One of the most memorable vacations I had in recent times was my visit to Silchar. It is a small town in the Chachar district in Assam. At first glance, the place might look mundane compared to other more popular and attractive tourist destinations in our country. However, I did not explore the area as just another tourist but as an insider. Before the story goes any further, let me tell you about the person, who made this journey unforgettable. I had met Bhaskar uncle only a couple of times before this. Both times he had come to our house bringing high-quality green tea as gifts for my mother, an amateur tea enthusiast. On both occasions, he was clean-shaven with a short Caesar haircut. A short man, with white hair and working for the Indian Tea Association, he was always well dressed in a blazer and formal trousers with an air of diplomatic seriousness about him. Although I knew little about him, I accepted his invitation to a sojourn at his tea estate in the month of July.
I was picked up from the Silchar airport by his chauffeur, who was dressed in a white uniform. The Silchar airport albeit a small one was bustling with activity. As I was driving through, the petrichor titillated my senses. I had landed just after a heavy downpour the night before. On both sides of the road was vibrant nature and lush greenery—trees and shrubs of varying shapes and sizes. Imagine increasing the saturation of an image to the maximum and the color that is produced is the natural color of the vegetation there. After traveling a few kilometers, I noticed rows of betelnut trees on both sides of the road. I learned from the chauffeur that the highest number of beetle nut trees in India grow in Silchar, making it a booming business, as a result. He also told me how many trees had to be cut down to accommodate signal towers and that has affected the ecosystem, especially the nesting birds.
Bhaskar uncle’s house is in the middle of the city amidst a gigantic tea estate. It has colonial architecture and is located in an area, which accommodates many important government buildings as well. After greeting me warmly, he took me on a tour around the grounds and explained how the colonial setup is still prevalent in the tea industry. There exist many workers, the cook, the gardener, and others who all live under the same roof and address the manager of the estate as saheb and the lady of the house as memsaheb. The British incorporated this system so that no time was wasted coming to the plantation from the workers’ villages. Remember, this system was of a time when there existed dirt roads and the only means of travel were bullock carts.
Over the course of the next three days, Bhaskar Uncle took it upon himself to become my personal tour guide and that was how I explored the city through a local’s eye. We went to the India-Bangladesh border and the Land Ports Authority of India greeted us warmly. We technically stepped on Bangladeshi soil without a passport. Sylhet was 45 km from there and Bhaskar Uncle talked about the partition in 1947, and how Sylhetis did not know during that time whether they were Assamese or Bangladeshis. In the Bangladesh Gazette, initially, Sylhet was not there but in Assam. Bhaskar uncle is always full of history lessons and adventure stories. We looked at the barbed wire and one of the loquacious soldiers posted there told us that often they would find people trying to sneak across the border —especially lovers on different sides of the border. He also told us about cow thieves being a menace and about people, involved in the cross-border illegal trade of several kinds of goods and contraband.Before leaving the tour of the tea estates, I saw an enormous limestone weighing scale. The sale of limestone is a thriving business in Silchar.
The first tea estate Bhaskar uncle took me to was the 5500 sq. feet Rose Kandy Tea Estate. He introduced me to the manager of the estate, JB Whadia, followed by a quip that if the tea is not sparkling, then his assistants are in deep trouble. Mr. Whadia made us taste his brand of white, yellow, and green tea. I could not describe the tea the way they did with all the technical knowledge as I am no tea connoisseur but the yellow tea was my favorite and instantly rejuvenated me inside and out. The vast area of tea plantations was in the form of steppe farming, along the hills. Within most tea estates, there is a factory where the tea leaves are processed after collection. No tourists are allowed inside the factories but I was taken through an entire tour of the factory. He explained how in white tea there is no processing but simply drying it from the field and how unlike the previous system in the tea industry, no child laborers are used anymore. He talked and walked me through everything starting from the collection process in the plantations to the packaging and putting it out for delivery to the wholesalers. We ended my first visit to the insides of a tea plantation factory with another round of yellow tea, as my preference was made apparent from the sigh of satisfaction one makes when one has a good cup of tea.
During the rest of my stay, we drove over the beautiful Barak river, a rain-fed river, that starts from a spring in Manipur, on our way to a small village called Karimganj. We explored the shores of a muddy river called Dholeshwari and walked by green fields ready to be plowed. We passed a temple dedicated to Shakti and the locals say that it is mentioned in Hieun-Tsang’s travels. It was on the way by the hills which lead to Meghalaya and then Guwahati from Silchar.
I visited two other tea estates, bought a Mizo wrap, traditional skirt-like clothing for my mother, and spent a whole afternoon just walking and taking in the feel of the bustling town. and the food I had at Bhaskar Uncle’s house was a gastronomical treat—starting from freshly hunted boar meat to amazing fish, caught at the Barak river that very morning.
As I was leaving back for home, I felt an unexplainable warmth that the place and the people blessed me with, which makes me want to revisit in the not-so-distant future.