Today 22 °C
Tomorrow 26 °C
Thursday 28 °C

Lord Of The Leaf

KOI hai?" booms the lonely English voice on the verandah, and as if by magic two silent Gurkhas appear, one to set up the wicker tea table, the other hovering discreetly behind with the tea tray. We are on the spur of a hill, 4,500ft up in the highlands of the eastern Himalayas, and about to taste the freshest, purest Darjeeling in the world. Beyond the rows of potted geraniums and wild orchids, and the lawn with its goldfish pond, grow the tea bushes, tightly packed on vast hillsides that dissolve into magnificent views of snowcapped mountains.

Without further ceremony the pale brew is poured into plain china cups, through a silver strainer and from a teapot in a bright, hand-knitted cosy. It looks as cheerfully reassuring as a matronly aunt in an old dressing gown—only its white handle, spout and lid are exposed. "Milk?" asks Teddy Young, jug poised over the cups; and for just that flicker of an instant, as one blue eye under a cocked eyebrow frames the query, you know you are being judged.

Like the split-second decision that could save you from falling off a mountain, your answer is important. "Yes, please. Just adrop." Literally a drop or two—any more would ruin the flavour—and you have passed the tea planter's test. All is friendly chatter after that, and for not falling off the treacherous mountain you are rewarded with a thin Arrowroot biscuit.

Henry Harold Edward Young is Darjeeling's last English tea planter. He embodies a long tradition of bachelor tea estate managers and also claims descent from the pioneer planters of the 1850s who first brought the tea leaf to Darjeeling from China. They were a motley crew of English civilians, German missionaries and assorted adventurers who discovered that a combination of Himalayan soil, altitude and climate could produce tea of a delicacy like no other. Ever since, 100-per cent Darjeeling has been the connoisseur's chosen brew. At tea auctions worldwide, it still fetches twice the price of teas from anywhere else.

'Mr Teddy' they call him back in town, but should you get lost in one of the bone-rattling four-wheel-drives that negotiate the perilous slopes of sprawling tea estates, and stop to ask in villages that seem glued to steep inclines, you may draw a blank. Try again—"Mr Teddy? English? Mr Young"—before smiles of recognition break out. "Ah, Jung," they say, "Jung Sahib," as if you had got the name of a famous peak wrong, and point the way to Tum Song plantation, 22 km south-east of Darjeeling.

In and around the district or in the wake of the toy train that puffs up from the plains, the names of the great tea estates roll magically off the tongue, a heady concoction of indigenous, tribal and old English: Rangaroon, Margaret's Hope, Makaibari, Bannock burn, Lebong, Glenburn and Liza Hill. In the local dialect the words Tum Song, Teddy Young's estate, mean 'meeting place'. But although Young has worked on plantations for as long as the locals can remember, he does not own the estate.

Most of the land on which quality Darjeeling grows is owned by the Government and much of it is leased to half-a-dozen big companies in Calcutta. Corporate men and professional tasters in the big city control production and pronounce on quality: they set prices at weekly auctions, pay bills and account to shareholders. But up on the mountain slopes where the tea grows, the manager-planter is king.

Teddy Young is lord of the leaf on 350 acres that cover several hillsides and six villages with a population of 1,500. He has a household staff of eight—a housekeeper, driver, cook, a couple of bearers and three gardeners. The plantation employs 480 people, most of them women pluckers whose grandmothers lived and worked on the same estate. Like all planters, he is directly responsible for their welfare—routine visits to the in-house creche and dispensary and regular tussles with the labour unions. The mornings are taken up visiting far-flung corners of the estate—he walks up to 10 miles a day. He also runs the tea factory, a stone's throw from his house, where every day the freshly plucked leaf is dried in 'withering troughs', then crushed, graded and sorted before being packed in tea chests.

Six to 12 cups with a spoonful of the latest production are laid out on a factory table for inspection each morning. Hot water is added before Young takes a mouthful from each cup. Swilling it around his palate for a few seconds, he pauses to make a brief comment in Nepali before passing on to the next cup of Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. "I'm not a professional tea taster," he says modestly. "I taste for faults in manufacture. Planters just pick up the taste on the job."

