I have been a tea aficionado for only a couple of years now. So I forgive myself the folly of thinking that good tea was made from finely grown tealeaves, precision in factories and equipment, right temperatures for steaming and drying, perfect rolling techniques, airtight packaging and timely delivery. Oh, how mistaken was I! Needless to say, these are all necessary in the making of very fine teas, as I witnessed on my trip to Coonoor recently. But I had missed a far more vital truth that literally turned me around and looked me in the eyes.
OK, I exaggerate. The truth did look me in the eyes, but didn’t turn me around. That would’ve literally shaken me, an already nervous, acrophobic wreck, standing atop the high altitude tea garden on a steep slope in my less-than-ideal platforms. I know what you’re thinking. ‘Who wears platforms these days?’ I agree. It wasn’t one of my smartest or fashionable moments. And I’m glad there are no pictures to capture the ignominy. But I digress.
The truth was looking me in the eyes in the garb of a fine pair of crinkly, good-humoured, smiling Nepali eyes. The owner of those eyes was named Kokila. There were many other truths standing around in the tea garden that was high (did I mention steep already?) in the hills. All busy picking tealeaves with experienced eyes and deft fingers. But Kokila caught my eye for being the non-native in the Southern part of India (and also because she was standing closest to me. I didn’t dare venture too far to talk to all the tea pluckers. Because, you know, platforms!)
Luckily for me, she knew Tamil (And not so luckily for her, I did too!). So I embarked on a lengthy chat with her, prying about her life and what brought her so far away from her native country. She was kind enough to let me distract her from the plucking and pointed me in the direction of another tea plucker, a younger one. ‘That is my daughter, Lakshmi’, she said. Oh, what a clever decoy to ward off a pesky, wannabe-journalist type, I thought. But I was too hasty in my judgement, as the kind Kokila continued. ‘I came with her and two other daughters to Coonoor in 1995 from Nepal and have been working here at the Billimalai Estate ever since.’
She went on to tell me about her journey as a temporary worker who became a permanent worker in 1999. About how she made Rs.77 when she started and was now making Rs.300 today. She told me about her life as a tea plucker, standing on those slopes every day for the last 22 years, plucking for eight hours a day, touching, feeling for the right kind of tealeaves for the right kind of teas. That day she was picking Silver tips with one leaf and a bud to make White tea. She taught me how to look for the perfect ones and how to pluck them. I walked along with her for a bit and helped her pluck some. As we plucked, we talked. She told me about her life in the estate, of how everything that she and her children needed was contained in that estate. Medical supplies, a doctor, a nurse, a store, most things that the workers’ basic requirements needed.
She told me about her daughter, the aforementioned, Lakshmi. That she had joined as a tea plucker in 2008 and was now a permanent employee as well. About Lakshmi’s children, a son and two daughters who carried their lunch satchels and walked to school in the nearby town of Selas. Of how the estate provided independent homes for her and Lakshmi within it.It was all very fascinating. To understand the lives of these amazingly hardworking tea pluckers, who wore two large bags on them all day, every day. One in the front, one on the back. Who literally spent their whole lives looking for the best tealeaves and then proceeded to the factory to ferment them, steam them, roll them and craft them into the teas that we enjoy every day. That’s when I realized what the essential ingredient was in making the finest teas. That incredible human touch, which cannot be replaced by any high-powered automated machine.