Thursday, September 06, 2018

A Taste of Home

On a cool and cloudy morning like today, I could have fooled myself into believing  I was in Bagracote Tea Garden in the late eighties. It must have been the freshness of the rain-washed breeze; Bagracote was a place where it rained everyday round the year. At three p.m., without fail - and that, as I said, was in the late eighties.

Those days, a hot meal of Uppuma and chutney like the one we just had for breakfast would have taken me back 'home' in the same way.

Home : a world both Mohan and I had left so far behind, in Delhi. We had to travel for many hours to reach Delhi. There were no telephones and certainly no coloured images flashing on screens to bring other worlds into our lives all day and everyday. For this reason, very few people in the city knew anything at all about tea gardens. I had never heard of the Dooars myself until I got married!

We were all afloat in a world that was remote and had very little in common with life in urban India. Almost all the little towns in the Dooars had come up only because of the tea gardens. The gardens themselves were less than a hundred years old!! The nearest city was Calcutta. There was no way you could bridge the gap between city  and garden with ease in those days; besides, each seemed to exist in a different time zone. 

Language, music and food: these were our connect with home. It was much the same for the people we knew here, for all our friends, for all Mohan's colleagues and their wives. In this way we were all united, in spite of  the things that made each one of us different.We had all created a home away from home. We had gained a new community, new relationships, and a  new family where we lived. We had two homes, then, and we enjoyed each in its place.

Most of the young planters today have their families living in towns nearby. There are two reasons for this. First, most of them belong to this region. The tea growing areas of North East India have well populated towns, and any number of youngsters choose tea as a profession. People from places like Delhi, Dehradun, Chandigarh or Kolkata don't turn up in large numbers looking to make a life in tea any longer.

The second reason is that many girls who marry planters get an opportunity to work in town these days, and their children attend school there. The bungalow becomes a weekend home for them, and often the planter husband/father goes and spends Sundays with the family in town. There is no longing for a home far away, and therefore no need to create another in the garden.
Painting the verandah at Moraghat T.E. Burra Bungalow before Diwali
Some years ago, one of Mohan's assistants - let's call him Vijay - asked to go home, to a town just 50 kms away from the garden, for Diwali. His wife and children lived there, in the house in which he had grown up. They would visit him on weekends.

This conversation took place at the club Diwali 'do' when all the children were having a wonderful time with 'pataakas' (fireworks). Diwali was two days away. We would all do up our bungalows with a bit of paint, lights and so on every year.  Diwali has a special quality in the garden, an added 'flavour', and I've always believed it is enhanced by the darkness and the silence around us.

To get back to the conversation -  Mohan asked Vijay whether he really wanted to leave his bungalow in darkness on Diwali night, and the boy replied quite blandly that the bungalow could never be 'home' for him, so why should he stay there and not light diyas (lamps) at home in town!

We were really stunned to hear that he - and so many others, as we now realise - thought that way!

Somehow, our longing for the old 'home' meant we lavished a lot of love on our new homes in what was then a distant land. We gloried in the otherness of  this life. And this was home, after all, for our children!

One year, we were in Delhi at Diwali time. Our little one was just two years old. She heard the sound of 'pataakas' (fire crackers) going off early in the evening, and she announced happily to her grandfather that elephants had come! That was what firecrackers - especially the loud ones called 'chocolate bomb' or 'atom bomb' - meant to a tea garden child, because they were used to frighten herds of wild elephants and keep them away! Our children's idea of 'normal life' included elephants, leopards and snakes, forests, rivers and mountains.

The world of tea gardens is still unique. The language(s), the jargon, the 'dastoor' or customs ( most of them quirky and anachronistic ) and the hierarchy, the feudal spirit, the grave danger, the solitude, the darkness, the silence - it's all one of a kind. Definitely not a life to be taken for granted.
Workers dancing and singing at Diwali time, Moraghat T.E. Burra Bungalow

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Walk of Life

We lost Simba on Thursday, July 5.
He left us just before five p.m.: the time when he would set off joyfully on his evening walk. He had the quiet and peaceful end he deserved. Till the last, he was giving us all the love and comfort he could.

He waited for S to come home and improved enough to spend a few days - almost a week - with her. It's as if he knew. The last time P came home, he'd be there to wake her up in the morning and then spend every waking moment with her.

He was so tiny, and he's left our bungalow so empty. I don't think we humans are capable of loving with so much devotion. We have to learn to live without our darling Simbu who woke up so joyfully, as if there was something to celebrate each morning. 

