Friday, 14 November 2014

Tea Reconsidered

A Hindu temple in Chatlapore tea garden.

I’m invited to the home of Mintu Deshwara, the Daily Star correspondent for Moulvibazar. He’s the proud son of tea labourers.

It’s not every day the chance arises to stay in a tea worker’s cottage; but with the afternoon heat and the walking, when we arrive I’m tired. I wonder where on Earth I am.

The realities of Moulvibazar’s Chatlapore Tea Estate are complex. There’s a gruesome history. There’s a multicultural community all too ready to smile. People want a better future in spite of the pressures of the international tea trade. I don’t know what to think.

It’s usual for it to take time. The brain has to process, to meld some sort of sense into new experience. Precisely what part of the result arises from the raw and what part is constructed as memories arranged through the brain’s filter of personal values, life experience and culture I couldn’t say. But there’s no such thing as objectivity.

The village has a sweet, pungent smell. Is it incense or a range of native cooking styles from various Indian places? It doesn’t smell like regular Bangladesh. The faces that stop to ask who I am – they aren’t Bengali faces.

The welcoming introductions are easy enough but when that is done I give in. For a couple of hours I sleep.

Meanwhile, word travels. Eight women from nearby houses want to see what the foreigner looks like. They don’t just arrive: they’ve spent time dressing up in best saris, with bangles and make-up.

Mintu offers to wake me. They don’t let him. So they wait for one and a half hours...

The tea garden ladies waited for one and a half hours...

As I take in their excited faces gathered along the edge of the bed and in the hastily arranged chairs I feel overwhelmingly honoured. It’s that blessing that only a traveller knows – quite a welcome!

But I feel other things. There’s minor guilt at having kept them waiting. There’s some uneasiness. I know enough of the history. I’m not British but most Australians are at least in part descended from those same colonisers. You can’t get away from that.

Those ladies’ ancestors were shuffled about, lured by lies in order to build a tea industry. It’s hardly history – they still live in poverty. Part of me wants to be invisible so as not to be in any way a Sahib.

Better to focus on their welcoming friendliness...

We chat away in Bengali, mother tongue to none of us. They aren’t shy. We drink tea.

In the evening with Mintu I set off through the village. It leads to the courtyard of the Bauris’ home. They speak Bauria language.

Hari Kamal Bauri, 70, with his wife Ahila Bauri, 60.

Retired worker Hari Kamal Bauri, 70, heard his maternal grandparents came from one Bakuria District. “We have no connection with that place,” he says, “Maybe it’s near Dhaka?”

Bakuria is a place name in Jharkhand state of India but it’s likely his ancestors came from Bankura District of Paschimbanga which, along with Birbhum and other districts along that state’s western edge, is home to the Bauri people.

Basic research says Bauris revere their tribal emblem the red-backed heron and hold dogs to be sacred. They eat beef, pork, fowls, fish and rats, but not snakes or lizards – and they like a drink. It’s unlikely the Bauris of the tea garden know much of this.

His wife Ahila Bauri, 60, says her paternal grandparents never said where they came from but her parents said they came from Sreemangal.

How much do we lose of ourselves if we don’t know our true origins?

The Bauris at home.

“On the first day my mother gave birth to me,” Ahila Bauri says, describing her life. “Later they married me off and sent me to my husband’s house. He sent me to the garden for work.”

Before their wedding day they’d never met. I ask how she felt. She says, “What did I think? Everybody was sitting there! What could I think?”

With many days behind them, they seem relaxed and content. Five children later – and they couldn’t quite manage to send them through school – they have an allocated cottage to live in and a family to enjoy as they age. They seem quite fond of each other.

“Smith Sahib used to drive a car and give salaams,” he says of the British management.

“Memsahib was beautiful,” she says, “She gave the children biscuits.”

I’m considering the cottage behind them. While there can be no doubt the British entertained their own interests, a brick cottage is far from nothing. I remember rural Bangladesh even most of twenty years ago. It wasn’t just anybody who had a brick house then.

When the Bauris’ ancestors were first deposited in the garden, after the jungles were cleared, it likely would’ve been a more materialistically comfortable life than the way locals lived. It was long before the mansions of Londoni ex-pats rose in the quiet streets around Kulaura. Things have changed, except in the garden.

By another villager I’m shown a slip of paper: it’s a Charge Sheet from management. The charge is stealing a shade tree. The charged worker is required to provide an explanation – in writing or, if they are illiterate, verbally, why they should not be dismissed or otherwise punished. They may cross-examine witnesses.

There are no police in the gardens. Where is the court? It’s as though the laws of Bangladesh don’t properly apply there. Those are anachronistic privatised communities run by the tea companies.

A nurse walking home from the dispensary.

I’m told that in September 2012 the Tea Worker’s Union negotiated a wage increase, settled by the government’s Wage Commission, from 48 to 69 taka per day – for an A-grade garden. In addition workers receive housing, promises of health care and education.

At the same time workers needed to increase productivity. Before, they’d needed to collect 16 kilograms of tea leaves per day to avail full salary. It was raised to 23 kilograms – in other words, they would still be paid 3 taka per kilogram – a pro rata increase of zero.

The last elections for the Tea Worker’s Union were in August this year. With bargaining soon to commence for a new salary agreement to last the next two years, the Union’s hoping for a new salary of 200 taka per day.

Rehearsals for Durga Puja in the tea garden.

I wonder why we often hear ambassadors from the United States and Europe making public comment on the rights of garments workers but not tea workers. Western countries don’t, in general, produce tea – western companies do, in developing countries. Unlike with the garment sector where the west still has some local production and jobs to protect – and besides, dramatic events like the Rana Plaza collapse embarrass western consumers – perhaps for the tea industry profit margins are all that matter?

It’s not that there aren’t alternatives to champion. New ownership and production systems have been introduced in parts of Sri Lanka, India and also in Panchagarh, to better compensate labourers.

The colonialism cycle can be broken. It’s time to reconsider tea – because the Bauris may live quietly in an old allocated brick cottage, but at what human price? Okay, so, maybe I do know what to think...

Tea workers busy with gardening.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Tea Reconsidered

Me with the tea ladies.

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