ‘Y’ had now dipped down to point vertically down at my feet and pulling with such force as to almost tear itself out of my clenched fists. Incredible as it may seem, even my strongest effort to bring the branch back to its original horizontal position failed. Excitement erupted all around and we quickly marked the spot on the ground, where the branch was pointing.

Sobered soon after the initial euphoria, doubts of my newly discovered ‘power’ were beginning to creep in. I needed to make sure this curious experience really carried substance. I got both Bacchu as well as my ‘Jamadar Babu’* to try their hands at it. Strangely enough, however much they tried, there was no downward pull of the branch in their hands at the marked spot. And yet with the branch back in my hands, the strong magnetic pull would unfailingly return.

On the basis of this rather mystifying experience, we felt justified to complete our venture. Boring at the marked spot began the next day and pipes inserted into what did indeed turn out to be a new underground reservoir that gushed out water continuously for all the years I was in Borjuli. I had discovered our water source! And with it, earned my ‘Brownie points’ to become the second confirmed ‘Water Diviner’ in Empire Plantations living to tell the tale!

I never needed to test my perplexing prowess again. Do I still possess this ‘gift’? Who knows? But more importantly, after forty plus years, I wonder if my wonderful and very successful nursery, where it all began, still exists!

*Jamadar Babu - the garden clerk

Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : indianchaistories@gmail.com. 

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


Meet the writer: Aloke Mookerjee



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

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

Friday, May 31, 2019

‘Bishram Sardaar-ka Mangri’ Story of the Indian Tea Worker

by Venk Shenoi
Venk Shenoi returns with an absorbing account of how workers reached the newly planted tea gardens of India in the early days.  
"The greatest unsung heroes of Indian 'Chay/Chai' are the workers, particularly women", he writes.  
"We need to take care not to judge history by today’s standards or redefining exploitation and victimhood.  Descendants of these early workers have established roots in their new homelands and many have prospered." 
Venk has also shared some beautiful photographs of tea workers which he took in the 1960s. Cheers to the spirit of Indian tea!
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Phulo.jpg

Phulo Munda the Queen of Nagrakata attracted attention wherever she went (Pix credit: Venk)
Early Beginnings
The greatest unsung heroes of Indian 'Chay/Chai' are the workers, particularly women. Long reports have been compiled about brothers Robert and Charles who obtained local tea varieties from the hill tribes and cultivated them, in time developing the Indian Tea industry. They highlight how British colonial expansion, the First Anglo Burmese War of 1824/26 and annexation of Assam and later in the Century, of the Dooars following the Anglo-Bhutan War (1864/65), and restrictions on local landowners opened up valuable land for growing tea.

The Chinese, who had known tea for over three millennia both as medicine and a beverage, were secretive about its cultivation and manufacture; interior China was off-limits to the West. The Emperor restricted trade to the Chinese and prohibited foreigners from travelling inland and acquiring knowledge of cultivation and manufacture.

For a time the early planters tried to use the peasantry in Assam but those with local connections failed to work hard and deliver the needed results. Some planters, including the Assam Company, tried to recruit Chinese labour with tea experience, paying them several times the going rates for local labour. Most were sent back in the early 1850’s.

The Chinese faced a massive addiction problem as the East India Co and other foreign entrepreneurs bartered Indian grown opium for the tea they imported into Britain. Subsequent curbs on opium imports led to the infamous Opium Wars (1839 – 60).
C:\Venk Data\India\Tea\Photos\Chinese_opium_smokers.jpg
Chinese Opium Den

The EIC was investigating opportunities for growing tea on land that was now coming under its control in Assam following the Anglo Burmese War (1824/6). They were bent on using Chinese varieties, cultivation, and manufacturing method,s despite discovery of indigenous Assam varieties and success in growing them (the Bruce Brothers’ story).

The EIC commissioned Robert Fortune, a Scottish gardener, botanist, and plant hunter on a spying mission to gain Chinese know-how. Fortune travelled into the interior (1848/51) disguised as a local official and managed to gain insider knowledge of Chinese cultivation and manufacturing techniques.
Many Europeans previously working in opium cultivation in North India were induced to venture out to the new tea plantations opening up in Assam following the Indian Mutiny (1857/58) and chaos in the Opium growing regions of Oudh and Bengal. It was a hard life for the early planters, subject to disease and other dangers with many early deaths.

