Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Trained Eye

When we were children, every time we went on a train journey, we would look out of the window at level crossings and feel sorry for the poor people who lived in the middle of nowhere between the big railway stations.

After I married my tea planter husband almost 25 years ago, I've lived in that world of unimportant level crossings. Our tea garden is just one of the sights that can be seen on the train line between Delhi and Guwahati.

One Diwali/Kali Puja night many years ago at the Kali temple level crossing near our home, the gateman kept the gates closed so he could light candles on the bars.

Those were days when there was less traffic. Every time a vehicle crossed, he'd open the gate and his candles would go flying. When he closed the gate, he would arrange the candles again and light them with great care, apparently undisturbed by the thought that they would only burn until the next vehicle came along.

It was a pleasant surprise to see a small puja pandal near the Chalsa level crossing. It must have been put up for Kali Puja, which was over ten days ago. A pandal's basic function is to provide a platform for placing the image of the goddess. Pandal decoration has become an elaborate and showy affair in the towns here these days.

This structure, however, seemed to be a labour of love - a work of art that came straight from the heart.

The model of the train engine was true to life, and the cabin a perfect replica of the real thing. Hats off to the people who built it. I'm not surprised they didn't want to pull it down.

Above: the 'real' cabin at the crossing. The number is the same as the one on the model.

Now that the festive season is finally over, I'm done with complaining about its drawbacks. Its good to see signs that people everywhere had their share of fun.

Monday, October 25, 2010

In the Moonlight, on a Magic Night

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy has a magical passage in which Kabir and Lata, young lovers, take out a boat on the river Ganga on Sharad Purnima night. Reading that passage aroused my interest in the night of Sharad Purnima, the brightest night of the year.

'Purnima' means the full moon, and Sharad is the name of the season that comes after the monsoon rains, marking the beginning of cool weather in most of India.

The Sharad Purnima is the equivalent of the equinoctial moon. During the equinox, the moon moves closest to the earth. So when you have a full moon around that time, it appears larger and brighter than usual. People in the Northern Hemisphere see the brightest full moon of the year around the time of the Autumnal Equinox, September 23rd. And I don't want to offend my friend Uma in Australia - you'll see yours in March.

Sharad Purnima did not coincide with the Equinox this year, but it occurred a month later.

The Sharad season begins in the Indian month of Ashwin (called Ashshin in Bengali, and Aippasi in Tamil). The Indian calendar measures time in terms of the sun as well as the moon, with the year measured in solar time, and the months in lunar cycles. The months in this calendar don't run parallel with the months in the global calendar. When Ashwin coincides to some extent with September, chances are that Sharad Purnima will coincide with the equinoctial moon. If not, it will be the full moon after that one.

The Ashwin moon is especially significant. The new moon or Mahalaya Amavasya marks the beginning of 'Navaratri', nine days and nights of goddess worship. In Bengal, it is the beginning of Durga Puja. The tenth day of the moon is Bijoya Dasami. The night of the full moon is observed as Lakshmi Puja.

Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity. The moon is a symbol of plenty: a good harvest of course, but much more than simply wealth. The fulness and brightness of the moon on this night stand for fulfilment, the abundance of blessings, peace and well-being.
It is said that any wish made on this night comes true.

Seasons of Splendour by Madhur Jaffrey, a book my daughters read when they were children, is an interesting compilation of the legends and folk tales that surround Indian seasons and festivals. It mentions the tradition of threading a needle 100 times in the moonlight on Sharad Purnima night. The moonlight supposedly contains drops of nectar, which enter the eyes of the person performing this feat.

I love the Bengali tradition of Lakshmi Puja. It is a day of great piety. A religious festival like this one has a simplicity and charm quite untouched by the bustle and commerce of the 'big' festivals. Any festival held in a tea garden is enhanced by the surroundings: by the large open spaces, and the peace and quiet.

Unlike Durga Puja, which is conducted by a community of people, Lakshmi Puja is performed in people's homes. An elaborate feast is prepared. For many years, a Bengali family in our garden has been sending us 'bhog' or 'prasad'. There is luchi (the Bengali Poori), paayesh (kheer/payasam), narkul nadu (coconut laddoos) of two kinds, white and brown, and the delicious bhog khichuri (rice and dal savoury) with the vegetable side dish called labra . It is delicious - like all consecrated food offerings are.

In the Dooars, the moonlight is undiluted by city lights or smog. The Sharad full moon rises over treetops, and the silhouettes of the trees seems to shrink in contrast. The light is silvery all night. I stand and gape at the moon for as long as I can. It is said that standing in the moonlight and absorbing the rays is good for the body. It does your soul good too, I'd say.

