Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Dooars : A World

When there is talk of tea estates, people think chiefly of Assam or Darjeeling. Most people have heard of Darjeeling, but not of the Dooars. When I married my husband, twenty years ago, I hadn’t either. I’d had visions of living on the slopes of Darjeeling with thrilling chilly mists swirling around our little red roofed habitation in the best manner of Hindi films. That image went ‘ping!’ when he drove me out into the hot and humid plains to Birpara Tea Garden, after we arrived at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station.

The Dooars is a world that abounds in natural beauty, with its forests, rivers and mountains. There are more than two hundred tea gardens here. We call them gardens and not estates. It makes the place sound idyllic, maybe like a Garden of Eden, and in some respects that isn’t too far off the mark. Many people who have seen the Dooars have described it as Paradise.

The gardens themselves are really beautiful, with acres of tea bushes forming a sort of velvet tableland dotted with occasional trees. A short drive can take one into the heart of the Darjeeling or Bhutan hills, or to a picturesque forest or riverbed. We can see the majestic Kanchenjunga from most parts of the Dooars.

Dooars is an old name for the long neck of land that is a part of present day North Bengal. To its east lie Assam and the other North Eastern states. It has international borders with Bhutan in the North and Bangladesh in the South. All along the North run the Himalayas. To the south of the tea growing areas lie fertile river fed fields of paddy, date, jute and areca plantations, and much further south is the huge gangetic delta of Bangladesh. The Teesta River originates in the Sikkim Himalayas and its many tributaries merge with it in the Dooars before it eventually flows into the Ganga-Brahmaputra confluence in Bangladesh.

The Dooars, or Duars as it was spelt about a hundred years ago, belonged to the ancient kingdom of Kamarupa before it became a part of Bhutan. The Dooars was a typical terai region, thickly forested, with a few pockets of bustis where the Kathambs, Totos and Mechis lived. Bhotias, Lepchas, Koches and Rajbongshis were the other ethnic groups who made up the then tiny and scattered population.

Dooars was and still is an area of entry points into the mountains. There were eighteen of them and hence the name Athara (eighteen) Duar (doorways). I can’t swear that I know the names of all of these entry points. Some names have changed, and I cant be sure which or how many of the original duars are now here and how many in Assam. I know of Lankapara,Bagrakote, Dalingkote and Chamurchi for sure, and I've made many trips into the hills through the last two.

The forests were vast hunting grounds for the King of Bhutan. The British fought the King’s armies in the Duars Wars and annexed the area in 1864. They divided it into two. The Eastern half was made a part of Goalpara District, which is in Assam. The Western half became a new district named Western Dooars,and it was renamed Jalpaiguri in 1869.

The British soon cleared and planted out these newly acquired lands into tea gardens. With tea gardens came British planters and their way of life. Colonial bungalows, clubs, airfields and roads came up. Jalpaiguri town, the district headquarters, became a fashionable town with its huge bungalows on the banks of the Teesta. A good lifestyle remains a part of tea garden life to this day. ‘Work hard, play hard’ was the motto of those original planters.

The British were great at establishing ‘dastoors’ or ‘the way things are done’ and Indians are great at carrying on with tradition, and also at adapting and modifying things as required.

Even now, we don’t have any problems carrying on with some of the traditions the British established, as we neither hate nor venerate them. In any case, our generation has no nostalgia for a past in which the British were present. Our ‘good old days’ are definitely post Independence. In tea, we have known and lived with an entire generation of planters who worked for and with the British. Clubs still resound with anecdotes of Burra Saabs of old with names like Sandy, Jimmy or Ginger. The last of the expatriates stayed on in tea until almost thirty years after Independence -- not all that long ago!

The early British planters brought with them thousands of migrant Aadivasi labourers from the neighbouring Chhotta Nagpur region. They also brought Nepali workers from the hills. The original inhabitants of the area were gradually outnumbered. With tea gardens and the trade they generated came a large number of Marwari traders from Rajasthan. Biharis came in considerable numbers. Most gardens had a small migrant Chinese population whose speciality was carpentry. In the early part of the last century, a number of Sikh families from Punjab moved in to find work in the tea gardens as mechanics, fitters and carpenters.