There is also much to read about the early Joint Venture Companies both in Britain and in India that promoted jungle clearance and tea planting in Assam and later in the Dooars and about tea being shipped to the London Auctions in the late 1830’s and formation of the Assam Company’ (1839). Sailing ships pre-steam took months to reach London from Calcutta around the Cape of Good Hope.
All this would not have been possible if adventurous Europeans and also Indian babus, and more importantly the needed workers, could not be recruited and induced to travel to a land infested by malaria, cholera and other tropical diseases and also dangerous animals and snakes.


C:\Venk Data\India\Tea\Photos\Photo - Elephant ploughing Clearance.jpg
Clearing Jungle - Early 1800’s, Assam

C:\Venk Data\India\Tea\Photos\Photo - Tea Estate Weeding 1800s.jpg
Cleaning up the 'melas, – Early 19th Century – note the wide gap between rows


C:\Venk Data\India\Tea\Photos\Photo - Out in the Melas.jpg
Plucking Tea Mid 1800’s. Working long hours under the sun was no fun
Marketable tea took many years to grow and manufacturing systems had to be improvised hundreds of miles from the main industrial centres such as Calcutta. Transport was by land or river on slow craft until the advent of steam power in the mid-1800’s and Railways after the 1860’s. Many lives were lost in the process.

The Indentured Servant
British colonisation released land, and plantation industries expanded in the 1800’s. The concept of indentured servants existed from the early days of European colonisation of the New World. Half a million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean (primarily the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean) before 1840.

“The Indian indenture system was a form of debt bondage, by which 3.5 million Indians were transported to various colonies of European powers to provide labour for the (mainly sugar) plantations. It started from the end of slavery in 1833 and continued until 1920. This resulted in the development of large Indian diaspora, which spread from the Indian Ocean (i.e. Réunion and Mauritius) to Pacific Ocean (i.e. Fiji), as well as the growth of Indo-Caribbean and Indo-African populations.” Ref Wikipedia. The same Recruitment Agents and systems were used to induct Labour to the new plantations in Assam. Labour Agents were employed by the East India Co and also other commercial interests to obtain and sustain labour supply to the newly opened land growing tea in Assam.

Reeta Dutta Hazarika Asst. Professor, Dept. of History, Narangi Anchalik Mahavidyalaya, Guwahati, has set out a revealing essay on the subject. Summing up:

“The contractors or the arkatis did the recruitment of labourers in initial years of tea plantation in Assam. At the time there was no restriction upon the contractors. Therefore the arkatis, who were ex-convicts, burglars, thieves, dacoits etc. adopted typical methods of recruitment. The notorious Arkatis treated women recruits like animals and forcefully slept with them and this brought shame and disrespect into the lives of these unfortunate young girls. The journey to the garden was also not easy. The labourers were treated like animals and they had to go through various depots to reach their final destination. These people had no idea as to which garden they will go to. The story behind the cheap women labourers to Assam and their fearful misfortune can fill any human heart with pity."

The system initiated by individual plantation workers evolved into the Sirdari System where workers continued to be overseen by their Sirdars who also got a cut of their wages.

In time Estate Managers also evolved their systems to avoid Agents’ fees by paying trusted workers to travel to their tribal homelands and induce their families and friends to join them. Many did; many perished en route but their numbers grew. The system initiated by individual plantation workers evolved into the Sirdari System where workers continued to be overseen by their Sirdars who also got a cut of their wages.

The Tribal Lands
Santhals and Mundas were in large numbers in the Dooars where I worked in the early 1960’s, also Bhutias and Nepalese given that the Dooars was previously part of Bhutan.

Maps below show tribal lands being the sources of plantation labour in India.
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Geographical-locations-of-the-Indian-tribal-populations-in-the-present-study.png


C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Tribal Lands 2.png

We need to take care not to judge history by today’s standards or redefining exploitation and victimhood. The world is as it is today. Descendants of these early workers have established roots in their new homelands and many have prospered. Reportedly, many from the tea Estates are venturing out of their bonded system today into other occupations across India and further afield.