Teddy Young is custodian of the 100-year-old planter's bungalow. It's a classic colonial structure—corrugated iron painted blue, 20 ft-deep verandahs laid out with planter's chairs, and floorboards and furniture of smooth-textured magnolia wood. On other estates, many of the old bungalows have fallen to ruin or been hideously refurbished, but Young has lovingly restored the house and its gar-den since taking charge of the plantation in 1982.

On either side of the hall are a large sitting-room and dining-room. Like the teapot with its crocheted teacosy, they are replete with reminders of three generations of middle-class life in Anglo-India: lace doilies, long-playing records and ducks on the wall. The rooms look out on a portico draped in clematis, baskets dripping with fuchsia, banks of Michaelmas daisies and a rose garden planted around a stone bird-bath. It could be the retirement abode of an elderly colonial near Bourne mouth—except for the mountains that rise to over 28,000 ft, and the voices of the women among the bushes, long baskets strapped to their foreheads, who chatter and sing as they pick the tea.

But ascend the magnolia-wood staircase to the upper floor, and the mood changes. There are three bedrooms and pictures of Winston Churchill on the landing. ('My mother thought quite a lot of him.') Young's quarters are on the left but in the main bedroom, his mother's, a pale light streams through the window, picking out details amid the lived-in-disorder: her spectacle case among letters strewn on the writing desk, a silver hairbrush and bottle of cologne on the dressing table and alligator-skin suitcases piled high in the corner. The mantelpiece is crowded, among family photographs, with pictures of British royalty: a large colour print of a youthful Queen Elizabeth crowns the arrangement. By his mother's bedside stands a single fresh rose in a vase. On the desk the calendar has not been changed since the day she died: December 5, 1985. The room is kept exactly as she left it, a fond memorial by a devoted son. Its contents are the chronicle of an Englishwoman who was born on one Darjeeling tea plantation and died on another.

YOUNG, now 72, has been 'in tea' since 1948. His mother, Margaret Dominy, was born on Makaibari, a famous tea estate a few hours' drive away. Her father came from Dorsetto work as a planter in the last century when the tea estates were first opening. "In my grandfather's time the tea families used to come up to Darjeeling from Calcutta on bullock carts. It took them three months. When my mother was growing up they rode up from the plains, camping on the way, and it took a night and a day." His mother went to the convent in Darjeeling and later trained as a nurse in Calcutta. There she met Lt H.A. Young, a physician attached to the jail, whom she married in 1920. After retirement, he became a plantation doctor and the Youngs bought a house in Kurseong, on the way to Darjeeling.

Teddy, their only child, went to boarding school in Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, and briefly to King's School in Canterbury during the Second World War. "My father became worried because the situation in Britain was critical and my parents sent back for me. It was a very hazardous return journey by ship. On two occasions we were turned back in the Channel because we were chased by submarines. Finally, we made our way to India in a convoy. It was the most exciting part of my first trip abroad." Back in Darjeeling, the war meant the town was transformed into a big holiday home for troops stationed in eastern India during the Burma campaign. There were balls, shooting parties and tea dances. As Darjeeling was the hill resort nearest to Calcutta, "club life used to be very big," says Young. "It made up for the lonely plantation life."

By this time, he had joined as an assistant manager on Singell, a tea estate close to the one on which his mother was born. Hestarted on a salary which, at today's value, would be worth around Rs 500 a month. Junior managers were not encouraged to marry. "If you got married during your first contract, you lost your job." Wedded to the plantation instead, he rose to the position of manager and lived at Singell for 20 years. It was a solitary life, with gruelling hours of work and low social standing in the rigid pecking order that governed colonial society. "Planters were absolutely nowhere," admits Young bluntly. "We were at the bottom of the caste heap, below the boxwallahs, the commercial men in Calcutta."

Still, tea life had its compensations. Most of it was led outdoors in a wonderful mountain setting. Once a month there would be uproarious gambling and drinking weekends at the Planter's Club, then an all-male residential preserve. And, once a year, in the cold weather, came the Knight Errants Ball, an event hosted by bachelor planters, each carrying his own colours and banners. "The idea was for single men to return the hospitality of Darjeeling society. It used to be quite a night of chivalry."

He returned to England only once, for a few months in 1957, when his parents decided to go back. A chapter in Indian life had closed. Many European plantation owners had sold out their interests since independence and the tea business was undergoing swift changes brought on by Indian owners. While Young was in England his father died. He returned to India although his mother lingered on for some time. But, rootless in England, she soon rejoined her son. "There was no point," he says dryly, "in her staying on."

