Silky Smooth Roads of Himachal
My Bua, my father’s sister, would make a face whenever we served her tea of the various brands that abound the markets. I would never be able to understand her attitude. So much so that at times she would bring her own tea leaves as a gift to us and would ask me to make her a cup of tea for her using those very tea leaves. Honestly saying, I was very happy to use these leaves so as to finish them early as I didn’t relish the home-made tea leaves that she presented us with! Many a times this gift pack would be left, in one of the kitchen shelves, never to be used again. Little did I know about the love and the labour having been invested in making of that! I sincerely feel apologetic for being so apathetic, after so many years! A recent journey to Palampur and beyond brought about surging memories to centre- stage.
The Green and the Serene Tea Garden
I must have been nineteen years old when I got a chance to stay with my Bua at her home. It was simply picturesque. A kuchha house, surrounded on one side by pine trees and on the other by the tea gardens and the majestic Dhauladhar ranges above and a water duct flowing straight through the courtyard!
It was the scenic beauty that attracted me in the beginning. I was, though, disappointed in the morning to learn that only the home grown and processed tea leaves would be used for making tea. Having no other option, I had to accept and gulped down the tea. For my Bua it was a sacrilege to use any other brand of tea leaves in her home when they grew and processed the tea leaves themselves. Suddenly a commotion outside of animated and lively voices caught my attention and I found a group of people assembled in the courtyard. Each on of them picked up a bamboo basket that had a queer shape and off they went, as I was told, to pick up green tea leaves. I got interested as it was first time in my life that I was watching the processing of green tea leaves.
Watching curiously inside the hall that served as a processing unit, I found a big scale hanging in one corner, a huge earthen heath of a different shape and a big table having lined top. I was surprised to see all that. There was a heap of wooden logs. Out in the courtyard something was spread on the big sheets and a closer look revealed it to be drying tea leaves. I tried putting some in my mouth but didn’t like the flavour at all!
I was now waiting for the women and men to come back with the plucked tea leaves. There were some who were plucking near by, I wanted to go closer to them but was suddenly afraid of venturing in the thick growth of the tea plantation. How these people enter the think vegetation kept haunting me. What if there were snakes hidden in the unseen? And the small kids too tagged behind. Gathering some courage I went as near as I could and tried my hand at plucking the leaves. It real was an art to pluck the leaves as after few plucking my fingers became red and I needed to straighten up my back. How these people go throughout the day made me wonder. These people belonged to “Kronk” caste that specialized in tea plucking. Prof. Saxena has immortalized their contribution to the tea industry in one of his murals that adorns the side wall of the Mall at Shimla.
In the evening the courtyard was full of the tea leaves and it smelled intoxicating even to a person like me who didn’t like this tea at all. The leaves were weighed on the scale and payments made to the workers and now was the time to start the processing. Fire in the big earthen hearth was put ablaze and the leaves were put in a big iron container to be heated on fire. The leaves changed colour and a strong aroma filled the air. I was softening up towards these leaves. The leaves, a little brown, were put on the table which had the lined top and were crushed by hands on this table. It was a very tiring and daunting job. I could se sweat drenching the workers and the smell of the sweat mingled with the aroma of the tea leaves and the smell of the pine wood burning in the hearth! My heart gave up the resistance and I fell in love with the tea. The home processed “Kangra Tea.” These leaves were then dried in shade and the tea was ready to be sent to market. I wanted to have a cup of tea made of this and Lo what a taste it had!
My Bua is no more alive now, the Kuchha house of my Bua is also replaced by the Pucca house and all the paraphernalia, used in the processing of the tea leaves, has been discarded. The tea leaves are still plucked the way they were but are carried on tractors to the nearby Tea factory where the mechanically made tea leaves are packed and sold as “Kangra Tea”. I buy a pack of this tea but the taste makes me miss the cup of tea that made me fall in love with “Two leaves and a Bud”!