Friday, 31 October 2014

In the Garden

Chatlapore Tea Garden in Moulvibazar District.

Sun and light: the dirt road leading into Moulvibazar District’s Chatlapore hillock country feels forgotten. At the final village bazaar the rickshaw pulls to a stop. It’ll be on foot from there. There’s a sentry post and a boundary. It’s in the nature of gardens to be distinct from the wider world. They’re supposed to be nature rationalised and improved.

Houses are different in the garden.

The houses of usual Bangladesh can venture no further in, because usual Bangladesh has ended. Ahead are old structures of a new kind: workers’ cottages in rendered brick, washed in white, pastel blue or green, with brick chimneys distantly reminiscent of an old English village and more directly of colonial India. Only the tin roofs are the same.

An old landscape of a new kind arrives too: neatly trimmed tea bushes cover most ground, recounting at some feet higher the undulating lay of the land, in parallel. “When I was young the tea trees were younger,” says Sagar Das 50, a native of the estate who with his wife was long ago allocated one of those cottages. “Now I am old and the tea trees are also older.”

The small hills of Chatlapore.

Since the dawn of time gardens have been planted, pruned and tended as a space for relaxation, of beauty and contemplation. Gardens are usually a place to escape ourselves – but for its inhabitants the tea garden defines. Instead of being away from daily life the tea garden is daily life. It’s the only life. In place of a border to block out a shabbier world the tea garden boundary hems a world in. Das was born in Chatlapore.

When he was a baby his mother used to take him to sleep in a basket in the narrow aisles between the tea bushes or at the roadside under a tree. Jackals occasionally took children then. But a baby could hardly be left at home while wife plucked and husband toiled in the garden.

In Chatlapore tea garden, Moulvibazar.

As a boy there were games – one with two sticks, a longer one as bat and the shorter as ball. They played jambura football too, kicking the large grapefruit – called a pomelo or shaddock in English, about any patch of open ground. “As kids we ran naked,” says Das. “We didn’t know much.”

At 12 years old his unadulterated childhood reached its conclusion. With only one year of schooling completed, Das started to work. His first job was cleaning the nursery where tea saplings are readied. After one month he was shifted to drain digging. His starting salary was 37 taka per week, which he gave to his parents.

Tea garden housing for the workers.
On his first day he expressed shock. “What has my father done?” he asked aloud, “Will I come into the jungle to work?” The other workers laughed. Like theirs, his life in the garden was predetermined. He belonged to it.

Of course he’d learn the morning conversations: “Ma gave me rice,” “Ma gave me flat bread.” Minute details shared, even if tongue-in-cheek, was about all there was for variety and diversion – on the way to work, during the 9 am to 2 pm workday – every day except Sunday, or after work over a cup of preferred salt tea. Sugar is expensive in the garden.

These days Das works with a sickle, pruning. As is usual for a worker his current salary is a paltry 69 taka per day. He participates in leaf plucking during monsoon when the volume can’t be met by the women alone.

Rajkumari Das never went to school. She started working when she was 12.

Rajkumari Das, 40.

His wife Rajkumari Das, 40, is originally from Khajadura Tea Estate. She also started working at age twelve. “The tea garden was exciting,” she says of those first days, with an initial month devoted to fertilizer before she began helping her mother to pluck. “But I am still plucking!” she says.

Like the men, during work hours with two to three hundred other women she got used to sharing life’s little details. They talk about their families and homes, food and children. They swap recipes for chutney or favoured dishes, and occasionally chase away foxes.

Sometimes discussions are lively, sometimes serious or sad. And it all happens in that chutney language they call Chilo-Milo – a mixture of languages from all the groups the British seduced and brought from across India to work the plantations. For the word ‘come’, some say asa while others say awa, awather, awatho, awohi or chelo... there are yet more ways than those...

In the garden they speak a blended language called Chilo-Milo.

In the garden is a new culture and language of an old kind – or rather a mixture of many.

The language Mr and Mrs Das speak at home they call Deshwari, which may refer to the name of a village populated by Hindi and Santal speakers in India’s Jharkhand state. Their Deshwari may be a localised version of Hindi – it’s uncertain. Like many thereabouts they know little of their ancestry. Useless things from beyond the garden boundary, anything that doesn’t help the plants grow like identity, would seem to have a propensity to dissolve in salt tea – and in the garden sugar is expensive.

The first tea workers were brought in from across India.
Rajkumari, who never went to school, heard from her parents that her great grandfather came from some Indian elsewhere. Like many neighbours she’s heard that those first workers were coaxed into the garden with promises of finding trees that produced money just by touching or shaking them. More than that, she doesn’t know.

Over a century has gone since their forefathers arrived and a quiet sense of resignation appears to have settled over the Das home. They have their modest housing and at least the promise of adequate health care. There’s little point in questioning their below-meagre salaries which shape that quality blend of employment and servitude that is also their lives.

Tea workers taking a break from weeding, extra work undertaken before the plucking season peak.

There’s only to accept the multi-generational dislocation from original culture and ancestral identity. The British wanted tea. The garden came to be. In their family, all hope of genuine change belongs wholly to the next generation.

Identity tends to dissolve in the salt tea of the garden.

The house allocated to Mr and Mrs Das is, by coincidence, opposite one of the garden’s primary schools. “I used to see other children going in there,” says the father of four, “so I sent mine.”

Besides, Sagar Das remembers his own bewilderment at being sent to work in the ‘jungle’. He remembers his words about his father on his first work day. “My children,” he says with quiet pride, “will never say such a thing about me!”

Sagar Das aims for a future for his children beyond the garden.
Nowadays their eldest daughter works as a teacher for BRAC; the other two daughters and one son study from college to class 8. “I want my children to have a good life; I hope they will be able to take care of themselves,” says Das. “Only Bhagawan knows how it will happen exactly – but as long as they are okay. What more could I wish for?”

He seems to be aiming for his children to live beyond the boundary. Through education his goal appears to be nature rationalised and improved. For his children, Sagar Das wants the radical reality of a genuine garden – and perhaps even tea with sugar.

Allocated workers' housing.
But there’s a problem: the plantation system is designed for replication, not for change. It doesn’t have much time for the whims of one Mr. Das. Tea garden workers can only stay in their homes as long as at least one family member works in the plantation. So if all his children establish themselves beyond the hem and the rules of the only life he and his wife have known, where will they stay when they get old?

The British wanted tea. The gardens came to be. Evening arrives at Chatlapore.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: In The Garden

The tea garden hems life in.

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