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Our Travels: India

India is a Drug

Journeys through Assam and Darjeeling, 1995 and 1999.

I can’t explain why, but every time I leave India I say to myself, “Never again!” Perhaps it’s because I’m always so exhausted when I return home. When I travel on my tea discovery journeys, my tea instinct almost always takes me to places that are unknown to foreigners – places that have little in the way of creature comforts.

Yet despite my past “resolutions,” here I am flying to India for the fourth time, once again of my own free will and again in the hope that this beloved land with its oceans, great mountains, unending sun-baked plains, crammed railway cars, people shining with the bright flame of faith and above all some of the best teas in the world, will hold no grudges against me and be generous to me. It has always been so in the past. It has always given me my share of deep experiences. And during the ten-hour flight I keep going back over those experiences in my head, and I’m a little nervous. I don’t know what is waiting for me.

Faithful to the Legacy of Mahatma Ghandi

I first visited India with friends in 1995, in the foolish hope that in the virgin forests of the East Indian state of Assam we would track down the wild tea plant found there in 1823 – so we had read – by Major Robert Bruce. We were fascinated by the idea of following in the footsteps of the old discoverers right up to the border of what is Myanmar today, and traveling from the then unknown settlement of Sadia, where in 1826 Sir Charles Alexander Bruce founded the first tea plantation, downstream along the life-giving River Brahmaputra as far as Calcutta. After all, it was in Calcutta that Assam tea was first loaded onto a boat bound for England, so that in 1839, in a London auction house, Englishmen could sell the first tea cultivated on the territory of the British Empire.

In 1995, Assam was one of the few territories in India to which a foreigner could not travel without special permission. Such permissions were issued “in tandem” by two institutions, namely the Ministry of Home Affairs of India and the Office of the Resident Commissioner, Assam House, both located in New Delhi.

Anyone who has ever been in India knows all too well that Indian officials give a whole new dimension to the word “bureaucracy.” We four friends and tea enthusiasts went back and forth and back and forth through the streets of New Delhi hoping that even if an official at the Ministry had put us off ten times, we would be successful on the eleventh attempt. We also somehow believed that the bureaucrats in the Office of the Resident Commissioner would be more forthcoming when they saw our faces at the application window for the fifth time. Oh how naive we were! We got absolutely nowhere.

In the end there was nothing left for it but to use Indian weapons to get results. On our unending trips across the city we were fascinated by the traditional costume worn by some Indians and we decided to try it out ourselves. We bought ourselves long shirts and loose trousers made of natural material and I even acquired a boat-shaped white cap. When I first put the whole outfit on and went out into the streets I was surprised to find people pointing at me, clasping their hands in gestures of greeting and addressing me as Papa Nehru. And then it came to me that I might be able to use the effect to my advantage. I thought of the non-violent way in which one of the greatest figures of modern Indian history, Mahatma Ghandi, managed to achieve his aims. So we donned our traditional Indian costumes and set off for the Ministry. Once again they welcomed us with “poker faces” and ignored us. But then we sat down on the floor in the lotus position and announced that we did not intend to get up again unless and until the permissions were issued, and we were starting a hunger strike. The permissions were in our hands within five minutes.

They did, however, leave us with one warning. “Avoid the town of Jorhat! It really is forbidden to foreigners,” the official said. But how we were going to avoid the town of Jorhat when it contained the headquarters of the Tea Research Institute of Assam? We had no idea, but it seemed best to ask no questions and just get going.

Is Paradise Green?

We spent thirteen hours on an Indian train in a car that had no doors and so there was no way of stopping the unending succession of hawkers of all kinds who kept coming in to offer underwear, umbrellas, nail clippers, polish for shoes or the removal of facial and nasal hair; naturally we were tired and rather nervous. To make matters worse the train was six hours behind schedule, but still the conductor tried to observe the only element of the time-table under his control – hourly waits at each station. We reached the most remote place of our journey, the town of Tinsukia, exhausted, and in total darkness.

A wonderful surprise awaited us the next morning. The sight of the boundless Assam tea plantations full of women pickers with timid doe-eyes, the sound of the unending silence that reigns there, interrupted only by birdsong and the rustle of the tea leaves, truly an unforgettable experience.

