Are you looking for something, Sahib? May I help you? You ask if I can spare a few minutes to talk to you? Yes, of course, I will be happy to oblige. After all, this is the time when Patrakars like you want to speak to us?
How did I recognize you are a Patrakar? True, you have a camera and a mike with you. But believe me, I would have known you just like that. Don't be surprised. The elections are approaching, and therefore, nothing unusual of people like you coming here and questioning us on various subjects.
But may I ask you where you have come from?
I see you have come from far.
Have you taken a walk into our chai-bagan?
Do stroll around to see the acres and acres of green tea shrubs; they are so beautiful. But you have come for a quite different reason; to talk about the elections. You want to know our expectations from the candidates contesting the elections. Who shall we vote for?
I will answer that. But do you have time to listen to what I have to say? You say you are for it.
Thank you. And if you listen without bias, then maybe you would agree with me.
I am Kalumoni Tanti, born in this Chilonkati Tea Estate, and my story is no different than thousands of my Coolie brothers scattered across the numerous chai-bagans of Assam. Don't look at me with such astonishment Sahib. That is what the big and educated people like you call us.
Though officially, we are known as Tea Tribes.
Why are we called Coolies, you want to know?
For that, you have to go back to the history of tea plantations in Assam. Back then, the Gora-Sahib's were ruling the country when a Sahib accidentally discovered tea in the jungles of Assam. Now, the Gora-Sahib's wanted to make money. They started cultivating tea. Yet how do we fit in, you wonder?
Have you seen the numerous women plucking leaves, the number of men in the factory? Yes, you have guessed right. The chai-bagans need a large workforce.
Initially, the Gora-Sahib's employed the local Asomiyas, who left only after a few days. 'Lazy natives', they complained and started looking for a steady workforce.
That's when we came in. My Nani recollected the stories handed down from her ancestors, my younger son talked of our tribal ancestors' resistance to the growing expansion of the Gora-Sahibs, in someplace what you call, ah, now I remember...Chota Nagpur Plateau. The Gora-Sahib's then forcibly dumped them into steamers and brought them to work in the newly cultivated chai-bagans. Capable of hard work and uprooted from our native land, we 'Coolies served the purpose of the Gora-Sahibs.
Yes, the Gora-Sahib's coined the term for us.
But this is my story. I was born in the year when our country attained independence. My mother recalled the Congress volunteers coming to our bagan and distributing sweets.
"Your son is very fortunate. He is born just when our country gained independence".
"What is that?" My mother asked.
"That means the Gora-Sahibs will now go back to bilat. Our people will now run these tea plantations. Your children will grow up to be free citizens of a free country.........."
There, Sir, you come to the point. Do I vote in the elections as a citizen of an independent country?
Yes, I do. We Coolies vote regularly. In fact, elections are an excellent time for us. Even a better time for the netas of our community, the sleazy handling of notes by politicians wanting our votes, whereas we get free alcohol. As banners start filling the walls, various flags bearing various symbols spring up overnight, and then the netas come, first from Tinsukia and then Guwahati, and finally the very big ones come from Dilli followed by a cavalcade of cars and chamchas, crisscrossing one chai-bagan after another, it is a particular sign that the elections are around the corner. You see, we Coolies are wooed by every political party, for the votes of our people scattered across hundreds of chai-bagans in Assam could sway the result in favour of whoever they choose. Our unstinted support had put The Great Party of the country in power for many years.
You say I am very well informed? If I had been to school?
Yes. Maybe for three or four years. My father hardly paid attention to us, spending his earnings on hariya, beating my mother and the children. In the morning, he cried and repented, but the episodes repeated every night; our lives were a nightmare. My mother had to pluck leaves in the bagan. I left school to look after my younger brothers and sisters.
I, however, had no regrets. The longing for a life outside this chai-bagan is inconceivable; no remorse for not being someone else or on my own ignorance. Our life starts and ends here among the tea bushes. Now, talking of tea bushes, let me offer you some cha-pani.
"Gauri, get some cha-pani for the Sahib." She is my granddaughter.
