Taylors Tea Garden – by Ajit MuttuCumaraswamy
CHAPTER ONE (8)
He arrived in Naranghena and there were no signs of anybody living there. He needed rest and the horse needed rest. He found the old bucket and filled it up and gave the water to the horse, after drinking some of it from the little bucket. He went to lie on the bed and there was Thangam lying on the bed smiling.
“ My darling Thangam. You were here all the time.”
“Yes. Dorai James. I wanted to surprise you. I’m always making out reasons for coming here. I’m always hoping you will come here.” she said.
James held her tight and lifted her up and kissed her as if she was a child. They kissed deeply. He carried her and swung her around and they got into bed. James came inside her. She did not remind him to come outside, as she normally did. He revelled in her child like beauty, fine brown skin and pearl like teeth. Her body somehow seemed to be a perfect fit. She came over him and he enjoyed watching her move up and down. Then she lay on him barely covering half of his big body.
“ I’m applying for a piece of land Thangam.” said James.
“ That’s good. You can be the boss and employ me and a lot of people.” she replied.
“ Yes. I’m tired of being told what I should be doing.”
“ I can help you with running your house. House keeping, cooking, washing, cleaning.” she said.
“ Yes my darling. You will be with me all the time.” said James.
“ Did you hear about coffee plants dying from the disease?” she asked.
“ Yes. I saw some of the plants with the brown colour on the leaf.” said James.
“ Some estates have closed. Some of my people have gone back to India.” she said.
“ Yes. A lot of planters have gone back too. McKenzie wants to send me back. But I have a contract for another ten months. He can’t send me before that. But I will apply for land before that.” he said.
“ I love you James. Please don’t leave me.”
“ I love you my precious. I am not going to leave you or this country.” he said.
She hugged him and kissed him, her lips on his and her tongue searching for his. He was aroused again.
“ I’ll coming from behind.” he said.
Her perfectly round behind and it’s brownness made him more excited as he entered her. The jasmines in her hair aroused him even further. He wanted to stretch himself and bury his face in her hair as he moved.
He was lying on the bed resting when they heard footsteps. He dressed quickly and stepped out of the bedroom. It was Sinniah.
“ I came to go home with Thangam sir.” Sinniah said.
“ Alright. That’s fine. I’m not happy with McKenzie. He was very rude today. He wants me to go back to Scotland. So I’m going to apply for land. That way I will be able to get some funding for developing an estate. I’m thinking of tea.” said James.
“ I agree with you. Coffee is going bad. It’s happening everywhere. A lot of dorais have gone back. A lot of estate workers have gone back.”
“ I know tea is not easy. It’s been tried before and it failed. But I want to try it. I want to go to Peradeniya Botanical Gardens and talk to the botanist there. i want to go to Haggala Gardens too. They have a lot of tea plants I was told.”
“ I’m not sure how you can apply for land sir. The Government Agent is in Kandy Peradeniya gardens is on the way to Kandy. You can go to both places.”
“ Thats’s good. Thanks for that. I will make my way to Kandy as soon as I can.” said James.
Finding transport to Kandy was not easy. Several people were contacted by Sinniah. As the matter was not a company matter, James did not want to make use of the company transport system or any coaches or horses owned by the company. He did not want McKenzie to find out that he had been to Kandy to apply for land.
* * *
Sinniah managed to contact various people and a coach arrived and James set off for Kandy with a change of clothes. It was a very pleasant day. The trees were more green than usual. The rain must have done it , James thought. Sinniah had told the coachman about Peradeniya. The coachman stopped at Peradeniya on the way. Robert, the English botanist in charge was very helpful.
“ James I’m very glad that you are keen on tea. McKenzie and all the rest are not very hopeful.” Robert said.
“ Yes. I’m very interested in tea. I don’t have much money, that’s my problem.”
“ I realise that. The investment is the problem. Tea was tried by many people. When they succeed in growing the tea, they fail in making good quality tea. Tea making is an art. Its something I wish I knew.” said Robert.
“ I’m very interested in the way they make tea in Darjeeling. I wish i had the means to go there and work with those planters.” said James.
“ I agree. I can help you with the growing, the manure needed for a healthy growth, the soil needed and the slopes and so on. I can help there.” said Robert.
“ I’m so happy that met you Robert. I feel so much better about planting tea.”