We hired some cycle rickshaws and off we went. The Chotta Tingrey Estate, the first plantation we visited, is one of dozens where tea is processed using the C.T.C. (crushing, tearing, curling) method. It is a method that gives a balanced, consistent and strong brew. The crushing of the stalks and sometimes even parts of the branches adds a special woody flavor. The tea characteristically releases its color and taste very quickly after steeping, and is ideal for blending with milk or spices.

We enjoyed the views of the green ocean, and continued downstream along the Brahmaputra hoping to have a chance to find wild tea bushes in the forest. This was the way that the Bruce brothers sailed on a barge a hundred and sixty years ago, struggling through impenetrable malarial swamps to discover the wild tea trees. Today, however, there is no wild nature left to discover any more. The Brahmaputra Valley is one of the most intensely cultivated areas in India. As remains of the original vegetation can no longer be found anywhere except in nature reserves, we made our way to the Kaziranga National Park.

As we settled down in the train, we realized that we would have to go through the forbidden town of Jorhat. As it is the seat of the Tea Research Institute of Assam, we knew we could find experts there who would tell us where to find what we were looking for. It was definitely worth the risk.

In Jail in Assam

Unfortunately we were intercepted soon after leaving the train station, loaded into military field vehicles, transported humiliatingly across the town and locked in detention cells. Time passed and every so often we were interrogated. We explained for the hundredth time why we had come to the town; for the hundredth time we were told that we shouldn’t have done so. We finally learned that we were being kept in cells for our own protection! Apparently armed groups of local extremists were operating in the area. They saw wandering foreigners as potential hostages to be used to secure the release of their fellow combatants from prison. Finally we understood. We signed a declaration stating that the next day we would leave town on the first train and we were driven to a hotel where we went to bed, protected by an armed guard.

No Help from Scientists or a Rhinoceros

Before we left we had a chance to visit the institute. There were tea bushes growing “wild” because nobody was pruning them, but little help as to where to find wild tea trees in the jungle. We left Jorhat and rode into the Kaziranga National Park, which lies on the route to Guwahati, the main city of the state of Assam. Not even on this leg of the route did we see genuine virgin forest. On the back of an elephant and accompanied by a one-horned rhinoceros we made it into genuine wilderness, but just when we were starting to cheer and hope that the real adventures were beginning, we were brought up short by a Warning notice. We had reached another prohibited ar area where a soldier with a loaded machine-gun did not look as if he was interested in discussing the reasons for our visit. We turned back. Who could we ask for information? We looked at the rhinoceros, but he pretended he didn’t understand. Maybe some other time – or some other place?

The Grave of Charles Alexander Bruce Rediscovered!

We were on the bus that was to take us over the bridge across the Brahmaputra and I was bursting with excitement thinking of the great shots and camera footage. The other bank was so far away I couldn’t see it. I’d never been across such a wide river. Looking out the window I saw guarded booths at the end of the bridge and I remembered that just a few years after the Second World War in Eastern Europe they still used to guard strategic bridges to prevent sabotage. Such guards could be seen in the Soviet Union as late as the Seventies. But why here? To prevent people from taking photos of the water in the river?

Although I knew that photography was forbidden, I still took some photos and video footage. We were so far from the guards, how would they ever know? But the other Indian travelers on the bus, who in these remote areas have little experience with foreigners, betrayed me at the other end of the bridge! I had no choice but to pull the film out of the camera and give up the cassette from the video camera. Damned bridge!

The next town, where we didn’t really know what we were looking for, was called Tezpur.

We didn’t intend to spend much time there, but our instinct made us walk around. Suddenly we saw the half-crumbled wall of a cemetery. Very strange – they burn corpses here, don’t they?

We soon realized that this was the grave of Sir Charles Alexander Bruce, who discovered wild tea bushes in Assam more than 170 years ago! Time did not stand still here, and this was no longer a place of piety. The grave in front of us was the center of a lively scene: a band of local youngsters playing cricket and the ever-present holy cows. The grave of Bruce, the man at the origin of tea-cultivation that was now one of the biggest sources of income for the government and hundreds of thousands of people in this part of the country, was now simply part of everyday life in this village! The local people honor him by pursuing their daily lives around him. For once, a great man’s monument has not been pushed to the periphery of life.

-Jirka Simsa


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