Friday, 7 November 2014

Memsahib Was Really Nice

The Self-Help Centre, Chatlapore Tea Estate, Moulvibazar.

Back in the mid-twentieth century, Memsahib didn’t like to see babies brought into the tea garden fields, which working mothers had little choice but to do. “I am paying money,” she said, one day while passing by, “Why is this baby here?”

Time is short. Every Wednesday the makeshift Tilakpore bazaar area in Chatlapore Tea Estate in Moulvibazar District is busy, nowadays. Vendors arrive from outside the garden to sell produce to their tea labourer customers. There are queues beside the dispensary. People gather for medical treatment, to collect salaries and apportioned supplies of subsidised rice grain and essentials.  There’s a sign on the old building noting the contributions of Heed Bangladesh and US Aid.

The road leading to the manager's bungalow.

A little further up the road, the red roof of an old pump house or small cottage has written on it in big white letters “Self-Help Centre.” There’s activity there too, though any worker will confess the place is usually quiet. At the Self-Help Centre women should be able to learn handicraft and needlework skills in free courses offered by the current Duncan Brothers management.

Such skills are promoted as helping raise family incomes. When a worker’s salary is just 69 taka per day – and Chatlapore is an ‘A’ grade garden: salaries at lower grade gardens are less – every taka counts. Presumably working women can set to work on handicrafts in the evenings after hours in the garden, after taking care of their families, and on Sundays, their day off.

But this is not the reason the centre is busy. The garden’s assistant manager, who lives in the big bungalow atop the hill, smaller only than the larger manager’s bungalow by the main gate, doesn’t have time to talk. A relative of one of the Duncan Brothers board members is due to visit from the United Kingdom. He wants the garden to look its best. He wants the Self-Help Centre spic-and-span. Today is not an ordinary day. Time is short.

Tilakpore bazaar area in the tea garden.
But the assistant manager and his boss are lucky, in a way, to be there at all. They’re Bengalis. Retired workers like 75-year-old Jibon Nayek Palkichara know well that until the mid-1960s no Bengali could enter a tea garden. “Even a big judge couldn’t get inside,” he remembers.

According to the Bangladesh District Gazetteer, Sylhet, of 1970, wild tea was first discovered in now Sylhet Division in 1855, with cultivation starting in the following decades. By 1900, 71,490 acres of land were under cultivation, producing 3.5 crore pounds of tea which ranked Sylhet favourably in comparison with leading tea-growing districts of Assam. By 1965 production had risen to 5.81 crore pounds per year.

“The prospects of a vast market for tea gave rise to the problems of labour,” reads the Gazetteer. “The question was to find a class of people who by temperament would like to settle in the countryside permanently and get attached to the tea estate for good.”

With local labour considered unsuitable the British brought workers from Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, first to clear jungle, then to work on the plantations. Santhals and workers from Assam with tea garden experience were also brought, though in smaller numbers due to cost. It was “with utmost difficulty that they could be procured.”

By 1890 a total of 71,950 workers had been relocated. In the next decade alone another 1.4 lacs joined them.

The climate suited these workers, according to the Gazetteer.

The climate suited these workers, notes the Gazetteer, “and planters were thus enabled to work their gardens with labourers who would not quickly sicken and die.” “Unfortunately,” however, with recruitment particularly brisk during famines, many workers arrived “in a poor state of health” leading to occasionally high mortality. The memories of current workers do not extend back to the gardens’ beginnings but there are stories: widespread fever and many deaths.

The British managed well. They created a workforce from disadvantaged groups that would prove flexible. For one thing, with many disparate groups any kind of unity would be difficult for workers to forge. For another, with the exclusion of Bengalis tea workers would barely be able to speak to outsiders if they ever made it outside.

At Sreemangal’s Tea Garden Museum it’s possible to view a bone stick used to beat badly behaved workers. There are samples of “hazira” coins minted solely for garden use. The use of different money made it impossible for any worker to secretly stash whatever money they could scrounge from their wages in preparing an escape. Nobody would accept their money beyond the boundary – and besides, escapees would be hunted down. There could be no going home.

For long term colonialism to succeed it’s important to colonise the mind – to foster a belief in the colonisers’ superiority. In the gardens, the luxurious bungalows built to compensate for the “hardships” of British managers certainly underlined distinction – in Assam the British even had a ratio of golf courses required per manager to ensure adequate socialisation facilities.

In such a reality any level of patronising would be greatly appreciated by workers. There could be no harm in allowing churches and temples; and religious festivals like Kali Puja continue to be celebrated with much fanfare.

Sorting tea leaves, Chatlapore.

Palkichara says his grandfather first came to the garden from ‘Agartala’ – which may mean Odisha – at age 30. His father’s studies were good so he was rewarded with a foreman’s job.

When Palikchara was twenty-two and charged with pruning, one day Sahib noticed him and asked him to demonstrate. “Without cutting the tea bushes, the leaves do not spread,” he explains. He could do it well. Sahib made him, like his father, a foreman. He believes his salary in the 1960s was about 7.5 rupees per week.

Jibon Nayek Palikchara with his granddaughter.

“The Europeans had a really good formula for growing tea bushes,” he says, “and they kept every kind of food in the godowns. We had no tensions. They provided all sorts of clothes – saris, dhotis, half pants, shirts and suit pants. We weren’t allowed to wear lungee in the office.”

He recalls how any problem was soon fixed with a word to Sahib or Memsahib, the manager’s wife. “Now it’s difficult to consult management,” he says.

“One day there were huge clouds and much rain,” Palkichara reminisces, “Memsahib noticed the women still working. ‘Women will work in such conditions?’ she said, ‘Go to the factory at once and blow the whistle! It will be a holiday.’”

On another occasion she saw women working with hoes and said, “Give me a hoe. I am also a woman. I will work.” Memsahib’s words shamed the field manager into reassigning the women.

Only with the rise of Bengali political clout in late 1960s Pakistan did the British leave. No doubt they could sense significant change. And something big happened, something the workers never forget. With independence, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, tea garden workers were granted citizenship in that new and better country, Bangladesh. As never before, they belonged.

The gate to the processing plant and offices.

Foreign companies continue to hold a large stake in the Bangladeshi tea industry – they’re credited with reviving the industry following near collapse during the liberation period, which may have been influenced by the deliberate lack of experienced Bengali managers; also by war damage and the loss of the product’s then main market: Pakistan.

It’s only natural therefore that still today some company man will jet into Bangladesh to inspect. He probably wants to see a spruced-up Self-Help Centre to report about to shareholders.

When Palikchara retired six years ago the loyal worker was told favourably, “You will stay in the garden after you retire.” He receives 48 taka per day as pension. 

Tea workers and their family members relaxing of an afternoon in Tilakpore, Chatlapore.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Memsahib was Really Nice

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