It didn’t actually work out as initially planned. There were to be six of usgoing on this trip. For many , many years we had been sharing lunch and exchanging gossip together in the same workplace. And we had travelled together too . Those of us who had kids had tagged them along as well, till they grew up and considered it beneath their newly acquired dignity to accompany their moms and aunts. But we had never, in all those years been able to travel some place, all together.One or two of us would always have to opt out because of one reason or another.
I had in the meanwhile taken voluntary retirement. Two of the others had wound up their work too and we had hoped that we could all make it together this time. Well, many a slip, as the saying goes.
We checked in into the Railway Rest House at Kurseong, situated on a slight incline , just beyond a bend where the St.Paul’s church stood tall against the sky. We were going to be there only for a couple of days before we caught the train back to Delhi and we were planning just to laze around.
We had reached there by noon and was hungry. So we stepped into the West Bengal Tourist Lodge, which was just across the road. They provided reasonably good accommodation , we learnt and the food we ordered was okay. We didn’t see too many hotels or restaurants around during our two day sty or may be there were other parts of the town we hadn’t explored.
The Wikipedia tells us that the species is indeed related to the tea plants and in fact is called the “flowering tea” in China. Interestingly, the plant is called “chahua” in Chinese. Is that where the word “chai” , which is ubiquitously used all over India for tea ,comes from?
In the evening, we went up to the Makaibari Tea Factory.Shri Om, the Supervisor in charge, kindly took us around the unit. He showed us the trays where the tea leaves plucked that day were thinly spread out to be subjected to wafts of hot and cool air, before it would be fed to the rotating machines, on the floor below.The moisture content in the leaves, having been reduced considerably, the leaves would then be having the right texture for being rolled up by those machines. Then it would be fermented for a while and then dried again, thereafter being sent through the sorting machines. We could come and see all the processes the next morning if we turned up early enough, he offered.
He told us a little about the Makaibari Tea Plantations. It was the oldest in the Darjeeling area and the present owner Shri Rajah Banerjee belonged to a family who had held it for four generations. The processes of tea making was pretty much the same , but what gave each blend its distinct quality depended on the temperature , time etc. each process was allowed and most importantly on the position of the leaves plucked, on the plant. The best, of course , came from that prepared from the ” two leaves and a bud’, placed uppermost on the branches. Green tea comes from leaves that are not subjected to the fermentaion process, which differs in duration from 20 minutes to half an hour and so on, the time length making the taste totally different.
The quality also depended on the seasons. High on the list was what was named “First Flush” in the Makaibari menu. This came from the leaves picked soon after the plants woke up from the Winter’s slumber in a burst of new shoots and leaves. And then there was “Silver Tips” , which he said was picked when the plants were bathed in the silvery beams of the full moon. Really, One never knew there was so much romance involved in a cup of tea.:-) Before we left the place, Shri Om did treat us to cups of golden hued mellow brew of the “First Flush”.
The British left us their Tea Plantations, but they didn’t teach us how to drink it, commented Shri Om. While sipping that delicious brew I pondered over the way tea is brewed in some places in India, with loads of milk and heaps of sugar, while sipping that cup and knew that he right.
We requested Shri Om to wait for us at the Kurseong station , early next morning , so that we could walk along with him to the factory. The air was cool, the next day. It had rained the previous evening and night and it started drizzling again even as we were on our way. On the way, we passed women with baskets on their backs who were going to the tea plantations for their day’s work at picking the two leaves and bud.
There are many plantations in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal. Most of them sold the produce at auctions, which were then marketed under brand names such as Goodrich and others The Makaibari Estate was one of the few plantations, marketing the tea under their own name.
We had stepped into one of the wayside shops waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t look it was in a hurry to. Shri Om finally managed to get us a lift from some acquiantances, who were also headed that way.
The Makaibari factory has been functioning in the same premises and building for many, many years. Some of the machines were quite old too, but still moved and rotated and dried and sorted the leaves, without any loss of efficiency. It was quite an education, going around and witnessing the various stages of tea processing, for ourselves.
The Makaibari Tea Plantations also takes pride in being organically farmed. The yield has reduced considerably, but there is definitely an increase in quality. Shri Om vouches for that saying that earlier on (he has been there for a long time now) , whenever he tasted the brew of the first flush for its flavor and quality, it used to make him slightly dizzy, which did not happen any more.
Also , he says, the locals have been able to spot an insect , which they believe came from the tea leaves themselves. They deem it to be a Goddess of the Tea Plantations. Those who spot it and bring it to Mr. Banerjee, the owner , are given a monetary reward. The myths aside, the reappearance of this insect which had vanished from the Tea Gardens, is supposed to be indicative of the increased health of the eco-system in the plantations ever since organic farming was taken up.
We had a look around in the office of Makaibari tea Plantaion, before we left. The walls were lined with all kinds of interesting information and framed paper cuttings, containing snippets of the Makaibari tale.
And there was this amusing quote kept framed there as well.
We had had dinner the night before and breakfast at the Rest House itself. On the way back, we bought stopped by a shop in the marketplace to pick up some spinach and greens for the salad for lunch and dinner that day.
The caretaker and the cook and the other staff were very friendly and the food that they gave us matched our moods perfectly. It was down to earth and wholesome.
Having rested for a while, we decided to take a trip on the cute little train plying on the metre gauge track , from Kurseong to Ghoom , from where we could watch the train manoeuvering its way through the Batasia Loop.
Some staions would be across the road and people would alight and dart across even before the train actually stopped.
In the distance one could see the clouds descending over the valleys and ahead of the train, as it went round a bend, the mountains would look dreamy through the mist.
The one in which we came was a diesel powered one. We had thought that the Batasia loop was just a little way ahead from the station at Ghoom, but it was a bit of a distance to be covered before the train overtook us on its way to darjeeling and as we paced across along the side of the road, it looked as if both the trains would go ahead. Fortunately for us, although the diesel train forged ahead , we reached in time to see the steam engine entering one stretch of the loop at an elevation and then curling around to enter the other arm before it went under the small bridge and then turn round again before the track straightened out.
And all of these engineering marvels of those long ago times were put in place to cater to a market for the potatoes grown in Darjeeling, one had read at the Kurseong station.
It was soon growing dark and there was just that small patch of tension in an otherwise perfect day, before we managed to find a way to get back. No taxis came by and the only one available was charging much too much. We started walking back to see if we could find some transport , closer to the station. A vehicle went past us and we desperately waved out. It didn’t stop then and there. But the driver did stop a little way ahead and he stood here waiting for us to catch up. Must have taken pity on us . may be we were looking a little forlorn. He asked us where we were going. He was on his way to pick up a group of girls who were going to Kurseong to give their Senior secondary exams. They would be staying there for a month So there would be some luggage. He would take us along for a per head fare if we could adjust in the available space. We didn’t need to think. We only too glad to get back, somehow.
We paid a visit to the St.Paul’s church the next morning. It was Easter Sunday and a mass was going on. Outside , lined up against the wall were potfuls of some of the most beautiful blooms I’ve seen.
And then it was time to bid good bye to the place. We told ourselves that we’d come again, whenever our hassled nerves cried out for some smoothening salve.