Thirty-three years ago, one sunny afternoon in February, the North East Express chugged on to platform No 1 of New Jalpaiguri station in West Bengal. Out stepped a handsome young man and he held out his hand for his bride. Me. We got into his Ambassador car and we were soon zipping off to Aibheel Tea Estate. It was to be my home for the next year.
The sun had set by the time we entered the garden. As we neared our destination, I went through a tumult of emotions – excitement, anticipation, apprehension, fear and trepidation. I stepped gingerly out of the car and did a double take when I saw the bungalow which was to be my home. It was huge! Running almost 100 feet from corner to corner, rising approximately 30 feet into the dark sky, it was built on 14 feet high stilts! A tiny 20-watt bulb hung on a thin long wire, in the middle of the long verandah.
Its light cast an eerie glow on a small little patch and gave the massive structure the feel of a haunted house. With my stomach in knots, I tottered up the creaking steps on my four inch stilettoes. Despite my husband’s reassuring arm around my shoulder, I was all set to turn and flee. I really would have, if he hadn’t held me tight.
The warm glow of the fireplace was a welcome respite from the dreary reception
As soon as I stepped into the drawing room, my attention was immediately drawn towards the carpet. Blood red in color, approximately 20 feet by 30 feet in size, it had a black zigzag, amoeba like pattern drawn right along the centre. My questioning gaze was met with a sheepish grin as my husband explained. Since the bungalow was over a 100 years old, the wooden flooring had given way at some places and the carpet’s black outline actually served as a warning to everyone not to walk anywhere near or on that area, lest they fall right through and land 14 feet below!
A romantic dinner next to the fireplace made me temporarily forget my misgivings of the evening. We sank into plush cushions and relaxed till the last embers died down. When we finally retired for the night, I remembered Scarlet O’Hara from my favourite novel–Gone With The Wind–and said to myself, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
A loud knock at 5 am woke me up
I groggily peeped out of my quilt and stared in disbelief when my husband got up, opened the door and collected a tray from the night chowkidaar. It was neatly laid out with all the paraphernalia of an elaborate tea service – tea pot, milk pot, sugar pot (with sugar cubes, if you please), tea cup, a strainer, a couple of spoons, some cookies, dollies, napkins – the works! My husband poured himself a cuppa, then went to freshen up, came back wearing shorts and a jacket over his shirt. He then helped himself to another cuppa, munched on a couple of cookies, kissed me good morning and said he’d be back for breakfast around 10 am. Before I could figure out what was happening, he vanished out of the bedroom door!
I went back to sleep thinking it surely was a bad dream. Who gets up at 5 am to go to work and that too dressed in a pair of shorts on a cold winter morning? More importantly, who drinks bed-tea served on a glamorously laid out tray? It was only when I was served in a similar fashion once I finally got out of bed two hours later, that I realised it wasn’t a dream after all.
Sure enough, at 10, I heard the unmistakable dhukdhukdhukdhuk of a Bullet motorcycle. The bearers heard it too. They started running helter-skelter, tripping over each other to get to the main door before their lord and master strode in.
A scene straight out of some Bollywood movie, unfolded in front of my eyes
First stop – bearer holding a tray with a glass of water.
Second stop – bearer holding a tray with ‘yesterday’s’ newspaper on it. I learnt, later, that one was considered lucky if you managed to read a day old newspaper, else the wait could stretch to two days or more.
Third stop – a big wooden chair in the centre of the verandah on which the lord sat and started glancing through the newspaper. Yet another bearer untied his shoes, took off his socks and slipped on a pair of slippers. He promptly took the shoes away to dust and clean and get them ready for the master to wear after breakfast.
Job done, the master rose, hollered out loud for his huge retinue of servants to line up and rattled of the weirdest sounding names as he introduced them to me. So there was Somra One, Somra Two, Mangra, Budhwa, Funtoos, Gobe, Horen, Sebo, Mangla and Robi. I learnt that tea garden folks usually named their children on days of the week and that Somra (Monday born), Mangra (Tuesday born) and Budhwa (Wednesday born) were the most common names. Since there were so many Somras, Mangras, each had a suffix added to their name — one, two, three and so on. The nomenclature depended upon who was born first and who last!
My husband told me that Somra Two was ‘garden fresh’ – a moniker used for someone who was working in a bungalow for the very first time, and hence was yet to be trained. He benignly informed me that I should not bother trying to train him as city bred people had no idea how to handle garden workers.
Training of ‘garden fresh’ Somra Two began in earnest
The roar of the Bullet announced its arrival again at 2 pm signaling it was lunch time. Repeat performance of 10 am – stop 1, stop 2 and stop 3, followed by lunch and the mandatory siesta. An hour later my husband was enjoying his cuppa in the verandah while I was in the bedroom arranging the last of my cosmetics. I heard a knock and in came Somra Two carrying a tray.
Somra Two, “Saab bulaya.” – the master had called for me.
Me, “Okay, tell him I’m coming”.
Somra Two, “Saab bulaya.”
Me, “I just told you, tell him I’m coming”.
Somra Two, “Saab bulaya.”
Me, “Didn’t you hear what I said? Tell him I’m coming”.
Somra Two, “Saab bulaya.”
I suddenly realised that every time he said ‘Saab bulaya’, the tray kept going lower and lower and lower! I suspiciously asked him, “Why have you brought a tray?”
Timidly, Somra Two replied, “Saab bola jo bhi layaega tray mein layega” – whatever you bring, needs to be brought on a tray.
I freaked out and stormed off to find my husband sitting on his throne while a bearer was putting on his shoes.
Me, “You actually asked Somra Two to carry me on a tray?”
My husband didn’t seem perturbed at all. He shrugged and replied nonchalantly, “Well he’s getting trained you know. First, he needs to be taught that everything must be brought on a tray. Then I’ll teach him what not to bring on a tray.”
Needless to mention, I was no longer stupefied when I found Somra Two carrying belts, shoes, bags– anything and everything–on a tray for the next month or so by the end of which he actually ended up learning, what not to bring on a tray!
Had I made the correct decision?
Life in the tea gardens seemed so far from reality. I began to wonder whether I had chosen right. My mind was a mixed bag of emotions and I wasn’t too sure how I would adapt to this crazy world. But I am so glad I stuck on. It’s been more than three decades now and tea has become a way of life for me. Over the years I have come to terms with these idiosyncrasies.
In fact, it is the simplicity of the tea garden folk and their innocence which in many ways makes it all worthwhile. In hindsight, I thank my stars that I spent the better part of my life far far from the maddening crowd of a concrete jungle and made my home amid a pollution free and real ‘jungle’.