Ode to the Tea Gatherers
Spilling the Unpalatable Truth
Namaste, dear readers,
In the gentle glow of shared words and cherished moments, I extend to you the warmth of a heartfelt greeting. This ancient Sanskrit salutation holds a profound meaning: "My soul sees your soul." In these simple words lies a beautiful recognition that transcends barriers, inviting a connection that goes beyond the surface.
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to each one of you who has chosen to be a part of Berkana. Your support, whether through reading, sharing, or subscribing, is the heartbeat that keeps this community alive. Your paid subscriptions are not merely transactions; they are the whispers of encouragement that prevent the fading of my voice.
In your presence, Berkana thrives. Your subscriptions sustain the flame of creativity, ensuring that the stories continue to flow, the conversations endure, and the connection deepens. It is a reminder that our shared journey is not only valued but also essential.
The subcontinent is finally emerging from the long summer, with longer cycles between the harvests and sparse drizzle cooling the mid-afternoon haze. I no longer wake up to singing cuckoos at 5 am; perhaps they have migrated further south in search of warmth and food, or maybe I am sleeping better now that months have passed since my father’s diagnosis. Those privy to the hushed murmurs of early winter mornings, are the tree critters diligently gathering winter snacks at dawn, now that the food is scarce even in this warm southern horizon. As the rain danced on its way to exit and through the Deccan Peninsula, it awakened a trail of memories, left me reminiscing about the Nilgiris. There, I welcomed the early monsoon this year, skinny-dipping in raw grief.
A few days ago, I had a strong craving for some fresh green tea and found myself impulsively ordering various varieties off the supermarket shelf - chamomile, ginger and lemon, basil and pomegranate, hibiscus, marigold, and more. Despite trying all these, none satiated the fresh notes I was longing for. Then, I recalled that I brought a packet of green tea, back from the valley, about 6 months ago. Serendipitously, I rediscovered it while reorganizing one of my kitchen cupboards. The tea packet had been hiding behind a stockpile of raw pulses and oats that are always abundant in my house. It turned out to be the finest quality Nilgiris green tea, dried just enough to release a unique profile of flavors when steeped in hot water for about 3-4 minutes. Brewing it would result in an unpleasant bitter taste. One must handle nature's treasures like Nilgiris green tea with care.
In life, much like in our cluttered kitchens, what we truly need is often obscured by the veil of abundance (hoarding) we create, offering a false sense of security. How much of this abundance is harvested out of honest need? How much time, effort, and care have we invested in accumulating and utilizing the items around us? Has the cost gone beyond mere money, extending into the experiences needed to create genuine abundance? These questions prompt us to reflect on our intentions and reasons for creating abundance, as well as identify what things and constructs we must let go of to redefine our accumulation as genuine abundance. Recently, Antonia Malchik, a prominent voice on land ownership and reclaiming of commons, whose work inadvertently inspired this piece, wrote about abundance and the time required to unlock its complete potential.
All of these things, the hunting included, take time, patience, community efforts, intact ecosystems, clean water, attention, and care. They also take human lives free of violence, oppression, and inequality. They take a kind of unquantifiable abundance and richness that can only be destroyed, never replaced, by aisles of cereal boxes and flavored yogurt and sliced lunch meats and all that is required to create and maintain the systems that make those full, empty grocery store shelves possible.
I haven't stopped thinking about it ever since. Patience, community, attention—these words stared back at me in self-scrutiny. How responsibly do I consume? How responsibly do I create to give back to the coffers of nature?
The tea I have been drinking is not merely a packaged product on my kitchen shelf, made in an isolated factory somewhere. It is a product of a carefully set-up process of cultivation, harvesting, processing, and marketing. It sits on my table in the form of a brewed elixir because hardworking people labored for meager wages to collect these delicate leaves, and others worked on production floors to supervise and ensure a premium-grade tea on my table. It is easy to forget these invisible pixies of labor, to overlook their hard work when we reap the rewards of their relationship with the land and repay them in pennies. The tea estates profit from this intentional state of oblivion in which these workers are left. It is beneficial for both customers and the company to forget who wore out their rubber boots to get the actual work done so that questions about the company’s profit are not raised in public forums.
