I’d never planned on joining tea till about 1992. A chance visit to my brother in law, Prem Tamang’s place–the then general manager at Pandnam Tea Estate–was a life changer.
I was studying at St. Joseph College, Darjeeling at the time and was an active NCC participant over the weekends. My passion and determination saw me bag the Best Cadet Award as well as the Governor’s Award. I’d been selected for the Youth Exchange Programme to go to Canada and was all set to don the uniform just like my father once did. It was his dream to see me follow in his footsteps — a dream that I made my own, if only temporarily.
My father had been mentally preparing me since long ago, when I was in class nine. I would wake up early for PT followed by karate sessions. In the evenings, I would play badminton with him. I was brought up to be independent and daring. When it came to watching television, I would watch serials on women achievers like Udaan and was a huge Kiran Bedi fan.
Tea was a male dominated bastion
Frequent visits to my brother in law’s tea estate brought about a sea change in my outlook. Every time I went around the field and factory, and accompanied him for tea tasting sessions, one question would nag me continuously. Why was there not a single woman planter in the management cadre, when around 60 percent of the work force comprised women? Almost all workplaces employed woman at the top rungs. Why was this not the case in tea?
I remember that day in 1994 vividly. We were sitting at the dining table when I told my brother in law that I wanted to join tea. I asked him to find out whether any tea company in Darjeeling was planning to recruit women as planters. If so, I would be interested for a position in the estates.
At first, he thought it was a mere whim and laughed it off. But when he saw the determination writ across my face, he realised I was serious. He agreed, but on one condition. I would have to spend two months of my forthcoming winter vacation working in his garden. He figured those two months would help me decide whether I was cut out for the tea life. Moreover, it would also give him an idea about my physical and mental makeup.
Training to join the army would have been easier
And so it was that I spent my next winter vacation in the tea garden. From day one, I was assigned an 18-hour work schedule by my brother in law. My days would begin at 5 am with a light breakfast (who eats at that early hour?). It then entailed walking through undulating terrain — from Pandnam to Rangarung Tea Estate. Crossing rivers, hills, rocks and topped with learnings about pruning–as I wound my way up and down–was part and parcel of daily garden life.
It would be 3 pm by the time I reached Rangarung. There I would have a quick lunch and then head back to Pandnam the same way. In Pandnam, there was just enough time for a shower and a little rest before it was time to begin night duty in the factory.
It was almost as if I was appearing for an exam – an assessment of my physical fitness and mental ability. It seemed a test that would decide whether I was capable of stepping into a hitherto male domain. This routine continued for two whole months, with my brother in law sending me to various nearby tea estates. Each of these estates had their own set of challenges.
Finally, my mentor was convinced that I had what it took to be a planter. Upon seeing my determination, my father too accepted my decision and was fully supportive. Following my college graduation. I enrolled myself in the National Institute of Tea Management in Siliguri, West Bengal. I completed my course with flying colours in February 1997 as a gold medallist!
I became Darjeeling’s first lady planter
In March 1997, I began my journey as a junior assistant manager at Seeyok Tea Estate, Darjeeling. Three years later, I joined the prestigious Goodricke Group Ltd in 2000.
Initially, when I joined, there was hostility among the work force and colleagues. Everyone was convinced that women lacked the physical and mental prowess that the job demanded. They doubted my ability to walk through the garden as there were no roads. However, it did not take me long to prove them wrong. I always told myself that if the women workers could walk through the difficult garden paths, why couldn’t I?
The men folk felt that after a long and tiring kaamjari day, I would not be able to make it to the factory during the night. I realised I had to work doubly hard to earn their respect and show that a woman was just as competent.
I put in over 18 hours of work daily and slowly but surely, I earned their respect and admiration. Over time, many women workers considered me their confidante.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going
My daughter was barely six months old when I was posted in Barnesbeg Tea Estate. It was a tough garden to handle, in terms of labour problems. My manager at the time was Mr. Vikas Gajmer, another strong mentor in my life.
We faced many gheraos that sometimes lasted an entire day. Fortunately, we managed to arrive at resolutions. There were even instances when my bungalow was pelted with stones at night. But I became immune to these events and would sleep off. I would simply tell myself that it was raining.
One particular incident I recall was receiving word around midnight that someone was illegally cutting garden trees. Mr Gajmer and I responded immediately and managed to nab the offenders!
I am forever grateful to Mr Gajmer. Under his tutelage, I learnt the process of tea withering. I would accompany him to the factory from midnight onwards till about 4 am, checking on the heat in the troughs and rollers. It was only after we were satisfied with the aroma, the colour, the cup and the infusion, that we finally returned to our respective bungalows. A brief nap later, we were back at work at 7 am.
None of this would have been possible without the comforting presence of his wife Meenu, my bara memsaab. She took it upon herself to advise the bawarchi at my bungalow about the right food for Barbie, my daughter. She even specified meal times. Life was definitely not easy with a demanding job and an equally demanding daughter. However, the Gajmers made it seem so easy.
Valuable lessons learnt
Careers in tea are no longer restricted only to men. Gender is no barrier for recruitment and all that matters is the person’s capability. Several more women joined tea after my joining and many successfully continue to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed my decade long romance with the tea gardens and although I switched gears to join the Confederation of Indian Industries in 2007, tea remains my passion.
I have the fondest memories of numerous hurdles, incidents, gheraos and above all, the learnings. All of these have moulded me into the person I am today. I will remain forever grateful to the garden workforces – to the women who cheered me up come rain or shine, and to the men who taught me how to ride a horse, a bike and also drive a jeep.
Working in the tea gardens taught me to be firm but fair, as also polite but assertive. I believed then, as I do today, that capabilities cannot be categorised on the basis of gender. Eventually, what matters is the passion, the zeal and the commitment towards one’s work.
In this endeavour of mine, it is my father, brothers, brother in law and my husband who have been the wind beneath my wings. Each of them ingrained in me that if one is sincere and dedicated, one can face all challenges and sail through in life. I am determined to go back to my roots one day and give back to society in any manner I can.