Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Aurora Surrealis?

Sunset on November 2, 2009
Aurora Surrealis?

This was the biggest and the grandest sunset I ever saw in my life. And no, don’t even bother to ask - I had stepped out without a camera. These pictures are all that my phone (Sony Ericsson) could manage. Not that my camera could have captured the scale or the intensity of the colours in there. About half of the sky was covered by this spectacle. The lit up clouds were dazzling with broken rainbows - something like a petrol slick on a puddle. It’s not a very poetic similie, but I only saw this sunset because I was on the highway!

This was over a large open area to the west of the highway, over the burial ground from which the tea garden gets its name (Moraghat, place of the dead) In the distance there was a small graveyard, with all the graves freshly limewashed for All Souls' Day. In the East, the full moon of Karthik Poornima, birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, was rising.

Overhead, there were fluffy cirrus clouds, looking like tiny lambs. The quality of the light was such that you could sense the distance between the clouds and the sky beyond. Now that's a thought for All Souls Day.

My husband was on his evening round of the division to the East of the highway, and I called him so he could join me, but he was deep inside the garden. The sunset would end by the time he reached me, he said. So the driver, who'd been taking me to the wool shop in Binnaguri, and I, stood and watched.

A few buses rolled past. Two men on a bike stopped and one, like me, took out his phone to capture what he could.

Sunset on November 1, 2009

To quote from Notting Hill, 'Surreal, but nice.'

See skies from around the world at Skywatch Friday.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Gerberas and Saddam Hussein in the Forest

Chalsa forest is one of my favourite places in the Dooars, and when the roads were in better shape, I'd drive into it once a week, just to look around and soak in the atmosphere. One road leads deep into the forest and climbs up to the Jaldhaka settlement in Darjeeling district.

On Sunday last, we went up that way. It is a quiet place, and a drive there offers some lovely views of the Jaldhaka River and the hills. It also gives us a chance to take short walks in the hills. There is hardly any tourist traffic there.

The Sipchu Beat Office
Before we crossed over into Darjeeling district, we passed the Sipchu Beat Forest Office. We saw a small hothouse with flowering plants and stopped. There was a cluster of buildings belonging to the Forest Department and we didn't want to enter without permission. A little boy was the only person in sight. He looked nothing like a forest officer, but he told us we could go in, and then ran off, shouting that he would call the 'Beat Babu'.

The Hothouse
We entered the hothouse and found excellent specimens of gerberas growing there. The 'Beat Babu' -- Beat Officer -- turned up with the little boy. He was a pleasant, soft-spoken man. Probir Choudhary was happy that we liked his flowers. I'd assumed they were part of a tissue culture project, but he told us they were grown from seeds bought in Pune, Maharashtra - the other end of India. We asked if he could sell us any plants, but he said they only sold flowers. He didn't have little seedling plants, or else he would have shared them with us, he said. However, he plucked five beautiful blooms for us - one in each of the colours that grew there. They're still standing tall in a vase in the dining room, a week later.

The little settlement had a Sunday quiet about it. The boy couldn't get over the way we were fussing over him. He was shy and happy all at the same time. We asked him his name and whether he went to school. His name was Saddam Hussein, he said, and he went to the small school which stood among the cluster of buildings.

Mr Choudhary with Saddam

These people lived in the heart of the forest, surrounded by wild animals, including bison, leopards and elephants. There was no market for miles around. I wondered how often they had people they knew visiting them. Mr.Choudhary asked us where we'd come from. When we told him Moraghat Tea Estate, he said he'd always wanted to visit the nearby Gairkata town, where his in-laws live. He said it was too far away for him to make the trip. It isn't over 35 kilometres away from the beat, but that is a remote settlement, and there's probably just one bus a day out of it.

Mr. Choudhary brought out a visitors book for us to sign. A lot of people seemed to have stopped and visited here on their way to Jaldhaka or the Chhapramari Wildlife Reserve, and some were from overseas too. There was something very fine about this man. He seemed to exemplify that courtesy, goodness and dignity which reminded one of an older, unhurried world.