Nothing tastes like the quintessential Nilgiris tea—the half earthy and half herbal concoction is meant to heal broken hearts, creating a weave of comfort for people like me who seek refuge in a cup of warm tea to connect deeply with themselves in the present moment when the world around them feels overwhelming—a non-demanding companion for mellow and creative hours. I watched the dried leaves unfurl in hot water as my thoughts swirled on the surface of my mind. The translucent leaves and their earthy notes carried me back to the valley where it grows in abundance.
Valley of Fireflies
I recall the evening we arrived; the sun descended gradually behind the tranquil blue-green haze of the pristine Western Ghats, casting a trail of gold and orange in the wake of its descent along the axis of inclinations. Fatigued from a lengthy drive, we mostly succumbed to sleep during the afternoon, leaving me with only faint recollections of the subtle nuances in the shift of light during that hour on that day. However, the undeniable splendor of dusk was impossible to overlook.
From the balcony of our homestay, the night sky was a clear molten violet hosting a few visible imploding stars, looking like twinkling lights from our inexperienced human perspective. What are humans to the glory of stars? What is this biodegradable vessel of flesh, bones, and firing neurons in contrast to the powerful fission and fusion burning at the core of those gargantuan fireballs that my eyes could only see as twinkling lights? We are all but cosmic dust, meant to linger for a while before being carried into eternity; we are all but flickering lights in this cosmic graveyard.
At a far-off distance, I could see a small patch of bamboo forest surrounded by other shrubs, indistinguishable in the velvet night. The air was heavy with the heady fragrance of tea from the plantation in the middle of which this property stood. The distant bamboo forest glowed in the glimmer of at least a dozen fireflies. I thought of them—unsuspecting little beings so full of life, producing a synchronized sequence of pulsing light in order to find a companion. Are we all also not fireflies, sending coded signals across the continuum of space and time by beaming our light into the quantum of gift we leave behind in our pursuit to build a better world, in pursuit of finding others who can decode the signals, who can see our light?
The next afternoon, I witnessed a pair of tea gatherers with their familiar-looking nylon woven baskets, slung on their backs. Navigating through dense hedges with sickles in hand, they carved pathways from the top of the terrace to the bottom. With discerning eyes, they plucked the young green leaves, discarding any that didn't meet their standards. From the shadows, I observed their meticulous work, and soon a young boy joined the older lady in the field. Still in his school uniform, it seemed like his regular after-school routine. As she departed, he seamlessly took over, diligently cutting dried branches and removing occasional dry stems to enhance the yield for the next day. I stood there, watching the distance grow between us, the fading shadow casting nothing but the silhouette of the young boy immersed in the art of tea shrub pruning.
I realized my fortunate position, allowing me to rent a homestay amidst a tea plantation—a privilege not lost on me. The worlds that separated me from the tea gatherers were evident even when I stood just a few square meters away from them. Their hope to one day escape these farms and lead a life free from wage labor is likely a constant companion for them, while mine is simply to occasionally seek refuge in a pristine land, similar to theirs.
The working conditions, livelihood, and standard of living for the average tea plantation worker are not at par with those of the country's other wage laborers, let alone humane when compared to the average middle-class Indian.
Steeping for Centuries
In the state of Tamil Nadu, tea plantation workers are initially guaranteed a minimum wage of INR 305 (3.70 USD), and estates go a step further by providing INR 314 (3.76 USD) per day. On the surface, it suggests that the estates are offering a wage above the minimum. However, this perception shifts when we consider a petition from estate unions some years ago. The outcome was the establishment of INR 550 (6.59 USD) as the region's mandated minimum wage, also known as the 'collector's wage.' It was argued that this minimum wage is determined keeping in mind the workload and living expenses of the workers. I cannot believe the estate management and government actually think that this is the amount a human being should earn on a daily basis to live a decent life in this world of hyperinflation. At the very least, their intention seems to be trapping these families within the system of wage slavery.