I am posting photos of workers and their young that I came across in the early 1960’s. They have their own stories to tell. I would not do justice by speculating on their behalf.
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Mangni on the Khet 1.jpg

Mangri’s Sister on the Khet

C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Mangri on the Mela.jpg
Bishram Sirdar-ka Mangri on the Mela – always polite and smiling
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Mangri on the Khet 1.jpg

Mangri doing her Kheti with her baby on board
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Mahari.jpg
Pretty Mahari – Clever little girl
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Phulo 2 and Murmo.jpg
The Munda Twins - Phulo and Manna
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Kanchi 3.jpg
Kanchi 1
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Little Kancha 2.jpg
Little Kancha
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Kanchi 2.jpg
Kanchi’s little sister holding a duck from the Haat.

C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Kanchi 's Mum.jpg
Kanchi’s mum
No tea story will be complete without the giant spider to be found stretched across shade-trees over the Mela.
C:\Venk Data\Photos\VGS Historic\Giant Spider.jpg
Editor's note:
All portraits of workers taken by the author, and all historical pictures sourced by him.
Sardaar - overseer/ supervisor in charge of a fixed number of workers 
Mela - tea plucking row. This is called 'Mela' in the Dooars and 'Padhi' in Assam


Is this your first visit here? Welcome to Indian Chai Stories!
Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : indianchaistories@gmail.com. My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull.
You will find yourself transported to another world! Happy reading!
Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 


 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.'

ADD THIS LINK TO YOUR FAVOURITES : https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/Indian Chai Stories  

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Spring Chicken

by Indi Khanna
Please welcome Indi Khanna, who joins us with this entertaining account of his days as a newbie on the High Ranges in Munnar, Kerala .
Panniar: Trekking up to Ervikulum (all pix by the author)
In 1975 at a young 22 almost straight out of University, I found myself up on Panniar Estate (High Ranges) having been despatched there by the Malayalam Plantations Agents in Cochin. Born and with my entire formative years having been in Simla where the only agricultural produce was apples, planting as a career had never ever crossed my mind. Providence and a long story (for another day) of how I found myself down south. Having been sent for an extension interview to a rubber estate near Trishur (Mooply), the first Tea bush I ever really saw and touched was when I arrived at Panniar, never for a moment realising that this innocuous plant is what my entire life would revolve around so that 45 years later that love affair continues. And thankfully so!

The next morning, on my first day at work, my P.D*. Mr Abid Khan who over the two years I worked under him became a father figure for me, told me that for the first three/four months I was not to be given a motorcycle and that I should walk the estate with the conductor, following which words I was duly 'handed over' to Mr Balia. A most imposing figure replete with a pith helmet and a swagger stick, Mr Balia (never just Balia) could WALK! And so over the next four months after a very crisp 'good morning sah' and a tipping of the pith helmet, we walked and we walked and we walked and then we walked some more covering as much of the 320 hectares as we could.

Panniar being a good one and a half hour drive from Munnar and the High Range Club, I was totally dependent upon Abid and Shamim, who very kindly, every time they headed that way, would take me along for the evening. On other days, end of day, Abid would come past the muster on his bike and ask me (this was an almost daily ritual), 'what are you doing this evening?' Bereft of any kind of transport there was not much that I could do and so evening after evening, straight from the muster, we'd head up to Abid's bungalow where the three of us would play badminton till it got dark, after which it was Scrabble while listening to BBC plays on Abid's transistor.

Abid being a rather infrequent drinker, while a drink was offered to me every now and then, Shamim always made sure that I never went back to my bungalow hungry. We followed this lovely 'habit' for all of four months till, having worn away three pairs of 'Bata Hunter shoes' (all that was available back then) trudging along behind Mr Balia, I was finally made mobile with my Bullet.
Panniar: My first bike
 About three months into this routine in the Club, two of my senior colleagues from Surianalle Estate (the other Malalayalm's Estate in the High Ranges) casually asked me that in the absence of a bike, what was it that I did in the evenings. Sharing my routine with them, Raghu and Appu asked me when I was planning to reciprocate and have Abid and Shamim over for a meal. Which casual remark led to my getting down to buying a dinner set, courtesy the Company's soft furnishing allowance and our Group Doctor who was heading down to Cochin for a weekend. Finally the proud owner of a spanking new Hitkari dinner set adorned with tiny pink flowers, when Abid came past my morning muster it was my turn to ask 'Are you and Ma'am busy this evening?' and so my first grand dinner party.

While waiting for Shamim and Abid, I was thumbing through my weekly supply of newspapers when I felt a 'presence'....

