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Turbulent Times With Tea

By Shivani Sarvapriya Taimni

(The following is a historical account of post-Colonial Eastern India, sprinkled with anecdotes of life in the famous tea gardens of Assam.)

In the second half of the 20th century, a young, uncertain nation named India was trying to find its footing, recovering from the trials and tribulations of two hundred years of colonialism. 80% of its population, impoverished hardworking labourers, vaguely recall a change of higher management, while the privileged upper class, victims of large-scale Stockholm Syndrome, clung on to the ways and means of the British Raj, fearful of losing the oppressors that had empowered them. Besides this, a once prosperous and expansive nation had had considerable portions of its land mass clumsily hacked off and left bleeding, in what can be described as a fitting Grand Finale to the acquisition policy of divide-and-rule.

Amongst the whirlwind of poverty, caste-ism, communalism and politics for the sake of politics, a special situation was brewing in the far Eastern corner of the nation. Back in the 1700s, when the East India Company first began to take trade relations with India a bit too far, they took particular interest in the port town of Calcutta, a thriving commercial hub, and consequently the fertile neighbouring areas of Assam, Sikkim, Manipur, Mizoram etc. Much of the production of their preferred crops such as spices, silk, indigo, cotton and opium took place in these areas.

At the dawn of the 19th century, the East India Company grew concerned about the Chinese monopoly on the production and export of a highly valued crop; tea leaves. Eastern India was agreed upon as the ideal location, both logistically and agriculturally, to help the representatives of Great Britain make a name for themselves in the global tea trade. Indians had hitherto only grown and consumed tea in small quantities, for medicinal and recreational purposes. However, generous quantities of Chinese tea leaves were now imported to India, along with the age-old Chinese farming techniques and vast tracts of farmland were turned over to the production of tea. Europeans were incentivized with land ownership to settle in India, in exchange of a promise to exclusively grow tea for export. The years went by, and Assam and Darjeeling gained recognition as the producers of the finest tea leaves in the world, brand names in their own right. A well-functioning community was established, more-or-less unaffected by the events occurring in the rest of the nation for at least the next century and a half.

15th August 1947. As the world slept, India awoke to a new chapter of freedom, chaos and despair. The promises of prosperity, justice, a fresh start and a bright future seemed hollow. British ships sailed away from India abruptly and hurriedly, leaving no time for the Indian leaders to give shape to anything resembling a societal foundation, not even a brief Constitution or well-defined geographic boundaries.

Even the idyllic little corner we concern ourselves with was not immune to this. The flourishing state of Bengal had been split on communal lines into West Bengal and East Pakistan. The bountiful soils of the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra had been lost to Pakistani territory. However, the Assamese farms dedicated to growing tea remained in India, albeit even more distant from the mainland. A few European landowners opted to stay back, choosing a life they had grown to know and love rather than starting from scratch in England. Property left behind by those that did leave was acquired by wealthy Indians, and it was business as usual. Interestingly, although India had, by then, been the largest producer of tea for many decades, internal consumption rates remained low. Recognising this, the Tea Board of India launched a highly successful advertising campaign in the 1950s, influencing consumption patterns to a point where, today, 70% of the Indian tea produce is consumed locally.

As any historian will tell you, the Assamese tea garden lifestyle from the 1950s to 70s not only made for a fascinating study of the Commonwealth nations and the long-term impact of colonialism, but was also a beautiful, archaic, touching, humorous and sometimes sad amalgamation of life that coexists, day by day, rooted and flowing with the wind as one, like the tea leaves that it blooms around.

A typical tea estate would be a sprawling mass of land, spread across many acres, with a majestic bungalow in the middle. An imposing sahib, his elegant, sharp but perpetually bored wife, a small brood of children, well-educated, well-groomed, well-in line, enough pet dogs to take down an average tiger (and often trained for that very purpose), an exotic pet or two, and at least one attendant to each one of them, not to mention the plethora of maids, cooks, gardeners, other forms of domestic help, farmers, lorry drivers and daily wage labourers, all made up the vibrant populace of that little world. Of course, this ecosystem was not always the most symbiotic, and a hilarious hiccough or two were always the order of the day. A woman recalls how she, as the newly-wed, young, clueless North Indian wife of a tea garden assistant manager in Dulabchara, in the Kachar district of Assam asked the Bengali watchman to take her Alsatian puppy for ghumana (a walk) before breakfast. The lazy watchman took advantage of the ambiguity of this command, to the end that the next day the wife saw both him and her beloved puppy napping peacefully by the wall. When reprimanded, the watchman justified it with a straight-faced, “Memsahab said ghumana. That means sleep in Bangla (Bengali language). I did as I was told.”