Sharad Purnima was two nights ago, on October 22, but it was not the brightest night of the year in the Dooars. The sky was overcast until almost ten o'clock and we couldn't see the moonrise, easily the best part of any full moon night.

Last night, the moon was still almost full, as it was again tonight; a perfect round, and to our delight, perfectly visible when it rose.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Killer on the Tracks

24th September 2010 :

Seven elephants, including babies, were knocked down and killed by a speeding train at Moraghat Tea Estate. We live on the estate, which my husband manages. All of India heard the news over television, and it spread over the world in no time.

At 4.30 a.m., our chowkidar (watchman) Madan told us that an elephant, a large tusker, had entered the bungalow compound about half an hour earlier. It had walked down the half-mile long road from the highway to the bungalow. It shook the large iron gates open. It walked all around the compound.
The two watchmen on duty ran and hid indoors.There was no damage barring a few huge footprints on the lawn. And a gate connecting our bungalow to the deputy manager's bungalow next door was knocked out of shape. That gate was made of iron rods! My husband's phone started ringing before six o'clock. He knew it must be something serious. The caller was Joy, the assistant manager who looks after the NG Division. His news was about elephants as well: the train accident had taken place in his division near the railway line. This news had spread all over the garden as soon as it happened (around midnight), and some workers informed Joy. He told them not to disturb the manager so late at night.

We went to the site, a distance of around one kilometre from the bungalow. Hundreds of people had gathered there. A baby elephant's carcass lay in the wide drain near the track. The mood was gloomy as it was lifted on to a lorry.

Crowds of people from the workers colonies rushed to the spot as soon as they heard about the accident. All but one of the elephants were alive at the time. We heard that they were crying in pain. A little calf was walking around in the broad drain, which was filled with water. As more people gathered, they started calling out to the elephants.

'Ganpati Bappa, Morya!' they shouted, asking the elephants to get up and walk again. People say the elephants would have survived if they had been rescued earlier, and that the forest department should not have waited till daybreak to begin removing them. The poor animals must have suffered terribly.

Elephants kill at least one person every year on this estate, and there isn't a living soul here who doesn't fear them. An elephant is perceived as an enemy. All this was forgotten that night when they lay there dying.

Moraghat Tea Estate falls on the elephant path between two stretches of forest. Every one is aware that elephants begin to move around the area in the evening. A herd had been creating havoc for the past ten nights in the tea area, pulling down shade tree branches, uprooting fencing posts and flattening plants. The wildlife squad in the region must have been aware of their presence here. Perhaps they could have alerted the railways.

It is really strange that the train's engine driver did not see the elephants on a full moon night. People say that he was drunk. Some say he reversed the train at top speed after hitting the first elephant, and that was how so many of them got hit. Everyone asks why the signalman at the level crossing nearby did not alert the engine driver or the stationmaster at the previous station. There was some talk about the 'symbolic arrest' of the train's engine at Alipurduar station.

Train services resumed within hours of the accident, and we now hear a loud whistle when a train goes past. Every time a train anywhere in North Bengal hits an elephant, the whistles begin to blow. Once the outcry dies down, these precautions are forgotten. Reports say 26 elephants have been killed by trains in North Bengal in the last seven years.

Ironically, one man from Moraghat Tea Estate died at the site of the accident that morning. Jaisingh, sometime worker, was a smoker of 'bhang' and was always in a hazy state of mind. A lorry hit and killed him on the spot.

Yesterday, another piece of news came to light. The elephant that walked into the bungalow had not nudged the gate open. That was the work of the chowkidar Dhiraj, who spotted him in the distance and opened the gate to get a good look!

We expect more visits from the herd.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Kings of the Road!

The Teesta, from Sevoke

How lucky I am to live near this river. How much luckier I need to be if I want to reach this spot without being held up by road blocks, natural or man-made. Here's one of the man-made variety, below.

Issuing directions all around

These pictures were taken when we were waved down at a place around 50 kilometres away from Siliguri, and almost the same distance from our garden. The mob blocked the road using a favourite shield in the area-- school students. Their 'demand' was for a new 'request bus stop' on the National Highway. The children had to walk to the regular bus stop from their school because the bus drivers wouldn't stop when they waved them down.

Most of the buses on the highway run long distances, and surely the passengers wouldn't want random additional stops. How long did the children have to walk, my husband asked some chatty looking bystanders. He was told the distance was under one kilometre.

A peculiar feature of these roadblocks is that once the mob stops your vehicle, it doesn't allow you to reverse or retreat. The idea is to cause as much nuisance as possible to members of the public. Once you're in, you park your vehicle and sit quietly.

