” Everything that you see, as far as your eyes travel, I know them well”
– Excerpts from a conversation with Kalpana Subba
It was a soft summer morning, the skies heavy with dark clouds promised a day of relentless rain. The muted sound of rainfall followed me all the way through the lush tea gardens as the smell of wet earth mixed with the fragrance of tea clung to the air. In the remote village of Bermiok, located in the pristine mountains of Sikkim, the day had just begun.
For any tea lover, the quest for a cup of fresh tea is never one-dimensional. As the tea steeps in a pot, the mind travels far and with questions. How long did it take for the tea to reach the pot? How is the place where this tea grows? One question that circulates most often- who grows them? My pursuit for answers brought me to the doorsteps of Nikhil Pradhan, who along with his wife Dolka co-owns the boutique tea garden of Bermiok.
Despite the weather and the struggle of the lockdown, his promise to introduce me to one of his best workers is well-kept. My first glimpse of Kalpana Subba, the team leader of the tea factory of Bermiok, is amidst the verdant tea bushes. Her soft shyness does not prevent her from being candid. Her remarkable openness invites me to gain an impression of her life. While I still struggle to speak the regional language, which is Nepali, I assure her of my complete understanding which helps her to relax. From then on our conversations flowed about her life, work, and dreams.
“I have been working here for 8 years, every day for 8 hours. There is not much that I don’t know about these gardens. Everything that you see, as far as your eyes travel, I know them well. Before this, like everyone else around here, I used to work in the bastee. But working here in the tea garden gives me actual joy, a sense of satisfaction. It’s good to watch your efforts coming to fruition”, says Kalpana, her speech unhalting and filled with pride.
I understand her pride as I remember the tidbit of information Mr. Pradhan had provided earlier regarding the economical background of the region. Most of the people did day-to-day labor, Kalpana’s parents. as well, have all their life worked in the bastee(the local word for village) and have since retired. Her remarkable steady progress from picking tea leaves to being appointed as the team leader to run the tea factory is no easy feat.
As she goes on to elucidate,” I have never had much of an education. I studied till class 5. Working here has opened up so many avenues for me. I started with picking leaves. Soon the process became very absorbing. I wanted to know more, about how tea is made, and what is done. And I got the opportunity, I moved up from where I started and now I lead my own team!” As she speaks her eyes rove the vastness of the quiet tea estate.
There are several ladies already working despite the rain, covered in raincoats, their hands moving with smooth dexterity as they pluck away on the tea bushes.
There is so much more I do want to know. How does a typical day in her life look? She takes a minute to answer, her eyes slowly returning to meet mine. She cannot be more than 30, her smooth sun-kissed face is unlined and she breaks into a shy laugh when I remark on her youth, “ This year I have turned 33 and I am actually a mother of two! I did marry young at the age of 18 though this is a common practice here. Back home, for now, it’s just the three of us. Me, my husband, and my elder daughter. My second one is living with my brother. My routine is pretty simple that way. I wake up at 6, make breakfast and then I come to the tea garden. I have so many friends here, the day passes easily, then I am back home, make dinner and end the day around 8:30-9:00 PM.”
“My personal life is pretty settled.” She continues, I notice her hands do not stay still, fluttering like butterflies, over her apron that she wears to work.”My husband has been very supportive, he even helps with the household chores. Because of all the skills I have learned at the tea garden, he is very proud of me.“ She blushes as she finishes and her reddened cheeks make her all the more endearing. I can understand by her body language she is restless to go back to work so I ask her one last thing, what does she want for herself in the future, where would she like to go.
“I want to make sure now that my children get a good education, I want them to study hard…” I interrupt her and again ask what she wants for herself, where she wants to go. It is a good practice to watch the eyes when you do not speak the same language, so I feel relieved when I see realization dawn in her eyes. She is silent for a moment, the sound of the rainfall intensifies. When she speaks, it feels like a while has passed, “I am happy here. I grew up here, I have stayed here my whole life. I have never really wished to go anywhere else. I wanted to learn how to make good tea, which I am learning and wish to continue. I can handle the factory on my own and that brings me pleasure. Rest everything I want for my children, for their future. They are the future.”
Just as suddenly, the rain fizzles indicating it is time for her to return back to work. I thank Kalpana for taking the time for a conversation. I watch as she makes her way down the slope, slowly receding amidst the tea bushes, till I can no longer see her. Somewhere I can hear the soft murmur of the water springs, the taste of which can be traced in the tea. The silence that descends is gentle and all the more profound. A single conversation with an extraordinary woman unveiled a way of living. To be present and find meaning in work, to make the most of an opportunity, and above all to have the capacity to find happiness in simplicity.
Featured Banner credits belong to Paul Vincent Roll
In-story images provided by Mr. Nikhil Pradhan