North Bengal began to grow into the multi ethnic region it has become today. Most people speak Hindi, Bengali, Nepalese and three or four aadivasi dialects like Oraon, Munda and Saadri with ease. For non linguists, it is enough to know Hindi. Anyone from any part of India can come here to live and soon start feeling at home. The provision shop in the town nearby will start supplying him with a magazine in his language and some foodstuff or other which is a specialty of his region!

Where I now live, the nearest town is just two kilometers away. National Highway 31, as well as the second broad gauge line from Guwahati to Delhi, runs less than one kilometere away from my house. I can watch the traffic, sitting in my verandah, when I have nothing better to do. There are gardens in the interior too, from where a ride to the nearest town could take an hour's drive over riverbeds or through dark and frightening forests full of wild animals. We even have wild elephants, snakes and leopards that very often make their way into our bungalow compound!

There are many worlds that coexist here. There are bearers and evening teas, darwans and dastoors, mobile phones and dak-wallahs who carry handwritten notes from one bungalow to another!

Since 1992, we’ve had satellite television, and since 1999 we’ve had Internet connections. We didn’t have a phone line that could connect us to family in Delhi until 1996, though! We wrote letters and waited for weeks for replies to reach us.

Life is an amazing and curious mix of old and new, civilization and wilderness, natural beauty and cultivated plantations. Maybe none of this would have been here if the British had left the Bhutan Raja to his hunting!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi -- Of the Thousands who are Unsuccessful but not Unfulfilled

I think 'Hazaaron Khwaaishen Aisi’ is a grown up version of 'Rang De Basanti'. 

At the outset the filmmaker establishes a distance from the characters and the action. The events that have been chosen are at a point in time more than thirty years ago, and this additional distancing makes for an ironic detachment which is entirely missing in the other film. Even the characters view their motives and emotions with detachment. Geeta and Vikram sometimes speak of themselves as if they are characters in a fairy tale: ‘Once upon a time there was this young girl who believed.’
Thousands of people think they can change the world. They get attracted by ideology and the idealism of ideas. Courage and sacrifice are very attractive, as is the thought of suffering in the name of a cause: as long as they all remain abstractions.

What happens when ideals come up against actuality is shown without flinching. Interference with the existing power structure in the villages makes fugitives of the young group of activists. They are forever on the run from a corrupt and antagonistic police force, local administrators and politicians. The women are battered and raped, and the men are brutally beaten -- one of them, until he is almost brain dead.

There is no glory. 
There are no heroes. 
There are no absolutes and there are no solutions.

The age-old problems continue to plague the villagers. There are powerful oppressors to be battled with in the world outside and raging self-doubt and guilt to tackle within the mind. Those who have the courage of their convictions need not be the most articulate people.

Courage, honesty : these are not qualities that are always rewarded. They are just qualities you may or may not have. If you have them, you will do what your heart tells you to do. The real test comes at the moment when your existence is threatened. And at that point of time, there are no heroic solutions. There is only one thing; the nearest escape route, whether it is the phone number of a ‘contact’ or a wad of currency thrust in the face of your attackers.
Nothing makes a difference to the system at large.

The only difference, at the end of it all, is within the minds of the characters, when they achieve self-realization. And though they have all changed, they are back to being their core selves. They are, each one of them, ultimately true to type.

What elevates this film to a higher plane is this, the self-mockery, the self-realization and the acceptance of the futility and the transience of it all when viewed in the larger perspective. The realistic handling of situations doesn’t leave us with filmi types of heroes and martyrs. 
The dignity of human endeavour is never belittled. That is why I believe this film really celebrates the human spirit.

An April Day

(Reproduced in April Day. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

The weather plays a very important part in our lives on a tea plantation. After a long, dry spell, and some weeks to go before the monsoon, we are waiting for rain. But it’s a brilliant morning. The sunlight is blinding at even 8.00 a.m. and the heat and glare are harsh upon the malis who work on my lawn. The tea bushes shimmer in the heat haze outside.