Arranged for our local Kadai** to get me a bottle of brandy from Munnar and had my cook/bearer/gardener/man friday - Kaliappan - buy a chicken from the labour lines: the menu for the grand dinner being chicken curry, a vegetable, daal and rice, which incidentally, was the extent of Kaliappan's culinary skills. The arrangements having been made, I headed off for the 'Mr Balia march' of the day. Walking back from my evening muster, just below my bungalow, I kept hearing a strange repetitive sound of 'baak, baak, bakka…..' which appeared to be emanating from under the bushes.

Peering down through the bush frames I saw my friend Kaliappan sitting on his haunches with a palm full of rice and intently 'baaking'. Having been unceremoniously hauled out from under the bushes he very sheepishly and with all 32 teeth being flashed at me, informed me that just as he was about to knock off its head, our pièce de résistance had managed to wiggle out of his clutches and had disappeared through the pantry back door.

To say that I was upset would be an understatement. With no money to buy another chicken and with it being unlikely in any case that Kaliappan would be able to muster up a replacement late in the evening, I had to resign myself to that first dinner being a simple and fairly inedible veggie affair.

Crestfallen and having showered, waiting for Shamim and Abid, I was thumbing through my weekly supply of newspapers when I felt a 'presence'. Peering over the top of my newspaper I saw our dinner, likely drawn in by the bungalow light, very proudly strutting across the red oxide floor. In a stage whisper I called out to Kaliappan, who, peeping out from the dining room and seeing the fellow, was out like a flash of lightning and had grabbed him by his neck. Should anyone have seen that film, in his deft movement and sheer speed, Kaliappan was the embodiment of the Bushman in 'The Gods must be crazy'.

The next thing I heard was a squawk and by the time Shammim, Abid and I had done with our chit-chat, the poor escapee was in my new Hitkari serving dish on the centre of the dining table swimming in a curry!

*P.D. - Peria Durai, a Tamil term meaning 'Big Boss', like 'Burra Saab' in North India.
** Kadai - Tamil, a shop
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 - www.teastudio.info.

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

Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : indianchaistories@gmail.com. My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

 ADD THIS LINK TO YOUR FAVOURITES : https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/Indian Chai Stories
 



Sunday, May 19, 2019

Christmas Lunch

by Gumi Malhotra

Dear readers,
Please welcome Gumi Malhotra who brings us the first of  many stories that she's promised to share.
'Last night I dreamt I went to Damdim', reminisces Gumi, '...no Mrs Danvers, but our Jerome was a force to reckon with! So here’s a very tiny sliver of our times there.'


25th December. On a cold foggy morning I dragged myself out of bed showing all the ill effects of a Christmas Eve at the Western Dooars Club. I walked towards the kitchen ready to pluck at any available sleeve for the morning brew. From the corner of my eye I noticed a white plastic bag on a table in the pantry that did an occasional jig.

I ignored it as an apparition and cursed the second rum and coke.

Holding fort in the deserted kitchen was the smiling Jerome, reeking of country liquor, who whilst polishing floors to perfection apparently also introduced our older son to beedis.

Once the Christmas greeting and plea for tea was over I asked Jerome to disclose the contents of the white bag.

“Aapka Christmas hai” came the reply.

“Kya hai”

“Murgi hai”

“Oh my God Jerome usko kholo jaldi...mar jayegi”!!!

“Koi baat nahin, aapka lunch ke liye hai”

“No, usko nahin marenge”, I said horrified.

“Kyon” asked Jerome perplexed.

“Anda dega“, said I desperate to justify its existence.

“Nahin dega”

“Kyon”?

“Murga hai”, said Jerome with cheerful satisfaction.

Nevertheless we rescued a barely feathered, squawking chicken from the plastic bag and set it free near the mali bari. Our Christmas gift lived a long dignified life lording it over the kitchen garden and many a pretty hen. A more handsome rooster I have yet to see.

I wish I had a photograph of him!

Meet the writer: Gumi Malhotra
Gumi Malhotra
Hello chai people, here’s my first attempt to pen down one of the million memories I carry with me. We came away 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! 
You will meet many storytellers here at Indian Chai Stories, and they are almost all from the world of tea gardens: planters, memsaabs, baby and baba log. Each of our contributors has a really good story to tell - don't lose any time before you start reading them! 

