Monday, January 21, 2008
Blues for Tea
My friend Raj enjoying a quiet moment at a picnic in Telepara Tea Garden
Last weekend we had the Annual General Meeting of our Tea Association, and almost all the families of the tea garden managers and assistant managers in the Dooars were present. It’s a time for friends – old and new, old and young. Dolly, who’s almost fifteen years younger than I am, is a joy to meet. She's young and fresh and her two lively little ones keep her active and smiling. I always look forward to seeing her at this big get together every year. It’s the only time we meet, since we live so far apart.
We finished exchanging all our news, and then she said, 'We value you and your husband because you represent an era when etiquette and values mattered. There are not too many people left from that time.'
That knocked me out. To someone of Dolly's age, I suppose I would look ancient! When my girls were little, how elderly the senior manager's wives, our Burra Memsaabs, appeared to me! What Dolly was saying sounded like what I used to say to some of the older ladies just a few years ago. I've hardly been here too long -- is twenty-two years a long time? Not to someone of my age. And am I a representative of the good days of tea life?
How much -- how little -- of the good old days have I seen?
Sitting by the fire in the evening, I gave some thought to the values which were talked about when I married and came to tea in 1986. Unfair practices or self-advancement were never tolerated at our clubs, and anyone guilty of such offences was booed down, ridiculed and later avoided by everybody. Toughness was considered a desirable quality, as it was understood that plantation life was tough, for both men and women. Toughness and honesty went together. Outspokenness was positively encouraged. Fights were common at the club - the men would 'sort out their differences' outside, and then have a drink together afterwards. High standards of quality were sought in the organisation of club dos and ladies' meets. There were no professional caterers at the time, and the ladies were all given their share of the cooking to do. Recipes would be handed out, since more than two people might be making a portion of the same dish. Shoddiness was unpardonable, and no one made excuses to the senior ladies who'd delegated responsibilities. Their word was law, and they in turn ensured that they appreciated every effort that the younger girls made. Inclusiveness, generosity and sharing were encouraged by example. I'm not glorifying the past, but people did have ideals then and they tried their best to live up to them. Those who didn’t try at least talked of doing so.
The ladies whom I admired were really remarkable. They were gracious, they laughed a lot, and they enjoyed every minute of all the good times we had - cheering the boys energetically at football and cricket matches, playing tennis and golf under the hottest sun or through miserable pouring rain, working for hours decorating the club house for children's parties, slaving in their hot kitchens with hot headed cooks to produce delectable feasts, throwing open their bungalows to everyone; and never pulling rank. They were all-rounders; good at games, good at gardening, cooking, baking, sewing and knitting. They lived in Burra Bungalows which were run with smooth efficiency, and almost all of them had to send their children away to boarding schools from the time they were seven or eight years old. They took it in their stride. They lived most of their lives in tea without televisions or telephones, and with newspapers that arrived two days old. Some of them lived in gardens which were completely out of the way, deep in the interior, and accessible only through mud tracks that passed for roads. They could only meet people one day in the week, when they left the garden to go to the club.
Anyone who got on the wrong side of these Burra Memsaabs and had to face their wrath was to be pitied. I have seen one Burra Memsaab refuse outright to cater for a games meet unless the budget was revised - and the secretary of the games association, who had been trying to cut corners everywhere, was almost weeping when he was told to 'manage' on singharas (samosas) and jhal muri from the town for his money! And this was after all the cards had been sent out inviting nearly two hundred people to the event. He revised his budget, apologised to the lady, and was humbly grateful to her for everything ever after.
One of our Burra Saabs and Memsaabs organised the company picnic every year. I remember one particularly well. We had to reach Lankapara Burra Bungalow early in the day, and then we were all loaded into lorries to reach the picnic site on the banks of the Torsa. The merry making finished at sundown, and back we got into those lorries, tired and dreading the long drives home. We weren't allowed to go home, though. We were all -- fifty to sixty people, men and wives, with children, babies and ayahs-- invited into the bungalow by Anjali, the Burra Memsaab, who'd been with us at the picnic all day and must have been more tired than anyone else. All the chairs in the house had been arranged around a brightly burning bonfire in the centre of the lawn. The drawing room had mattresses laid out for us to make our children take naps or for us to stretch out for a bit before starting another round of festivities outside. Bearers went around with hot milk for the babies, whose bottles had been collected and boiled in the kitchen earlier. Anjali's daughters served us all tea and coffee after we'd washed our faces and freshened up.
Our men were also served liquid refreshments which, strictly speaking, they didn't need.
The same men had been worked hard through the season. The company always organised games and picnics in the cold weather so that they could relax and enjoy life for a bit before staring off all over again. 'Work hard, play hard' they said, and back then, they meant it.
That is the biggest difference between those days and today, to my mind. Recreation, rest and relaxation are given low priority today. Traditions, ideals and values are abstractions. It takes something tangible to make them attractive, or even meaningful to young people. People ask repeatedly why ‘good boys’ are hard to find and why standards are going down in tea. The answer is simple. If boys are to be drawn to a career in tea today, companies need to offer them better pay packets, better housing, more holidays and more goodies to make up for the absence of city lights and the lost glamour of those old days.