Entry in the Visitors Book made by some overseas visitors on the day of the Total Eclipse, July 2009.'Who knows, maybe we can extend a project with tulips?' they write.

The Jaldhaka River

Monday, October 26, 2009

Close Encounters of the Herd Kind

Last Monday, we went to Bagdogra, a drive that takes about three hours from our garden. At around ten in the morning, we were crossing Damdim in the Western Dooars, and we saw a large crowd and some jeeps on the road ahead. We thought it was a 'jhamela' (trouble) of some kind. Our Dooars residents are volatile and quick to take offence, and they vent their feelings very visibly, so that 'jhamela' is a part of daily life, like 'Bandh' (strike) or potholes on the road.

There were men in uniform there too, and that helped to confirm what we believed. We expected anything from a murder to a road accident to a political demonstration. Since no one stopped our car, we drove ahead.

The cause of all the excitement was a herd of elephants. They were in the tea area off the road about 500m away from the highway, around 30 in all, adults and calves, all standing in a tight group, facing out in different directions.

The crowds had collected there to stare. The uniformed men, who were officials of the Forest Department, couldn't do much to convince them to make way for the elephants to get away. An ice cream seller was doing brisk business, and it looked like the start of a long day - and a long wait for the elephants. They were trapped where they were, not wanting to move because of the growing crowd of people.

The poor elephants were still stranded when we returned down that road around sunset time. The gawping crowds had grown, and now it was like a mela - a fairground - with so many motorbikes, cars, cycles and drifters. We slowed down, but didn't stop to join them.

My husband Mohan said sundown was the time when the elephants would come into their element. But while they waited, which had been all day, they had stood without a sound and without a drink of water, intent on protecting their young. They showed no signs of wanting to harm the crowds of people. There was no shade where they were standing, and they had been hurling mud on their backs to keep cool.

We'd experienced much the same thing in Moraghat T.E. early this year when around seven elephants strayed into the tea area and were forced to stand there all day, while the crowds - some of them coming in hired cars from Birpara, 20 km away - stayed till it was dark.

It was obvious all through that the elephants showed more maturity than human beings! Their behaviour signifies a superior instinct for survival and a superior understanding of coexistence with fellow creatures. They follow all the old rules, while we break them.

And yesterday, on one of our early-start-to the-cold-weather Sunday drives, we just missed running into a herd of around 40 to 50 elephants in the heart of Chalsa forest, between Jaldhaka and Chhapramari. It was sundown -- their time, and the forest -- their beat. Had we dawdled five minutes before setting back from Jaldhaka, we'd have driven into them. I'm glad we didn't disturb each other.

This is a picture of a tame elephant that belongs to the Forest Department, probably on its way to give tourists a ride. This was shot near Chhapramari Wildlife Reserve in Chalsa forest by Mohan.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Niswarth and Durga Puja

Puja, the biggest festival of the year, just went past. Nothing could dampen the spirit of celebration in the Dooars gardens - not the drought, and not even the high prices of food and goodies. Niswarth's people celebrated with a musical entertainment show in Bagracote Tea Garden on September 25, 2009.

In keeping with the Puja spirit, the show was open to all. There were a number of entertainers from Bagracote, but the Niswarth performers were the highlight of the show. Surjya Oraon's song had everone cheering and clapping loudly. This was the only way they communicate their appreciation to Surjya, who can't see.

About half an hour into the show, we heard there were two and a half thousand spectators. Later, even more gathered. It wasnt possible to get the exact number, but it turned out that all the labour lines were 'Khaali' and every resident of the garden was at the show!

The show stealer was Deepa, who danced to a lively Hindi film song. This lovely girl has malformed feet; they are twisted and point backwards. The CD took some time to find. Deepa was all ready to dance, and she waited quietly, smiling and excited.

When the music began, Deepa danced with terrific energy, mouthing the words of the song and enacting all the emotions expressed by the singer. There were four boys dancing with her. Two of them cannot hear at all, and the other two have very limited mobility. Their team work was remarkable.

As they danced, the crowd went wild. There was no way anyone present would think of the hardship or sorrow of such physical afflictions. Emotions ran high. There were some women sitting behind me, clapping with their hands high in the air, smiling and weeping at the same time.

Thank you, Deepa, and boys. You showed us that music and dance are for everyone, and that they have the power to fill us with happiness.

Deepa became something of a star that night. Representatives of the local press were seen clustered around her for a long time.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Talking Boxes

Tributes paid,
wreaths laid.
Flags half mast:
Relive days past!
Son anointed,
Successor appointed
Madam arrives
son in tow
PM postpones
all to morrow.

Bharat desh,
always mourning
always rating,
phoney telling.

What about Air Force boys?
What about suicides?
What about the failed monsoon?
Price of sugar, over the moon.
Please, put reality on hold
Live funeral should not go cold.

Monday, August 24, 2009


At Niswarth's Disability camp in Dibrugarh, Assam on August 16, 2009.

Niswarth, a registered charity, is an organisation that works for the welfare of disabled people in the tea gardens of Dooars and Assam. It is run by a tea planter here in the Dooars. Niswarth was started in Bagracote Tea Garden in 2007 by Harsh Kumar and his wife Neelam. Neelam suffered a stroke which left her with some degree of disability. She passed away in 2008, and after this Harsh redoubled his efforts to improve the lot of those who lived - and lived pretty much on the edge - with disabilities.

Surjya Oraon is blind. His life changed considerably once Niswarth became a part of it. At one time Surjya would go to Oodlabari town everyday and beg for a living. He is now fully employed at the incense stick production unit run by the Niswarth Centre in Bagracote. On Founder's Day, April 3 2009, which would have been Neelam's fiftieth birthday, Surjya opened the evening's program with a song.
'Chhoo kar mere man ko, Kiya tu ne kya ishara.' (You reached out to me, you touched my heart.)
'Badla ye mausam, lage pyaara jag saara' (Everything changed, and the world feels like a beautiful place now.)
Surjya's song moved all the people present - it was so melodious, so heartfelt, and so filled with meaning. Surjya's is just one story. There are many people with limited mobility who have received wheelchairs and tricycles, there are deaf-mute children who have been sponsored to attend special schools in Darjeeling, and there are elderly people who have had cataract surgery in Siliguri free of cost.

Many of the disabled residents of Bagracte Tea Garden work at the Niswarth centre, making incense sticks and greeting cards.

The idea of working for the disabled and underprivileged garden residents came to Harsh and Neelam long before she was taken ill. They wanted to keep a living link with the tea world, not just a club membership. It had to be something, thought Harsh, which would be a living connection after retirement, not just with Burra Bungalow and its new occupants, but with the garden and with all its people. Niswarth today has a growing band of workers, volunteers, well-wishers, and of course, beneficiaries.

Niswarth has organised disability camps at Anandapur, Siliguri, Bagrakote and Birpara tea gardens in the Dooars, and in the month of August, 2009, the first such camps took place in Assam. These were held at Panitola Group Hospital and in Dibrugarh town. At the Dibrugarh Disability camp, 205 people were identified as eligible to receive government Disability Cards. Earlier, only 15 people in the area had cards. At the Panitola Camp, 359 people were identified. In the Dooars, 539 people have already been issued government Disability Cards. Card holders are entitled to free rail travel and free bus rides. They are also entitled to free disability aids and appliances. In the Dooars, 291 people have received appliances like wheelchairs, tricycles, crutches and hearing aids. The distribution of these appliances was organised by Niswarth members.

