When I saw the shop selling biscuits and cheap candies in the middle of nowhere at Namring tea estate, I was sold on an old marketing aphorism all over again… you know, the one about “location, location, location”.

Admittedly, that business philosophy refers to successful hotels and prime real estate, and this was but a bamboo-and-plastic shack selling humble food on the edge of the woods.

Also, when I laid eyes on the shop for the first time, I was baffled by its location: the place was devoid of any human habitation.

But it made me dwell on the way the inaccessibility of a place could goad enterprise. Rather, how “location, location and location” could work the other way too. Or even how, when a person really wants it, he and she can work for a better future.

This was something I had witnessed among workers at almost all the tea gardens I visited during a recent trip, not only at Namring but at Mim tea estate, Avongrove tea estate, Goomtee tea estate and others.

BRIDGING THE SUPPLY GAP

I saw the shack when Harkaram Chaudhary, manager at Namring, was chaperoning me around his garden, one of the biggest among the 87 in the Darjeeling hills that manufactures some 300,000 kg annually.

I had seen the 18-km ropeway that carted plucked teas from the farthest corner of the estate to its four-storey factory – the tallest of its kind in the Darjeeling hills – and Chaudhary was particularly keen that I also see a century-old hanging bridge, now declared a “heritage site”.

The drive to the site involved negotiating the impossible – impossible steepness, impossible hairpin turns, and an impossible rocky terrain.

When the driver stopped, it was not because I had been bumped clear off the rear seat – I kid you not, the road really was that rugged – but to offload us as one had to walk the remaining part. The road simply tapered off into nowhere.

And then we saw the shop. There was no marketplace nearby, no workers’ colony, no schoolyard, no factory annexe, no nothing. Any habitation was unlikely, I reflected, the place was so goddamn difficult to access.

But Chaudhary was confident business would pick up. There was a new bridge under construction not too far off – to preserve the old one we had come to see – and Chaudhary said labourers would be passing by the shop for the next 12 months at least.

Who knows, a sturdier new bridge and an improved road could end up attracting new dwellers. And this family would have been the first with their wares to serve them.

The business need not be restricted to selling only biscuits, candies and cigarettes; the couple could always run a full-fledged provisions shop or an eatery.

As I said, the utterly desolate place seemed a good location for new business.

WHAT’S IN STORE     

Actually, the inconvenience of inaccessibility has prompted workers to set up little convenience stores almost anywhere in the gardens.

Neatly-kept little shops selling provisions of daily need, from foodstuff to tobacco products – one even sold caps – these outlets added charm to the settlements in every garden.

They would be everywhere, especially in roadside houses; if people had a room with a window opening onto the road, it seemed almost natural for them to open a shop.

Being a smoker, I found these stores godsend; I need a steady supply of cigarettes, and these shops guaranteed it in the plantations. I even found and smoked some made-in-Nepal brands.

Sanjoy Rai, the cook at the Mim Assistant Manager’s bungalow, has gone one step ahead. He runs a “Tibetan-Chinese” food outlet in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi, by remote control, with his brother running the day-to-day operations.

Rai once ran a similar takeaway in Delhi that he has now sold, and with the proceeds, opened the new one before moving back home to his family.

“My sales were very good,” he said of the Delhi establishment, where he had even retained a few staff for delivery and helping with preparing the bill of fare, the highlight being chicken dumplings, popularly known as the momo.

I can well imagine his income; Rai used to pay a monthly rent of Rs 10,000 for his kitchen takeaway in Delhi, pay staff salaries, and yet save up enough to start planning a move to a commercial, hence expensive, location.

WHEELS OF FORTUNE

The inaccessibility factor at the tea gardens seems to have fanned the spirit of enterprise among their workers in other spheres too.

In slightly remote gardens such as Namring, Mim and Avongrove, I saw workers running taxi services to the main urban hubs in the region, primarily to Darjeeling town in the hills and Siliguri in the plains.

I did not see this business at Giddapahar tea estate, Goomtee tea estate or Jungpana tea estate; these gardens are located off Hill Cart Road, the arterial link in the Darjeeling hills, and accessibility is not an issue for their workers.

The taxis are the hardy Mahindra jeeps, as was the vehicle Chaudhary chose for my “sight-seeing” – an ambulance fitted with a stretcher and a sink – and capable of reaching remote places in the garden. I can’t recall exactly, but I may have fallen off the stretcher.

It later turned out that Tarpit Rasaily, the ambulance driver, owned four such vehicles plying between Namring and various urban settlements, including Kalimpong town, where a Scotland-based charity runs the renowned Dr Graham’s Homes school for under-privileged Anglo-Indian children.

The day we went “sight-seeing”, one of Tarpit’s vehicles had been reserved by a family from the area for a daylong visit to Darjeeling for a visit to the district hospital and “lot of other work”.

“Many of the jeeps we run also take our children to schools,” Rasaily said referring to vehicles owned by other workers. “All my vehicles operate every day,” he added with a touch of pride.

For a tea garden blue-collar worker to end up owning four vehicles through sheer hard work, Rasaily has reason aplenty to be proud of. Like the cook at Mim, and hopefully with time, the owner of the bamboo-and-plastic shack.

Photographs by Uday Bhattacharya

(Visited 1,501 times, 1 visits today)
Author

Leave a Reply