The workload associated with tea plucking is purportedly more demanding in comparison to other forms of plantation labor. Typically, laborers are capable of harvesting approximately 30-35kg of tea leaves per day; during the yielding season, this labour extends up to 100kg per day. The responsibility of plucking is predominantly delegated to female workers, who work in the absence of sanitation and hygienic bathroom facilities. Workers in the plantations are reported to endure discomfort in the neck (due to carrying tea collection baskets on the head or shoulders), back, legs, and joints, with some reportedly undergoing hysterectomies due to poor working conditions and complete ignorance on the part of the estate management firms.
The vicious loop of exploitation finds its roots hundreds of years back, somewhere between 1804 and 1818, when some Englishmen ventured up the hills and reported “the existence of a tableland with European climate”. They settled in the region and decided to 'experiment' with new crops. In one such trial, they forcefully introduced indestructible tea to the lush grasslands, which were not native to the land. The tea drained the water reservoir of the grasslands to the extent of threatening the rich ecosystem, causing it to transform into a torrid zone. The indigenous tribes, with their deep understanding of the land, were the only ones capable of working with it. Unfortunately, they were brought in with coerced consent, believed to be docile enough to serve the needs of the masters indefinitely.
I often wonder if any colonial officers ever questioned, even in philosophical fervor, their right to fence tribal forests and grasslands and exploit innocent tribal people as a workforce. It seems unlikely, as I couldn't find a single piece of literature addressing this issue, contrasting starkly with the hundreds of pages they left behind, glorifying their 'unsurpassable' service to the valley in 'recording and understanding' its nuanced ecosystem and complex indigenous societies living in harmony with the forests.
The processed tea was then sent to Britain, and the plantation workers, whose lands were stolen from them, were forced to work on them in lieu of the 'tax' they apparently owed to the crown. Although the Raj ended almost seven decades ago, the ghost of oppression still haunts the region under the guise of capitalism. I may not be able to exhaust the reservoir of injustice in a singular instance of telling the story of the forgotten plantation workers of the Nilgiris, but I contribute my part instead of silently indulging in the abundance sold to me by tea manufacturers, who exploit the lives of people whose land was stolen from them and maximized for profit a couple of hundred years ago by similar oppressors, back then just casually clad in the clothes of Colonial red.
Nilgiri's tea is another product from a dossier of the world's forbidden experiences created while exploiting the disadvantaged few who could hardly dream of overcoming poverty—much like shea butter and chocolate from Ghana. When we refuse to recognize the darkness in the world and say, 'Oh, but let's focus on the good things, shall we?' we essentially draw a curtain on our own consciousness, which seeks to confront our roles in keeping the world as broken as we found it. It is the most obvious form of behavioral 'bypassing'—or, should I say, 'bullshitting.' The indirect distancing from discussions about persistent problems implies our passive reluctance to make any changes. The solutions can only come to light after a painful traversal through the narrow and dark caves of admitting where we have been wrong, both personally and collectively.
And now that my cup is empty of the chartreuse-colored elixir, I wonder how long it would take before I could fill this cup if I had to create my own garden of Nilgiri’s tea without the negative consequences that it brought with it. If I had the privilege of time to do so, and if I weren't just another hamster stuck in my own wheel of destiny—turning away from hope, into despair, and back into hope, on and on? But today is just another day, and tomorrow we wake up again, trying to fix one thing in the distorted world we are born into, attempting to do our bit as we acknowledge and respect others, just as they do the same. To see each other as we see the stars—distant, wandering into another world, with a light of their own, burning against the impenetrable darkness of the night sky. As one would see the blue-green ranges of the Nilgiris, filled with awe and wonder. As one would see the tea gatherers, like songbirds of a lost valley singing their outlandish praises to the mountain gods, in appreciation of their courage to be.
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