This was a party with a difference. It went into the wee hours of the morning but the skies were open and the stars were awake. The dance floor was abuzz. People from the tea fraternity together with marathon runners from across the globe were tapping their feet to the blockbuster hits of one of India’s most iconic singers – Usha Uthup.
I’ve seen Uthup perform several times since I was a little girl. To say she is a crowd favourite, is an understatement. But what made this Uthup-outing unprecedented, was her stage. Her band played adroitly to a backdrop of an ocean of tea shrubs. The laser lights played a mesmerising dance of illumination on the tea leaves turning them into different colours. Tea industry connoisseurs were stupefied at this transformation of their familiarity of a tea plantation into a most happening party spot.
A walk away from the party scene and up into the higher reaches of the hills belied a stunning necklace of lights that lit up the partial route of a hill half marathon that was to happen in a day’s time. A trailblazing run – the world’s first half marathon within a tea estate.
Ketan Patel, the Director of the Jalinga Tea Estate, situated in the lower reaches of the North East Indian State of Assam, conceptualised this charity run in aid of bettering the lives of tea garden workers. As a tea plantation owner, it was his way of responding to the avalanche of articles in 2017 in the Western media that revealed pitiable conditions of tea pickers in Upper Assam’s tea gardens. Executing a first of its kind run in the heart of the remoteness of a sprawling tea estate together with planning the travel, food, accommodation and meaningful entertainment for the runners over three days, was no mean feat. Ably assisted by his younger sister Rachna, the Patels pulled off a stupendous success.
It was my first experience of a tea estate and it made an indelible impression. Driving to the Jalinga Estate from Assam’s Silchar airport carried the sensibility of driving into the middle of nowhere. I flew into Silchar with its small, ‘make-shift like airport’ in the late afternoon. As soon as we left the airport behind us, unmitigated greenery took over – vast swathes of raw, lush green were interspersed with the manicured look that tea gardens bear. And when sunset arrived, the tall palm leaves combed the sun, singing it a lullaby as it dipped into a sea of sky. The three and a half hour drive took us through the hustle and bustle of Silchar city and, as night descended, into the nothingness of highway roads. Only the next morning revealed the magic of the encompassing tea gardens.
I arrived at Mr Patel’s bungalow contiguous to the Jalinga Tea Estate, to a warm welcome– literally and metaphorically. Dainty lights and coal fires in the garden punctuated the evening chill. Barbequed food over conversation with Mr Patel’s father – a fine raconteur, brought a distinctive charm to the evening.
Post dinner, a further half an hour’s drive on hilly terrain led us into the Nursinghpur Estate – which would be my home for the next three days. The owner, Mr Tunial, defied the midnight hour and came out personally to greet us. His hospitality that followed over the next couple of days carried the tenor of the people and place – marked by a one of its kind simplicity, generosity and kindness.
A drive through the sprawl of the tea estates, organised by Mr Tusnial, was a breathtaking experience. Our jeep waded through little ponds and climbed up into awe-inspiring views of tea shrubs on a gradient, softly fed by the dusk-mist.
I spent time visiting the primary school and hospital for plantation workers on the Nursinghpur Estate and was especially heartened by measures being taken to educate the children of the tea workers. This was followed by my experience of speaking to a few hundred plantation workers on women empowerment – first, the women tea pickers and then the men; an experience that made it a most unforgettable trip.
Making the ‘finish-line’ of the Jalinga Tea Run was the icing on the cake! It was the first marathon of any kind I had attempted. Despite the challenge of the run being in the ascent of the undulating hills, the same ascent afforded views that lifted the onerous tenor and made it entirely worthwhile. And to know this endeavour raised Rs32 lakh (GBP36,000) for the welfare of tea plantation workers was what mattered most. Mr Patel’s plans to use the funds collected include building workers’ toilets, buying computers for the worker’s children, installing hand pumps and promoting sports. An organic brand, namely Farmers Own, will also result and retail organic products like turmeric, ginger and lemongrass produced by small growers.
The Jalinga Run will now be an annual affair for the welfare of tea workers. As for me, the stunning beauty of the place coupled with the love of the hill people, pull me to return.