Talking of my ignorance, a woman and a man came one day. They were doing something called a survey, going around houses and asking questions. The Baideu asked me how many children I have if they had been to school, whether I could read and write.
"Yes, I can write. I can even read the newspaper." I replied.
The Baideu smiled, but the Sahib asked me suddenly, "How old are you?"
I told him with pride of being born in the same year when the country attained independence.
"And when did our country attain independence?" He asked.
I said, "The Gora-Sahib's went back to bilat."
I thought he would be satisfied. But he asked again, "What is the name of our country?".
"Assam desh," I replied.
"What is the name of our state then?"
It got me thinking. Then I said, "Dilli."
He finally asked, "What is the name of our district?"
I was confident of that. I said, "Dibrugarh."
He then spoke to the Baideu as if I did not exist, "This man went to school for a few years. He even knows to read and write yet don't know the name of his district. His knowledge is fractured. What to expect from them when they vote and elect their representatives. There lies the entire problem with this country."
However, the Baideu was good. She said that our state is Assam, and the country is India, and a separate district, Tinsukia, had been carved out of the Dibrugarh district.
That night as I lay down in bed, I regretted my ignorance. At least my granddaughter should have an education. She needs to escape this Blackness, I decided.
Oh, but don't take incorrect ideas back with you to Dilli. Not all Coolies are meant to be born and die as we do. There are so many of us who defy and conquer this Blackness. They go to schools, colleges, universities, became clerks, teachers, even officers. Every election, we send members of our community as MLA, ministers, and something even bigger who sit in Dilli with the biggest persons in the biggest building. Naturally, they lose their fascination for these bagans. But the netas do come; after all, they need our votes. Especially before the elections, they hold rallies after rallies, meetings after meetings, and once the elections are over, they disappear as they appear. And we wait for the next election only to be lured by false promises and being fools, we do not question them about the unfulfilled promises and continue to vote and re-elect them only to be fooled once again. And our lives continue as it had been, unchanged, the day-to-day struggle for mere sustenance.
But sometimes we do get other visitors too in our bagan. They come from Guwahati, Dilli and even bilat. You look confused. What are the bilati people doing here?
Are you going to Tinsukia after you finish your work? You nod your head in yes. Too bad. If you happen to come next time, do stay in the Bangla, in the nearby chai-bagan. My granddaughter says the government is promoting something called Tea Tourism. They converted the Bangla that once housed the Manager's and people come and pay to live there.
"Who would want to pay and stay in a chai-bagan?" I ask, surprised.
Ah, here comes the cha-pani.
My granddaughter tells how much the people love to sit on the vast sprawling veranda of the Bangla and sip tea, watch the rains dropping on the lawns, and the mist rolling in suddenly enveloping the bushes. They shriek in joy, "This is heaven. Wish we could stay here forever."
Like that bilati Sahib and Memsahib. They took a factory tour and walked hand-in-hand in our bagan. The Memsahib wanted a photo with the chokri's plucking the tea leaves, and Ramu Sardar all excited at the sight of the bilati people wiped his hand on his dirt-brown pant before giving them a salaam and shouting, 'Ai Champa, Ai Chameli esmile, esmile', as the Memsahib threw her hands on giggling Champa and Chameli's shoulder's while the Sahib took the photo.
But one day, a Sahib came from bilat and walked right into our Coolie line. He had come from a very big TV company. He took a lot of pictures and said he would show them to the world.
What did the Sahib do? You appear to be very curious.
On a tea packet, you see a smiling woman against idyllic green landscapes. Hah, what a joke. The Sahib pictured us walking barefoot on the long muddy road, the leech-infested tea shrubs......the women wrapped in a thick sheet of plastic around them on the heavy rain or an umbrella tied overhead and standing incessantly for hours, the mothers feeding the babies hurriedly during their breaks....no toilet facilities. The houses provided to us by the chai-bagan that need repair forever, the leaking roofs with water drop-dropping on the floors, our soggy, damp, rain-streaked and moss-green walls, the uniform somberness of our dwellings. He pointed, there are hardly any drinking water facilities, a few houses have tube wells, a community tube well serving the needs of the rest, inadequate sanitation facilities, the few places that had toilets were clogged and overflowing in the rains, mosquito-infested, and the people defecating right in the tea bushes.
