experience Reviews

Reading the tea leaves

An Elephant Kissed my Window
M. Ravindran, Saaz Aggarwal
B&W
₹500

An Elephant Kissed my Window M. Ravindran, Saaz Aggarwal B&W ₹500  

Two writers recollect the rhythm of life at a tea garden in South India

At a time when the Indian tea industry is passing through a crisis which seems to be more structural than cyclical, An Elephant Kissed my Window with its anecdotal narratives from tea lands provides as refreshing a break as does a steaming cup of the amber brew after a hard day’s work.

Born in the year India gained Independence, M. Ravindran, one of the co-authors, joined a British-owned plantation company near Ooty, traversing through the tea-growing regions of the Nilgiris, Anamalais and Meghamalai till the turn of the century. His co-author Saaz Aggarwal whose own life was intertwined with plantation life, has woven in context, fleshing out memories from Ravindran and others, while also including her own.

Brown sahibs

The result is a 269-page compendium of personal recollections, excerpts from gazetteers’ journals and photographs. It documents how the brown sahibs stepped into the shoes and the lifestyle of the British who started departing from the tea industry which they had started in the mid-1830s.

“While the label brown sahib is not always considered a complimentary one, it must be said that much of what we inherited was solid, value-based and stood us in good stead,” he writes, mentioning a ‘user’s manual — a handyman’s guide’ which offered advice on agriculture and pest management for the planter. A thick calico-bound book, it was too precious for borrowing to be permitted, he says.

This and many of the other writings come from Ravindran who joined the plantations as a trainee assistant manager. He talks of the ‘excruciating loneliness and homesickness’ he suffered in an alien climate and environ. He was at an estate called Prospect which was then one of the most prestigious tea factories in South India. His plight may ring a bell with many a planter of yesteryears.

Through his almost diary-like entries we come to know of the visit of Mada Gowda, the plantation inspector who checked for compliance with provisions of the powerful Plantation Labour Act. This sort of governance seems lacking now with many tea companies becoming recalcitrant about labour welfare. As Ravindran learns his job, so does the reader.

Elephants for company

The eponymous pachyderm does cross the readers’ path many times in the book. And no, they do not only kiss windows and go away. At times they jeopardise the lives of young couples caught in the jungle in a car with a flat tyre and they even trample a pet dog.

Saaz Aggarwal’s reminiscences enrich the book through endearing anecdotes of how she and her brother would quarrel and pull each other’s hair to de-stress during their long and arduous journey to and from school and the estate bungalow.

While books on the Assam and the Darjeeling tea industry are easier to find, the authors need a round of applause for this volume. The aroma of the strong-bodied South Indian teas wafts around long after the last chapter has been read.

An Elephant Kissed my Window; M. Ravindran & Saaz Aggarwal, B&W, ₹500.

The reviewer is an independent Kolkata-based journalist.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 8:51:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-planters-punch/article31248008.ece

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