The mob is quick to feed on the mood and is on a power high. Youngsters - little boys who must be in Class 5 or 6- slap the rumps of vehicles and strut around.

If you ask any questions, it is in a soft and quiet voice because you don't want to inflame the already excited 'dada log' or bosses of the moment. In short, you feel you're trying to appease the people who have broken the law. I feel wretched, but I console myself with the thought that when the authorities turn up they will do the same thing and then proceed to negotiate.

Last weekend we were 'caught' again on the road to Siliguri. This time it was at a small settlement near the hills. The road - the National Highway, of course - was blocked by local residents and the children from two nearby schools. The previous night, a couple of children from the busti had been trampled to death by elephants. What a terrible way to die.

We didn't have to ask when the road block would be lifted. From long practice, we knew that it would remain in place until the 'concerned authority' (as we say here, and with no ironic intent) showed up with promises of a hearing, of compensation or redress. In this case the mob was waiting for the forest department officials to declare compensation for the families of the victims. The law is quite clear that every death caused by an elephant has to be compensated. I wonder why the protest had to be staged. Was it because of some past callousness or lapse? That was not the time or the place to find out.

As soon as two or three Forest Department jeeps arrived, we were waved on our way.

Too close for comfort. I wondered whether I was being foolish, taking pictures with my phone! At the first roadblock, someone screamed 'No Press' when a vehicle with a press sticker inched ahead. I heard another person shout that the press would report the roadblock, but write nothing about how the schoolchildren had to walk all the way to the public bus stop on the highway.

Jam on the Sevoke Road in the hill section
With naturally occuring road blocks like this one above, do we need to create more?

Friday, July 16, 2010


We had a tragic reminder of the intensity of monsoon rains in the Dooars recently. A trainee assistant from Chengmari Tea Estate got swept away by a flooded rivulet. He was on his way to the bunglaow from the office on his motorcycle, and there were a few other people making their way home along the same route. All of them crossed the flooded stream just minutes before Debashis attempted it. His body and his motorcycle were found in the tea area several hundred metres away.

Dooars is full of rain-fed rivers that look deceptively small most of the year. Visitors to the area are quite naturally tempted to go in for a little paddle. People who live here maintain that you should only enter a river between the months of December and February. One year, a student from my daughters' school drowned in a river at Puja time in the month of October. There may not be too much water in the a river at that time, but the currents are strong, and the stones on the river bed are slippery with slime. A fall is enough to knock anyone senseless and the currents do the rest.

The tea area of 'NG' in the background.

These pictures were taken this morning after a night of rain. They were all taken from inside the jeep as it was still raining. The swollen flood you see here is not a river. It is the overflow from a storm drain that carries rain water down from the Bhutan hills.

Flooded section of the road to Samtse, Bhutan, and close-up, below.


Flooded paddy field to the left of the picture; drain to the right. Taken from the bridge across the drain.

This is all Moragaht Tea Estate: it is the division called 'NG' or New Garden. 'NG' is separated from the main division by the broad gauge railway track. On either side of the railway track there are roads - one is the National Highway 31 C that goes to Guwahati, Assam. The other is the road that connects us to Samtse, Bhutan. It is only used by Samtse residents and by the people living in the tea gardens that lie in that direction. The land between the tracks and the roads on either side is used for paddy, maize and mustard cultivation. It is under paddy at this time of year, but it's completely under water in these pictures. The drain, or the 'Haati Nala' as it is known, flows west (at that point)of the Bhutan road.

Since it had rained all night, the pluckers who'd been assigned to the flooded area were given work in the other division. Some jobs like guatemala* planting were held up, and people who were working on these were laid off for the day.

We saw a few of the planting men walking down the rail track. My husband called out to them and asked them to stay away from the flooded area. They said they'd only come to take a look since they had nothing else to do today. One of them smiled and said, 'Dhoop aaney se ek din dono bela kaam kar ke make up kar dega.' ('We can make up with a double shift one day when it's sunny !') Completely unperturbed - you have to like his attitude.


*A kind of grass, planted in areas where tea has been uprooted. It regenrates the soil before new tea is planted there.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Two in the (Tea) Bush

I used to think only Englishmen dying of malaria in colonial India could hear the brain fever bird. I had no idea that it's a bird we've been hearing for many years and I paid for this knowledge with one night's sleep.

It was a night in March, and the bird shrilled outside my window without a break. There was no way I could sleep. It felt as if the bird was crying inside my head. By morning, I thought I'd gone mad. The bird didn't stop. Morning is supposed to bring great clarity of thought to the human mind. I had my moment - it became clear that the bird was saying, 'Brain fever! Brain fever!'