It was a time for hard decisions at Singell, the plantation he loved most and where he spent the best years of his life. Matters were brought to a head by his new masters, impatient with the old style of functioning. It is a phase of his life he would rather not talk about, except to say, "It was most upsetting—they wanted someone on a cheaper salary."

Darjeeling's old managers had been rooted in the soil; they were linked to the pioneer planters and closely connected to each other through business or by marriage. Plantation labour accepted them as heaven-sent patriarchs. Tea was more than an industry, it was a way of life. The new plantation owners were often wealthy businessmen who cut costs, demanded quick profits and operated long-distance. The new planters were their trusted men, with no particular sentiment for the place or old-school-tie connections. They tended to be young, brash and ruthless in dealing with militant left-wing labour unions.

For a while, Young managed a plantation owned by a Nepali princess. Then, in 1973, he was asked by a school friend, the son of the King of Sikkim, to plant a new tea estate on his land at Temi. Planting tea in the hills is a daunting task—new bushes can take up to seven years to mature because of the weather and terrain. For nine years, mother and son struggled under primitive conditions in the wilds of Sikkim. The house was ramshackle, there was no electricity and few amenities. Away from Darjeeling they felt "marooned". But today, the estate he planted produces some of the finest tea in the region. In 1982 came the opportunity to run Tum Song, an old and established estate. It was a manageable sort of place, remote but well run, owned by a non-interfering business family and smaller than the average-sized Darjeeling plantation. Gradually he has built up its reputation.

'Jung Sahib' has a tendency to burst into fluent Nepali between moody silences. He mouths only the briefest of answers to pointed questions: "Aren't you lonely?", "Do you keep in touch with your folks in England?" or "Aren't the roads around here dangerous?". He replies: "A planter's life is usually lonely", "Yes, I keep in touch" and "We lost two of our boys this monsoon when the road was washed out".

Twice a week he goes into town. Sometimes, if he has an hour to spare between chores, he will walk the short distance to the Windamere Hotel on Observatory Hill. He takes tea there either in Daisy's Music Room or the Bearpark's Parlour, depending on where Miss Kanade from Calcutta is playing Bach and Gershwin for the entertainment of guests.

If Lewis Carroll were to invent a hotel it would be the Windamere—he would probably spell it as such. It is Darjeeling's best-known secret, and runs higgledy-piggledy up a small hill amid flowering terraces and freshly painted cottages named Betty Tumilty, The Snuggery and Miss Twenty men. As a jewel of the Raj, it makes a virtue—and lots of money—of being a quixotic fantasy. There is no television and no room service. But there are hot-water bottles and roaring coal fires in the rooms, and fresh scones and onion tart for tea.

Today, when Teddy Young drops in, it is that fleeting hour between tea and dinner. Robert, the barman, has drawn the curtains with a long pole against the bleary Himalayan mists. In a quiet corner sits Sheila Crouchen, lately retired to County Galway in Ireland. Mrs Crouchen was born in Darjeeling. Her mother's family owned several tea estates and she grew up on Rangaroon. She hasn't been to India since they left in the early 1940s nor spent a night in a hotel in 50 years. Now she is at the Windamere for six weeks. "I said to my boys, 'It's my last fling. I want to see it all once again'." She has seen Rangaroon, met old acquaintances, been bitten by a mad dog in the bazaar and will see the TajMahal before going home.

Tonight, as she passes old photographs around from personal albums, she comes up trumps. Many of the black-and-white snapshots have turned sepia, but like some twining umbilical cord they connect the past with the present. Scenes of weekend tennis parties on tea estates, family groups with servants and encampments on the way to Darjeeling. Teddy Young is transfixed.

"That's my Uncle Fred with his new car. It was the first car in Darjeeling," she says.
"Yes, wasn't he one of the Kingsleys? Didn't they own Liza Hill?"
"Oh, you remember the Kingsleys! My grandmother was a Kingsley...And that's King George VI's coronation procession in the bazaar. Dad mounted the Indian contingent for it in 1938."
"What a mess the monarchy is making now. Terrible, don't you think?"
"But tell me, Mr Young, have you come to your last plantation?" "Good heavens, yes. Absolutely."

Tags: