Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Niswarth Story

Niswarth (Hindi word; meaning - unselfish) is the name of the organisation started in Bagracote Tea Garden, Jalpaiguri District, by the Manager Harsh Kumar and his wife, Neelam. The aim of the organisation is 'providing employment and a social standing to the underprivileged in our society.' The focus is on disabled people.

Neelam passed away a year ago, on the 29th of February. A little over two years before that, she had suffered a stroke. Life changed drastically for both Neelam and Harsh. They fought hard against the effects of the stroke, which affected her movements and her speech.

Neelam Kumar
Neelam was a cheerful and lively person, full of fun. All of us who knew her found it tough to reconcile to what had happened. Harsh and Neelam were a devoted couple, and their son and daughter, who live abroad, made frequent trips home, providing help and moral support. Her strong nature and the family's love helped; Neelam improved tremendously.

Harsh learnt and read everything he could about stroke related disabilities. At such a time, the couple's thoughts turned to those who didn't have the means to help themselves. And that was how they started 'Niswarth', in 2007. In May 2007, members of Niswarth started a scheme providing employment to the disabled - the production of incense sticks.

Soon after Neelam passed away, in March 2008, Harsh donated Rs. 4 lakh to Niswarth. Duncans Industries allocated land and a building for the organisation in Bagracote Tea Garden.
Harsh Kumar
In July 2008, Niswarth held a Blood Donation and Disability camp. Identity cards were organised for hundreds of disabled people. At a camp in December 2008, hearing aids, wheelchairs, tricycles, crutches and disability cards were distributed to 176 beneficiaries. In January 2009, an eye camp was organised in collaboration with the Lions Club of Siliguri.
Harsh started talking to his friends in other tea gardens about hosting such camps.

In February, Anandapur T.E*., Kumlai T.E. , Leesh River T.E. and Nowera Nuddy T.E. in Dam Dim Subdistrict, and Moraghat T.E. in Binnaguri Subdistrict organised eye camps.
Early on the morning of the 16th February, a team of doctors, nurses and technicians, headed by Dr. Agarwal of Siliguri, set up camp in the garden hospital in Moraghat. Over 250 people got free eye check ups. Forty were diagnosed as cases for cataract surgery, and were taken to Siliguri the same evening by the team's Lions Club bus. Their stay, surgery, and treatment was all taken care of at the Lions Club Hospital.
'Thank you' from Moraghat Tea Estate to Dr. Agarwal and team

The patients returned to the garden after two days. An optician came in from Birpara town to collect prescriptions and take measurements for spectacles, which were made available at discounted prices. Two children, deaf and mute since birth, were taken to visit the Niswarth centre at Bagracote the next day. They could be sponsored to attend a special school in Gangtok, if their parents wish to send them.

Next up on Niswarth's calendar is a Disability camp at Birpara Tea Garden on 1 March, 2009, for the gardens in Dalgaon Subdistrict. Niswarth will also sponsor deaf and mute children between the ages of 5 and 12 at special schools from March onwards.

Niswarth is a registered charity. If you wish to make a donation, or help in any way, please visit

*T.E. - Tea Estate

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cheap Thrills

February is the season of film award functions. I watched almost all of the BAFTA awards, and the last (and most exciting) part of the Oscars. The BAFTA ceremony was businesslike and neat. The host's humour was inoffensive and he didn't talk too much. Bollywood's Star Screen Awards were disturbing. The chief host Sajid Khan dressed in drag, and made continual references to the movie Dostana in which John Abraham and Abhishek Bachhan pretend to be gay.

I couldn't understand this obsession with gay sex and how it could be a source of amusement and/or titillation. Where does it fit into a film awards function,of all things?

While flicking channels, I found last year's Filmfare Awards were on. The 'King' Khan Shahrukh and his co-host, Saif Ali Khan, were doing a comic act. The main theme of the show was the supposed humour in a situation where 'macho' guys like them are mistaken for a gay couple in a movie they did a few years ago. So what Shahrukh did last year became a model for a 'lesser Khan' like Sajid to copy this year.

