Haad bhanga kaam kore
Hai re siris tor kotha
(You break your bones
To work as meticulously as you do
O siris, everyone knows
— from the title song of the Assamese serial, ‘Siris’ based on tea garden labourers
This is not one of those songs which our ayahs (nannies) sang. They sang some other tunes about gods, about love and about life. Under the lulling hum of their hoarse voices, we went off to sleep. Ages after, their cold, hard hands still warm our memories.
Growing up in the tea garden, surrounded by these ayahs and bearahs (bearers), I didn’t realise that we were living in the last dregs of the colonial hangover – the legacy of the sahib and the servant. As racist as it may sound, it is something that we grew up knowing and they had grown up learning – to be subservient to the master. Later, while studying away from home and reading about the common racial discriminations of society, I realised how cruel we might have looked to them, despite having treated them at our best.
Tea garden labourers are mostly Adivasis, who had been brought to Assam from the central-eastern regions of India by the British to work as waged labourers in the then nascent tea cultivations and also to help the ladies with household chores. Having recruited by the gora sahibs centuries ago, these people stayed behind and rooted themselves in Assam, now working for the brown Indian sahibs and mem-sahibs as dedicatedly as they did before. I remember that the best cooks of the gardens used to belong to a tribe called the Boruyas who mostly practiced Buddhism and spoke Bengali. The forefathers had learnt European dishes from the gora mem-sahibs and having passed their art down the generations, their great-grandsons would bake delectable British breakfasts and lunches, high-teas and suppers for us when we were growing up. Most gardeners knew the English names of the flowers and herbs even before our mothers could pronounce it. The British had chalked a hierarchical setup of these labourers inside the household as well as outside. There were pani-wallahs (water-bearers: the ones who probably were responsible for giving the proverbial glass of water to the guest/master), bearahs and cooks in the ascending order of the kitchen staff while in the plantations, there would be pluckers (the ones who did the tea plucking), mohoris and sardars for each section to supervise the work and report to the sahibs about the day’s labour. It was a well-planned affair.
Another thing that makes me reminisce my days as a tea kid is the warmth of the colourful festivals that were accompanied by the traditional Jhumur dance of the tea tribe. Mostly seen during Janmashtami and Christmas, the Jhumur dance is a remarkable spectacle. Perfected over time and synchronised to a T, the dance accompanies the dancers’ song as the mridangas and dobas resound on the beats of their players. It is absolutely heart-warming! I remember stepping in tandem with them along with my brother while they matched our feeble attempts to fit into the rhythm of the dance. The excitement haunted us every time.
Years later, people of that tribe became my classmates and friends, as we shared cups of tea, in the university campus. Today, when I look at them pursuing higher studies and working in respectable jobs, travelling the world and carving their niche as writers, singers and artists, it fills my heart with awe and pride. Awe, at the overturn of the age-old belief, that they were a slow race, and pride, to acknowledge that we had always known them, grown up with them and loved them. As the society’s perception of the subaltern turns new leaves, we understand that what we considered to be basic social fabric is slowly loosening its threads and coming out of its pre-designated structure. Yet, if one looks at the entire race from the vantage point of contemporary culture and modernity, one would notice that even after much education, only a few have been able to rise above the rest. The whole tribe is yet to be at par with its peers, for want of solid financial strength and an opportunity to realise their own skills. That the Adivasi tea labourers have tribal unions and associations to root for them does not favour them in the true sense, because they are all mired in political filth. There have been cases of lynchpins of such organisations stowing away central funds for tribal development in their own cushy Swiss accounts and sitting over thousands of crores of the taxpayer’s money. So, no hope from them, to be precise!
The only way to give them a much desired and deserved lift is to write about them, engage them in national and international cultural platforms and hear them speak, sing and write about and for themselves. And it is not us outsiders who can give a true voice to them. It is their children who have grown up hearing stories of their ancestors, who can articulate the history of their people. Once their voices come out in the open, it is unimaginable how powerful their literature and speech would become. Much like Dalit literature, which has received its due recognition in the curricula of the nation’s prestigious colleges and universities.
The struggle goes on and must not stop. You’ve got to shake the tree for the fruits to drop. Until we all rock the prevailing tree of Indian culture in its garrulousness and exoticism, the subaltern voices that have borne fruit for centuries will never be heard.
This blog was awarded the Laadli Media & Advertising Awards 2015-16 under the category “Web – Jury Appreciation”.