He'd welcome M when he came home for breakfast and bark his head off, posititvely herding him to the table so he could hurry up and get little chunks of apple.

He was a true tea planter's dog. He lived in the Dooars and in Darjeeling before coming to Assam.

Until two years ago, he bit anyone whom he didn't like. He hated painters and bijli mistris. No one knows how he became the soul of benevolence.

M was calling him a 'sant' these past few months.

Simba was evolving into a lifestyle guru. Loving, enjoying life and laughing, in spite of failing eyesight and poor hearing. He looked about six, not sixteen and a half.
                                                          Right, boy. Run free now.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Look Through My Window

It's that time of year when the fruit trees are laden with lychees and mangoes.

There's a large lychee  tree outside my bedroom window. The bedroom's on the first floor since this is a chung bungalow, and the tree is one of the first things I look out on every morning. 

Last night was a little blustery as rainy nights go, and I wasn't feeling too bright so I stayed at home while my husband went to the club. I had a good book* to read and decided to turn in early. The wind was fluttering outside my window at regular intervals in a rather strange way. I drew the curtains apart to see what it was.

Bats! There were at least two of them, taking turns to fly in from different directions to pick a lychee off the top of the tree, and each with a wingspan of at least two feet. Pale moonlight, rain, chilly gusty winds and these huge bat silhouettes wheeling about.

My very own Saturday night horror show.


*Norwegian Wood

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

April Fuel

April is bonus time for garden lovers.

Showers bring the last of the cold weather flowers to life and they bloom with renewed vigour, shimmering against rain-washed skies and new foliage. Heaven knows the same plants were looking dead just two weeks ago.

When the beds are filled with flowers in February, I'm already sated, but greedy. Where I'd longed for abundance, I expect perfection.  I'm impatient if all the beds aren't in sync, and feel sad if something hasn't come up to the previous year's standards. And then the heat picks up and I've learnt my lesson.

Then April weather comes along, and, gosh, are those the dahlias we were going to yank out of the ground?

 These gerberas are picking up so well! They are certainly not worrying about how summer or the   monsoon will treat them!
This azalea bush sulked through the cold weather, and has suddenly decided to have its own Matsuri!
 These salvias were planted - as fillers - in the bed where our showy Inca marigolds held sway till mid-February. They look all stylish now!
              Was someone calling us 'junglee'??
 A little wilderness where we saw the resident 'dhamna' snake in its usual corner for the first time this year.

                   Easter lilies are the new stars in the garden, popping up like magic everywhere.
         And there are new delights, the flowers of the season :passion flowers, orchids, cosmos, cannas.
Each year, the sounds, scents and sensations of April bring new hope and a sense of rejuvenation. It's an end to my moaning about how much I will miss the cold weather. These 'in-between' seasons have that quality; they change the way you look at the world.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Forward, March!

There was a time in my life when March meant school exams, and for years after, it came to mean that thing we all dread in tea, drought. The days are long gone when drought was the only obstacle to a splendid season ahead!
Every time the cold weather ended in the Dooars, it was dry and droughty. The longest drought that we experienced there lasted over 130 days. All the minor vegetation looked as if it was set to go up in flames.All except for the trees; the trees would put out leaf buds.

At this time of year, I long to visit Chalsa forest. There's a fragrance in the air that is as difficult to capture and hold as the fleeting season itself. Some traces of it linger under citrus trees, especially under the pomello and the 'curry patta'.  We spent a lifetime in the Dooars, and its forests, rivers and hills will always be ‘ours’ to treasure in my mind.

Time to return to the here and now: Easter lilies are popping up to keep late dahlias and other cold weather blooms company and the grass is green!

We moved to Upper Assam two years ago. There's much here that is the same as the Dooars world, but the climate is completely different. Weather patterns have changed over the last decade quite drastically everywhere, but these are my observations of the moment.

We’ve had rainy spells around the end of the cold weather that have lasted for three to four days. Days and nights were never so cold in December. The sun drives winter back into hiding in cupboards with sweaters and knitting baskets for company.
The mighty river that flows at the garden's northern boundary is at the heart of all things here. Our skies – ‘Brahmaputra blue’ - are the deepest blue I’ve ever lived under. The nights skies are spectacular.

P.S. The night of the equinox was rainy with chilly winds.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Birpara : 'Bride and Prejudice'

Ghenwa the Jewel: A Birpara Story

One of the tough examinations I've had to pass in life was the test set by the bungalow servants in my first tea bungalow.