I finish off with my instructions to the mali very quickly, and postpone my inspection of the vegetable garden to a later,and I hope cooler--hour. That is one area where we never see eye to eye, but today he and I have formed a brief alliance; our common enemy is the heat. I ask him why none of the malis has carried an umbrella to work. The pluckers out in the tea area do. He doesn't have a theory to offer. Time was when you couldn't part the tea garden worker from his umbrella. He wore it crooked into the back of his collar, rain or shine.

I escape into my cool room. The curtains are drawn, and there’s soothing music playing. The rhythms sound like ice tinkling in a glass of something refreshing. My husband comes back for his lunch break, and tells me what a hot day it is. The heat has slowed the pluckers down. It's rain he wants, and quickly too. I leave him to his 'afternoon lie-back', that great tradition established by planters of old. At about three thirty or so, we come out to find everything changed.

The hills had disappeared in the morning’s heat haze, but now I see a mass of black clouds in the direction where they lie. Overhead, there are clouds of different structures and shapes. It’s as if an artist had gone on a binge in a grey period. Surely we're in for what is called 'hawa-pani' by the garden folk, literally, wind and water, a most inappropriately mild label for what is to follow! In some places, the clouds are already swirling, as if they're forming a whirlpool in the sky. That is something we only see in this season. And soon, the wind starts off. I say wind, but it is like a cyclone. The bungalow servants rush into the verandah, to clear away everything that is in there, from potted plants to chairs and cushions. We're all laughing, now that it’s cool and beautiful. It isn't advisable to stand outside any longer. The trees are thrashing about wildly and at any time one may fall. Suddenly a loud crack of thunder is heard and our dog howls in fear. The lights go off at once. Somehow, the electricity just dies with the appearance of a storm.

Then we hear it, a rushing sound, as if something very huge is moving towards us. It’s the rain, which we can see, like a moving wall of water, before it actually is with us. The verandah is open in three directions and now it seems to be pouring in from everywhere. Strong gusts of wind lift up and carry the water droplets. It’s crashing down on the tin roof. We shout to make each other heard. Lightning rips the sky apart in blinding flashes and thunder applauds loudly, often after a stunned pause. I send up a prayer of thanks that there is no hail, only rain. When there’s hail, it rips through the tea bush and seals the fate of a garden for the season.

Later in the evening, my husband tells me there’s been an inch of rain. Is he happy, I ask, to which I get an inscrutable shrug. Planters are a superstitious lot. He doesn't want the weather gods to think he’s complacent!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Niren Baruah, Artist

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

I was thinking of Baruah as I was baking biscuits yesterday. When Baruah was around, we got freshly baked rolls and bread. We got soufflés of every flavour and description. His tarts, biscuits, puddings and cakes stayed in our memories—and on my hips—long after we’d eaten them.

If Baruah had a sorrow, it was that we were vegetarians. Once he’d forgiven us for not eating any ‘real’ food, he used his ingenuity and substituted meat with soya, cottage cheese or vegetables and baked us savoury pies and rolls fit for a King’s table.

He was a great cook and a good man, Baruah.

We moved to a tea garden called Ambari early in 1996. We didn’t know what lay ahead. We were prepared for any kind of adventure. This would be the second garden my husband was taking over as Manager. We received a warm welcome there. The bungalow was pretty, though it didn’t look too much like a traditional tea garden structure. It had a happy feel about it, and with our two little girls aged eight and six years old, that mattered a lot to me.

We found the table laid for lunch and sat down to quite a nice meal soon enough. It was a carefully cooked meal, rather guesthouse style, not leaning too much in any direction. It was ‘standard’ tea garden fare. Whenever a new ‘Saab and Memsaab’ moved into a bungalow, the cook, or Bawarchi, would prepare a meal that didn’t reflect his real style of work. It would be dal, rice and vegetables cooked without a trace of imagination or a personal touch. It was a way of saying there was room to adapt to our preferences and also of saying we’d have convince our new Bawarchi that we deserved good food!

