My earliest memories are those of road journeys that seemed to last forever, of the smell of puke in the car (that was my sister, not me), long rows of yellow laburnum trees on either side of the road, followed by the gently undulating dark green mysterious slopes of tea gardens as far as the eye could see.
I know it’s rather sad that your earliest memories should consist of puke, but trust me, life wasn’t that bad. I was four, days seemed to stretch forever and my sole interests were trying to steal the ripe yellow mangoes from my neighbour’s backyard and winning back by mom’s affection from my deviously cute baby sister. (Eventually, I lost in this endeavour because I fell in love with the enemy, but it was rather hard not to.)
This was years before militancy made its inroads into Assam.
This was childhood at its idyllic best.
Then we moved to Mumbai when I was five, sold our old white Maruti (famous for the faint smell of puke which still lingered inside) and started our lives anew in the city where your dreams could be taller than the skyscrapers.
Children forget quickly.
Chasing dragonflies was replaced by chasing the school bus. In Mumbai, you didn’t have to climb trees. You could just buy everything from the supermarket.
It was a visit to a tea garden many years later that made me realise what I had lost. That I had even lost something.
My grandparents live in Alipur Duar, a small town in West Bengal- another major exporter of tea.
My father’s suggestion to explore a tea estate nearby did not impress me. I was fourteen then, and visiting boring old tea gardens seemed less important than fiddling around with my phone. Nevertheless, we went.
I was struck by how different it was inside from the regular hustle bustle of the town outside. Lush green fields of tea gently sloped stretched as far as I could see, the bushes planted in neat rows. And working dexterously on them were women of all ages and sizes.
There were old women, bent with age and women whose faces were as fresh as the lush vegetation around them. They were cheerful as they worked, talking to us about how they selected the leaves and processed them to get the aroma just right (during which time my cousin busily stuffed his hands with tea leaves, and announced later his plans of starting his own tea empire). One of them pointed towards the hills in the distance (the estate was sort of sandwiched between two hills) and said that their proximity to the jungle sometimes brought unwelcome visitors into the fields. An elephant attack not many months ago had caused massive damage to the crops.
The mystery behind those green tea slopes that I had watched from the window seat of my car, all those years ago was now starting to make sense to me.
On our way back from the fields, I was greeted by a sight that remains a myth to most of us city dwellers.
It was only a mountain stream, lying in our way but for the first time in my life, I was completely stumped. Should I approach it? Could I? Years of living in a concrete jungle meant I’d seen streams only from the window of a running train. We were like alien species introduced to each other for the first time.
And yet it lay, sparkling under the sun so temptingly that I approached cautiously with the younger children in tow. Its waters were green and cool, and the river bed slimy with weeds, but giggling and holding each other we managed to stand in its shallow waters. Its waters were like silk flowing over our feet. And it was the best feeling ever.
We of the concrete jungle, of the great cities, shall never know what we’ve lost when we cut down trees and fill up our last remaining ponds. But a part of us still remains connected to nature, still remembers the feel of streams running over our feet even though years of living in a concrete jungle has rather dulled those senses. It’s important to reconnect to that part like I did that day. Only then we’ll know what we’ve lost.
– Tania Gupta