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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mrs. Dobson : A Tea Garden Story

She had yellow eyes, black hair and very dark skin. She always wore white and was much taller than the other tribal women; almost five feet five inches. She carried a stout bamboo stick at all times. Everyone said she was mad. She looked terrifying. We all knew her as ‘Mrs. Dobson’. No one knew what her real name was. One Mr. Dobson had been the ‘Burra Saab’ of the tea garden many years ago. He had presumably found the yellow-eyed woman irresistible. He’d gone back to England around the time when all the British sahibs left tea for good.

Mrs. Dobson lived in a little ‘kutcha’ house. Her house stood all alone. No one in the garden wanted to live anywhere near her. She left home every single day at around four-thirty in the evening and walked all the way to the office, tap-tapping her stick on the road, smiling fixedly and with bright eyes. Others on the road gave her a wide berth. She knew she frightened people, and she was proud of it.

A tea garden office is a busy place in the evening. The work is centred outdoors during the major part of the day, and the focus shifts to the factory and office in the evening. Burra Saab and his Chhota Saabs also make themselves available to the workers to listen to their problems and complaints.
Mrs. Dobson would head straight for Burra Saab’s office and call out in clear tones, ‘Pyaare Lal!’ Burra Saab’s name was not Pyare Lal. She called him that because it was a term of endearment, meaning, ‘Loved One’. Since she’d been the beloved of one Burra Saab in the past, she gave herself the right to address all his successors in equally intimate terms.
The Burra Saab was a tough man, but he liked to stay away from heckling women if he could. And this one was no ordinary woman. She was completely unpredictable, and quite menacing. No garden worker would ever tangle with her; no one would step forward to take her away. One of the Chhotta Saabs would quickly intervene and tell Mrs. Dobson to talk to him instead. She’d start off in loving terms with him as well. ‘My dear brother-in-law,’ she’d say, with her mad smile, ‘Make my son a man, wont you?’ The youngest Chhota Saab once sniggered at this, deliberately choosing to misunderstand her request for her son to be given a full adult wage. She turned on him to ask, ‘Oh, you laugh, do you? Had my Pyaara Dobson been here you would never have dared to insult me!’ The youngster shut up at once.

Mrs. Dobson was always made out to be a bit of a joke when they told stories about her, but everyone admitted it was scary to be in her presence. There was one Chhotta Saab she never could frighten, though. The fiery Mohan Saab would shout at her and send her back home everyday. She’d go, muttering, ‘This Pyare Mohan! Ever since he came here, I am made to look like a dog!’

Mrs. Dobson did not work in the garden, but she had a house to live in, and she received her quota of rations, tea and firewood, bamboo or thatch whenever she needed them. This benevolence was nothing unusual in those days. Mrs. Dobson, for all her madness and wild mutterings, managed to keep house for herself and her son who was what is called a ‘laata’ – not too intelligent. They pulled along, somehow.
It was said that a Postal Order from the U.K. arrived every Christmas in her name. Mrs.Dobson was handed over the money at the office meticulously every year.

One evening, she tap-tapped her way into the bamboo plantation and surprised Burra Saab and the Visiting Agent or ‘Company Saab’ from Calcutta who were out on an inspection.
Her face lit up when she saw the two men, while they shrank from her. ‘Pyare Lall!’ she exclaimed, ‘and my dear Company Saab brother-in-law!’ She went forward eagerly, but unfortunately for her, Mohan Saab was in attendance. He ran forward and jumped in her path, and Burra Saab and the Company Saab moved on quickly, continuing with their tour while poor Mrs. Dobson, her scene quite ruined, was yelled at, in tones louder than her own, and actually threatened with a sound thrashing. She made a quick about turn and hurried away, cursing ‘Pyare Mohan’ under her breath.

One year at Holi the Burra Saab, Chhota Saabs and all their families had gathered at Beech Bungalow, the Senior Assistant’s place. There was much laughter, and lots of beer, pakoras and tuneless singing. Suddenly everyone heard that loud familiar voice and looked up to see Mrs. Dobson’s face leering at them from over the boundary hedge. This was awful. She’d never turned up at any of the living quarters, ever. She knew the merry making would stop as soon as she started her performance. ‘All yours, Mohan!’ said the Senior Assistant under his breath, but Mohan Saab was already off, running at full speed towards the menacing woman. Everyone was quiet, waiting to see what would happen. The Holi revelry had had a good effect on Mohan Saab. He was in top form. He reached Mrs. Dobson in no time and roared wordlessly at her. The silence grew intense around his listeners while he shouted at Mrs. Dobson to clear off. Mrs. Dobson dropped her plans to disrupt the festivities. She turned around and started hurrying away, while Mohan Saab continued to shout threats at the top of his voice. The tension was over, and everyone on the verandah laughed and laughed – and not only at the defeated would-be party pooper. They were going to rib their colleague and have him re-enact this performance time and again!