Linguistic barriers aside, differences of opinion were frequent even between perceived equals with common frames of reference. Often, these differences were rooted in the stifling, sometimes arbitrary but much-needed norms of behaviour that each individual was expected to adhere to without question. In times of social, political and economic turmoil, when hope and faith in humanity is being tested and the very ground beneath ones feet seems unsteady, the individual, and consequently, society as a whole, tends to find solace in the last system that worked. They align themselves to it involuntarily, regardless of any irrelevant facets or fallacies it may have. The strictness with which they cling on to these norms and etiquettes is directly correlated to the instability of the days, and as such, it is understandable that someone even stepping toe outside of these boxes was received with much hype and scandal.

In one incident, two sprightly young men inadvertently got themselves temporarily ostracised. The tea estates were interspersed with clubs, that is, recreational centres where upper class residents would come to socialise and negate the effects of the overwhelming isolation, an occupational hazard of the tea gardens. Each evening, these clubs would be abuzz with the sounds of laughter and merrymaking, of children frolicking and playing, women gossiping gaily and men discussing the events of the day over a drink or three. It was an awe-inspiring sight to behold, the indomitable spirit of the celebration after a long and difficult day, during long and difficult days.

The managers of the club, guided mostly by the desires of the ladies, made special efforts to keep this spirit alive. Every so often, they would put together a gala evening or ‘do’s. A special favourite amongst these were the fancy dress dos, affairs that were as lively as they were distinguished, with unspoken rules guiding the festivity without quelling the enthusiasm. It was on one such event that our heroes, Wallerstein and Anderson, in a faltering attempt at humour, arrived at the Longai Club between polished individuals in faded, torn and purposefully muddied clothes, each carrying a broken bucket half-filled with lime cordial with pieces of sausages floating inside them. Uninhibited, they had dressed as jhaduwalas, the sewer cleaners, who delved into the deepest filth and garbage, keeping human waste and contamination at bay, and were thus considered the lowest of the low. Interaction with them, or, indeed, even with someone dressed as them, was unthinkable. Our heroes were thus asked to leave. Hungry, dejected and finding no alternative, they proceeded to take a seat on the entryway staircase and make a meal of the lime cordial-soaked sausages in their buckets. This anecdote would spread like wildfire, narrated over and over again long after Wallerstein and Anderson themselves were dead and gone.

An account of pre and post Colonial India would be incomplete without a mention of the frequent interactions of the people with the rich fauna of India, the much-loved shikar trips, which unfortunately led to the eventual endangerment and extinction of various Indian animal species. Packs of boisterous men astride sturdy horses, surrounded with muscular hunting dogs would leave for the wilderness, and not return home without the carcass of some hapless animal to add to their collection.

In the age of heightened awareness, struggling as we are with the repercussions of various forms of environmental damage inflicted over centuries, it is easy to dismiss these men as callous, primal monsters. However, the fact remains that many of the globally renowned conservationists and avid naturalists such as Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett would enjoy their fair share of game every now and then. Many of these men were genuine animal lovers, passionate about nature and its bounty and were highly vocal about condemning animal cruelty outside of their shikar trips. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this was a different time. The Indian subcontinent was so abundant in its biodiversity that they may never have conceived of a time when their favourite sport would cause terror-struck animals to disappear and never be heard of again, either by migrating into deeper reaches of the forests or by perishing.

In the tea gardens as well, shikar was a commonplace activity. Each bungalow would be resplendent with the heads and skins of exotic carnivores and herbivores, mounted up on the walls or spread across the floor, tame and terrifying. Besides this, the tea estates, vast and green as they were, served as breeding grounds for species of mammals, birds, reptiles etc. that, in later years, one would only hear mentioned by the droll voice of their science teachers. One morning, a tea estate in Longai was up in much hullaballoo as the gardeners and labourers had come across a full-grown python resting on the premises. Fearful but fascinated, they set up an elaborate bamboo cage and brought it to their sahib, much pleased with themselves. The sahib and memsahib, unsure of the appropriate protocol, decided to consult the authorities. However, the Calcutta Zoo, the nearest reserve that was well-equipped enough for a python, was understaffed and overcrowded, and at the moment could not spare a pilot to transport the reptile away from the remote tea gardens. Thus it came to be that the python was to remain within the tea estate compound, until something could be arranged. A chicken pen was cleared for it to live comfortably in and ample food and water provided. A few hours passed by and the residents began to grow concerned, noting that the snake lay very still and stubbornly refused to acknowledge the delicacies laid out for it. Not long after, the mystery was cleared when the memsahib rushed outside to find the source of a strange huffing sound, “like that of a steam engine.” Much to her awe, she found the python curled into an inverted cone, evidently about to deliver its eggs. Needless to say, this sight was rare at best, and the news spread like wildfire. Locals from far and wide congregated at the estate to witness the miracle. As the whole event turned into one big carnival, the distressed centre of attraction, the female python herself, was unable to cope with the noise, stress, fear, unwanted attention and, most of all, hecklers, and left her recently delivered eggs one night to break out of her prison and escape into the night. She was discovered the following morning slithering about the grounds. Decisive action had to be taken but the sahib refused to authorise the killing of an innocent animal on his turf. The workers, ordered to take her outside and leave her alone, took matters in their own hands and put the python to her death. The abandoned python eggs were also quietly done away with, by those wishing to close a chapter that had ended on a rather sour note.

