I walk out of the room, letting the door creak behind me and reveal its age yet again. The sun has finally gone into hiding behind the clouds, and I’m hopeful it won’t appear again to snatch the relief from the heat. Lost in my thoughts, I find myself at the entrance to the tea gardens and staring at the very white hair of a lady in a wheelchair, with her back towards me. It takes me a minute to recollect myself, and another to realize that she must be the heiress of this massive 150-year-old tea estate.
I wound up here after much contemplation and the decision to ditch Mcleodganj, which must be spilling with people at the peak of this hot summer. I took a detour near Palampur, to the obscure village of Darang instead, whose claim to fame is India’s first tea estate planted by an Indian, complete with quaint British-style outhouse cottages to house the then estate manager and the kids’ English governess.
Her eyes are shut, and she’s clutching an empty tea cup in her frail hand. When she finally opens her eyes, she doesn’t seem surprised to find me looking at her. In a calm demeanor that adds grace to her aging face, she tells me that it has never been this hot here, and relates the story of a forest fire this morning that reached their cow-shed and almost destroyed the trees at the edge of the estate. I’ve already heard this account of the day’s crisis from her son and his wife, but I listen again with the same attention that she pays to its details. Her clear eyes are a mix of pride and acceptance, and she minds me of graceful elderly women in old Hollywood movies.
I glance at the snow-capped Dhauladhar Range behind us, and wonder how I can tell this 92-year-old lady that while she was ensuring the upkeep of her grand inheritance and protecting it from the elements of nature, our collective actions caused glaciers frozen for thousands of years to start melting, our forest cover to deplete drastically, and some of our most beautiful hill stations to lay waste under the pretext of tourism.
She leaves for her late evening nap, and I walk on, towards the lush green tea estates that complement the colonial charm of the cottages. Unlike the tea gardens on the steep Nilgiris slopes down south, the land here is uncharacteristically level, and tea bushes are interspersed with tall Oui trees. As I’ll later find out, the trees offer shade to the tea bushes in summer, and their leaves add nitrogen to the soil in winter. The smell of tea leaves permeates through the air, and I immediately relate it to the light in-house Darang brew we tasted an hour ago.
A narrow path winds past the tea garden, to a paved road leading uphill to the village huts, alongside terraced slopes, over dried out streams, and past trickles of waterfalls. The huts, homogenous in their sloping roofs, remind me of the Kumaoni village I fell in love with a few weeks ago, thought unlike the tiled roofs of Kumaoni huts, they are covered with slate. The sun has set without showing itself again, and a bright full moon has risen for my viewing pleasure. I seat myself on a roadside pavement and listen to the sounds of the shallow jungle that surrounds the village; crickets chirping, birds calling, toads croaking, and a tiny shrill opera that I can’t quite identify.
As I make my way back in the dimming light, I see residents of the village returning with their cows, goats, farming tools and kids, the day’s hard work evident in their darkened faces, and their smiles shy and kind. Back home, the heiress invites me to have soup with her and asks me about my travels, recalling her own wanderlust in younger days when she would walk from here to Dharamsala. We lament about the state of our natural resources when she mentions that the weather has become too dry for the tea to be picked this summer. She often ignores the questions I ask, and confesses that with old age, her hearing and her vision are slowly giving up.
I quickly learn that there are no written records about the history of the estate; when she first took it over as her father’s sole child, she found a sign in her great grandfather’s handwriting, mentioning in Urdu the tea produce of 1856. The plantation probably dates back to earlier than that. I imagine the history and memories she must carry with her, in her frail body, in her deep eyes, in her kind face, and my head swells with new questions, but dinner is served and I must take her leave.
If you could, what would you ask her?