Change clock to bagantime
The tea gardens of Assam developed a unique way of life. But the old order is changing fast: the Burrasahibs are a vanishing tribe, reports Rahul Karmakar.
Had chhotahajiri? Probably you did, by another name — breakfast. Washed down, most likely, by a cup of steaming tea. For the right chhotahajiri, you have to stick to bagantime or Tea Garden Time, which is one hour ahead of IST. Be waited upon till it is time to stroll through the waist-high bushes in impeccable shorts, return for your siesta in the chang (stilted) bungalow, wake up for a game of tennis or some swings on the “captive” golfing green and head for the planters’ club after sundown for scotch on the rocks.
Sounds surreal in militancy-mauled Assam? Not if you are a niche tourist with a fancy for the Burrasahib’s lifestyle. For, the perceptibly snobbery-sired ‘tea garden culture’ that the desi sahib inherited from the Angrez today is often recreated for those who can pay to feel the “perfect past”.
The Burrasahibs, many mellowed by extortion and a prolonged market slump, are still around. But they are being outnumbered by the Chhotasahibs, a growing tribe of small tea garden owners. Possessing anywhere between three and a hundred hectares, they are in sharp contrast to the hardnosed British planters or their elitist Indian followers.
“The elitist class, discordant with the society at large, more or less died out by the 1970s owing to multiple factors. Today, businessmen cognizant of the changing socio-economic dynamics run the estates. Of course, the small tea growers have given a new dimension to life in the tea belt,” says veteran planter Ranjit Chaliha, whose 465-acre Korangani Tea Estate is run “more scientifically” by sons Dhruvajit and Debajit.
Chaliha and fellow planters such as Jorhat-based Ahbijit Sarma do not rue the “death of the sahabi culture”. Rather, they appreciate the fact that hundreds of jobless youth have found self-employment as small-time growers. “Tea is now a commoner’s profession,” says Cheniram Khanikar, president of the Small Tea Growers’ Association. “In our gardens, it is difficult to distinguish between the proprietor and the labourer.”
But the ever-increasing tribe of Chhotasahibs — there are over 40,000 of them — has led to other problems, say industry captains. Like the falling prices owing to bombardment of green leaves in standalone tea factories, and the lack of quality control across the small tea gardens. Khanikar disagrees, adding they are helping the industry turn over a new leaf.
With a twist of bitter lemon
No one can deny the impact tea has had in Assam as well as other parts of the Northeast where it is fast spreading. Other than powering a part of its economy — and that of militants — tea has created an ethnic group in Assam, the so-called tea tribe. Comprising 87 Adivasi groups, this tribe numbers over 60 lakh to be a major electoral force. Many consider them to be a part of the greater Assamese society, but the Adivasis never really have forgotten the British for conning them out of their central Indian homelands.
The pang can be felt in the voices of plantation workers such as Madhuri Oraon as she sings while plucking two leaves and a bud from each stem of a tea bush: “Sahab bole come, come/babu boley dhore aan/sardar boley libo pither chaam/O bideshi saab, faaki diya anilo Assam (Sahib says come, babu says catch them, sardar wants to peel the flesh of my back, O foreigner sahib, you have brought me to Assam by deceit).”
Such songs, ironically, are attractions today on the tea tourism circuit that entails staying in a plush, Victorian era bungalow and reliving the past. “The outlook in the industry has changed over the years, and the need to generate additional revenue led to tea tourism,” says Chaliha. One of the first to marry tea cultivation with tourism is Manoj Jalan, who converted his family tea estate in Dibrugarh into a tourist resort. Tracking Down Virgin Tea is what he calls his tea tours.
Aged more than 150 years in terms of organised plantation and raped by militants, the ‘virginity’ portrayed of life on the gardens is questionable. But tea, value-added and touristy, is mostly an uncharted territory yet. Cheers to the new cuppa.