Do you have a chai story of your own to share? Send it to me here, please : indianchaistories@gmail.com. My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

 ADD THIS LINK TO YOUR FAVOURITES : https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/Indian Chai Stories
 

 

Friday, May 10, 2019

A Strange Event At Powai Tea Estate


Happy to be back with a new story for all our readers. Alan Lane takes us back in time in his inimitable style. 


by Alan Lane
During the cold weather of 1966/1967, I had been requested to overhaul the Crossley QVD 6 engine at Powai Tea Estate, Consolidated Tea & Lands Group, a James Finlay garden, located on the road between Digboi and Margherita. On arrival at the estate, which had the burra sahib as Sam Weller, and the factory assistant manager who was Mr Verghese, I was advised that I would be staying with Mr & Mrs Verghese at the Bungalow No.2 which is located on the other side of the main road from Digboi to Margherita.

At the end of the first day, I went to this bungalow for afternoon tea, and had a chat with the Verghese family. I was very pleased to make contact with them again, as when they had come to the UK, Mr Verghese attended a short training period of two weeks at the Crossley engine factory in Manchester, and as at that time I was nearing the completion of my apprenticeship, I was given the responsibility of helping him with any queries about the engines being built at the works. After our talks on the verandah of the Powai bungalow, the usual dustoor of going for our baths was observed, prior to having drinks and then dinner together, and then charpoy bashing.

In the morning, I was wakened by the bearer with palang-ka-chai, which was put beside my bed. I then went down the bedroom’s internal stairs to the gusl-kamra, for a spruce up and a shave. On soaping up my face, I heard the tea cup and spoon being moved, and so I came up the stairs to admonish the bearer as I had not yet drank my tea. On arriving at the top step, I noticed that there was a strange person sitting on my bed drinking my chai. I approached this person and asked him what he was doing, and looking at him I noticed that he was a hill tribe man. He ignored me completely, and so I went out to the verandah and called the bearer and chowkidar, who immediately then told Mrs Verghese (Mr Verghese was already at kamjari) who then phoned the factory.

Next thing was that two of the Ghurkha gate guards turned up and manhandled this tribesman down and out of the bungalow. The Digboi police duly arrived and took the stranger to their station for interrogation. I carried on having my shave (I was still all soaped up with shaving soap all this time – looking a bit like Father Christmas!) and then went to the factory engine room to carry out the overhaul of the engine.

Later on during the day, Mr Verghese was given a report by the Digboi police concerning this tribal man. The report stated, although I cannot swear to it being true, that the tribal person had come down from NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) with the intention of kidnapping a child to take back to his district and used as a sacrifice to the spirits where a new bridge had been built over a river.
It seems that after having been admonished by the use of a lathi, the man was released and escorted back to the NEFA border from where he had come from. Nothing further was heard.
Pic courtesy Alan Lane
 Attached is a picture of No.2 bungalow at Powai Tea Estate that was copied from the excellent and highly recommended book, “Burra Bungalows and all that” published by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) – Calcutta Regional Chapter.



Meet the writer:
Alan Lane, a 'cha ka baba', was born in Bombay. Alan's contributions to Indian Chai Stories go beyond the stories: he keeps a large number of people all over the world connected with their Indian tea 'roots'. In his own words, 'My wife and I still have lots of connections with India and we are, as you may well say, ‘Indophiles’.' Alan and Jackie Lane live in the UK; they left India fifty years ago. Read the story of this cha ka baba's return to the tea gardens of Assam as a Crossley engineer here: Indian Chai Histories. 
You will find more stories by Alan 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 : indianchaistories@gmail.com. My name is Gowri Mohanakrishnan and I'm a tea planter's wife. I started this blog because one of the things that I wouldn't want us to lose in a fast changing world is the tea story - a story always told with great seriousness, no matter how funny - always true (always), maybe a tall tale, long, or short, impossible, scary, funny or exciting but never dull. You will find yourself transported to another world! 

Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea!

 ADD THIS LINK TO YOUR FAVOURITES : https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/Indian Chai Stories
 

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Interview

Rajesh Thomas is back with another charming story of life in the tea estates of South India
 
by Rajesh Thomas

Prelude: Unlike the interviews in North India, the interviews in the plantations of South India required the candidate to visit the estates and stay with one of the Managers for a few days. The Manager would then assess the candidate’s suitability. The General Manager would use this assessment and his own judgment to make the final call. 

The young lad sat nervously in the passenger seat, albeit the drive from the estate office to the Managers bungalow was a short one. The stockily built gentleman driving the car, though short in stature, was a towering personality and also the PD ( Peria Dorai: the Burra Sahib equivalent in South India) of the Estate. A fearless horseman and a skilled big game hunter, a knowledgeable planter and someone whom the workforce greatly feared, admired and respected. The respect and admiration also flowed down to the Managers and Assistant Managers of the neighboring estates.

