You have to be young and feckless to sign away more than a couple of years of your life for a silly job, even one that lets you live and work abroad. For decades, the Tea Board of India, under the ministry of commerce, offered such jobs every few years to a dozen young women in its offices in London, Brussels, Tokyo and Sydney. ‘Well-spoken’ young Indian ladies, that is, who could wear saris, speak in a foreign tongue, use their forks-and-knife manners, and could, ironically, serve tea like a ‘lady of quality’ at foreign shops and trade fairs.
No self-respecting Tam-Brahm, whisky-sambar girl (read westernised, debauched, expected to Shine Academically) worked as a chaiwali. I did, to my clan’s utter horror. I stuttered in school French at the interview in Calcutta and was selected for Brussels.
The government looked after us brilliantly. Each of us had a fully furnished, independent flat, a dollar salary, and had to travel all over Europe every month. So we got fistfuls of guilders, francs and marks in travel allowance to blow up eatin’, drinkin’ and shoppin’. Well, we were giggly girls in our earliest 20s, treated like queens.
The only catch was a huge steel urn that each of us had to lug to trade fairs all over Europe and to luxe shops like the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and Globus in Germany. This was to give the public a taste of tea directly imported from India.
One summer, my best pal met me in Rome and we Eurailed and youth-hostelled all over. Another summer I took the boat to England. Plus, there were heavenly ‘side-trips’ to the Italian lakes, the Dolomites, Sicily…. An Indian girl footloose in Europe was a rarity then and the natives were friendly. But it was not easy to make a coffee-loving public taste Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri, especially if the local importer did not organise supplies to coincide with our presence.
The exalted post of ‘Lady Assistant’ was eventually discontinued by the Tea Board. Wonder what became of the other tea girls. After careening madly across Europe, did they revert to ladyhood?