People often assume that living in Darjeeling makes one a tea connoisseur. This can’t be farther from truth. Yes, we do look forward to the year’s first flush, probably have a favorite estate who’s teas can be found in our kitchens, and perhaps even be picky about how a proper Darjeeling is made. But it’s more likely that our daily cup of choice is chai made with CTC tea, blended with a home brand of spices, milky and sweet. And that when it comes to tasting a Darjeeling, we can be as ignorant as the next person.

Developing a palate to recognize the finesse of the Darjeeling teas doesn’t happen overnight. Growing up in a Marwari family with a father whose business was in tea machinery, I went to the estates often enough. And that didn’t make me an expert. Sure, it gave me an insight into the workings of the gardens, and I heard and saw a lot. But it was only as an adult, when I chose to  work in the tea industry, that I actually turned to look closely at the Darjeeling tea.

And what would have been an overwhelming experience was made enjoyable by Prateek, my older brother.

Prateek’s only a couple of years older than I am but we couldn’t be more different. He was the model son while I played the rebel. In school, teachers loved him and with me, well, they tried to hide their surprise at discovering we were brothers. Prateek did well in academics while I floated in the comfortable middle. But the thing about Prateek was that he always looked out for me.

Our father had started a business in tea machinery, and as is expected in a business family like ours, it was expected that one of his sons would join him. And between the two of us, Prateek was the obvious choice. Sure enough, on graduating in Commerce from Kolkata’s famed St. Xaviers’, he joined our father. But one year into it and he was keen to branch out on his own. Prateek’s love for travel was quite strong and he wanted to couple that with his interest in tea, and start a tea export firm. It was a capital-intensive and risky idea but entrepreneurship is in the Marwari DNA and my brother could not be dissuaded by my parents.

Having started my own company two years ago, I can now fully appreciate the courage and conviction it must have taken, especially in the face of doubt and discouragement. The need to prove you know what you are doing can be phenomenally stressful. You don’t get to wallow in failure lest people turn around to say, ‘I told you so’.

I spent seven years in Singapore at university and working after that. When I chose to return to Siliguri, I had the option of working with my father or with my brother. I chose the latter for the opportunities and the challenges it offered me. Prateek took me under his wing immediately. He set out to teach me everything he knew, things he had taught himself. I worked with him for a year before I decided to branch out on my own.

When I chose to start my own e-commerce company, I encountered absolute resistance, from people around me, to the idea. How can you sell tea when the people buying it cannot even see or smell it, was the question to which I had no satisfactory answer. It was Prateek who backed me, pitching in to help me select the best teas, introducing me to people in the industry, and being the pillar of support I sorely needed.

The year that I had spent working with my brother proved to be invaluable experience. Until then, I had tasted teas but had never paid attention to the finer and more subtle qualities they possessed. Prateek taught me how to recognize a tea for its inherent characteristics. He taught me what to look for in each of Darjeeling’s tea gardens and  that opened a whole world of tea and tea quality for me.

Besides an appreciation of fine teas and what I could hope to offer my own customers, I had also learnt the importance of markets. I traveled quite a bit while working for my brother and saw, firsthand, the potential of countries like Russia. When I started Teabox, choosing to address Russian customers was among the earliest decisions I made. And it is one of our most significant markets today.

But perhaps my most important lesson came from watching my brother treat his customers. No customer was too small or too insignificant. He responded to every inquiry in the shortest time possible, making sure that prospective customers felt comfortable, found answers to their questions and concerns, and could buy teas with absolute confidence. This is something I feel strongly about too, and don’t expect any compromises on it. From the first day on, we have kept the customer as our biggest priority.  

 Looking back at where I began and where I have arrived, I now view my brother’s support with a greater appreciation than I’ve ever had. I feel enormous gratitude for Prateek’s generosity, in sharing his knowledge, paving the path for me always, for pushing me to try harder and insisting I learn the ropes of the trade, and consequently making my own journey into tea easier than it may have otherwise been.

The cover image features Prateek Dugar at one of his favorite activities – tea tasting!

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2 Comments

  1. Madhu Nair Reply

    Do keep up the good work. My compliments and best wishes for the journey ahead

  2. Can identify a lot with your story … Having spent childhood years in Siliguri , growing up close to tea with dad working with the Tea Board of India . Drinking nothing but factory fresh tea.. discussions of categories of tea during weekend parties …. the story is definitely a flush of nostalgia for me. My passion for tea is known and appreciated by my current friends and acquaintance…….
    My comment may translate into a story by itself … so i hold back right here ….Cheers to Chai.

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