The young lad attending the interview and was supposed to stay with the PD for a couple of days in which the PD could assess whether the lad was of suitable material to be an Assistant Manager and give his recommendations to the General manager before his final interview. The General Manager greatly valued this assessment and generally went by it. There was a lot at stake for the young lad - after all a planting job those days was a gateway to a good life. He was determined to put up his best show.

After tea and a shower, they met up in the drawing room for the customary drink before dinner. In the middle of the second drink, a discreet cough by the doorway indicated the presence of the Butler. He announced that a contingent of workers had arrived at the bungalow saying that a herd of elephants had entered the workers housing line units and were feasting in the kitchen gardens and they wanted to inform the Peria Dorai.

Ah, elephants! Exclaimed the PD turning to the Young Lad “I bet that you have never seen elephants at close quarters come I will show you“.

In a few moments, the Ambassador car was on the way to the workers' line units suitably armored. An excited crowd greeted the duo. In the dim moonlight, shadowy figures could be seen over the fencing of the kitchen garden at the far end between two labour lines. The rumbles from the stomachs and the tearing of the banana trees were clearly audible over the excited murmurs from the crowd.

The Peria Dorai acknowledging the salaams, marched into the scene, as some of the supervisors and the older workers shooed off the inquisitive adolescents who were inching forward for a closer look of the anticipated spectacle. In true big game hunting style, the PD leaned on his .450 express rifles to assess the situation and called the young lad closer and pointed out the grey forms, then promptly handed him a roll of fire crackers. He then indicated to the young lad to go and fling it at the pachyderms.

When he sensed a hesitation in the youngster, he remarked in all seriousness, “Don’t worry, if the buggers charge I’ll stop em”. The young man anxiously lit a cigarette and inched towards the herd as a nervous silence coupled with anticipation descended on the crowd.

After he had judged he was close enough, the young lad lit the bunch of crackers with his cigarette and in one action threw them over the fence into the vegetable garden - and ran back as fast as his legs could carry him, without a backward glance. Fortunately for him, the jumbos bolted in the opposite direction away from the crowd and into the neighboring tea fields. The crowd dispersed slowly, a bit disappointed at the anti-climax.

Only the General Manager knew what the PD wrote in his confidential assessment, but the young lad got his appointment letter in a few weeks. Many moons passed the young lad, now a PD himself was holding court as a bunch of young Managers and Assistants in awe were listening to the tale being related.

In the end, he wistfully looked up over his whiskey and confessed that he was scared as hell, wondering what he had got himself into, and that he'd half expected to feel a trunk on his run back.

 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.


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

You will find yourself transported to another world! Happy reading! Cheers to the spirit of Indian Tea! 

ADD THIS LINK TO YOUR FAVOURITES : https://teastorytellers.blogspot.com/Indian Chai Stories

 

Friday, March 29, 2019

Language Opens Hearts

by Mirza Yawar Baig

It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as far as  possible. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. 

One of the first things I did when I joined the tea industry was to learn Tamil. I recall Mr. Ahmedullah, the General Manager telling me, ‘You must speak Tamil not only fluently but like a Tamilian, not like a Hyderabadi or an Englishman.’ And that is what I proceeded to do. I engaged the local school teacher in Sheikalmudi, Mr. Kannan (called Kannan Vadiyar – Kannan the Teacher) to teach me Tamil. He was a great teacher and I was very enthusiastic to learn. Not only did Mr. Kannan teach me to speak, he taught me to read and write Tamil and also taught me something of the most famous of Tamil classics, the Thirukkural.

This is a book of proverbs written by the famous sage, Thiruvalluvar who is revered for his wisdom. Thirukkural is structured into one-hundred-thirty-three chapters, each containing ten couplets, thus a total of thirteen-hundred-thirty couplets. Each couplet has seven words, four in the first line and three in the second. Amazing achievement, conveying amazingly wise advice strictly within this framework. Poetry has this power of enforcing discipline in thinking. When you are keeping to the rules of classical poetry, you must think clearly and express yourself concisely. Mr. Kannan used to read and explain them to me and I even memorized a few of them and would on occasion recite them in my speeches, much to the amazement of the audience. In six months of daily lessons, I became completely fluent and thanks to Mr. Kannan’s accent, I speak Tamil like a Coimbatore Gounder or Brahmin. Knowing the language is a window into the culture and so it was with me.

