A walk through the tea estates of Darjeeling

Published: Nov 15, 2011, 12:01 IST | Lhendup G Bhutia |

A new book, considered to be one of the first on Darjeeling tea, looks into what makes the tea grown in that area special, as politics, social mores and cultural heterogeneity mix to form an interesting brew

A new book, considered to be one of the first on Darjeeling tea, looks into what makes the tea grown in that area special, as politics, social mores and cultural heterogeneity mix to form an interesting brew

In the well-illustrated The Darjeeling Tea Book, author Gillian Wright tells the fascinating story of tea plantations in Darjeeling, from how they were first planted by the British to compete with Chinese tea, to the auction houses of today, where strangely, the Japanese and Americans (hitherto considered a non-tea drinking nation) are emerging as big tea markets, while bringing the 'Queen of the Hills' and its people alive.

Women workers in a factory sorting tea. Pics/Michel von Boch
(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from The
Darjeeling Tea Book  by Gillian Wright)

As the book describes, by early 19th century, tea had become big business in England, with the East India Company buying it from the Chinese. However, as relations with the Chinese soured, the British tried to grow their own tea -- one attempt even being to send a Scottish botanist to surreptitiously research on how the Chinese grew their tea, and then using the same means to grow it in India. Out of such many attempts across India, Darjeeling's proved the most promising.

Wright points out that during every flush (twice a year) only the most tender  leaf is picked, with the result that while the tea produced per acre here is much less than any other region, its quality is unmatched. In an interview with Sunday MiD DAY, Wright talks about why Darjeeling tea is a living heritage, many of its bushes over hundreds of years old; the political movements in the region and what it feels like to be within a tea plantation, where all you can see is a carpet of tea bushes and the Himalayas.

How did the book come about?
Anand Vardhan Kanoria, the owner of Avongrove Tea, a tea estate that was shut for over 20 years and only recently revived, was surprised to know that no book had ever been written on the Darjeeling tea. He asked me to take on this project, and I jumped at it.

What kind of research did you have to do for the book?
I twice travelled for long periods to Darjeeling, making my base in Avongrove and later in the Planter's Club in Darjeeling (a club of tea planters, that was, before independence, the hub of all social life for the British). Apart from that I did a lot of reading about the history and process of tea making, in libraries in Delhi, and later, London.
However, not everything is well in the plantations.
Yes, many problems have cropped in the last few years. The climate is not what it used to be; it is much warmer now, there are long periods of drought. There have been instances of hailstorms, where hails a little smaller than tennis balls fell for over forty-five minutes, ruining the tea. Apart from that, politically, whatever happens in the region, it is reflected in the plantations. The locals' demand for a separate statehood has led to frequent lockdowns and strikes. 
What are your views on the political movement in the hills?
Well, locals have a grouse that not much development has happened in the hills. For instance, there are no universities, not even an ICU in a hospital. But it is important to see who carries this movement forward.

What do you think will happen to the tea estate in the future?
Many children of tea pickers, because of the education they have received from schools set up there, don't want to work as tea pickers. They are ambitious and want to move to the cities. Some have become managers themselves.

But there are bright spots too. Many tea estates are moving to organic methods of planting, and though owners still live far away from the hills, they are more professional and entrepreneurial than say, the owners right after independence, who were only trying to make as much money as possible without caring for the workers or the plantations.

Also, some tea estates are moving to a stakeholder pattern, where workers on the plantation have a stake in the plantation and tea produced. Many owners scoff at the idea, but there are others who are slowly opening up to it.

The Darjeeling Tea Book by Gillian Wright; Penguin Enterprise. Priced at Rs 1,499. Available at select bookstores

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