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.'


PentaTwo said...

Love the last line!


Isn't that a real Roald Dahl punch?

Excellent piece. Perfect characterisation. Wonderful story.

Kamini said...

What a lovely piece! You had me chuckling throughout!
And that fireplace frame - what a stunning looking piece! Is it in your home now?
Waiting for more!

Anonymous said...

Roald Dahl indeed. Nice connection.

But, but, why have I read this before? Am I imagining it?

Gardenia said...

anonymous, you've seen the fireplace, and we've all told you the story.

Viji said...

"Egg in your face" to poor Biren Mistry
Gowri this was such a wonderful piece

damo said...

beta shyaam wah!wah!

Karthik Narayan said...

thats what i call a yummy story :) mummmy, i want my paranthas with a dollop of butter on them... made me very hungry with all that scrumptuous reading.

manohar said...

It is indeed treat to read whatever you write maa'm.Very closely observed the human life and habit.would be waiting eagerly for your book to be released.Please write a book ma'am.!!Bravo !!! bravo!!

flowergirl said...

Gardenia, I agree with anonymous, the rotten egg story is tucked away somewhere, earlier!

Is this the same bawarchi who was there when we came?

PS Loved the wisteria picture, by the way.