By Bibhusha Rai and Ruchi Dyeksang
In Darjeeling the first thing you ask a guest is, “Chiya khanu huncha? Would you like some tea?”
Over chiya, four women from Ringtong Kamaan (tea garden estate) share their stories.
Parvati Boju’s¹ day begins at 5am with a cup of chiya, then another at 3pm in the afternoon. Smilingly she said, I enjoy milk tea but with gastric issues I drink fikha chiya (tea boiled solely in water) with sugar. When working as a field-worker in Ringtong prior to 1996, my friends and I drank fikha chiya with salt.
Amika Nana ² who is a field-worker in Ringtong told us, everyday we carry two bottles of salt fikha chiya. One bottle we drink while working and save the other for lunch break. She carries her tea in plastic juice bottles, laughing she shared if a friend brings a flask, everyone rushes to drink hot tea.
Ramala Aunty is the Baidar ³ in-charge of Amika Nana’s deck, her day starts with a cup of fikha chiya with sugar, and ends with a cup of milk tea. During lunch, the entire deck shares their lunch and tea, she tells us.
Anjali Di works in Ringtong’s tea factory, she loves fikha chiya with salt, drinking it morning, noon and evening. She told us laughing, her colleagues in the factory tease her saying “salt is supposed to be eaten with sabji (vegetables)!".
When someone speaks of tea, the name Darjeeling inevitably follows. Tea plantations sprung up during the 1800s, currently there are 87 operational tea estates. Darjeeling tea has four seasons, ‘First Flush’ is considered the best, selling easily at thousands per kilo. In comparison, a field-worker’s roj ⁴ is Rs 202. Ramala Aunty said, "Darjeeling tea might be famous for people from outside, but for people of Darjeeling who make the tea there is no money. When they sell the tea, it may be famous but for us there is no value. In the factory, they make various types of teas but our sisters who picked the tea leaves rarely see it.” Sometimes, the workers are given about 300 grams of tea but it is usually of poor quality and not enough in quantity. Most of them drink hath ko chiya (hand-made tea) or CTC (cut-tear-curl tea). Thus, the workers who labour for tea throughout their lives rarely taste a cup of the world-famous Darjeeling tea.
The road to Ringtong starts from Gorabari a village on the NH55 highway- scenic, but steep and riddled with potholes. An interesting observation of Darjeeling’s colonial roots is how various places with English names have now been vernacularised. I recount my Bara (paternal uncle) telling me Gorabari was actually Brewery since one was located here. But as the residents unable to pronounce the English word, ‘Brewery’ gradually metamorphosed into ‘Gorabari’.
The etymology of Ringtong remains unknown, but many agree the name rings a bell literally, as it brings to mind the sound of a bell- ‘Ring’, ‘Tong’. Ringtong kamaan is spread across 338.2 hectares, consisting of four divisions- Upper, Lower, Hopetown and Bhirkamaan, which is further divided into 53 sections. Hopetown division is said to be named after a British manager, while Bhirkaman translates to ‘estate near the cliff’. Ringtong is surrounded by small villages, which sprouted during the British period owing to the need for labour.
Ringtong’s closure and reopening
Linedhura was the first place we visited. Here, Sewa Aunty and Parvati Boju narrated the day Ringtong factory and bungalow burned down on 19th December 1996. Aunty said, when the fire broke out, they cried out of love and loss as they had tried to keep the kamaan going through many hardships. Boju added, "Our way of life vanished, all we could ask was how and what do we do now?” At the time, there were 944 workers in Ringtong, from Tera Number downwards almost everyone worked here: Rajdhal, Kalu Basti, Pachang.
Many people who hail from kamaans spend their entire lives within those boundaries, as livelihood is presented in the form of jobs at the tea estate. In Darjeeling, we see the occupation of a tea labourer being passed down for generations within families. This is where Ringtong’s story differs. Following the fire in 1996, it remained closed for 17 years from 1996-2014. Due to a closure spanning almost two decades, the sequence was broken, such that people bereft of jobs had to either leave and struggle or stay and struggle. According to Boju, during the closure everyone was busy trying to make a living. People barely had time to speak up, but she always hoped to get her job back.
Ringtong kamaan finally reopened in 2014 after a long struggle by the people, mainly women who sought livelihood. Ramala Aunty shared, "We worked with the thought that if the kamaan started to function again, people could earn a living here itself.” People who received the Fawloi ( Financial Assistance to the Workers of Locked-out Industries) began working, but in 2014 Ringtong faced a shortage of labour adding ‘new names.’ In 2021, Ringtong’s workers received full 20 per cent bonus for the first time, with the earlier agreement of a sick garden ending. At present, Ringtong has a total of 486 workers including both factory and field; the number has dwindled in comparison to the labour force back in 1996 which was 944. Despite the difference in numbers, women composed the larger chunk of labour back then and even now form about 70 percent.
The present manager of Ringtong, a resident of Darjeeling said nowadays work in tea gardens entails low production, hard labour, long working hours and low wages. The unfairness workers may feel at their wages is understandable as tea garden work is hard. With growing education, many laborers have expanded their profssional interests. But due to dearth of jobs, despite being a graduate, one has to work as a tea laborer.
