“All our guests tell us that they’ll come back. But no one has returned. When you get married, you must come here with your husband.”
That’s my Amma and Baba
Maya Devi and Hari Chettri for you
Getting from the west to the east!
Two months ago if you’d asked me about an organic tea plantation nestled at the misty foothills of the Himalayas near Kurseong in northern West Bengal’s district of Darjeeling, I would have stared blankly back at you. But it was conversations that led to plans being formulated with friends two months ago which then resulted in Amritsar and Sandakphu being firmly pinned on my travel map.
Located on diametrically opposite sides of the Indian mainland, this idea of going from Punjab in the west to West Bengal in the east in a span oof48 hours left me feeling extremely exhilarated. That my dad’s reaction to it was diametrically opposite to my own, needs a special mention!
However, between finally striking Amritsar off my travel bucket-list and embarking on the mission to scale Sandakphu, I was left with about a week’s time at hand. And that’s when, for the first time since I’ve been bookmarking webpages, I dove into my collection and came sputtering to the surface with homestays at Makaibari clenched in my fist (not that dramatic but you get the gist, right?). And that was how I chanced upon the Makaibari Tea Estate!
|Of tea and all things tea | Makaibari, Kurseong (Darjeeling) – West Bengal, India|
Of tea and all things tea
At a hundred and fifty years old, the Makaibari Tea Estate is managed by the Banerjee family and has never been owned by the British Raj (unlike many other tea estates). It is the first established tea factory in the world that dates to 1857 and still stands tall even today (as we would witness during our visit to the factory). And according to our guide, these tea gardens have always been organic.
It’s always intrigued my curiosity on what makes a green leafy substance turn into something small, square-ish and brown. That is why our visit to the tea factory was as much of a demythifying experience as it was a spell-binding one!
Being taken through the process and being exposed to words like ‘withering’ (used to remove excess water from the leaves), ‘fermenting’ (when the chlorophyll in the leaves is enzymatically broken down, and its tannins are released or transformed), ‘rolling’ (when damp tea leaves are then rolled to be formed into wrinkled strips, by hand or using a rolling machine), ‘drying’ (to “finish” the tea for sale) and ‘sorting’ put so much in perspective that I was yet again left wondering why schools do not include excursions to places such as these!
|At the withering section inside the Makaibari tea factory | Makaibari, Kurseong (Darjeeling) – West Bengal, India|
|From green to black – Tea leaves after being oxidised | Makaibari, Kurseong (Darjeeling) – West Bengal, India|
|Tea leaves being hand-rolled | Makaibari, Kurseong (Darjeeling) – West Bengal, India|
|Walking through the tea gardens while the women were hard at work | Makaibari, Kurseong (Darjeeling) – West Bengal, India|
Much of the machinery at the factory dates back to more than a couple of decades. Alongside each of these machines, labourerswere lined up either cleaning or sorting out batches. The visit to the tea factory was not without a walk through the tea gardens themselves where we were made to understand the difference between the Chinese, the Assam, and the hybrid tea leaves.
I would realise that our initiation into the elegant world of tea had only begun to come together when we were at the tea tasting two days later. And so we learnt that the winter dormancy is broken by the First Flush pickings during the months of March and April followed by the Second Flush between May and June. The Darjeeling Oolong Tea and Silver Tips are special quality patented semi-fermented teas whereas the Darjeeling Green Tea and Darjeeling Peony White Tea are un-fermented with the former being steamed after being plucked and the latter being roasted or pan-fried
|At the tea tasting https://www.instagram.com/p/BEUqU31hyaJ/ | Makaibari, Kurseong (Darjeeling) – West Bengal, India|
Of tales and ties
But tea tales aside, it was our time spent with Amma and Baba – our home-stay hosts in Makaibari that have remained firmly etched in our memories.
An ever so happy and joyful soul, Baba is the kind of person who breaks into a ‘Bombai seaayamera dost’ each time we sat down for a meal while Amma garnished our conversations in Hindi with Nepali just as deftly as she managed being both gentle and firm!
Baba has retired and runs the house (read: would prepare lunch for us) while Amma was at work (read: she’s a manager at the tea gardens). Theirs is a life that inspires.
From Baba it was truly heart-warming to hear what it takes to be a home-stay host. In his own mild-mannered way he talked about a few guests who’ve been demanding or unruly. But in his Buddha-like demeanour, he was realistic enough to acknowledge that people would be the way they are and that he couldn’t be grouchy about it or be irrational in demanding the kind of guests he would welcome into his home.
Amma, on the other hand, epitomizes fervour and perseverance. Her daily commute to work is a 4-hour journey to and fro and yet she is on her feet running household errands and calling after her almost eight-year-old grandson and then husband when either one (but mostly both) are up to no good! In spite of her tough exterior, Amma is all heart and through her, every conversation emphasized the importance of honesty and simplicity – virtues which sometimes seem to belong to an era bygone! And were it not for her determination, we would have missed out on our primer of the ‘meetho’ Nepali language.
It was saddening to learn from both of them that owing to the invasion of media – primarily television – many families have begun an exodus away from the Nepali language towards Hindi and English. Which is both good and bad. Good for the obvious reasons but bad because knee-high kids cannot speak or understand a word of Nepali anymore.
Over a month after our time in Makaibari, it feels like only last week when we were sitting around the dining table being told by Amma and Baba at the time of our departure that we should never ever hesitate to say what is on our mind. Because when the heart is pure there is nothing to be afraid of. Because when the heart is pure, there is no arrogance.
Makes me wonder where along the way in this pursuit of leading a more civilised life, did we leave behind our true and real selves?
One that allowed for such connections with strangers.
And how have we made strangers out of people we supposedly share a connection with?