Friday, April 25, 2008

Pastels for Summer

Tiny zinnia seedlings have gone into flower beds, but may never live to grow and bloom, as caterpillar-s are eating them up. The shrubs around the garden are putting out flowers now, and little dots of colour are appearing in new places every day!
When the heat builds up, and the days are humid, these are the coolers that soothe tired eyes and lift our spirits!


Wisteria in its corner

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Crotchety Craftsmen : A True Tea Garden Tale

We lost two really good craftsmen in Moraghat Tea Estate in the same year. One was Bawarchi, the Burra Bungalow cook. His name was Lakshman Singh Pradhan but everybody always called him‘Bawarchi’. The other was the garden carpenter, the 'Kath Mistri', Biren Sarkar. Each of these men could be described as a ‘character’ in his own way. Each one had a strong sense of tradition and of his place in it.

Bawarchi was one of a kind. He was already a very old and frail man when we got to know him. At the beginning of every cold weather, he would announce that he was going to die. The poor old man would arrive at work early in the morning, hunched up and shivering. He'd go home for his breakfast and bath and come back at around eleven o'clock, now walking straight, and actually looking younger. We would ask him if he was himself or a younger brother. He'd give us his trademark crooked grin in reply.

Bawarchi's shopping lists were unique. He had a strong sense of loyalty to the old British Sahibs and his idea of 'essentials' seemed to be based on a longing for those bygone days. At the top of the list, I'd find, not rice, sugar, and atta and so on, but corn flour, Worcester sauce, beans and carrots. He once told me the British sahibs would eat potatoes with their meat instead of eating bread, rice or chapattis. He seemed to like the idea quite a bit!

Bawarchi was old, but he cooked like a dream. His souffl├ęs and cakes were light and lovely, and he made wonderful Indian and Chinese food as well. His 'pandraas’, cutlets and pancakes stay on in our memories. The only 'baksheesh ' that the old man ever wanted was a 'Thank you!' And he got plenty of heartfelt thanks in his time. Poor old man, he died of TB. In the cold weather, as he’d said he would.

Biren was an old timer too - he was painfully thin; he had a weak heart, was very shortsighted, and lame in one leg. He'd come limping to the bungalow with a fine walking stick which he'd made himself, and he had a helper who carried all his tools. He wore a woollen hat all the year round, shorts, shoes and socks, and a pair of very thick spectacles.
Biren was really an artist. Wood was something he understood, and he must have picked up his craft from the Chinese carpenters who worked in tea gardens many years ago. There are some glass fronted cupboards made by him with carved wooden frames of classic Chinese design. He once made an oval picture-frame, and gave it a perfect gloss. The joints in the frame are invisible. He carved us two or three fine walking sticks as well. He loved appreciation, and he had a lovely smile that lit up his face with kindness and goodness. Biren’s helper had to bear the brunt of his tongue, though. He was quite tough with him.

It was decided that Biren would make a wooden frame for the fireplace - a complete wooden mantelpiece, and the entire design was to be of his choosing. He was really happy. He loved the idea, the challenge, and the thought that he was going to contribute something to the bungalow that would be a source of pride and joy for years to come. It was, in fact, his final masterpiece. He retired some months later, and he died soon after. That was some months before Bawarchi died.

Biren Mistri's Final Masterpiece

Biren would have to do the entire job of the fireplace in the bungalow. There was no way he could take anything to the factory, as he’d have to keep taking measurements during the course of the work. The old man was worried about his morning tea break. How could he manage to walk all the way home for his eleven o'clock meal then back to the bungalow, with his leg being what it was? Well that was simple enough, he was told: he could have a meal in the bungalow. Bawarchi was instructed to provide Biren with breakfast; chapattis and eggs, every morning.

No one anticipated the storm that the two proud old men would manage to brew up between them. To start with, Bawarchi was outraged. Did anyone realise who and what he was? He'd been working for years -- so many years! -- first in Assam, and then in the Andrew Yule Company Kothi in Karballa. He'd seen so many sahibs and memsahibs, and from the British days! He'd cooked for such grand parties, he'd turned out a hundred and fifty perfect tandoori chickens on one night, and now, in his old age, he was being asked to wait hand and foot on this – this Biren Mistri!!

Biren addressed him as ‘ay!!’ and ordered him about, he said.
One of the complaints Bawarchi made was absolutely ridiculous. He claimed that Biren was profiting unfairly from the situation. How? No one could understand. So he explained. We bought eggs from Biren’s house, where one of his sons ran a small poultry business. And then, Bawarchi said, stressing the point, he was fed one of those eggs everyday. How could Biren sell us an egg and then eat it himself??

Biren, for his part, ranted about how Bawarchi deliberately took advantage of his dependence on him for food. He insulted him in every possible way, he said. He made him wait, and purely out of spite. He couldn’t bother with cooking him even chapattis properly. He grudged him every mouthful that he ate. Who was he to counter Burra Saab's orders anyway? Biren Mistri could not handle the daily humiliation, he said. He would go hungry, but he would not tolerate the Bawarchi's insults, insolence or arrogance.

Now this was a Situation. Neither Biren nor Bawarchi could be ticked off and told to stop behaving like a child. Each one was given a patient hearing, and then offered a suggestion. Biren's meal was to be served to him at a fixed time. All that Bawarchi had to do was to see that it was cooked beforehand, so that when he went home to eat, one of the boys could serve Biren. The arrangement worked well for a few days, and there were no fireworks in the kitchen.
And then one morning, Bawarchi started off again.

