North to Birpara

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Our journey to North Bengal began with a hectic and hot ordeal in Calcutta’s Sealdah Rail Station, where, despite our confirmed a/c sleeper coach and berth numbers, I was required to stand on a long line of frustrated individuals. I pounded one liter of water during my hour on line, and felt like I’d sweated out two. We’d hired a porter who guided us through the process, and he’d planted Tay in a grubby “first class waiting room” where she endured dirt, heat, and constant staring while I sweated it out downstairs.

Our porter was helpful but after delivering us to our coach, demanded an exorbitant baksheesh and refused to leave until our new compartment-mates came to our rescue and got rid of the bugger (he left with half of his demands, which itself was generous). Thus began our 12-hour overnight ride with one soft-spoken government employee reporting to a new post in Siliguri, and a fat, loud-spoken businessman who delighted in pointing out all the inaccuracies in each of my postcards (“This is not the Bay of Bengal!” he thundered, “it is Goa!” He would repeat each of these revelations, to make sure I understood).

Still, there was some romance in the 12-hour trip, some knowledge of finally experiencing a sleeper coach on the famed Indian Railways system; I wrote my postcards on the gently rocking fold-down table, read my book (in City of Joy, I learned that it was this same train to Darjeeling on which Mother Teresa first heard the voice of God telling her to leave her convent and go help the poorest of the poor); then we chained our luggage under the seats before folding them down to sleep.

We woke up an hour before arriving at New Jaipalguri station, where Sarmishtah and Debasish were awaiting us with our newly hired car and Nepalese driver, Mani (pronounced “Money”). Our team was finally assembled – the five of us would be spending a lot of time together over the next few months. I contemplated this as we chatted and stopped at a roadside eatery for tea and momos (Tibetan or Bhutanese dumplings). Then, after winding through a thick jungle with various temples and wild monkeys, we crossed the Tista River and the tea gardens began.

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Like coffee, quality tea needs to be grown in the shade, so large trees were spaced throughout the fields of tea bushes, which were trimmed perfectly flat at about chest height, extending as far as we could see on both sides of the road, broken only by the lowlands around tributaries to the Tista, which were filled with flooded rice paddies. Monsoon is harvest time, and we drove past women, their torsos rising from the flat horizon of 100-year-old tea bushes, bulging burlap sacks on bent backs, held in place by straps around their foreheads as they picked their way forward. There were lines of women in the fields, and lines of them on the side of the highway, walking single file and obscured by the bulges of product – great burlap circles with bowed legs beneath.

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There were trucks, “Goods Carrier,” they declared above their windshields, which were overflowing with sacks of tea; there were caged-in schoolchildren in tractor-pulled “school buses” provided by the plantation for the children of the laborers; for each estate, there was a sign pointing to the “Manager’s Bungalow,” and their were rows of worker housing, called “labor lines,” shacks in various stages of decay. These were the homes in which we would be conducting our survey, entering the labor lines of at least eight different plantations.

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V.S. Naipual’s observations from his visit to this area: “the land, unusually in India, is not ‘old’. It was forest until the last century, when the British established tea plantations or ‘gardens’ there, and brought in indentured labourers – mainly from far-off aboriginal communities, pre-Aryan people – to work the gardens.

The tea gardens are now Indian-owned, but little has changed. Indian caste attitudes perfectly fit plantation life and clannishness of the planters’ clubs . . . The tea workers remain illiterate, alcoholic, lost, a medley of tribal people without traditions and now (as in some places in the West Indies) even without a language, still strangers in the land, living not in established villages but (again as in the old plantations of the West Indies) in shacks strung along estate roads.

There isn’t work for everyone. Many are employed only casually; but this possibility of casual labour is enough to keep people tied to the gardens. In the hours of daylight, with panniers on their backs like natural soft carapaces, the employed flit about the level tea bushes, in the shade of tall rain trees (West Indian trees, imported to shade the tea), like a kind of protected wildlife, diligent but timid, sent scuttling by a sudden shower or the factory whistle, but always returning to browse, plucking, plucking at the endless hedging of the tea bushes, gathering in with each nip the two tender leaves and a bud that alone can be fermented and dried into tea. Tea is one of India’s most important exports, a steady earner of money; and it might have been expected that the tea workers would have been among the most secure of rural workers. They are among the most depressed and – though the estate people say that they nowadays resent abuse – among the most stultified.”

This short passage had provided my only images before arrival, but now it was all coming to life, right outside the windows of the vehicle, soon to be even closer. Finally, passing through yet another roadside cluster of storefronts and merchandise in between the plantations and paddies, Sarmishtah announced, “Welcome to Birpara!”

From Northern California to Northern Nicaragua, from the Adirondacks to the Northwoods of Maine, I have lived (sometimes for a few months, sometimes for a few years) in many small towns. They all had this in common: each one was, at first, like hundreds of towns through which I’d passed during my travels to arrive there. And each one elicited a sense of disbelief that, at least for the time being, I would not be passing through, that this was it. Sometimes this double-taking period was short, but usually, it lasted a few days, this settling-in and looking around, this “what-have-I-gotten-myself-into.” I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

In the meantime, my friends, welcome to Birpara.

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