Our movies tend to romanticize the tea gardens a lot. Actors running through the gardens, chasing each other or hand-in-hand, love blooming in the air, and then the sunflowers shaking sometimes. We had a Geography teacher who was from West Bengal and she would tell us a lot about the tea gardens of Darjeeling. The thing I remember the most from her stories was “Dui Pate, Ek Suiro”, meaning ‘Two leaves, one bud’. She used to sing a folk song that she said the tea plucking women would sing as they went about plucking tea leaves and it was always about the precision. She would describe the hardships of such meticulous hand-picking. So impressed I was with those tea-plucking women and those baskets that they would have tied from their head that I would carry buckets (empty, of course!), sling bags, anything with a long enough handle on my forehead like those tea basket carrying women. I would even put a dupatta or a sheet on my head and pretend I was plucking tea leaves when nobody was watching, singing “Dui Pate, Ek Suiro”, that’s all I managed to remember from whatever my teacher sang. I should have been like 12 years old then, I think.
Few years later, in 2005, the beautiful Hindi movie – Parineeta released. My family was never big on watching movies in the theatres, so I first the movie much after it had released when it premiered on Cable TV. It was a musical romantic drama, a film adaptation of the 1914 Bengali novella by the same name – Parineeta, written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. After watching the movie I looked for the novella, but couldn’t find it in my school library. However, I found a translation online many years later and it is indeed quite touching. The music of the movie was memorable, something I still love listening to. The lyrics are as beautiful as the movie and the original novella. The most striking thing for me in the movie that I remember down to the minutest detail are the tea gardens that are shown for just a few minutes on and off once or twice in the movie. The story takes place in 1962 Kolkata. Saif Ali Khan takes a few business trips to Darjeeling, where the tea gardens get featured. I found them so enchanting, something I took an instant fancy to. Since then, I have seen so many more movies – old and new – that have featured the tea gardens. Some scenes stay with me, some not so much.
The first time I saw tea gardens for real, was in 2016. I was backpacking through Kerala on the usual tourist circuit – from Munnar to Kovalam, stopping over at Thekkady and Allepey in between. The Kanan Devan tea gardens are vast and you can look in any direction, you’ll find tea growing around. I distinctly remember a narrow drive-able path that going off a hill, down onto the edge of the hill, with a big signboard at the start of the road – Kanan Devan Tea Estate ‘Manager’s Bungalow’. After a few twists and turns, I saw that bungalow, and I think if I ever got an offer to work on an estate like that and live in a bungalow like that, I would probably be halfway through packing my bags before I heard the whole offer. What I would do there and how I would even make it work, I have no idea. I had a packed schedule on that trip, and I truly regret not having gone inside the plantations, taken a tour, gotten to know it better. I had a lot of ground to cover in the time I had, and didn’t get a chance to do it. I am definitely going to make another trip down to Munnar and do everything I didn’t do last time. The tea gardens in the initial stretch of the Munnar-Thekkady road are also exceptionally beautiful. In a lot of places there was no fencing along the hillsides, and I have seen tourists go deep into the bushes to take pictures and stuff, a lot of them damaging the plants deliberately or unknowingly. This, I feel, is heartbreaking and people need to be more mindful of these things. That aside, my own memories of that drive, those sights and smells are unforgettable.
Sometime in 2019, when I wanted to plan a good big trip, something monumental to mark my turning 30. I almost booked my tickets for Sri Lanka and planned it entirely around the tea plantations up north, especially considering the exotic train rides through the tea estates to Nuwara Elliya. But going international solo gave me cold feet, not knowing the local language scared me a bit more, budgets got a bit tight after some things that happened. I also had Darjeeling on my list, I had researched up a whole itinerary revolving around the iconic toy train ride and the tea gardens. I’d researched hotels to stay at, I had flight alerts for flights to Kolkatta and Bagdogra, though, sadly that didn’t work out either. Eventually I landed in Kovalam and learnt surfing, while covering Ponmudi, Meenmutty, and a few other spots around. Not a bad adventure, but I still dream about that train ride I want to take in Sri Lanka. That should be one super adventurous trip, I think. I’ll get around to doing it someday. Trading a full time job and all my travel dreams can be challenging but all in good time.
I see pictures of tea estates and it warms my heart, they make me smile. I want to run through them like they show in our movies. I want to take out my sketch book and sketch the beauty on the hillsides covered with the efficiently pruned tea bushes. I want to sit in a balcony and eat my meals looking over the expansive tea gardens, talk to people about my love of tea gardens and share the joy. I think I would trade my city life for this any day. But I also know this is a crazy fantasy, it is obviously easier said than done, the picture is rosy only in my head, and this life would be no milk and roses but it would be tea and hills, and who knows where life takes you, isn’t it?