Ghenwa was cook cum head honcho of the world beyond the dining room. He looked like some kind of tribal Amitabh Bachchan: tall, thin, arrogant and unsmiling. He was a handsome man, with thick wavy hair, large brown eyes and lips that could smile when they weren't being curled. He couldn't have been much older than me, but he filled me with nervous fear. 

I, who had quelled classrooms of undergraduate students not four years my junior with one look just weeks before my marriage!

Mohan had been in the Engineers' Bungalow in Birpara for about a year before we got married. Ghenwa was a trusted aide. Mohan left the running of the bungalow to him, and Ghenwa served him with devotion; in fact he quite doted on him. He felt let-down when Mohan produced a bride at the end of one 'chhutti'. From Ghenwa's point of view - I see it now - it meant the end of independence, and a reduction in stature.
Mohan didn't want me to bother with the kitchen for the first few days. I was grateful only because I was too chicken to enter Ghenwa's domain. The bearer Joseph was a cute, smiling chap, quite cowed by Ghenwa, like me. He became an ally. He'd serve our breakfast in smiling silence while Ghenwa, after finishing up the cooking and delegating toast making to some unseen hands, would enter the dining room in state and take up his position at Mohan's right hand. He would stand there and declaim - a sort of daily round-up or news bulletin - in what was a strange lingo to me, and Mohan would reply in the same lingo. If Ghenwa wanted to make me feel left out, he succeeded. This colloquy would continue until Mohan asked him in Hindi what he was going to serve Memsaab for lunch. 

The first time I ventured into Ghenwa's store and pantry, I made a hesitant suggestion about the food. He gave me the full Amitabh Bachchan stare, and said by all means, I was free to issue any commands, but he could not guarantee that his saheb would like what I suggested. I fled.
I was the encroacher in his little kingdom, and I was too ashamed to tell my new husband how inadequate Ghenwa made me feel. His hafta chutti was probably the happiest day of my week. 
Once this tyrant went home at night, the chowkidaar took over as my chief tormentor. Etowah - that was his name -stole everything that wasn't nailed to the floor. Mohan told me how he'd served him tea one chilly morning wearing his - Mohan's - socks. When Mohan bellowed at him, Etowah swore those were the socks that a departing Chhota Saab had presented him many years ago. 
Another time, Mohan surprised him when he had his head in the fridge and several fingers in a bowl of custard! Etowah could also make sugar and milk disappear from bowls without a trace.
I was wretched. What kind of administrator was I, who couldn't even keep house for two without losing potatoes, onions, oil, milk and sugar by the kilo?
Life wasn't all housekeeping, though, and we had a lot of fun. Also, there were others like me, new to tea and with similar tales of woe. We all met regularly at the club or at one another's bungalows. 
There was a tradition of people coming in from the club in the wee hours to torment newly-weds in the district. We had our turn too. It must have been two thirty in the morning, when we woke to the sound of several cars honking outside our gate. We could hear voices yelling, 'Open up! Once the crowd of merry makers was in the bungalow, there was much leg-pulling and ribald laughter, and it was impossible to feel anything but happy. Everyone clamoured for coffee. Of course, coffee! That was the reason they'd all 'dropped in' barely two hours after we'd said goodnight, for an early morning cup of coffee!
I wasn't embarrassed when they'd all pounded on our bedroom door and asked how much time we needed to dress, but now, I was red in the face. By now, I thought, Etowa would have drunk every last drop of milk, copiously sweetened with every grain of sugar in the bungalow. Still, I rang the bell and weakly asked him to bring coffee. Everyone around me continued to shout with laughter and have a good time while I sat and waited for the ground to open and swallow me up. What was Etowa going to serve ? There must have been a dozen people there!
The door swung open and in he sailed, with my best (wedding present) cups on a tray, each filled to the brim with frothy and fragrant coffee. The sugar bowl was full, too. My nightmare was suddenly magicked into a happy dream! Today the man had changed his act: he was making things appear and not vanish!
Some months passed, with one or two more riotous night time invasions. These were no 'intrusions of privacy'. We didn't know what privacy was in those days, and I don't think we'd have cared much for it. What we had instead was community - a family that pulled you into its fold - in a world far away from home. If loss of privacy was the price we paid to belong, we were happy to pay in those days!! 
     'Family' Picnic

Ghenwa continued to dazzle and hold sway, and he must have been satisfied with my state of surrender. I had a brand new mixi and he had skill, and we'd started calling people over to eat. On one Sunday, we asked one of Mohan's oldest bachelor friends to breakfast. He'd - let's just call him B - he'd left Lankapara early in the morning and run into a colleague - T -in Birpara town. When he heard where B was headed, T called him a lucky man and said he felt like eating dosas too, so would he tell Mohan and Gowri that he'd be along soon with whoever was at the club?