There are three shrill notes which the bird repeats over and over. Then there's the variation. It breaks off to do a warble of continuous climbing notes that serve as a short introduction to the same old three note cry.

Once you find out what the cry means, you hear it even more clearly and you find yourself waiting for the next one. There's no way you can mistake it for anything else. My brother Bala, who was visiting at the time, thanked me drily one morning for having explained it all to him. He'd lain awake the entire night while the bird went full throttle outside his window. We two were fellow sufferers; my husband slept the dreamless sleep that comes to tea planters!

When we'd finished making plans to eat the bird for breakfast, we read as much as we could about it on the internet. The bird is called the Hawk-cuckoo. It is small - about as big as a mynah - and black in colour. It's Hindi name is 'Papeeha', and it's said to be crying 'Pea Kahaan' (where's my love?) in search of its mate. In Bengali, they say the bird is crying 'Chokh Geilo' (Lost my eyes!)

Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy has a poem called 'The Fever Bird'. I could not find the text anywhere on the web so I've copied it here.

The Fever Bird

The fever bird sang out last night.
I could not sleep, try as I might.

My brain was split, my spirit raw.
I looked into the garden, saw

The shadow of the amaltas
Shake slightly on the moonlit grass.

Unseen, the bird cried out its grief,
Its lunacy, without relief.

Three notes repeated, closer, higher,
Soaring, then sinking down like fire.

Only to breathe the night and soar,
As crazed, as desperate, as before.

I shivered in the midnight heat
And smelt the sweat that soaked my sheet.

And now tonight I hear again,
The call that skewers through my brain,

The call, the brain-sick triple note--
A bone of pain stuck in its throat.

I am so tired I could weep.
Mad bird, for God's sake let me sleep.

Why do you cry like one possessed?
When will you rest? When will you rest?

Why wait each night till all but I
Lie sleeping in the house, then cry?

Why do you scream into my ear
What no one else but I can hear?

(A Suitable Boy; 1993, Viking, pp. 949-950)

I've always admired Vikram Seth's poetry, but this poem is especially meaningful now. The lines I like best are :-
'The call, the brain-sick triple note--
A bone of pain stuck in its throat.'

The mynah, crow and peacock are all sweet-sounding compared to this horror. It kept me awake for hours every night. I filled my time writing my own poems to the tormentor.
These are my two Hawk-cuckoo haikus:

Brain fever bird bores
sleepless mum. Delhi, daughters
dream of birds singing.

"You complain of noise.
We long to hear a bird singing:
Town, bird, a far cry."

The bird's frenzy reduced somewhat by April, but it still goes off like an alarm once every few nights. If you have never heard this bird, you're lucky. If you want to risk it, here it is on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPPzdx0gX8k

We hear another bird now, one that sings sweetly. The Indian cuckoo is called the 'Bou-Ko-Tha-Ko' bird in Bengali. Its song has four notes. The story goes like this. The bird has just brought his bride home. She is a shy girl who doesn't say anything. The bridegroom pleads, 'Bou, kotha kou', meaning, 'Bride, say something.'

In North India, it is said that the bird cries out upon waking and discovering that his bride has run away with her lover. He goes, 'Main sota tha'. (I was sleeping!) through the night. The song has a variation, where the notes move higher up the scale. This is also explained in the legend. The deserted husband makes enquiries everywhere. He hears that the lovers have fled to a town called Champapur. He decides to follow them and changes his cry to a more urgent call, 'Chal Champapur!' (To Champapur!)

Tea planters say the bird is calling, 'Orange Pekoe', 'Broken Pekoe' or 'Make more pekoe'!!
You can hear it here on wikipedia.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Fruits of Labour!

These plums are the fruits of labour. Pick them, and you are committing yourself to some hard labour!

The plum tree in the compound didn't fruit at all last year because of the terrible drought. It was a loss - there was no plum jelly on the table.

This year the tree has put out its best. You'd hardly think this little guy was up to it, looking at the size and shape. It's in a dark corner of the garden, leaning on the garage wall.

The first time the tree fruited, we thought we could eat the plums as they were. They were small, but looked rich and luscious. One bite was enough to put us off. They werent just sour, they were bitter.

Those days the old Bawarchi (cook) Lakshman Singh Pradhan - but we never called him that; he liked the title Bawarchi - was alive. He was the last of the old-timers: a man who could cook several kinds of cuisine and could bake beautifully as well. I asked Bawarchi if we could make jam with the plums since they were so sour, and he said it wouldn't be possible.