“ Don’t worry too much about the tea not growing well. It’s very rare for the soil to be completely unsuitable. Its more to do with the quality of the leaf and what happens after the tea has grown.”
“ You mean the plucking and the fermenting?”
“ Yes. It’s a trade off between how much leaf is gathered from the tree and the way the tea is rolled and prepared for drinking.”
“ I see. I wanted to meet some of the planters who came from India. They have been doing tea a long time in India.” said James
“Yes. Most of the tea plants we have here in the gardens came from India. The special variety that grows on the slopes in India especially Darjeeling is more suited to the climate in Ceylon.”
“ I’m hoping to go to Darjeeling one day. I’ve heard so much about the place. But for now I’m more interested in planting tea on some land which is mine. I’m having problems with my company.”
“Sorry to hear that James. I might join you to go to Kandy. It’s not very far from Peradeniya. I guess it’s walking distance. It could be a nice to walk along the Kelani River.” said Robert.
“ That’s great. Why don’t you come with me? We could stay in the same hotel.”
“ But it’s not safe during the rainy season. You could slip and also the soil is soft and you could fall under a boulder. But I can come. My house is right here inside the gardens. We could come back here for the night. I was planning to go to Kandy. The Perahara is on.”said Robert
“Sorry what is Perahera?” asked James
“ It’s the big event in Kandy for Buddhists. The Buddha’s tooth is supposed to be in the temple in Kandy. The temple of the tooth. An Englishman called Robert Knox lived in Kandy around two hundred years ago and wrote a book about it.”
“ I heard about the temple and Robert Knox . I wanted to go and see the temple.” said James.
“ It’s not the best day to go inside because it get very crowded and queues form to get in. But you can see the Perahera from outside. It’s really a parade of drummers and nicely decorated elephants strolling along the road with their bells ringing and Kandyan dancers dancing.” said Robert.
“ That’s fine with me. I’m happy to be on the street to watch the Perahera.” said James. They got on the coach.
The road was well laid with trees in bloom and nicely built houses lining the road all the way to Kandy.
James and Robert sent the coachman away for the night. They went into a hotel in the middle of town with a clock tower distinguishing it from the others and had some dinner with whiskey and soda. James was very impressed with the elegance of the hotel and quality of food. He did not expect anything like this. It felt like it was the best hotel in Glasgow.
After booking in, they came out and stood on the street as the Perahera was expected to pass the hotel. There was a lake not very far from the hotel. They walked up and stood looking across the lake to the other side.
“This lake was built by builders from South India. The King of Kandy was from South India and he brought the builders to design and build the lake.” said Robert and continued.
“ You see the bright flares on the left James. That’s where the Temple of the Tooth is.” said Robert.
“ That’s really nice. So many flares there. What do they use for making the flares?” asked James.
“ It mainly cloth wound around a wooden pole and soaked in coconut oil.” said Robert.
“ You are right. I can smell the coconut oil burning. Its got a nutty smell to it. Its almost like a biscuit factory making coconut flavoured biscuits.” James said.
“ Funny you should say that. It’s true.”
Two white gentleman walked out of the hotel with two white ladies. The ladies came out of the hotel but stood close to the door while the gentleman walked towards James and Robert.
“ The two people walking towards us are George Pride and Dr. Tom Barron. They are old timers here. Well known planters.” said Robert.
Robert introduced James to George Pride and Tom Barron.
“ Nice to meet you young man. Your cousin Henry Stiven mentioned you had come. How are you doing?” asked George Pride.
“ Going alright. But the Superintendant is McKenzie. He has been saying that I should go back home.” said James.
“ But you have just arrived. He can’t ask you to go.” interjected Dr. Tom Barron.
“ I told him I’m not prepared to go back. My contract is for one year.” said James.
“ Exactly. You did well to sign the contract. Some arrive without a contract. But I can help you out if things get really bad” said George Pride.
“ Yes, James. We feel very much for you. George owns hundreds of coffee estates. He can give you a job at anytime. How many coffee estates do you own George, if you don’t mind my asking?” said Dr. Tom Barron.
“ About eight hundred. But as you know coffee estates are being decimated. Only about a hundred are actually producing coffee. The rest are suffering from the blight.” said George Pride.
“Very sorry to hear that George. As I always maintained, tea is the way to go. Even when coffee was doing well, I was always supporting anybody willing to grow tea.” said Tom Barron.