It's bad enough that there are movies that exploit the theme of homosexuality, and get a 'U' certificate from the censor board. Entertainment channels on television are watched by children of all ages. Should sensitive and confusing subjects like sexual orientation be treated as a source of crass humour and titillation? Saif Ali Khan and ShahRukh Khan are both fathers of teen or pre-teen children. Guess we should ask them.

Small Dreams of a Cancerian

(A poem written ten years ago)

On my decision to stop teaching

To revered writer Vikram Seth

Most humbly do I dedicate

My decision to waste no time

(In teaching drama, prose and rhyme

To feckless and ungrateful youth --

I will resign and that's the truth!)

O Master, in your steps I follow

(By penning doggerel so hollow)

If I should give my Muse a twirl

We could do you A Suitable Girl.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth

Today, I'm quoting from my own blog. There are two paragraphs from 'The Dooars: A World' below.

1.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.

2.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!

There are two truths here about the Dooars. It is a place of great natural beauty, and it is a place of ethnic diversity. I didn’t mention how all the different communities lived together harmoniously when I wrote the above piece. It was a given, it was the way we were.

I'm not pretending that life as a tea planter's wife has been idyllic. There's loneliness, the lack of intelligent occupation, and no chance to build a career. Sometimes they are enough to crush the spirit.

The dangers in this world range from snakes, elephants, storms and floods to highway dacoity, labour agitations, and sometimes physical assaults on tea garden executives. These are the hazards we live with. They may be slightly unfamiliar to city people, who live with an entirely different set of problems and dangers. This is a kind of jungle, while the city, maybe, is another.

This blog has never been a place where I write about our problems, but today, things are different. We are all watching and listening as violence rages between two ethnic groups all over the Dooars. The Dooars was inclusive and welcoming. We used to call it a ‘Mini India’ very proudly. We have caught up with the rest of India. Our small towns have Section 144 imposed on them, and the names Banarhat, Birpara, Mal Bazaar and Nagrakata have made headlines. For all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Star Quality

These are starfruit, or kamrak, and like all the goodies of the season, they are golden and juicy. Around eight years ago, a boy came up to our bungalow gate on a bicycle and asked the gardener if he could meet 'Aunty'. He said he had many fruit saplings for sale. Mithhoo made him wait at the gate, and came to ask me if I'd like to take a look. We needed to plant some fruit trees in the compound, so I said I would. Like most salesmen, the boy talked too much and tried my patience. He did have some interesting saplings, including starfruit, chikoo, litchi and hibiscus. He swore they were excellent, all of them. He was quite dramatic, wanting to make a good first impression, and he ended each declaration with 'Aunty!' Mithoo wasn’t very pleased. Once the boy went away, he told me he thought that 'Aunty Wala' talked too much.

We referred to him as 'Aunty' after that. The sales talk turned out to have been justified. All the saplings took root, grew well, and produced what he'd promised they would. 'Aunty' came by to check their progress, and sold me chrysanthemums. We grew exotic hibiscus: yellow, mauve and orange. The chikoo and guava plants did well. The star of the lot was the kamrak.

Mithoo by the Kamrak tree
The little thing grew quite well, and I ignored it, thinking it would be many years before it produced any fruit. It looked quite pretty as a young bush. Within two years of our planting it, we got fruits - and how! Every branch and bough seemed to hang with fruit. My friend Usha called it a 'teenage pregnancy' and asked me to take good care of the plant. The tree - actually hardly that yet - fruited twice a year after that first time. We had to add vertical supports to the boughs. You can see why, in the picture.

Every rainy season, the tree begins to look like a green cave. It is the best garden umbrella you could have. The area under it serves as a rest and recuperation outpost for weary indoor plants.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Sometimes in Winter

The afternoon light was perfect, and these images needed no enhancement.
A future memory, already golden.

'I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling'
- T.S.Eliot, 'Preludes'