Around 1 in the afternoon, our car rolled into the driveway of the Chota Tingrai bungalow. Even as we stepped out, a Jeep came up behind us and out jumped a very young man dressed in sweats and a t-shirt. Had I not been told, I’d never have guessed that he runs the 600-hectare estate that we were now visiting. Only 24, Mrityunjay Jalan, with his sister Avantika, manages the daily running of the family estate that boasts a state-of-the-art green tea processing plant, and a successful organic garden.
Avantika and Mrityunjay were nothing I had expected of estate owners. No airs, no touch of the ‘sahib’, nothing. They were warm, friendly and we immediately hit it off. The first order of business was a cup of tea, obviously. John, Avantika’s life and business partner who is a new tea convert (from coffee), is the official tea brewer in the house, we were told. He handed us perfectly brewed cups of hot Assam tea, that in spite of the warm weather, wasn’t entirely unwelcome.
The conversation hummed around tea, interrupted by cups of Assam, then Japanese sencha and even a Taiwanese oolong – which has become my personal favorite.
They made it look easy with the laughter, the harmless ribbing, the stories… but choosing to work on the estate was a conscious choice, and for all three of them, it meant leaving behind fairly lucrative jobs.
Avantika says she knew that she wanted to work on sustainable farming. So, she started a social initiative called Mana Organics working towards sustainable development in rural India. After a few years in Arunachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, working with farmers, she thought why not take her ideas and apply them at her family’s tea estate. With that decision, Avantika shifted base to Chota Tingrai.
When she moved here, the gardens weren’t doing well and her suggestion to shift to organic farming were met with much resistance from everyone, including senior management. The reason was that tea estates that had turned organic were suffering from dwindling production.
Going organic was a battle that couldn’t be won in a day. Avantika started small, to show that it was the way forward. Every newly planted patch was organic. And then came an unexpected infestation and the field managers dealt with it by spraying the field with pesticides. Says Avantika, “That was the first and the last time this happened.”
Now, three years later, a third of Chota Tingrai is organic. And her detractors have come to accept that it was worth it, and that tea grown organically does tastes better.
Mrityunjay left India to study and work in Singapore before deciding that urban living didn’t suit him. A year ago, he returned home to Chota Tingrai and joined Avantika. Since his return, Mrityunjay has turned things around at Chota Tingrai. His day starts early in the morning when he drives around the estate, meeting the field managers, overseeing the plucking, tasting the tea at every step to make sure it meets his quality standards. Boyishly shy and quiet, it’s hard to get him to talk about himself. Except when you mention sports, his second passion after tea. And he can talk for hours about football.
I ask them if they miss the city and they both say No. They grew up living the estate life and this is who they are, they insist. Unconventional in the way they run the estate, in the way they live – an unostentatious but beautiful home – in the choices they have made, both Avantika and Mrityunjay are quietly bringing in a new way of working in the industry.
And this extends to the team they are building, of young people, passionate about tea, just like themselves.
We met Simi, who is all of 5 ft. tall, 24 years old and the manager of the new green tea factory. Simi started as a management trainee but was quickly given the entire responsibility of the green tea factory when both Mrityunjay and Avantika saw how focused and hardworking she was. And she’s not the only one. All the field assistants are young, driven and enthusiastic. Like Deepa who is the daughter of the cook at Chota Tingrai, and Mahendra, whose mother was a tea plucker at the estate. In an industry, where hierarchy, experience, and age have always been given so much importance, this is unheard of. Neither Deepa nor Mahendra expected to find themselves with this opportunity but as Mrityunjay said, “We don’t want to judge people by the number of years of experience they bring but by what they have learnt in the years they have worked.”
Clearly, theirs is a life committed to tea.
We were sitting outdoors after dinner. The conversation inevitably turned to tea. Is it always like this, I asked. Is tea something that you can’t help but talk about? They laughed and told me of their version of Taboo – where ‘tea’ is ‘taboo’ but you can’t play for too long because on the estate the mornings begin really early.
Photographs by Tridib Konwar