Living with a number of servants, or helpers, including a Bawarchi, bearers, ayahs and gardeners is a part of life on tea gardens. The bungalows and their surrounding grounds are large, and a number of hands are required to maintain them. There has never been a moment in my life in tea when I have been absolutely alone at home. Wherever we have lived, our helpers have become a part of our extended family. We accepted long ago that we didn’t have complete privacy. And after all, we shared our space with people who helped us and made our lives easier. It was also very important to get off to a good start with them whenever we moved to a new place.

A smiling bearer, Shamoo, served us lunch. The Bawarchi would report at five o’clock, we were told. His name was Niren Baruah. Immediately my husband and I exchanged a look. Niren Baruah. A Mugh cook!

Mugh cooks were rare in 1996 and I'd never dreamt I'd have one working for me.

They enjoyed a formidable reputation and were much sought after. They could ask for, and succeed in getting, a salary higher than other employee in the bungalow. They were experts at continental and English food. Anyone who’d succeeded in getting a Mugh cook to work for them would do anything to keep him, and to keep him happy. I’d once heard that if a Mugh cook were asked to make a paratha or a roti he might resign on the spot. That was not a job for a master chef.

The Mugh cooks originated from Chittagong and Sylhet Districts, both of which were once part of India, but went to Bangladesh after having been part of East Bengal, Assam and then East Pakistan till 1971. The word ‘Mugh’, it is believed, was once used to describe the people of Burma, and it is quite likely that these people were of Burmese origin.

I was frankly nervous about my first meeting with this Niren Baruah. At our first interview, I was sure, it was I who was going to be scrutinised, examined, summed up, and found lacking.

Baruah reported at five in the evening for our interview.

He was in his mid fifties, a round faced, balding man with fair skin, large eyes and a white moustache. He had a rotund figure and wore pyjamas and a shirt. In a suit he would have looked like a professor. His expression was serious. He was dignified.

I too tried to be very dignified. And all I told him was to carry on functioning as he’d been doing in the past. I said I would see how things worked here, and then if I wanted any changes I would let him know. I also told him we’d had a nice lunch. I needn’t have lied. He didn’t thaw.

We conducted daily meetings at five in the evening, when he would take orders for the evening’s dinner and our lunch the following day. It was during these early days that he found we were vegetarians. That damned us in his eyes, for a start. His spirits rose when my little oven was unpacked. Sadly, the bungalow hadn’t had an oven in the kitchen. Later I realized what a serious handicap that must have been for someone like Baruah.

Gradually, I succeeded in getting Baruah to treat us to his special cooking. He stopped churning out ‘standard fare’ soon enough and we found delightful new flavours in our food. Then he started preparing a sweet every other day. He made us superb desserts.

The oven had made him happy. He asked for yeast and started producing heavenly little dinner rolls, which filled the kitchen and dining room with a lovely aroma and melted in our mouths. Sometimes the rolls were stuffed with savoury fillings, which came as a delicious surprise. I began to eat a lot. We lavished praise on him. But he continued to be a little sticky – unlike his superb soufflé -- and aloof. He never let me enter his domain. The kitchen was firmly out of bounds to this Memsaab.

That was when I realized that it is as important for the bungalow staff to start trusting their new employers as it is for us to start trusting them. I’d never thought of it from that point of view earlier.

He wasn’t above letting me down, either. We called a couple of friends over for dinner. That was it, just a couple. He made a dal, one vegetable and a paneer dish with parathas and rice. I made ‘avial’, a South Indian speciality, because I wanted the meal to have a personal touch, and a ‘home’ feel. The avail was the hit of the evening. Little wonder, as Baruah – due to some quirk of temperament—had made ghastly, over spiced, soulless food. I felt wretched with every mouthful. And it wasn’t as if the dessert was any compensation, either. It was equally soulless.