Niswarth was in Assam again to conduct a Disability Camp at Moran Tea Garden on August 30. The camp covered 14 tea gardens from Sibsabar and Dibrugarh districts.

Funding is a constant and growing need as we expand our scope of activities. It would be wonderful if more people could give a thought to making some contribution towards Niswarth.
Our homepage is Please read about our latest activities here on koi hai -

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Big Boy - Shoot at Sight

My husband decided to shoot this visitor as soon as he saw him in the verandah. A rather Bhayanak (scary) moth.

Photographs by Mohan

Monday, August 10, 2009

Goodbye, Friend

Sunrise, 2008

One of the victims of this year's drought and failed monsoon was our Kala Siris, or Albizia Chinensis tree. It was the tallest and grandest tree in our bungalow. My husband loved it like anything. Today, a team of trained workers chopped off all the branches. Tomorrow, the trunk will go and the roots will be dug out too. We'll miss it. So will all the crows - it was their favourite perch. A blue-throated barbet nested in it last cold weather.

Here's an excerpt from an entry made some time in September 2008:
...the splendid creature who dominates our front garden year round is this towering specimen of Albizia Chinensis. We call this tree 'Kala Siris' here. It is a variety of mimosa, and in the months of May and June it produces lovely scented 'shaving brush' flowers which are light green in colour. The species is prone to canker, and a goodish bit of the tree had to be lopped off two years ago. In spite of that, this grand old tree still towers at around 60 ft and hasn't lost its beauty.

The last sign of life the tree showed was in June 2009 when it put out new buds. Within a week, they all died. We'll miss you in the garden.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


We had a cloudy sky today, with pretty dense clouds in the East from 5.15 in the morning, when I first looked out. Just last night I'd thought I wouldn't mind missing the total eclipse if it rained heavily. It looked like we would have neither! Anyway, we had a plan ready - we would drive towards the south, taking the road to Gairkata, from where we might get a different looking sky. We started at around 6.15. By the time we'd driven for a few minutes, the sun had moved behind a thinner layer of clouds. There were little breaks in these clouds. We had welder's glass with us, and I saw the 3/4 crescent through it, so we stopped. There were some puddles on the ground, and we kept looking at the sun in them. We were the only two people there.

Just before totality, the sun came out of the clouds and we saw our shadows on the grass in that weird light. The wind dropped and it was very still. When totality began, we couldn't see the eclipsed sun at all. The clouds ate it up. But it became really dark, much darker than I expected, and two or three trucks went past with headlights on. We could barely see each other, and the trees around us had become shadows. It felt strange - scary, even though we knew it was going to happen. We never saw that blacked out sun, but it wasn't a total washout either.

Back home, the night watchman looked relieved to see us again. He told us it had become dark suddenly and that he had run and switched on as many lights as he could.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Think Positive!

"Reminding someone of their misery makes them frown even more. Putting a smile on someone’s face costs nothing. Think about it.

Think positive!"

This is from 'Advertising and Positive Thinking' by my brother Bala.
Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Waiter, There's An Elephant In My Tea!

Of the herd of elephants that entered Moraghat Tea Estate on Monday night, seven hung around till Tuesday morning, and ended up staying all day. They had moved from the inhabited parts of the garden to the NG Division, which borders the National Highway and the broad gauge railway line.

This made it easy for passersby on the highway to stop and stare, and also made it impossible for the elephants to get out from the tea area and head back to the forest!

Three adults and four calves - they stood in this formation almost all day.

When they got agitated, one of them would charge ahead!

Elephants can cause a lot of damage, and these boys were doing their best to drive them away. It isn't good to be in the path of an elephant when it runs towards you. It can race along at 60km an hour.

Our garden's boys dont fear elephants - they're charging at them to frighten them away.

We went as close as we dared (about 100 feet) to take these pictures. One of the big guys started off in our direction, and we ran into the vehicle, then raced off - under the branches of a tree that you know who had knocked down.

