I have never heard a grown man groan that way – not in a roomful of people, and certainly not amid such corporate trappings.

But there he was, letting loose a staccato burst of “eiyan” every now and then, quite high-pitched and nasal, and as if in acute pain. I must confess that the noise – for what else can I call it? – unsettled me the first time I heard it.

The man emitting those noises was a diminutive fellow, and was studiously hunched over a booklet in the front row of lines of men and women poring over horizontal columns of figures.

They had all come to bid at Kolkata’s weekly auction of Darjeeling teas, and the diminutive man was going “eiyan” every time a lot caught his fancy and he wanted to make a purchase.

I was at Nilhat House, the hub of the city’s tea auctions, which have gone online for produce from all regions, save for Darjeeling, which is still auctioned off the old-fashioned way.

Like almost everything else today, tea auctioning too is changing with the times, with e-auctions coming into force at all auction centres in South India, and at Siliguri and Guwahati in the North.

It was the traditional, “offline” bidding that I had come to witness at Nilhat House before it too is replaced.

But I had come expecting to see the auctioneer bellowing out the offers, and buyers raising a bidding card silently – basically stuff they show on TV movies. The noisy “eiyan” I was not prepared for.

It caught me offguard, but I did get into a peek into the past.

Changing Times

In Kolkata, auctions of CTC, the Dust, and Assam orthodox varieties are in the electronic mode, with, as I said, only the Darjeeling varieties being sold the old way.

Before 1984, close to 50 percent of the tea produced in the country was sold through the auction system, with private sales accounting for the rest.

In 1984, the Tea Board ruled that auction sales had to be upped to 70 percent of total production. When the order was withdrawn in 2000, the auction system handled nearly 80 percent.

But since then, the share of auctions has fallen progressively over the years to stand at around 50 percent today, similar to the pre-1984 level. The volume, however, is now much larger due to increased production.

The world’s first public tea auction was held in Kolkata by R Thomas & Co on December 27, 1861. The firm later became J Thomas & Co, the same brokers that held the auctions I witnessed.

Today, at 150 years, it is the world’s largest and oldest tea brokerage firm and auction house, handling some 200 million kg of tea annually and boasting of about 40 percent market share in India.

J Thomas operates in all six centres in India – Kolkata, Siliguri and Guwahati in the North and Conoor, Kochi and Coimbatore in the South. It also provides varied consultancy services for the tea industry.

It was a J Thomas-conducted auction that I had witnessed one Tuesday morning, the day sales are held every week at Nilhat House.

‘Eiyan’ Times

At first I had entered the hall where e-auctions were taking place, but realised my mistake when I was greeted by an eerie silence; the hall was utterly devoid of any excitement.

People sat scattered about at desks on tiered seats, as in an amphitheatre or a college classroom, each with a laptop and the only noise I heard was of someone coughing.

Things looked up when I found the right room – where manual auctions were being conducted, with the auctioneer flanked by two assistants sat facing a roomful of buyers, rattling off bid prices at a furious pace.

This was what I had come to savour: noisy sales. When I entered, Anindyo Chowdhury, the auctioneer, was politely taking a stand on a price, telling one bidder insisting on a lower rate that he was “tired of negotiating”.

When someone made a sound that must have seemed out of place, Chowdhury was at his witty best. “You sir, sound like a horn,” he said.

Minutes later, when one particular tea lot left the room cold, Chowdhury tried to stir up a buyer he probably thought needed stirring up. “What is it Jaggu? No bids? No interest? ”

The auctioneer then admonished another person addressing him by his company name, “XYZ, don’t be a spoiler.”

Sumon Majumder, the General Manager at Darjeeling Impex started taking a few photos on my behalf, which piqued XYZ’s interest. He stopped his recital for a minute, and turning to my benefactor said, “You sir, are a double-edged sword. You are on both sides.”

Sometime into the proceedings, a waiter brought in tea and biscuits for everyone. One person who had fallen asleep at the back stirred as if on cue. People started drinking tea even as they bid for it.

It was more of the same from 9 am to 11 am, and the session broke up make way for another brokerage house and another auction.

The manual auction of Darjeeling teas is to be replaced by online sales – the move has been on the anvil for several years now – and with it, a chapter in the history of the tea business in India will come to an end.

I am glad I visited before this happened. Before the “eiyan” of the tea auctions became history.