Knowing Tamil proved to be a big asset, both on the estate as it gave me a major advantage to be able to communicate with my people in their own language, and later in consulting as I now have several Tamil business families as clients. Knowledge of Tamil was also a great asset in communicating with the Chairman of my company, Mr. AMM Arunachalam, who despite being fluent in English preferred to speak in his own mother tongue, Tamil. So, when he would come to visit Ambadi Estate and visit the Suchindram temple at Kanyakumari, his wife and he would stay with us, as I was by then the Manager of Ambadi Estate. In the evenings he would sit with us after dinner and at my request, he would tell me the story of their family and their move from Burma to India and how they evolved from being money lenders to one of the leading industrialist families in India. The conversation would mostly be in Tamil with a few sprinkles of English. These evenings gave me an insight into the minds of one of the foremost business family heads and were instrumental in helping me understand the mind of an entrepreneur. Years later when I wrote my book, ‘The Business of Family Business,’ I dedicated it to the memory of Mr. AMM as we called him and to his generously sharing his life experience with me. He was a great teacher and I was an interested and willing student.

Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sandeep Singh) was on Urlikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend the Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience.

Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey has as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life. And no mobile phones, net coverage and Wi-Fi to worry about.

If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, the Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day.

Mercifully, I was walking softly, and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more I spent time with myself, clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.

Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………

It was in this period that I was promoted and transferred from the Anamallais to Assam. I declined the promotion because Assam is a backwater and one tends to get lost there. In the corporate world it is important to be physically visible, not only visible through reports. Paradoxically if you are doing well and all your reports have nothing to make anyone concerned, you are not rewarded but forgotten. It is indeed the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and this is nowhere truer than in the corporate world. I figured that if I went off to Assam, which is about as far as you could get from our corporate office in Chennai, I would be forgotten, and this would have a negative impact on my career.

I declined the promotion. However, since I had been transferred, I had to move out of the estate. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job. I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. I was ‘parked’ in Carolyn Estate in Mango Range until the company could decide what to do with me.

I was assigned a bungalow in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time. Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house she created a lovely home which we enjoyed living in.

Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things:

For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new managers. The current system in the plantations was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learnt or didn’t depended on his own capability and the interest and energy of his manager and field or factory officers. If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy intensive and does not give standard results. I had been saying for several years that there was a need for a standard text book on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.

During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. At the time of its publication there was no such book on the market and it was a source of great satisfaction for me. My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. It has since gone out of print and to the best of my knowledge, it has not been reprinted. A big lesson for me was the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer. After that book there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had worked with over the years rooting for me in the company.

The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I knew Orthodox manufacture as I had been Assistant Manager in charge of Murugalli factory in the Anamallais. But though I was part of the project team for Mayura factory construction and defacto Site Manager, I had never done CTC manufacture. So, I considered it my great good fortune that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on manufacture, was a regular visitor to Carolyn. He and I became very good friends. He shared his knowledge freely and I learnt a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learnt all aspects of manufacture hands-on further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989.

Carolyn , Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as far as  possible. I have learnt that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy. This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events. If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. The key to contentment is not amassing, material but in being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it.

One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. I decided to learn golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Club to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks. His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. When he swung the club though, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Whereas my club would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Shows that technique and not strength of the arm is what works in golf. Also, in many other things in life. Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a bag of a hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side, smoking a beedi, watching me and making clucking noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club.

So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Club has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it – you must pay to get the ball back by leaving your blood on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.

Another one of my joys while living in Mango Range was the time I spent with Mr. Siasp Kothawala at his lovely guesthouse called Bamboo Banks in Masanigudi. Masanigudi is in the foothills of the Nilgiris at the edge of the Mudumalai-Bandipur National Park, so there is a lot of wildlife around. You see a lot of Chital, some Gaur, and some elephant, the latter being dangerous as they are too close to human habitation and often in conflict with people. Mudumalai is also supposed to be a tiger reserve, though I have never seen a tiger in it.

