Chai Stories: The Lord of the Tea Garden Gypsy
In our series called Chai Stories, courtesy a unique blog on life in tea plantations, Ranu Singh Taragi writes about the unpredictable twists and turns of life in the land of tea and the staff who ensure life runs smooth.
Tea Garden bungalows are mostly huge, and a plethora of staff, inside and outside, ensure their day to day running and upkeep. Each position is recognized by a name, which gives a clue to the duties that go with it. So you have a bawarchi, a paniwala, a bearer (or two), a sweeper, the babalog ki ayah, the bagaal (incharge of the ‘gohali’ ) , a bada (senior) mali plus his team, the chowkidars (day and night) and so on. From my experience in ‘Chai’ there is one more person who enjoys a prominent and elevated position — the ‘Burra Saab’s driver.’
Walk into the bungalow kitchen around breakfast time and spot him, lolling comfily on a stool. While his ‘saab’ enjoys his porridge and eggs, this man is no less pampered by the kitchen staff. In all probability, he could be tucking into a hot paratha! Come weekends, when the ‘saab’ and his family visit another planter, looking forward to some sumptuous hospitality, the driver has an equally entertaining time, exchanging local news with the bungalow staff, the other end.
There are plenty of outings – the club suppers, the sports events, annual picnics…the fun list is long.
But in all seriousness, the ‘Burra Saab’s driver’ has important responsibilities. Familiar with the garden roads, he drives the Manager on his garden rounds. More often than not, he has prior inkling of brewing labour dissatisfaction and impending gheraos, so diverts the manager’s Gypsy through alternative routes. He drives the manager to district meetings and union negotiations, and behaves discreetly when he is privy to important information. He receives the visitors from head office when they land at the airport, and his attitude and small talk makes them welcome.
My mind also drifts back to a time when I didn’t know how to drive. Then, one morning, I caught sight of a young memsaab bride drive into a football do, smartly swishing her Maruti Suzuki 800 between two ‘managerial’ Gypsies and at that exact moment, the desire to repeat this fine feat reached a feverish pitch. I hounded Naresh into giving me driving lessons –utter disasters, enveloping us in clouds of dislike. Personal cars are prized possessions on the tea gardens.
The next sensible course was to take help from our driver. So, a couple of times a week, when he could be spared, ‘Taetra’ would turn up at the bungalow….and this is how the lessons began: Bungalow Six, where we lived, had a vast area around it, split into three sections. The middle housed the seasonal flowers and fruit trees and flowering annuals adorned the second, while the third part was a big bare field. It was here that the tractor-trolleys would trundle in, to off-load the firewood, gas cylinders, etc. Most mornings, the bungalow cow would be let loose for a gentle walk-about cum munching session.
Taetra announced that we’d begin here. So with memsaab at the wheel and him settled as passenger, we began. We lurched up and down this field and my confidence grew. And then, all of a sudden, coming face to face with the cow caught us both off-guard. Instead of the brake, I accelerated in panic. The bovine was equally alarmed, and took off, with her tail high in the air…and only Taetra kept his senses. He wrenched the steering to safety. Whew!
As for the cow, she kept away during the lessons.
After a couple of days, Taetra decided that I was ready to tackle the garden roads. I welcomed the news with nervous excitement, but obviously my instructor had faith in my readiness. However, there was to be a change in the seating arrangement. Having no second set of floor pedals, as in the vehicles of motor driving schools, Taetra and I would have to share the driving seat! So with me at the helm and him towards the door we set off. Dear Taetra, the perfect gentleman, was now half out of the window — much like a black cat commando atop a VIP car! From this vantage point, he kept survey of the garden roads and lo! if any tractor trolley loaded with fresh leaf or a brisk line of workers, bringing in the morning patti came in sight he would wave them off, never mind where they scrambled!
He would vociferously holler, ‘Memsahib Ayunche….Rasta denu!’
The lessons gave me a taste of what royalty feels like on a freeway, and needless to say left me ill-equipped for a venture into real ‘live’ traffic. It was only years later, in Dehradun, that I mastered the speedy juggle between accelerator, brake and clutch.
Life in the wilderness can take sudden frightening turns. We had barely settled in a garden, in the Birpara area of Dooars, where the workforce was notorious for its strong reactions. Each day brought us face to face with new emergencies: there was hardly any breathing space. One evening, hoping to get away from all the problems, we headed to our nearest neighbouring garden. There were four of us, the driver Ganeshi, our four year old son, Naresh and I. We set off in the garden Gypsy. Just about to drive out of the barra bungalow, our cook suggested diffidently in an aside, that we should halt at the garden temple and take blessings. We never found out why he said what he did, but we did take his advice. Just as we prepared to sit in the Gypsy, something prompted Naresh to change the seating. He decided to take care of the driving. I seated myself in the passenger seat in the front, with our son on my lap, while Ganeshi was now free to sit behind the driving seat.
On the way, there lay a dry river bed, with a sharp incline, in and out, both sides. So one had no way of knowing what lay in the depression, till you were already half way down the dip. It was dusk when we entered the river bed. We were shocked to see masked men, racing to close in, around the vehicle, brandishing country rifles. Naresh speeded up – the only way out was to race up the opposite incline. Noticing that we had no intention of slowing down, the men raced closer, one of them gave a vicious knock to the windscreen. It was fortunate that Naresh shouted to me to duck low while he did the same. I pushed our boy to the floor of the Gypsy and crouched over him. Just in the nick of time – for a second later we were showered with the shards of the smashed front glass.
Naresh kept his wits about him and didn’t drop the speed of our car. At the same time he yelled at the hitherto frozen Ganeshi to lean over his shoulder and help him manoeuvre us up the incline. This presence of mind and teamwork saved our lives. We roared up the slope, on to the highway and soon reached our friends’ place. Hot cups of tea, loving fuss to soothe us …it all felt good. But as long as we stayed in that area and every time we crossed the river bed, memories of that evening came back. Anything could have happened and only the blessings of God protected us.
Residing in remote locations, such shared experiences tend to dissolve boundaries and forge friendships, based on mutual reliance. So today I raise my mid-morning ‘cuppa’ to the lord of the garden – the Gypsy!