Another time, she followed two of the young Chhota Memsaabs who were out on their evening walk. They heard her stick tapping behind them and quickened their pace. She was a very strong woman, and outpaced them in no time. ‘Mohan’s Radha and Rukmini!’ she jeered, turning and looking into their faces. Mohan was another name for Lord Krishna, and Radha and Rukmini were his two wives. The Chhota Memsaabs were really embarrassed, since neither of them was the wife of Mohan Saab. ‘When my beloved Dobson was here, I too would rush to the bungalow as eagerly as you do!’ she continued. The girls confined their walks to their bungalow compounds for many days. Mrs. Dobson’s evening walks, however, went on as scheduled for many years.

Mrs. Dobson died some years ago. I don’t know if the man who once loved her and sent her money at Christmas was informed of her death.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Time Is On My Side

Does it pay to be slow? The world is in a hurry. Everyone wants everything at top speed and no one has time to wait. This is an age when people's lives are packed with activity and no one has time to sleep for long or to sit about doing nothing. And as for those who do nothing, they know that very few people waste any time on them! Which is why it was refreshing to read about an exhibition in Bogota, Colombia, which celebrated a week of laziness.

'A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.' wrote W.H.Davies, the hobo poet.
John Lennon sang, in the beautiful ‘I’m Only Sleeping’

'Everybody seems to think I'm lazy
I don’t mind, I think they're crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
Till they find
There's no need, there's no need.'

And, even better,

‘When I’m in the middle of a dream
Stay in bed, float upstream, float upstream.’

It doesn’t pay to be slow -- but it just might be a good thing if you choose not to worry about what pays! (And this is definitely not a campaign to ask people to slow down at the work that they are paid to do.)
Maybe nobody actually likes waiting for trains or buses, at airports and restaurants, at the dentist's or the doctor's, but there are people who don’t really mind when they have to. How restful it is to empty the mind. How much more refreshing it is to let it fill with the impressions of the moment. It is nearly impossible to empty the mind entirely, but one could come close to it at certain moments before sighing deeply and picking up those burdens of daily existence again.
Why pick them up at all? Or why not carry just one burden a day? The Reiki Way teaches how to take just one step at a time, and each of the Reiki resolutions is made with the prefix, 'Just for Today'. One is 'Just for today, I will not worry'. It isn’t possible to do too much at one time without worrying, or panicking even, and definitely not without getting stressed out. Deadlines give you a heady rush, but that feeling takes away more energy than it gives.
There is a poem about some dry leaves by the roadside that are whirled into movement by a passing truck. They start believing that they have a life of their own. Once the truck has moved on, they lie dead and motionless again. The poem beautifully illustrates the emptiness of actions that have no meaning. All activity is not physical. There is a life of the mind, as well. Reading a good book, listening to a good piece of music, or watching a good sports performance can energise and enrich us. So can conversations with friends. So can a good daydream. ‘Stay in bed, float upstream, float upstream.’

Some people want to slow down; to stop to think, to savour and assimilate one experience before moving on to another. Most people today keep moving, investing every experience with intensity and never flagging. They have enough energy to make up for those who stop to dawdle, or take time off to rest and just be somewhere. You might meet holiday makers of both kinds. For many, a holiday means exchanging one set of activities for another, while some resolutely stay put at one spot, lazing and gazing. We cannot mock at either kind.

Everyone today realises how important it is to take a break. There is a lot of awareness about the value of relaxation, and people take to Tai Chi, Yoga, Art of Living, meditation or Reiki. Tai Chi teaches slow movements. Yogasanas, among all the things they do for you, also actually slow down breathing to a point where it is shallow and minimal. Reiki treatment slows down the breathing rate in no time at all and automatically brings about complete relaxation within minutes.

All this is not meant for young people. The young like to sleep or rest or ‘chill’ as they would have it, only so that they can move on to do more things.
Something like Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life!

My dad used to talk about how things should be done in a measured manner. He didn’t exactly say it like that -- I wish I could recall and reproduce his exact words, but he illustrated how things could be done with thought, and in a considered, deliberate way so as to make them meaningful. A daily routine became almost a thing of beauty. He enjoyed life hugely, laughed and made others laugh, and made a little happiness go a long way. When we were younger and we wanted to do a whole lot of things at the same time, or have several treats or goodies at once, he would advocate a little at a time - whether it was cashews, or plantain chips, or anything at all. He'd ask us to stretch the pleasures out, to make the happiness last awhile.
With middle age, and a natural slowing down, I recall his ideas with joy since I can understand them so much better.

There's much to be said for moderation.
There are people one comes across who career off from some hectic schedule of activity to a 'Vipassana' meditation camp where no activity or communication is allowed for fourteen full days. This crazy zigzagging between spiritualism and partying is like binge eating followed by crash dieting!
There are many people who cannot take too much. Not too much company, not too much food, not too many activities, and not even too much rest.

What of those who have no choice? The elderly, the very ill or the unemployed must have a very mature understanding to value the quiet life when it is the only life open to them. It takes wise people to value solitude and repose even when they have not been chosen consciously, but are a part of life as it is for them.