Before I could argue, he said we could make jelly but not jam. I realised that he was a man of superior knowledge. He explained that he would stew the fruit whole, then strain the liquid into a cloth bag and collect the slow drippings. He would then take an equal weight of sugar, and boil it with the liquid till it reached setting point. So our first batch of plum jelly - not jam - was made by Bawarchi himself.

Boiling the fruit

In the bag. Govind is securing newspaper around it to keep the ever present 'poka'(insects) away.

In spite of the sweltering weather, we've been pickling and preserving fruits as if they're going out of fashion.

From left: Plum Jelly, Sweet Lime(Mausammi) Marmalade, Marwari Mango Pickle, Avakkai Mango Pickle.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

When Seen In Perspective...

Location: Monkey Point on the road to Lava and Kalimpong.

Location : Ambiok Tea Estate, also on the road to Lava and Kalimpong.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

RIP Bagan Babu

I always knew Bagan Babu was very old, but he just didn't look his age. If you met him anywhere in the garden, he'd be on his motorcycle. He'd pull off his cap and greet you with a big and happy smile. His face looked creased with smiling, not with age. Everyone in Moraghat remembers him that way - smiling and happy.

He died on Christmas day, 2009, aged 92.

People who live to a ripe old age pray that they remain active and in full possession of their wits. I wonder how many people visualize themselves working full time after the age of 75 or so. Not too many, I’ll bet. Our Bagan Babu worked at his post until the end of his life. This was remarkable, considering a bagan babu, or garden clerk, works out in the field and not at a desk.

Krishna Das Sinha was born on Janamastami, the day of Lord Krishna's birth. His parents lived in Cachar, and their roots were in the neighbouring state of Manipur. His son and daughter say they don't know the exact date or month of his birth in the Gregorian calendar.

At 17, Krishna was a good footballer. One day, when he was playing in a football match at Bhubandhar Tea Garden, the Burra Sahib spotted him and asked who he was. The Burra Babu of the garden told him the young man was his nephew. 'Get that boy', said the Burra Sahib, and that's how Bagan Babu started his life in tea.

Bhubandhar was a MacNeill and Barrie garden. In 1965, the Manager, Mr. J.G. Mortimer, was transferred out to one of the company's Dooars properties, Moraghat Tea Estate. He brought his Bagan Babu with him.

Bagan Babu moved into the quarters where he lived for the rest of his life.

Mr. Mortimer was the last British Burra Sahib of this garden. Bagan Babu stayed on to serve under 14 more managers between 1967 and the present time. MacNeill and Barrie sold the garden to HMP group in 1971, and they sold it to the present holders, Binaguri Tea Company, in 1990.

Bagan Babu's wife died in 1990 after a long illness. The couple had nine children. His second son Kanti started working in the garden as a babu himself, and Bagan Babu retired within a year of that. He didn't stay at home after retirement, but took up an assignment at Moiradanga. This was one of the new small holdings that was coming up near Falakata, a town around 30 kilometres south of Moraghat. He planted tea there, and organised the local population along plantation lines, appointing sardars and baidars among people who had never heard these terms before.

Tragedy struck in 1994 when Kanti was killed in a motorcycle accident. There was no one here in the family to take employment in his stead. So Bagan Babu was recalled, and he came back to work. When we moved to Moraghat in 1996, we heard the entire story.

A couple of days before Christmas, Bagan Babu complained of congestion and chest pain. He stayed home - a rare occurrence. In all his years of service, he'd reported sick only a few times. My husband went to see him, and found him working on his leaf chits. On Christmas Eve, Bagan Babu went to Birpara Hospital. He didn't need any help to get into the ambulance. The doctors at Birpara examined him and advised him to go to Siliguri for more tests. He would need a pacemaker, they said.

The following afternoon, Shankar driver picked him up in the ambulance to take him to Siliguri. It was cold and cloudy when they set off. Bagan Babu's breathing was a little laboured, and Shankar said he could hear him from the driver's seat. Shankar called Bagan Babu's old colleague on his cell phone - Kaji Babu, who'd been the second Bagan Babu until he left this garden two years ago. Kaji Babu caught up with the ambulance on his motorbike and greeted his old friend.

Bagan Babu could not speak. He saluted Kaji silently. The end came somewhere near Gairkata Tea Estate, not too far away from home. Shankar said they had been moving very slowly, stopping once or twice to feed him a little water, when suddenly, they couldn't hear the sound of his breathing.

Kaji Babu was inconsolable. 'He was like a father to me, ' he said. 'But he did "Salaam" to me before he died.'