We’ve arrived in Upper Assam at the start of the tea plucking season; the tea-pluckers are out in full force, filling their cane baskets with the first flush to the distant growl of pre-monsoon thunderstorms
Tea gardens near Sapekhati |Upper Assam, North East India | Not far from the Myanmar border | About lunchtime
We’re staying at my cousin Manikut’s tea garden, in a bungalow edged with wide manicured lawns, tall palms, fruit trees, and flower beds.
This remote and sleepy part of Assam is in a landscape of hundreds of miles of unbroken tea bushes, waist-high bundles of bright green; it’s the largest tea growing region on earth with over 750 tea estates and thousands of smaller tea gardens.
The region hasn’t changed much since my childhood visits, except for newer cars, better roads, 4G masts, and India’s Got Talent. The musty-sweet smell of tea in the warm, chlorophyll-filled air and its laid-back charm have thankfully remained unchanged.
The things the British left behind
It was the English who built the tea estates of Assam in the mid 1800s and even today there’s still an air of Englishness here. Drawing rooms in bungalows have lace table mats and mahogany sideboards; they have teapots and tea-cosies, even egg cosies (no, I don’t know what this does); at sunset on the verandah they still drink sundowner whiskies; the tea garden clubs still function, many with some original fittings, with billiard rooms, lawn tennis, ladies clubs, golf links and gala nights – all things the British left behind. Sometimes when I drive in India, or cross a road, I just wish they had left behind a copy of the Highway Code.
The tea gardens of Assam are one hour ahead of Indian Standard Time in order to maximise daylight hours and Manikut’s office clock is one hour ahead of the chiming grandfather clock in his drawing room. This too was something inherited from the British.
They said the sun never set on the British empire; in Assam, the easternmost part of the Raj, it rose early, annoyingly early like someone phoning for a PPI claim at 9am on a Sunday morning. That’s why the British introduced daylight maximising time in the tea gardens and the Indian government should really consider giving the region a separate time zone, because when you call your friend in Mumbai from Assam when it’s dark at 5.30pm but he gets to enjoy the sunset over the Arabian Sea at 8.30pm it’s just … damn.
Where everything works divinely
Manikut keeps the grounds and gardens well organised, in his office everything works like clockwork. It’s partly his meticulous nature to keep things recorded and labelled, and partly processes handed down by best-practice in tea garden management pioneered by the British.
Rotas for pruning, spraying, fertilising and plucking hang on frames in the office; it’s a little like a Churchill war room, with a big colourful map of the estate broken up in to sectors, and in the corner a typewriter and huge log books with handwritten records. Back up power comes from a Generator lubed every 250 hours, activity recorded on a clipboard. Better still, there’s an image of Vishwa Karman the tool-wielding Hindu god of engineering, surrounded by all his tools, that guarantees its smooth working. It’s beautifully poetic that the Hindu god of machinery is called Karman.
When machinery breaks down in tea factories, management sometimes need to call in a priest to perform a puja to invoke the god’s blessing, sprinkling holy water on the machine and painting ancient Hindu signs, the swastik, in vermillion.
Growing tea isn’t so simple
Growing of tea leaves isn’t a simple affair. It’s more than taking some seeds, planting and lo and behold: there you have it; tea. No, that’s watercress.
Tea growing involves all-year-round activities from pruning and spraying, removing knots, fertilising, weedings, recruiting staff (hard to get these days, they prefer city jobs), and organising shifts, welfare and wages for hundreds of people. Get anything wrong and sure enough a trade union official will come and pay you a visit. They have their own tried and trusted processes, many handed down by the British, and there are certain nuances; tea planters even use different words, like skiffing which is a light prune.
Getting caught in a lightning storm
On Sunday, as soon as the rain had ceased, Puja, Sarah and I went for a walk with Donny in his neighbouring tea estate. Puja was a little worried about the distant lighting because her soon-to-be-husband was flying in to Dibrugarh.
We walked along squelchy paths over long lines of tea bushes. Occasionally a pig would make it’s way across the path and oink. It was a little surreal.
‘Don’t worry the lighting won’t strike us, it strikes the ‘tallest things in the vicinity‘, the trees,’ Donny said as we walked along the paths.
When it the first rains of the season start , that’s when you’re most likely to see snakes, because the water fills their holes which have been dry for months. I think they won’t be too pleased to leave.
Planters like Donny are a tough breed of men, going back to the 1800s to those pith-helmeted English explorers who rode through malarial swamps, felled huge tracts of jungle to sow tea saplings, with only whiskey to keep them company in their hammock at night. Today’s breed of planter, are confident, well educated young Indians, like Donny, who runs a whole tea garden and manufacturing plant, grows his own honey and rides a Ducati. In the true traditions of the tough planter, he also catches snakes.
How to catch a snake
How to catch a snake
Donny explained, to catch a snake you need to grab it at the tip of its tail, where it can’t feel anything. Then, if you used your right hand, you need to use your left foot to slide along the ground in the snake’s peripheral vision so that its head turns towards your foot.
It’s important to slide your foot along and not stamp the ground because vibrations disturb snakes. (When entering a tea bush ￼he usually stamps his feet to warn the snakes because there is nothing worse than a startled serpent.)
Then you need to use a stick to pin the snake’s head to the ground and then you ‘use your thumb, and middle finger to hold the side of its head, and your index finger to press on the top of its head. Don’t don’t touch the front of its neck as you might choke it.’
Donny never kills snakes, he just throws them over a garden wall, because, he says, ‘this area is their place. The town is called Sapekhati the home of snakes. But they are very easy to control.’
Author’s note: Catching snakes should be left to trained snake-catchers. No snakes were harmed in the writing of this blog post
The thunder claps became louder and rain started to fall in sheets. The paths became slippery and turned to mud; lightning flashed in the dark clouds above us. We started to walk faster towards the car. We came to a clearing of open ground and realised we weren’t anywhere close to trees.
We suddenly became ‘the tallest things in the vicinity‘.
Worse, we put up umbrellas. I became slightly concerned about the increasing odds of being hit by lightning. It wouldn’t be a good look, chargrilled in the middle of that tea plantation. We made it back in to the car soaking wet.
Sarah had always said she wanted to see Assam in the rain. Well she got it today. There’s a point when you’re so wet, you can’t get any wetter and it was then we started to see the funny side.
‘A Storm in An Assamese Tea Cup’ was first published on http://www.heyloons.com
This post is part of the blog series