He had found a rotten egg. He complained, and then he raged about the villain who'd sold it to us. He brought it in a cup and waved it about, shouting about dishonest people and the bad stuff they sold, and how it was he who was accountable for everything that found its way into the kitchen. Who would have to take the blame, after all? It was so unfair. He was simply delighted that he’d got some tangible proof of his enemy’s villainy. He was going to take full advantage of it!

Once he quietened down, Bawarchi was told that the egg could easily be replaced. Wasn’t it always? No, he said, if we wanted any eggs replaced, ‘they’ always asked to see the bad egg in the first place. Well, then, he was told; he could go and show them the bad egg and ask for a replacement. There were other eggs in the house for now. That seemed to be the end of it.
The next day, Bawarchi went about looking less grumpy than usual. His sudden cheeriness made me stop and ask him about the bad egg. Had he managed to get a fresh one in its place?
'No,' he said. He smiled his old crafty smile.
'I cooked it and fed it to Biren Mistri.'

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Have You Seen the Light?

The Olympic Flame has reached Delhi.
Before the torchbearers could set off on their ceremonial run, hundreds of supporters of Tibetan freedom ran a parallel torch relay.
All during the elaborate 'security run-through' involving thousands of law enforcement personnel.
The day's papers and the news channels on TV have reported that security arrangements are at a higher level than those for Republic Day, when terrorist attacks are feared. Citizens of Delhi, watch out for yourselves today. The police are away on a 'red alert' assignment.

What is today's elaborate bandobust in aid of? Is it to show the world (through TV cameras) that India is willing to drop everything to protect a torch, which is, at the most, a symbol?

The third, and parallel rally of the day, is of course the media tamasha. Photojournalists and reporters are running frantically. Every news channel on television is fighting to get footage, so its smart young things can assure us brightly in careful tones that 'the flame is safe.' Oh, what a relief. How much sleep did anyone lose over it anyway?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Standing Tall

This beauty is a kind of semal, or kapok tree. Its special feature is the four-cornered base, almost like the base of a dart! The boy standing at the base of the tree is one Bala. The pictures of these giant American trees, below, were sent to me by another Bala.

Redwood Tree in Redwood National Park

Wawona Tree Mariposa Big Tree Grove Yosemite National Park

Monday, April 07, 2008

Potato (Mish) Mash

Yesterday we drove away from the tea gardens towards the agricultural lands that lie to our south. On Sunday evening drives, you get to see the jolly sight of people returning from their trips to the weekly bazaar.

Not everyone was celebrating yesterday, though. This is a bad time for potato farmers. Our district, Jalpaiguri, and the neighbouring Cooch Behar District, are big potato growing regions, and produce high yields to the hectare. Prices have crashed, and no one wants any of this year's crop. (Read more)The problem is aggravated by the absence of sufficient storage facilities, or of organised agro-marketing. We saw this dismal looking group waiting for a pick-up truck.

Last week there were long lines of potato-laden trucks at the gates of the few cold storage facilities in the area. The gates remained firmly closed. The trucks caused major traffic snarls on the national highway, and local drivers started referring to these as 'Alu Jams'.
No wonder most farmers are now dumping potatoes in the fields from which they were harvested.

Some ten years ago, this happened with the tomato crop. The roads around the farming areas turned red, as distraught farmers dumped their produce there.

A young goldsmith and jewellery shop owner from the nearby Banarhat town lost a lot of money in a get rich quick potato-growing scheme some years ago. He had to close down shop. For some months after, he could be seen roaming around aimlessly all over town. On one occasion, he was reeling about talking to himself, quite drunk. I last saw him hard at work as one of the many karigars (workmen) at another goldsmith's -- formerly a rival outfit -- looking as dignified as ever.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

April Love

Thank God for April. The cold weather is officially over, but we can spend hours outdoors in this season. The best part of living in the Dooars is the amount of time you can spend outdoors in the year.

The cold weather is the time for cultivated blooms, but come April, and you can sit back and watch things grow. March is still 'winter' in this age of climate change, but days get hot because it remains dry.

April is a time of growth and of destruction. The storms that occur at this time of year, the 'Kaal Baisakhi', as they are called here, are like tornadoes. They begin with sudden cloud formations, high speed winds, and, if tea planters and the local farmers are very unlucky, hail! Then the welcome rain comes lashing. Tea garden managers rush out after each storm to assess what damage -- if any -- has been done, and they send up heartfelt thanks for rain. However, I am sure their petitions to the Almighty are peppered with many conditional clauses. It is impossible to find a planter who is entirely happy with the amount of rain he's received, and how, and when, and in what concentration.

On most mornings, I see something in the garden which makes me rush back inside to get the camera. The dark, poky, secret corners of the garden often house shy beauties like this wisteria, which has been growing here for years. Nature lovers have to venture into these corners in the tolerant spirit of acceptance, and be prepared to face snakes, insects, or painful bites from hairy caterpillars!

This star apple tree has no fruits on it now, but offers a nice place to hide in (and to sulk), if anyone should need to do so.
The garden has many little hidey-holes for a child to play in. Our girls have left home now, so I particularly enjoyed having our friend's daughter, Susan, a sunny sixteen year-old, stay with us while she prepared for her board exams. Like all tea garden children she would wander about outside with the dogs, lost in her own world.

One of the things the Mali has learnt over the years is the art of seed propagation in plants which are traditionally grown by other means.

Plants like lilies are generally propagated through bulbs.
Easter lilies always produce thousands of papery black seeds which burst out of tight pods, though we never used to bother with collecting them. Mithoo, the Mali, scattered some of these seeds around, and behold, what emerged was this striking flower, almost a Tudor Rose of a lily, combining red and white so perfectly !