He asked the men who were spraying chemicals with just bare feet and hands. "Where is your protective clothing?"
"What is that, Sahib?" They asked.
"You should wear goggles, gloves, shoes to protect yourself from the chemicals." He said,
Our men laughed. They have been doing their jobs with bare hands and feet. He then pictured their skin with red and black itchy patches, their work leaving an imprint.
Once some big people of the company came from bilat. The management handed gloves, goggles, shoes to them. Once they returned after inspecting, everything was collected back and locked up until the next visit.
I see you staring at my granddaughter. You want to know about her?
Her father, my eldest son, drank himself to death. Who could I blame? We Coolies love our hariya. Take time to see the number of country liquor shops outside the bagan's. We receive our wages, go to the haat the next day, buy provisions and spend the remaining money on hariya. As resources depleted by the end of the week, I promised myself never to touch hariya again, but as soon as I receive my wages, I forgot my promise and drank hariya again. My son's wife went away married another man.
Even my daughter Shama left me. My wife had sent her to work in a Sahib's house in Tinsukia. A few months later, she came home with stories that filled me with uneasiness: how the Memsahib shaved off her hair to get rid of lice, the beating she received when she did latrine and did not clean up, and how they made fun of it before everyone.
When it was time to go back, she held to a pole in the house, adamant about not going back, until my wife gave her a sound beating and threatened to break her leg.
People like you would wonder what sort of a mother would do that to her own child? Hunger takes the extremes out of people like us, Sahib. At least, she would get enough to eat, my wife said ........futile logic, as immutable as our austere existence.
Don't get her wrong. Hunger, our main adversary, lingers in us, just like the tea bushes lingering in our lives. My wife was a 'faltu', and ...........
What does 'faltu' means? How foolish of me to assume you would know. In our chai-bagans, they are temporary workers. They constitute more than half of the workers during the peak plucking season. The government has this Act and Act to protect us, the benefits extending only to the permanent workers.
Now, coming back to Shama, the next time she came home, she talked of the toys she got to play with, the bread with red jaam she eats for Berekfast.
"What is Berekfast?" My sons asked.
"The Sahib's eat it in the mornings?" She said. And they wondered how Berekfast looked and tasted.
Initially, Shama dutifully came home. But gradually, her visits shrank. She was disgusted for having to go to the bushes to do latrine, the semi-darkness of the house, the low quality of rice and atta in the monthly ration, cooking on the chulha, rolling the rotis on an old thali with a bottle, the lack of electricity. She was unable to surrender to the circumstances, longed to escape the confines. When the Sahib got transferred to Guwahati, she went with them. My wife went to Tinsukia to plead with her. But Shama was adamant. This time of not coming back. She would not waste her life in the Blackness, end up plucking leaves like a Coolie.
Fortunately, the family is good to her. They married her off to their driver, and her husband now has his own taxi. In a way, she had escaped this Blackness.
But I see you have not touched the cha-pani after a few sips. The taste must be unfamiliar to you, black tea with salt. Sorry, this is the best we could offer.
What is this picture that you show me? Oh, you with a cup of our Assam chai in a nice hotel. How much did you pay for it? Two hundred rupees?????? Have I heard right?
We sweat and toil under the scorching sun or rain for hours, and by the end of the day, take home much less than what you pay for one cup of tea. We nourish the tea bushes, nurture them, who could be happier than us in seeing the leaves shooting up in the season, our serenity in the exquisite brilliance of the bushes we tend to. For a Coolie like me, there is no beginning, no end; these chai-bagans are our lives. Yet, I have never tasted a cup of tea that people like you relish so much.
You would highlight these in your report, you say. Thanks for your concern. What good would it do anyway? Oh, don't get me wrong. I don't doubt your intentions. I just mean that our plight is well known to the netas. The one's who don't win the elections tell us:
"Our Assam chai is sold in bilat, in America. And what do our Tea Tribe people get in return? We live in shanty houses, without water, without electricity, and look at the Bangla's of the Sahibs. Our people clean their houses, wash their clothes, look after their dogs. Their children go to the best schools. Whereas our children have to leave school halfway because they have to look after their younger brothers and sisters so that their parents can go to work. Our children themselves have to go to work in the bagans. Do our children get enough to eat? No. They suffer from malnutrition. Do the hospitals in the chai-bagans have adequate facilities? No. They don't even have the life-saving medicine. Our children die of hunger, of disease. Our women die in childbirth.
We have lived in Assam for so long, but how many families have land pattas. Almost none. The government can come and evict us whenever they want. Technically, as Adivasis, we should be entitled to rights over the Forest Land, right over jal, jungle, and zameen. Our brothers in Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh are entitled to Schedule Tribe status. And in Assam, even if our boys and girls pass BA, MA, they don't get jobs? We have no jobs, schools, medical facilities, or provident funds; nothing seemed to have changed for us. The Great Party just wanted our votes and did nothing for us in return. Are we going to be neglected forever, to be used as mere vote banks? Now it is time to show our strength.............."
Then came The Great Reformist.
We have heard so much about him. People say he was born in a poor family and became so big by his hard work. That he has very great plans for our state, for our community. He even talks directly to poor people like us. I wonder if he would ever talk to me. I have so many things to say to him.
Our Coolie votes now have shifted to The Great Reformist.
"Do vote for The Great Reformist Dadu. His party has promised us ST estatus." The chokras campaigning for him tells us.
"What is ST estatus?" I ask.
"Aree, Dadu. Our boys and girls will become doctors and engineers. Plus, we will get government jobs."
But how is it possible? I ask myself. Because what worries me is something different? Do you see this house, Sahib? The chai-bagan had initially allotted it to my father and then to me. After my retirement, it is now under my granddaughter's name. She plucks tea leaves now, a permanent worker, the badli system of giving a job to one child after retirement had assured it to her, though she wanted to be a teacher. Now, if I marry her off to another place, I will lose this house. Like me, many others living in the chai-bagans for so many generations are not assured of a roof overhead. And the netas talk of land pattas. Forget those big promises. I don't even have a house.
After Gauri passed Matric, one of my friends suggested that I become Kristian. The Kristian sisters had opened up an eschool nearby, giving free education to their children. Many of our Coolie families had got converted. I was contemplating conversion, for they would take care of her education, when some people came and beat a Kristian brother, warning them to stay away from our chai-bagans, alleging that the Kristian sisters were provoking the people against the Hindu traditions and customs. They were propagandists of Hinduism and profuse with praise for The Great Reformist. True, they give free tuition to children. But by that time, my wife died of malaria, I retired, and Gauri had to go to work.
However, the bait, 'Scheduled Tribe' estatus is too alluring for our educated boys and girls. They at least expect to get something out of it. After all, another of those bombastic promises that the netas are luring us with. Inherited experience had not taught us anything.
You want me to elaborate on the ST estatus? What does a voter like me think of it?
Look, on paper, we are called Tea Tribes (colloquially, we are called Coolies). In Assam, we are no longer Orang, Munda, Santhal, Kharia.
Only Tea Tribes.
Not only did the Gora-Sahibs rob us of our ancestral land, but also our identity. Our Adivasi brothers, in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, are entitled to ST estatus. But what are we in Assam? Not even khilonjiya, according to some netas.
Yet have we resisted our existence? We have lived as we were born, inherited the accompaniments of our uprooted ancestors: desolation, hunger, neglect. The loud ring of incompressible promises hammered into us during the elections, that gradually get swayed into a whisper...murmur and then silence. Until the next elections with a set of fresh new promises........a vicious cycle..... I wonder what fools we are to bargain our votes again and again just to capture a dream. And suddenly, all parties are making a promise.