I've had some interesting people visit me from time to time . I'm not talking about friends or family but about strangers, who've come to see a tea bungalow and a tea garden for the first time in their lives. I've received them in my role as chatelaine of 'Bara Bungalow'. I don't feel like a rare species under study when this happens though people do tend to marvel at the rather unique living conditions here. I also enjoy receiving visitors from places I've never been to. It gives me a window into other worlds, which I've never visited myself.
It is sometimes nice to meet strangers who will probably pass out of our lives without any commitments or expectations on either side. It reminds me of the friendships that are formed on long train journeys. Tea garden life is very lonely, and the sameness of our situations makes it rather boring and predictable for the same small community to meet again and again. We welcome people from the world outside most enthusiastically. If they are communicative and interesting, all the better, as we have new things to talk about amongst ourselves for a while!
One such visitor was from the U.K., Donald. He was over seventy years old, a concert pianist and a complete Indophile. His mother was born in Rawalpindi, and his grandmother in Allahabad. He first 'came out' as he put it, in '91 or '92. He has visited India almost every year after that. He sponsors five children at a residential school up in the hills. The school is a hundred years old today. It was set up as an orphanage to house the offspring of British planters in the area, mainly those who were illegitimate and of mixed parentage.
We'd invited Donald and our friend with whom he was staying to my favourite meal : evening tea. Evening tea remains one of the quaint ceremonies that has survived in tea gardens, possibly because we have the time to spare for it! There are beautifully laid out tea trays featuring pretty china and starched linen. There are cakes, sandwiches, tarts or biscuits, pakoras and chutney. After a meal like that all one can do is lie back, digest and maybe experience a little regret at overindulgence. Or else, engage in good conversation over a drink or two.
Donald, while recovering from the disappointment of having been served bland fare (everyone here in India makes that mistake when they hear there's a Brit coming, he said with a sad smile) loved what the called the '1930s atmosphere' – the colonial bungalow, the potted palms in the long verandah outside, the high ceilinged drawing room, and 'the bearer bearing whisky' as he put it. To add to it all, there was a Scott Joplin CD playing in the background. That's when he told us about being a pianist himself.
Our young friend, his host's daughter, asked him if he was now able to visualize how his ancestors must have lived. She said that they as British saabs and memsaabs in the heyday of the Raj would've have had far more luxury and elegance than we did today in similar surroundings. Donald laughed out loud, 'My ancestors! Oh no! My ancestors worked in the Railways. Quite the wrong side of the tracks, I assure you. Tin shanties would've been more their style!' We just loved him for that!
He felt he had roots here in India and he said he found it difficult to keep away for more than two years at a stretch. I wondered what it was that brought him here again and again considering he made his first trip to India so late in life. His desire to bond with the past was very strong. I was reminded of a friend's sister, who was visiting India after twelve years, and was on a plane which got diverted to Guwahati before it arrived here in Bagdogra. She took permission to get off the plane there to 'touch the soil of Assam' where she was born. My sister once spent hours at Trichur, where my father lived as a boy, just walking around and soaking up the atmosphere.
Donald's love of India doesn't just limit itself to his India trips. He enjoys the taste of India in London, at his favourite haunts that don't skimp on the spice! He attended the first night show of 'Bombay Dreams' there and loved it.
He brought with him such an air of old world charm and dignity, and he kissed my hand gallantly when he said goodbye.