Racing away

By late afternoon, people were arriving in hired cars to stand and stare.
Our visitors went away only after nightfall. Today Mohan looks glum - the damage they did will cost the garden a few lakhs of rupees!

Friday, April 03, 2009

A Rescue Mission

Geeta was coming to the bungalow to work this morning when she saw a bird trapped in a fence around the tea area. She sent Jithroo there to rescue the bird. Jithroo has a way with animals. Our pets love him, and the cats think he's playing with them when he goes about his work with a broom. Jithroo freed the bird - it was a peahen - whose neck had got caught in a bit of fencing wire. He put it in the little coop where Salman and Goni used to sleep when they were tiny kittens. (In the picture, above)
Garden people know exactly what to do with wounded animals. They kept it in a place where it couldn't move around too much, and where it was dark, so it would feel comforted. We don't see too many peacocks and peahens in the tea area, but there are plenty in the forest nearby.

Mohan rang up the Wild Life Squad in Binnaguri. Their team came in promptly. The bird looked quite comfortable in their arms.

This is Bittoo, who came along for the ride with his father.

The bird was loaded into the vehicle without any fuss. It will be released into the forest now.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Darjeeling : Jaldhaka River

That's Bhutan, on the other side of the river.

The hills to the left of the picture are in Bhutan.

One For the Road - Spring Water!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

All's Well That Ends Dry Spell

The first drops of rain we got after a four-month long drought came with a lot of special effects. Strong winds started blowing at around eight in the evening. The verandah was like the set of a disaster-on-board movie. Anyone who wanted to stand straight in there had to cling to a pillar. No standing around however, it was all hands on deck as chairs, tables and flowerpots had to be got out of the wind to safety. There was some rain, which we sensed more by the sound it made on the roof than by sight. The drops disappeared into the dry earth as soon as they fell. My husband spoke to the Company Saab in Kolkata and held the receiver up so that he could hear the raindrops on the roof.

It was over in a few minutes. We went to bed, and after a couple of hours I woke up to a racket. It sounded as if an elephant had entered the labour lines. People were bursting crackers and shouting, and dogs were barking madly. My husband spoke to someone over the cell phone. About two hours later, there was a crash that sounded like the end of the world. There was a flash of green light - now I know what Harry Potter felt like - and then everything went dark. Mohan knows how courageous I am, and how calm I remain in a crisis. So he was already holding both my hands and telling me not to worry. There was a mild burning smell around us. Mohan went out with a torch to check for damages. There didn't seem to be any. Our lights didn't come back for twenty minutes, by which time it had started to rain. The relief of hearing falling rain and the lights coming back were enough to send us back to sleep.

The next morning, Mohan reported that there'd been very little rain. But he was all smiles. The drought was over. What other news, I asked. Plenty. The elephant had crashed its way through the fencing around at least four houses, eating all the bananas planted there. No one in the garden was upset. The elephant was lucky for us all, they said - it had brought rain! One Assistant reported that when the lightning struck, the main switchboard of his bungalow had caught fire. Luckily, he managed to put it out. In our bungalow, the burning smell had been coming from the plug-in adaptor to the cordless phone. It had burst when lightning struck. Oh yes, and the water pump had died in the night.

It was a cheery morning. The sun shone in a sky that was blue for the first time in months. The bungalow was alive with activity. An electrician was fitting a substitute water pump. The Malis - gardeners - were sweeping up leaves which were strewn all over the compound. A boy started washing carpets, something he'd been putting off because of the dust haze in the air. The only sad faces I saw were those of the hollyhocks in the garden - they were all laid down by the storm.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

And Pretty Maids All in A Row

My mother says hollyhocks are always Late Latifs. Well look at these, strutting their stuff now,when the rest of the garden is going into a decline. Hollyhocks bring memories of the garden of my childhood home in Delhi.
My sister Viji would walk me around the lawn, and she would would make a 'doll' for me using a flower and a bud. Can you imagine how thrilled a little girl would be to get a doll which looked like a princess with a flowing gown?

