“Sir, stop the auction” said a gentleman from a back – a buyer like the rest of the room – anxiously. All the faces in the hall turned towards him, wondering what’d happened. “What’s the matter,” asked the auctioneer. “Sir,” he said rather gravely, “the fan is not working.” There was a split second of silence before the entire room burst into laughter. This is perhaps one of my favorite memories of the manual tea auction.
In Siliguri, where I live and work, the auction would start at 9 am sharp on Thursdays. By 8.55 the hall would be full. All the buyers had access to samples atleast two weeks before the auction and knew exactly which tea they would bid for. Three representatives from the broking firm would make their way to the dias, take their seat and the auction would officially begin.
“Good morning, Gentlemen,” the auctioneer would say. “Your bids for Lot no. 1, please.” As soon as these words were uttered, the entire auction hall – which was so far silent – would come alive. Everyone would shout their bids, trying to outbid another until the the hammer came down to announce the buyer for that lot. Keeping us company were representatives from all the broking firms who were there to analyze the market situation. And within the first hour, we’d know whether the market was dearer (strong) or easier (weak).
The time limit was 1.3 minutes for 3 lots. And as soon as the time was up, a bell would be rung and the next broker would come up to auction their tea. And so the day would progress. In season, we went to auction four days of the week but as the season peaked, auctions carried through the weekend too. No one complained because we enjoyed it; all the buyers and brokers would look forward to it. For us, it was a reason to get together, catch up with each other and although there was extreme competition in the auctions, it was healthy and fun and didn’t take away from the social highlight that auctions were. There was the occasional drama when one broker listed a garden exclusively putting other broking houses at a disadvantage. Often the buyers would complain loudly, offended, angry and insistent, “You did not take my bid.” The auctioneer, always expected to keep a straight face, would respond, “Sorry Sir, but the other buyer was quicker than you. Better luck with the next lot.” There was a definite formality to how the auction was conducted. But sometimes two buyers would go head to head for a single lot. The rest of us would sit back to watch as they’d furiously try to outbid each other, sending prices skyrocketing. I remember an auction when the bidding for a Parag BP grade tea started at 40 rupees reaching Rs 120 just because of this clash between buyers.
Stuff like that made news. All of this is now relegated to the past. About 5 years ago, in October 2011, the era of manual auctions came to an end in Siliguri, and auctions went online. I still remember the last manual auction. It was really special and hardly any teas were left unsold that day. I remember the auctioneer, Rajeev Roy, finishing the last bidding for the day, and as soon as he sold the lot, he picked up the hammer and rushed out. Later, he had the hammer mounted and it occupies pride of place in his office.
I know that change is inevitable and leaving manual auctions behind for e-auctions is progress. For us tea folks, it has meant attending the auction from our computer screens. There’s no friendly sparring and all bidding takes place silently. But what I really miss is the social interaction that the auctions of the old days brought. They gave us a reason to meet, catch up and bond. I miss that. And so do many from the fraternity. We often talk of bringing back “atleast one manual auction per year” to give us a reason to get together. But it’s wishful thinking, we know. Progress takes us forward, not back.
It was great while it lasted but times have changed. And sometimes, change is good.