My wife and I used to go to Bamboo Banks on some weekends. The gate of Bamboo Banks was an ingenious contraption. It was a bamboo pole, suspended horizontally across the road and had a plastic water container secured on one end. There was a sign for you to tug on a rope if you wanted to open the gate. The rope was connected to an overhead tank so when you tugged it, water would flow into the plastic container, which then went down and lifted the other end. All this happened while you were comfortably sitting in your car. The water would then drain out of a hole in the can and flow into an irrigation ditch and on into some fruit trees, closing the gate. Siasp was a tea planter and worked for the Bombay Burma Tea Company (BBTC). He then went into the tourism business and has done very well. We would spend lovely afternoons talking about the tea industry and the general state of the world and drinking tea. Siasp always had an angle to everything, which he would put across in a hilarious and entertaining way.

Siasp also had horses on his farm and having had tea I would take one of the horses and go riding in the sanctuary. This had its exciting moments and I recall two of the best.

One day, late in the afternoon, I was riding out of the farm and into the dry fields that surrounded it before the track entered the bamboo thickets that bordered Mudumalai, when I saw a hawk hovering in the sky ahead of me. I pulled up to watch it and saw a dove break out of cover from a hedge and head for the safety of the forest flying very fast. The hawk folded his wings and stooped coming down like an arrow out of the heavens. The dove had almost made it to the forest cover when the hawk hit it in middle of its back with a slap that I could hear where I was sitting on my horse. The dove must have died with the impact, but the hawk bore it to the ground and then holding it in its claws, looked up right and left, its pale yellow eyes scanning the world to challenge any takers. What a magnificent sight that was. The image is engraved in my memory.

As I rode on, I took a path that went along the middle of a forest glade which had scattered clumps of bamboo. After a kilometer or two, the path passed between two very thick and large clumps of bamboo and dipped into a dry stream bed and went up the other bank. I used to like to gallop this stretch and my horse knew the routine. Strangely, on that day as we came near the bamboo clumps my horse shied and stopped and refused to go forward.

This was odd behavior, but I have enough experience to know that in the forest your animal is your eyes and ears and you only ignore its signals at your own peril. I listened to the horse and turned around and then took a long and circuitous route to go around whatever it was that was bothering my horse.

As we came around, I saw what was bothering him. It was a lone male elephant which was hiding behind the clump of bamboo. Now I have no idea what the elephant’s intention was, but I was not taking any chances. My horse obviously didn’t like the idea of passing close to the elephant and if we had continued on that track, we would have encountered that elephant where the path was the narrowest and where it was bordered and hedged in by the bamboo. In case of an attack, we would not have had any escape. Lone elephants are famous for such attacks. A rather terminal situation which we were happy to have avoided.

 On one of those trips to Bamboo Banks, I saw an elephant by the roadside, a little way inside the forest. As this was quite close to the Forest Department’s housing and elephant camp, I thought that it was a tame elephant and decided to take a picture. I had a small box camera at the time in which you were the telephoto – if you wanted greater magnification, you had to go closer to the object. I got out of the car and walked almost to the side of the elephant and took a photo. Suddenly I heard someone yelling at me, his voice high pitched in panic. I looked up and there was a forest guard, a good two-hundred meters away, waving frantically at me and yelling at me to get back into the car. Since it is not an offence to get out of your car on the main road in Mudumalai, I was irritated at this man’s insistence but since I already had my picture, I returned to the car.

As we drove on and came up to him, the man waved us to a stop and still in an angry voice asked me in Tamil, ‘What do you think you are doing? If you want to die, go do it somewhere else.’
I said to him, ‘Hey! Relax. What is all this about dying? I was only taking a picture of one of your elephants. Who said I want to die?’

The man said, ‘Our elephants? That was a lone wild tusker that you were standing next to. I have no idea why he let you get that close or why he did nothing. Your lucky day. That is a wild elephant and a lone one at that. Don’t do these stupid things.’

And he went on for a while in the same vein. I was so shocked that I listened in silence. And of course, how can you get angry with someone who is only interested in preserving your life? But I still have the picture, which is very impressive.

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”
http://amzn.to/28JpEC2

Meet the writer: 


Mirza Yawar Baig. President, Yawar Baig & Associates (www.yawarbaig.com). Business consultant specializing in Leadership Development and Family Business Consulting. Was a planter from 1983-93 in Anamallais and Kanyakumari. Author, mentor, photographer, speaker, inveterate traveler. Working across boundaries of race, religion and nationality to bring hearts together. I was in tea for seven years and in rubber for three. Also planted coffee, cardamom, vanilla and coconut.

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

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