There is a feisty mountain river at the bottom of the hill where Avongrove tea estate is nestled, but it isn’t the Avon. And there are scattered clumps of orange trees and bamboo growing by the tea bushes, but there is no grove.
And yet, as I stood on a suspension bridge over the river called Balason and drank in the lush green of the hills all around, I failed to come up with a better name. “Avongrove” was poetic, “Avongrove” seemed apt.
Avongrove tea estate is about two hours’ drive on a mountain road from Ghoom – a hill town in Darjeeling that boasts of the world’s highest railway station at 7,400 feet. And I was there with estate manager Debojit Nandy, who had driven me down to the Balason valley as part of a field trip around his plantation.
“I don’t know how the name came about,” said Nandy, for whom this is his second stint at Avongrove, the first time with its previous owners as the assistant manager. “Maybe an Englishman in the old days saw the Balason and was reminded of home and the Avon,” he reflected. “I don’t know, I am just guessing… there is no record.”
Nor is there any folklore spun around the name, as it is with Jungpana (of which I have written earlier), or Runglee Rungliot (of which I plan to write later). I decided to accept Nandy’s theory on the use of “Avon” in the name; at first blush, it made immense sense. The original planters were the British, and they were probably nostalgic.
As for “grove” in Avongrove, I surmised it was a reference to a cluster of trees that caught the fancy of this notional Englishman. I have no way of knowing if he had been inspired by orange trees or bamboo shoots, which although growing quite freely in the area, were however not dense enough to be labelled “groves”. Hell, I don’t even know if oranges grew in the wild back then.
But as Nandy’s story of his garden unravelled, I realised these orange trees and bamboo shoots also have a story to tell – the story of Avongrove’s resurrection from the crypt.
Yes, the plantation had literally died in 1960-61, when the then owners closed down operations amidst spiralling expenses and plummeting revenues. It thereafter lay abandoned for 28 years, and an entire generation of current workers grew up seeing their parents unemployed.
Avongrove reopened as recently as 1993 when ownership changed hands for the first time, and chugged along till 1998 when the current owners – the diversified chemicals-to-solar energy KPL International Ltd – acquired it. KPL also built a new factory the same year.
Nandy, who joined Avongrove in his current position about three years ago, said the orange trees and bamboo were planted by workers who overnight found their income dry up. “They had to find some source of income,” he explained. “Twenty-eight years is a long time.”
Many eked out a living plucking tea leaves from the untended bushes and selling small amounts to neighbouring gardens. The problem was, they also uprooted tea bushes near their homes to plant the orange trees, or as their families grew, expanded their dwellings on the land thus freed.
As a result, Nandy said, Avongrove till this day has a lot of “vacancy” – an industry term for land belonging to a garden but not utilised for cultivating tea. The bushes also suffered from years of neglect, leading to depressed output once operations resumed. “The yield per hectare is less than the average in the hills,” he said ruefully.
According to him, while Darjeeling’s average production is around 500 kg a hectare, the yield at his own garden is 400. But with each year, he said, performance is on an upswing – from 55,000 kg two years ago, production had risen to 65,000 in 2014, while the target by this year-end has been at 67,000 kg. “Ideally it should be around 75-80,000 kg annually,” Nandy said.
But what it lacks in volume Avongrove tries to make up in quality. First, it manufactures the naturally fragranced Darjeeling teas; that in itself makes it a cut above those from outside the region. Plus the plantation, which is already known for its aromatic offerings, has begun seriously targeting hobbyists with special handcrafted teas – the Peony Rosette and the Florette.
Skilled craftswomen weave tender tea buds into what Nandy calls a “rose flower” to make the Peony Rosette variety of artisan tea. One flower needs to be steeped for about five minutes in boiling water, and the tea sipped while the flower is still at the bottom of the cup.
Moreover, fresh hot water can be poured over the same flower in the same cup to make up to three-four helpings of the exotic tea. The Florette is even more beautiful when steeped in hot water: a red flower actually “blooms” as the leaves, woven into a tight knot, soaks in the water.
Making the Peony Rosette and the Florette, or even Pearl tea – little balls of rolled tea – looked like a lot of hard work to me, and Nandy assured me that it was. “A skilled worker can weave at the most 25 pieces a day,” he said. “We make them only on order… the process is very laborious.”
So is bringing Avongrove back on tracks, something Nandy has been striving for over the past few years. The new management is backing him in all his endeavours, he said, and the workers cooperate. “You have to work as a team.”
For something as mesmerizing as Avongrove – both in name and raw beauty of its surroundings – anything that makes it bloom is the need of the hour. Even if it is something as basic as teamwork.
Photographs by Uday Bhattacharya