On a recent vacation to Munnar, the author discovers that there’s more to the hill station's tea workers than baskets and red-towel headgear.
“And from here, you have the best view in the resort,” the manager says, throwing open the balcony door. It is, indeed, very beautiful — an emerald valley, smooth and green with tea bushes, circled by hills. We are in Munnar, trying to escape Chennai’s savage summer, and our only agenda for the week is sloth.
But after a night of deep slumber, we wake up to find the ‘best view’ missing. Mist has eaten it all up — the tea estates, the hilltops, and the village down in the valley; even the treetops 10 feet away seemed hazy. It takes an hour for it to lift; and by then it’s 9 a.m., the tea-estate workers are already in position; from the resort, they’re little specks — cutting, collecting tea leaves, and transporting the bundles to waiting yellow tractors.
“Do you want to meet tea workers?” Biju asks, the next day, as he drives us to the Mattupetty dam. “My parents work in the tea estates here. Yesterday, I took some guests to meet them and take photos.” Biju is very nearly a Malayali, although he speaks excellent Tamil. His family migrated to Munnar long before he was born, selling their agricultural land in Tirunelveli and buying some here to grow cardamom and pepper. “Very hard work in the tea-estate. From morning to evening, plucking and lifting. You see those women?” he asks, going round a bend in the hill so fast that we beg him to slow down. “They will put medicine for the plants. Those chemicals, they can make a hole in your palm” he says casually, parking the car at a viewpoint on the way, for us to take pictures.
It is Satya who actually takes our picture. He’s in Class IX at a local school — but is so small and slim that he looks younger. In the summer holidays, he temps as a photographer to earn a little money. He offers me a basket, a red towel as headgear, and a tealeaf to hold over my head. I can then pretend, from a frame in my living room that I, too, am a tea-worker. “No basket. Just take a picture of us, over here,” I tell him, and he clicks this way and that. “Rs.30, one copy. How many you want?” he asks, and runs off to a shack under the trees to print us two copies. “All my friends only,” Biju says proudly. “My classmate, one boy, bought a photo-printing machine for Rs.22,000 and now they all earn. But only during season. When the rain begins, nothing.”
When the rain begins in the afternoon — as it does, everyday — we’re sitting in the restaurant, eating bhindi masala and phulkas. At the next table, a group with lots of children is doing its best to be noisy; the staff watches patiently as they pour water, drop food, and fling cutlery. But nothing disturbs the honeymoon couple. The girl is wearing three-fourth pink pants with a pink T-shirt; her parted hair is filled with sindoor, and her arms decorated with mehendi and green glass bangles. Throughout lunch, the girl laughs at whatever her husband says; the kind of tinkling laughter that is polite and put-on. And when they finish eating, the husband takes pictures of her sitting on a little rope swing with an umbrella.
We hurry past them — careful not to laugh at their eyes-only-for-each-other affection — to our room, but the incline, on a full stomach, is punishing. The resort, I realise, is especially attractive only because it’s built into a hillside; and it’s especially difficult to walk up, unless you’ve got a good set of lungs. Malathy and Panchavarnam, easily a few decades older, fare better than me. Their stamina has been built over the long years they’ve worked at the tea plantation. Now, retired, they do the washing and cooking at the resort.
“Can’t afford to sit at home, can we? We came here and asked for a job. It’s a 5 kms walk each way, to our house, you will see our line (house) if you go to Munnar town,” Malathy tells me. She’s the older one. Her face is lined with wrinkles, but her smile is full. Wearing an embroidered sweater and holding an umbrella, she asks me if Madras is like Munnar. “We have relatives in Madras,” she smiles, establishing a connection. Generations ago, Malathy’s family had migrated from Tirunelveli in search of work. When they started working in tea estates, the pay was Rs. 2.50 per day. Now it’s well over Rs. 200 per day. But the work, she says, is harder as there are fewer people. And after a lifetime of work at the plantation — she retired at 58 — she’s passed on her job to her children, so that they can continue to stay at the estate house.
But Arun’s parents did not want him or his sister to work at the tea plantation, even if it meant losing the perks of the job. (Besides a house on the ‘line’, tea-estate workers get free electricity, firewood, water, and medical aid). Smartly turned out, but shy, his eyes widen when I speak to him in Tamil. “Neenga Tamil-a? (Are you Tamilians?)”, he asks, tucking in the bedsheets expertly, and begins conversing with a smile. “My parents — they are also from Tirunelveli — are tea-estate workers. But they made it clear we should not follow them. So I work here, in housekeeping, and my sister is studying in the teacher’s training institute. Is the room ok? Shall I go?” he asks, and joins his friends — Mani and Siva — who have cleaned the neighbouring rooms. They race each other down the steps; for a few minutes, they’re just young boys, having a good time...
Everybody seems to have a good time at dinner. The food is scrumptious, the rain has stopped, but the windows reveal nothing. By day, they open onto rolling tea estates — bright with birdsong. But now, it’s brooding, shadowy, and filled with the night sounds of crickets and bats. Until the sun comes up and lifts the misty shroud, it will remain dark and mysterious, the way it was before people came (mostly) from a different state, and toiled all their lives, to plant, and prune, and pluck. And with the sun, it will, once more, become the ‘best view’ in the resort…