I wondered what had gone wrong. There was more to come. Upon inspection of stores the following day, I saw that three fourths of a litre of oil had been used to prepare the disastrous spread of the previous evening. Seven hundred and fifty ml of oil for TWO extra heads, I asked Baruah, amazed. With that much of oil, I told him, we could have catered for a small party. Party! He scoffed. For a party, he said, he would need two to three litres of oil. I was miserable. I couldn’t yell at this man. We were new to each other, and this was a first offence. I couldn’t allow him to make a second, though, and I hoped my silence conveyed my displeasure. I resolved not to invite any more people until this headstrong and surly man who was newly ruling my life became manageable – if at all.

I can never forget another of his disasters. This time, luckily, only the family was subjected to it! I’d ordered a continental lunch, a savoury cheese soufflé and and a salad to go with it. We’d got lots of healthy looking spinach, so I said, ‘Make it spinach.’ Baruah stopped to check if he’d heard right, then he shrugged and walked away. The girls and I came home from school, starving, and I couldn’t wait for the lovely meal I’d ordered. Strangely, we got rice and roti with dal and subzi. Funny, maybe Baruah had forgotten what had been ordered. I was too hungry to care. When we got up from the table, the bearer asked us to wait for the sweet. Oh great, he’d done us a sweet; we were thrilled.

Out came a glass bowl with a quivering, creamy concoction in bright green. It was a soufflé, flavoured, just as I’d instructed, with spinach. The girls collapsed with laughter. They were hooting; they had a legitimate excuse to make fun of Mamma! They insisted on my tasting a spoonful of the beautiful looking dish. I can’t forget the taste in a hurry. It has remained an unsolved mystery with us. Why did Baruah goof up like that? Was he being cussed? Or was it a genuine mistake?

He started liking us eventually. Who wouldn’t, when he had praise heaped upon him after every creation of his had been had been demolished? He went so far as to allow me to enter the kitchen and initiate him into ‘Idli’ ‘Dosai’ and ‘Vadai’ making. In no time, he’d mastered these, our favourite South Indian breakfast dishes. His ‘Rava Dosais’ were light as lace doilies, buttery and crisp.

I had to indulge a number of his quirks, but I found it a small price to pay for the privilege of employing such a craftsman. He was like an artist, really, in his approach to his cooking. So I didn’t grumble when he scoffed at home made or shop bought cottage cheese and insisted he’d only use the tinned variety. Or when he dictated the lists of masalas I had to buy separately for the preparation of each dish. Or even when he turned up his nose at ‘Desi’ or local vegetables. Only English vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, peas, carrots and beans were good enough for him.

He became quite friendly in his manner, first because I went to work as a teacher at the girls’ school and therefore stayed out his way, and secondly, because even though we were vegetarians, we liked to try out different kinds of cuisine. And then I never questioned him about his shopping expenses. He was uncrowned king of the kitchen! Baruah allowed me to play the role of helper once in a while. He permitted me to beat up cake mixes. He was actually giving me little lessons. He even taught me how to grease and flour a cake tin thoroughly.

This was quite something, because the old Bawarchis were a crafty lot who didn’t want to train youngsters but guarded their secrets jealously They wouldn’t show anyone their special techniques. On days when they had their ‘hafta chhutties’ or weekly day off, the family would be subjected to what fare the second in command could churn out. Not one of the other hands in the bungalow could ever replicate a dish from the Bawarchi’s repertoire. It was interesting how their sons, probably the only people they’d have been willing to teach, never wanted to train as cooks.

Baruah stopped looking grave and serious at our evening meetings. He’d roll in looking jolly and grin at me. These meetings had turned into regular chat sessions from the earlier crisp passing on of orders. He would look very happy when he saw me sitting with big piles of books. He thought I was a great reader and writer. He couldn’t read or write at all. I now marvel at how he remembered every recipe with no aids such as books. He’d ask how my day had been, and that was a signal for me to make an appreciative remark about the lunch or the little tea time treat he’d prepared and left carefully covered for me as a surprise when I arrived home from school.