 That was B's style. Our club – well, all our tea clubs - were filled with eccentrics, both men and women. I could just visualise T going in to Dalgaon club and standing at the entrance, announcing, 'Everyone's invited to Mohan and Gowri's bungalow for dosas! Chalo!!!' When B told us about this, my jaw dropped in horror. I could provide dosas, chutney, sambar et al for another couple of people, say three more at the outside, but the early morning tennis crowd from Dalgaon Club?? What kind of disastrous life had I let myself in for when I married this happy-go-lucky moustachioed man? 

The man turned out to be as big a crack-pot as any of his nutty friends. He laughed!! He summoned Ghenwa and told him to expect another dozen people and said, 'Tum pugaa do; sab ko khilayega!' (stretch your resources, feed everyone). He looked at me and said, 'Relax! Our man will manage!' What blind faith, I thought.

Ghenwa piped in, 'Hum pugai dega, Memsaab! Aap log pehle kha lega!' ( I will manage! you should all eat first!') at which Mohan and friend B, the invited guest, expressed complete agreement. 

By this time, Burra Sa'ab's jeep had rolled in, and Jusep Driver had unloaded a case of beer. Burra Sa'ab and Mem saab would be along soon, he said, but they wanted us to chill the beer. I was fretting about place settings at the table but the two mad men in my bungalow urged me to eat quickly, and I remember I did eat, even though it choked me to think of what would happen when the crowds arrived.

It was Ghenwa's show all the way. In great good humour, he even treated me with kindness, bringing me my coffee himself with an air of deference. I was in shock, I think. 

The crowds came. Burra Sa'ab and Mem Sa'ab, a few friends, some tennis players I knew only by sight and of course the villainous T. Ghenwa fed them all until they swore they'd had enough. 'Excellent!' 'Brilliant!' 'Genuine South Indian taste!' was what I kept hearing. The ladies wanted their coffee in what they called 'those little south Indian glasses and katories'. They got what they wanted. 

After coffee, beer flowed. Burra Sa'ab and Mem were full of praise and thanks for a wonderful morning. 

Ghenwa had ensured that I didn't enter the kitchen, and I honestly have no idea, to this day, how he managed that show.   
Image result for coffee davara tumbler 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


I miss my father whenever there is an eclipse. He'd have been amused by the media hysteria around this 'triple' phenomenon or 'three-for-the-price-of-one' hype which is all around us.

When there was a total eclipse of the sun in India in 1980, there was no internet or satellite television. We didn't even have 24 hour telecasts on our lone TVchannel. There was a special telecast of a very popular Hindi film to keep people indoors that afternoon.

My father thought it was ridiculous to create fear and keep people indoors during a solar eclipse. Delhi only had a partial eclipse, but it was exciting enough. We assembled a couple of simple 'eclipse viewing kits' and he said we could get some customers to watch if we wanted!! Only, the streets were deserted on that February afternoon in Delhi. I was quite happy to stand outside with my father and watch the reflection of the eclipse in water. Many years later, my wish to see a total solar eclipse came true.

In tea gardens, if a thing is heard or seen on television, it is accepted without question.

I put on one of the news channels this evening to check the time of the eclipse. I couldn't help but feel a little superior, as one who's known all about these things since childhood. I put on my coat and went downstairs to take a look at the sky. From the stairs, I heard screaming and metallic banging sounds coming from the workers' colony nearby and froze. The first thing that comes to mind is elephants - but there are none where we live. It had to be the eclipse! It must be whopper of a show, I thought.

Out in the open, the sky was dark, with not a glimmer of light anywhere, not even a star. The shouting and metallic banging continued. The sky was covered with clouds!

Half an hour on, status quo.

One hour later, the celebrity hadn't shown, but appeared to have cancelled without notice. Pink Floyd wasn't playing Dark Side of the Moon tonight. We'd got 'Obscured by the Clouds' instead!

The bawarchi came in for his evening shift. I asked him what was up, since the sounds had died out. They must all have gone home, he said. He was in social commentator mode today, shaking his head sadly. 'Baap re! Anyone would think a wild animal had entered the village. They didn't see a thing, but they screamed and shouted!'