This is the first time we've managed to grow hollyhocks like these. It's a joy to share them here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dry Days and Fakkar Baba

I wait for my husband to come home from his evening kamjari and say those three little words that mean so much to both of us: 'Let it rain. Let it rain. Let it rain.' It is now 140 days since we had rain in the Dooars. The forests look like they could turn into Australian bushfires. The sky is a sickly dust haze. Days are hot and the nights turn unpleasantly pleasant, ruling out all chances of a cloud build up. 'Coming home looking like a thundercloud every day won’t help', I used to tell Mohan some weeks ago, but I don't have the heart to say it any now.

Garden people have this habit of consoling themselves with saying that the next Puja on the Indian calendar will bring rain. So everyone starts off with cheerful assertions about how it will rain on Saraswati Puja (January). The wise ones don't stay disappointed for long, and they start to say, 'It will rain on Shivratri for sure.' That comes in mid-February. Hmm. 'Fagua' is the next cry that goes up. 'Surely Fagua/Holi will bring rain.' That's mid-March. It just went past. What now?

Fakkar Baba of Oodlabari was well-known all over Dooars. He died of cancer some years ago. Baba was a devotee of Lord Shiva and was said to be a seer. He smoked hard all the time. Whatever he smoked early in the morning had him in a trance, and people said that was the best time to consult him. He was known to predict promotions and transfers of Chhota Saabs and Burra Saabs in the Dooars gardens with some accuracy. If he ever predicted who'd get the sack, they never told. Rain was his area of specialisation. The Baba had devotees who'd invite him to their gardens to conduct special 'Pujas' for rain.

(Also pulished on

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Just Dandy!

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We bought these lily bulbs when we visited Gangtok last March for the International Flower Show. Mohan planted them, and we had one flowering plant last summer. This one has bloomed earlier than we expected. No one's complaining.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Flowers From My Friend

Manashi's Garden

Antirrhinums: 'Madame Butterfly'

Nothing gives me a bigger kick than other people's gardens. When I look around my own, I see dead leaves somewhere, an unwatered plant somewhere else, weeds, or something to do. Other people's gardens offer a complete break from thought. You just look, enjoy, and absorb.

Manashi's garden was wonderful when it peaked in February with dahlias everywhere. That was more than a month ago. Now that the dahlias are gone, the 'late latifs' are having their day.

Phlox were late in all our bungalows. These pink beauties are like little rosebuds, aren't they?

Carnations brave the Dooars weather! I have never succeeded in growing them!

The drought in the Dooars is alarming now. Manashi told me that she'd heard some crackling sounds coming from the garden yesterday afternoon. When she went to the verandah to check, she saw one of the big bamboos at the edge of the compound had caught fire! (You can see the bamboos in the first picture).
Over 120 days - that is four months - without rain. The husband, poor man, found a forecast by the BBC which said it would rain tomorrow. It's brought him some comfort. The BBC, he tells me, actually records daily temperatures in Siliguri, a place that other major news channels ignore.

Manashi's Bungalow at the DBITA

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Breather in Kolkata

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

The tea planter and his wife love a quick getaway to the heart of the city. One little whiff of urban life is good for our lungs. It refreshed us before I returned to my station on the verandah and the husband to prepare for the season, and to fight the drought.

...and Queen Victoria's Statue

City walks were good fun, but the pavements in Park Street finished off my 'stout walking sandals'. I sought comfort in Flury's coffee and confections.

Isnt it lovely here? Even the decor is all caramel, coffee and cream! Service comes with a smile. Went back again for breakfast (hash browns, rolls, muffins, and coffee). Mmm.

The window display reflects Park Street. Well, they wouldnt let me photograph it from inside. I loved the old baking tins and moulds on display, and I wonder if the cocoa pods and beans are visible.
So that is my world this week, and do see other people's worlds here.