Every day at Ringtong kamaan begins at 7:30am and ends at 4pm. At present, a tea worker’s daily wage is Rs 202, with extra additions for a sub-staff or factory worker. Field-workers receive bakshish (tip) of Rs 10 for each extra kilogram of tea-leaf picked. Sundays are off for all field-workers; same for factory workers except during peak tea-leaf season. Tea workers receive holidays and bonus during Dashain and Tihar (dusherra and Diwali).
The Women of Ringtong Kamaan
Parvati Chettri, Linedhura Our first meeting with Boju, was before Dashain, her palms smeared with light-green paint, she invited us to sit down, saying she is painting the house for the festival. Currently 76-years-old, she worked for 50 years in Ringtong kamaan from the British period till 1996. Boju reminiscences about her youth like singing Bhailo ⁵ alongside her brothers and friends, and how she began work as a tea-picker rahar le (through desire). Looking back she said, “I wonder how I managed.” Post 1996, she was bewildered with how to make a living having to look after her younger sister. When Ringtong reopened in 2014, like many others she was hopeful about getting a job, but she didn’t even receive Fawloi. Not willing to give up, she made sure her buhari (daughter-in-law) got a job in her stead. "Despite dukha-sukha (life's ebbs and flows), I have lived my life, fulfilling responsibilities. At this point I await death", she shared.
Ramala Tamang, Tera Number We first met Aunty on the field, keen on speaking to her as women in-charges are rare, despite women accounting for more than 60 percent of the tea labour force. At her house, she shared she doesn’t like to sit still, Aunty loves gardening growing both flowers and vegetables. Recently, she knitted clothes for her grandson and enjoys YouTube vlogs. Having worked in Ringtong’s field for a few months in 1996, she was made a Baidar in 2014. “My job is a habit, a routine is set." According to her, during Ringtong’s closure, life was hard but it made the people think of other livelihoods, "Kohi pani bhoko pate bhayena." ⁶ As a female Baidar, she believes the female workers feel comfortable with her. She said laughing, “At times I feel like a Primary School Miss.” She stressed on the importance of education and agency saying, "Afnu kamai cha bhanne afu lai dhukkai huncha." Currently, Aunty has resigned from her job and lives with her daughter.
Amika Rai, Rajdhal Basti We first met di (elder sister) at her house and our conversation continued was way past lunchtime. “I am sure my face looks hungry”, she said erupting laughter. Born and married in Rajdhal basti, she shared how tough life was during Ringtong’s closure, "I always remember making hath ko chiya, we sold that to buy rice.” Since her husband passed away, she lives with her daughter and hopes she will have a good life. Having worked as a field worker since 2014, she shared, “Both picking tea leaf and farai (clearing the fields)is hard.” She said that lunch is always eaten together and achaar (ground pickle) is precious; also how they help each other through by sharing fistfuls of tealeaf, a practice known as poki. She narrated their recent encounter with a leopard, saying injuries are common. She also mentioned the lack of proper toilet facilities. “One kamaan’s job isn’t enough, think about it. How I manage, it’s in my heart, sometimes it gets ukus-mukus (suffocating). By sharing and laughing, I do away with my sorrows. But I never let myself feel down. I never give up. Haresh na kha, bhayi halcha ⁸.” She plans on going outside the Kamaan to work, and told us about the Bhotey Paltan (Tibetan clothes market). Di enjoys dancing, singing, gardening, inspirational videos and playing housie.
Anjali Biswakarma, Godamdhura We first met Di at Ringtong’s tea factory when she was readying the tea for tasting. Originally from Badamtam, she came here following a love marriage. She shared her experiences on being both a factory and field staff, “Factory work is hard but here we don’t get wet, catch leeches, have to stand under the hot sun or get injured often.” She also mentioned the availability of toilet facilities in the factory as an advantage. Di and her husband were the first ones from their family to work in Ringtong kamaan, currently her husband has quit his job and is working in Sonada. Her biggest wish is to educate their son. She enjoys gardening telling us, “Everything grows here- saag, fullkopi, matar, alu." She voiced the need to increase their wages to at least Rs 300-350 per day.
Women tea workers balance their work and home life amidst the ever-present struggles of identity, gender, class, caste, desires, privilege, education and exploitation. Most people know about Darjeeling tea but how many actually know about the women who labour behind it. What is their mundane? What are their struggles, desires and triumphs? Hoping to build a realistic narrative of Darjeeling’s women tea workers, we have shared the stories of four women from Ringtong kamaan rooted in the mundane.
² elder sister in Rai language
³ person in-charge of field tea workers
⁴ daily wage. This has currently become Rs 232 after an increase of 15% in 2022
⁵ a song performed door to door by girls in Diwali
⁶ no one was with an empty stomach
⁷ if you have a job, you will be at peace
⁸ don’t give up, it will work out
⁹ spinach, cauliflower, peas, potatoes
Bibhusha is interested in the myriad concepts of identity, especially on the intersection of food and identity. She currently holds a BA and MA in English Literature from Delhi University and hopes to continue researching and learning.
Ruchi is an editor and independent activist associated with Laaliguraas collectively. She holds a Master's degree in Mass Communication from Garhwal University. She stands with and supports the fight against the daily injustices and exploitation in the tea garden - herself being born and raised in the Ringtong tea estate.
This blog story is an outcome of the India Foundation for the Arts' Art Research Grant-funded project titled Stories from Within (2021).