As it always has, life in the tea gardens would go on, slow, mysterious, unexpected and spectacular. Despite India’s tumultuous relationship with its Eastward neighbour, East Pakistan and the steady influx of refugees, the people of Assam were by-and-large a peaceable lot, and chose to stay away from the greed and violence that many seemed to relish. Even when the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War broke out, life amongst the tea leaves remained supremely unaffected, which was no easy feat, when one considers that not only did they share a border with East Pakistan, thus becoming a war frontier, but also that at many strategic locations, the boundary line between the two nations was demarcated merely by one-foot high painted milestones, set a 100 metres apart.

In the days leading up to the war, as the entire nation awaited the dreaded announcement with bated breath, tensions would be building up in Assam as well. Massive trucks carrying military personnel began to arrive and unload; and seven army divisions were set up. Bunkers and bomb shelters were constructed, and training drills organised, so as to maintain civilian security. Despite this, in another example of the cheerful nature of the tea garden dwellers, the situation was never as sombre as it may appear to be. Jovial young military officers would participate in the evening merrymaking at the clubs, killing time until provided further instruction. Children rather enjoyed the drills, secretly hoping that if a missile ever came whistling nearby, it should happen in the middle of Math class.

Then one fine day, an important announcement was made by the President on the All India Radio, and India was once again at war with Pakistan. Laughter was replaced by the constant rattling of gunfire in the distance, and brave troops on either side of the border were being martyred each day. Patriotic sentiments soared, and the residents of the tea gardens grew cautious, each eager to do their part.

One morning, in the Chand Kheera area of Longai, as a lorry driver was carrying his usual truckload of tea leaves to the storage unit, he came across a fatigued looking youth staggering down the road. As he drew closer, he noticed the markings on the man’s uniform and immediately placed him for a Pakistani military officer. Their eyes met and the man began to gesticulate, trying to wave the truck down. Thinking fast, the driver pulled up and offered the officer a lift, promising to take him to the nearest army outpost. The grateful, exhausted officer, lay down on the soft tea leaves at the back of the truck as the vehicle started up again. Inside, the driver’s mind was racing. This Pakistani officer obviously had wandered off his path and did not realise he was on Indian terrain. The driver was aware of a Border Security Force outpost at a short distance and made a beeline for it, praying that the officer remain blissfully unaware of the danger he was in. The military man may not be a threat at the moment, but he was armed, and one wrong move could cost the driver his life.

As they trundled on, passing by expansive farms and small stores, the soldier hailed the driver to stop and buy him a pack of cigarettes. The driver obliged, not wanting to create a scene, and even took the Pakistani currency he was offered, deftly exchanging it for an Indian rupee. As the lorry revved up a second time, the soldier in the back found an unlikely clue: the alien language etched on the cigarette box. He screamed out for the lorry to stop, but the panicked driver slammed down the accelerator and drove at breakneck speed to the BSF outpost. In the nick of time, just as the soldier pulled out his weapon and tried to open fire, the driver alerted the authorities and the Pakistani soldier was overpowered and taken into captivity. It was another day in the military life, but one that the lorry driver would never forget.

Seasons have flown by since the tea estates of Assam saw the comfortable resentfulness of entire families of helpers and workers, the restrained freedom of tiny footsteps on holiday from boarding school, followed by the raucous bark of best beloved Butch. No longer does the air quiver with precise commands that have never known disobedience. No longer does routine run the clock and the clock run everyone else. Amid tea leaves that united a troubled nation, a little corner of the world ages and flourishes for it's own sake, dignified, recluse, melancholy, graceful.

By Shivani Sarvapriya Taimni

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