He would twinkle at me and ask me if I really liked what he’d made, as if I were a little child whom he was indulging. Then he’d tell me what he planned to make for the next ‘treat’. He behaved like an elderly uncle and not like an employee. On Sunday mornings, if we lolled about delaying our breakfast, he would come out of his kitchen and thunder, ‘If Sahib and Memsaab take so long to come to eat I will get ulcers!’ We would be at the table, quiet as children, as soon as we heard him.

He once told me he’d stopped wanting to work as a Bawarchi when he’d been questioned too closely about kitchen accounts and leftovers by some people in the past. It hadn’t been any fun cooking for them. In real sorrow he told me some of them actually made him stand at the storeroom and measured out ingredients before handing them over to him for the day’s cooking, as if he’d been a novice. He said sadly that everyone hadn’t been like me. What did he mean by that? He searched for words to make his meaning clear, and came out with, ‘Gentleman type.’ I grinned hugely like him when he said that!

I could never bring myself to question Baruah too closely about expenses in the kitchen. He had stature. I always felt things would go smoothly if I trusted him and left the management of the kitchen entirely to him. Maybe I’d save forty or fifty rupees in a month if I breathed down his neck over purchases. I didn’t think it was worth the trouble. I couldn’t function without complete faith in the people who worked for me.

He enjoyed talking about the old days. During the Second World War, he’d worked for the Army. The British officers were good to him. He said that he had many tales to tell me, if I would listen to him and write his stories for people to read. We never had the time to get down to story telling and writing.

I was interested in whatever he could tell me about his community. He had a cousin who had worked for Indira Gandhi, and became so exclusive and superior that he never spoke to Baruah or any other members of the family.

He mentioned how their numbers were dwindling. His son ran a shop, and had never wanted to work as a Bawarchi. Baruah himself had left one of the gardens in a huff and sat at the shop for a year until he’d been tracked down and coaxed to join here in Ambari by one of the erstwhile Bara Memsaabs. She’d moved into Ambari and painstakingly brought the bungalow and its flower and vegetable garden to standards of excellence that had, alas, fallen by the time I moved in.

Fortunately, the owners of the garden really appreciated Baruah and his skills and treated him with affectionate indulgence. They cut maintenance costs everywhere, but Baruah continued to enjoy the special privileges with which he’d been tempted here in the first place, one of which was a job for his son! Baruah served his maliks faithfully. He worked overtime without grumbling when they came to stay – at alarmingly frequent intervals – and prepared all their favourite items for the table. He had even invented an eggless variety of soufflé for them, because they were vegetarians.

It wasn’t Baruah who left us. It was quite the other way around. My husband had a good offer and was asked to join a garden nearby as soon as he could. So before we had stayed even ten months at Ambari, we were packing. We’d been so happy here. The house had proved true to its promise. Our younger daughter wept loudly and clung to her ayah who kissed and hugged both the children with tears streaming down her face. It broke my heart. We were all wearing huge garlands of flowers. We said goodbye and all the servants promised to visit us at our new garden.

I never expected Baruah would come around visiting, but he did. We welcomed him very happily. He approved of our new garden, the bungalow and its compound. We asked him to have lunch. He laughed and blushed a little, and agreed. After lunch he was ready to chat. He’d wanted to come and work for us. He wanted a change, and I could tell he hadn’t been too happy. He didn’t let on, though. He told me, in his inimitable way, that he approved of the cook who was working for us. He’d liked the food he’d been served. Then Baruah said his bye byes and left.

We didn’t hear of him for a long time. Then we heard he hadn’t been keeping well. He went away to Hashimara, the town where his son ran a shop. Someone who had no connection with Ambari told me when he died, and it was a complete shock to us. I wonder when the people who’d worked so happily with him in Ambari came to know about his death. I wonder if they could go and pay their respects to him or whether poor Baruah died far away from the people with whom he’d spent so many years.

Had they told us on time, we would have tried to be there for Baruah.

I remember the promise I’d once made him — that I would write the stories he never did get down to telling me.