I was meeting Pakhi Bagai for tea. She works as a marketing executive in Bangalore and when a common friend casually mentioned a friend who grew up on a tea estate, I’d asked to meet. To hear her story. It’s a conversation I was looking forward to and meeting Pakhi, I realized she was as eager to sit down and reminisce.

“My parents would consider this a sacrilege,” she says, almost guiltily, as she removes the tea bag from her mug. “Having spent their lives around tea, it is one thing that they don’t compromise on. They carry their own tea with them and are extremely particular about things like the size of the perfect teaspoon. My father will sit looking at his watch for the perfect brewing time,” she grins. A short pause and Pakhi adds, “Tea never tastes as good as it does at home.”

Pakhi talks, I listen. Her memories are vivid and of little things that made her happy. “We once lived on a garden close to the Burma border and our TVs could access the network from there. We were introduced to several American series like the Knight Riders much before they made it in to India,”, she says.

It’s a world I cannot fully imagine, and as I picture a near-perfect world, Pakhi adds, “I would have preferred ‘city life’ because in apartments you have friends. On the estate, we had to find ways to entertain ourselves and could only play games meant for one or two, like Brainvita. Your closest friend could be a 100 kms away. Play dates were affairs that required much planning.”

Born to a Punjabi father and Bengali mother who continue to live on a tea estate in Assam. Pakhi was initially home schooled (“Schools were too far!”) until she was sent away to Welham’s Girls in Dehradun, like many other tea garden kids. “We learnt ABCD while running around the garden. At school, we would keep quiet. We had kids from all kinds of backgrounds; it was hard to talk about a bungalow with 20 helpers and buzzers to summon them,” she admits. Evidently, things change too slowly in the tea estates. The buzzers continue to be used, except they are now smaller and portable. It was a privileged life for children of estate owners and managers.

One from the album, Pakhi's home for several years, Lankapara estate.
One from the album, Pakhi’s home for several years, Lankapara estate.

Life on the estate included running around in the wild and playing with whatever toys one got their hands on. “One of our staff at Hantaapara made me a bow and arrow, the traditional one with a steel tip. Later, when we spent a few years in the Calcutta, I was quite upset about not being able to shoot my bow and arrow around”, she says. “It ended up as a wall piece!”

The estate bungalows were large, the parties larger, and locking up for the night, a daily chore that could take up to an hour. “Once while I was playing in the garden I saw a truckload of people off-loading at our gate. I ran towards the house believing we were being invaded only to discover that they were guests who had dropped by to play Holi”, she chuckles. Parties were a way of life here, if not at the Club it was at home. Pakhi’s parents, like others here, enjoyed a hectic social life and often drove a few hours just to attend a party at the closest neighbor’s bungalow.

“We were quite innocent and knew little about the world outside. I remember once time when my sister and I were chasing a lizard and its tail fell off. We didn’t know what to do, so we tried putting Dettol on it. The lizard obviously jumped away in fright…We trusted and talked to nearly everyone we met. Everybody inside a tea garden was to be trusted. It was only in cities that you were warned not to talk to strangers.”

Pakhi Bagai with Pradeep daju, her oldest friend and childhood playmate
Pakhi Bagai with Pradeep daju, her oldest friend and childhood playmate.

Pakhi’s world from her childhood seemed straight out of the storybooks, for me. Even the everyday stuff she talked about was different, like their vegetable patch (too large to be called a patch, I thought) that grew everything from carrots to pineapples, cow sheds and poultry farms… Shopping, she tells me, required a 150 km drive and was done only once a month. Hence, a master list would be made to ensure a full stock.

And of course, the wildlife! The one incident that Pakhi remembers is of a herd of elephants passing by their gate. “We switched on all lights (supposed to scare them) and just stood there and watched. They could have trampled us.” She remembers too stopping their jeep on the way back from a party to watch a leopard cross the road. “Those are magnificent experiences to have from your childhood,” she says and I nod in ready agreement.

Some of these stories now are shared on a Facebook group called ‘Chai ke baba aur babylog’. “All the staff called us ‘Baby’. My sister was ‘badi baby’ and I was ‘chhoti baby’.”

We are dipping another teabag into our mugs. Nearly two hours have gone by and I have been a captivated listener. Outside, there’s crazy peak hour traffic, and inside the little cafe we are sitting in, the lights have come on. “The sky was so clear there, unlike the city and often illuminated by a thousand glowworms. It’s a breathtaking sight and one that many people will never see.” I wonder how, after all those years on the tea estates, Pakhi has condescended to live a rather ordinary urban life in a crowded city so far from her home. I want to ask her that but I look her and realize that she’s looking a bit homesick. 

 

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