For Pransu Raj Kaushik, tea is a way of life. His great-grandfather was a planter, as was his father. Pransu followed in their footsteps, beginning his career as a welfare officer at Hokonguri Tea Estate before joining Damayanti Tea Industries as a consultant. Pransu took a break from managing O! Chai, Damayanti’s “tea retail unit-cum-lounge” in Dibrugarh, Assam, to write this latest entry in our Chai Diaries series.
It may sound a bit maniacal, but my tryst with chai started at the very moment I took ‘life form’ in the warm innards of my mother’s womb. This might be because of the reason that I breathed the same cool and fragrant air of the tea estate that my mother breathed as well, or due to the full bodied cup of dudh chai (milk tea) that she drank during her pregnant days. Whatever be the reason, I can say it with confidence that tea runs in my veins.
The orange frothy bright liquor that we all crave for has a story imbibed in every droplet: the story of human toil, of the various emotions, of the rich and sometimes violent history and many things more! Let me begin by sharing my own experiences of tea life. My father, who sadly is no more, was an employee of the erstwhile giant in tea business, Jokai India Ltd. His grandfather in turn, was a planter as well. So, I can proudly say that tea-life runs in my veins. We in tea regard it not only as a profession but a way of life, which is unique as compared to all other professions. Tea life provides one with the best of disciplined social life. “Once in tea, always in tea” is a dictum that is rightly associated with a tea person because of the fact that relations forged in tea almost always run a lifetime and go beyond as well.
Days started quite early in the morning in a tea garden. The siren at the factory used to prod us all to wake up at 5:00 in the early misty mornings. It may hereby be worth mentioning that tea estates in Assam (I am not aware of the other regions) always run their clocks an hour ahead than the prevalent Indian Standard Time. There are unique monosyllables for denoting different words in tea garden parlance. The waking up time is generally known as “murgi daak” (the crow of the cock). It really was a busy time for all in the chai bagan (tea garden). Be it the minis (young labourer girls), the chokras (young boys), the babus (clerks) or the sahebs (managers), everyone had to be at their work by 6:00 a.m. The silky rays of the sun, reflecting off the green scenery, would light a stream or river flowing by, and the pleasurable soft blowing wind would bring a heavenly fervor to the mind and body.
The days for the babus and the chota sahebs (assistant managers) started at the burra saheb’s (manager) office, wherein kaamzari (work) was allotted for the day. After that, at around 7:00, all the mohurers (field clerks) and chota sahebs went to the respective challans (sections) in the tea estate under their control to supervise the work being undertaken. There were no allotted breaks for breakfast as one could have it as per their convenience. The morning shift was till 11:00 am and its break was again announced by the wail of the siren. After a two-hour hiatus, full of a heavy country lunch and a short afternoon siesta, work again resumed at 2:00 p.m. The mohurers measured and recorded the leaf weight and made arrangements for the green gold to be transported to the factories for the purpose of production. Work ended for the day at 4:00 in the evening.
Then there were (still are, but the activities have greatly been eroded as usual by the busy schedule of the modern planter’s life) the Planters’ Clubs, with all the amenities that go with a good life in every tea district. The tired planter, after a long day toiling in the field, loved to have his drink at the bar. Weekends were specially reserved for sporting activities like swimming, tennis, polo and what not. Then there was the usual ball room dance, the club supper, the celebration of the different festivities and what not. It really was a jolly good life! Unfortunately, the old world charm of tea has somewhat lost its way to materialistic realms of modern life.
What I have portrayed here is the way tea was during the days of my father: the sixties and seventies. Maybe a residual effect of the good times dragged on till the early nineties, when I was just beginning to learn the alphabets. The different activities unique to a tea life are still prevalent, but the zing is missing somewhat. If Zach and Resham and the revered readers can tolerate my “written torture,” I am willing to dole out some more tales in the future. Till then, Chai piyo, mast jiyo!!