“ Don’t listen to him James. He is always going on about tea.” said George Pride.
“ Actually I’m very keen to grow tea. I’ve seen tea bushes and like the tea aroma in the leaf. But McKenzie is not talking about growing tea.” said James.
“ Actually Tom could be right. Ceylon’s climate is good for tea, even though the soil is not as good as in Assam. Ive had to let lots of planters go. They went on furlough leave and I told them that they should wait until things get better. I’m struggling to pay their salaries. But to tell the truth I’m trying out Cinchona. Maybe you could try Cinchona” said George Pride.
“ What is Cinchona” asked James.
“ Cinchona is a plant from which anti malaria drugs are extracted.” said Robert.
“ Loolecondere could do Cinchona instead of coffee. I will speak to McKenzie” said George Pride.
“ I have hundreds of Cinchona plants growing in our nursery.” said Robert.
“ Since you are not doing anything with them, you should send to James. He can do Cinchona.” said George Pride.
“ You should start on tea my dear fellow. Cinchona is not going to last. There are newer plants and sources of anti malaria drugs.” said Dr. Tom Barron.
“ Don’t listen to Tom. He is always on about tea. But if tea ever becomes a success in Ceylon, we will owe a debt of gratitude to him because he is really the father of the tea enterprise in Ceylon. Unfortunately tea has failed so far. People like the Rothschilds tried it many years ago and failed.” said George Pride.
“ The problem is that we have not really experimented with growing and processing tea. We have only brought planters from Assam and Darjeeling who were not given enough time to experiment and adopt the methods to suit this country.” said Dr. Barron.
“ Alright. I think our young friend here can experiment with growing and processing tea while at the same time growing Cinchona plants which are fetching a very good price at the London market.” said George Pride.
“ I can send the plants I have to Loolecondere Mr Pride. There are plants growing in Haggala and some other places as well.” said Robert.
“ Thanks Robert. Please do arrange for these plants to be taken Loolecondere. James can do Cinchona while trying out ways of growing and processing tea.” said George Pride.
“ Thats a good solution George. I’ll assist with the tea growing. Robert has even more experience than I when it comes to growing the tea plant. But I have to check out how the plucking and rolling happens. I’m a firm believer in two leaves and a bud.” said Dr.Tom Barron.
“ Ah. I don’t know much about that part of the process. But I do know that the quantity of green tea gathered using the two leaves and a bud method makes it very difficult to make a profit. When you only gather two leaves and a bud, the amount of tea leaf gathered during the course of one day is so small compared to plucking a bunch of leaves” said George Pride.
“ We have to find a solution to this problem. We can’t really expect the prices paid for tea made in China . It’s hand rolled and is made with a a lot of skill and care.” said Tom Barron.
“ There has to be a process that produces tea without incurring the huge labour cost that is involved in making tea in China. Here in Ceylon we have to bring workers from India and the cost is much higher.” said George Pride.
“ Let’s hope James will experiment with making tea in a different way so we don’t end up with tea that we cannot sell at a profit.” said Dr. Tom Barron.
“ We need to make a profit if we are going to stay in business. You know very well that hundreds of planters have gone back because the coffee plants are dying and the cost of making tea is too high.” said George Pride.
The sound of drums beating and bells jangling could be heard clearly.
“Looks like the Perahera is getting closer” said Robert.
“ We must go back and be with the ladies.” said George Pride. Dr. Tom Barron and George Pride walked back towards the hotel.
The Perahera was a within sight. James and Robert could see the temple dancers dressed in traditional white and red sarongs jumping up and spinning their bodies while their red and white head dresses moved left and right as if in a frenzy. The flares soaked in coconut oil gave off a nutty smell. James felt excited to see the spectacle of elephants with decorated jewelled mats on their backs strolling, their trunks swinging left and right and occasionally swinging up towards their heads. The elephants had boxes on their backs which could have been books or sacred items with a religious significance. The tails of the elephants moved constantly going left and right.
Some men carried what seemed like decorated fans mounted on painted and decorated poles. They walked on either side of the elephants. The drumming was strong. The drummers leapt up and danced and moved left and right. The dancers and the drummers made James feel he was in another world. The elephant in the middle of the long line of elephants was the biggest and carried a large box on it’s back.
“ The big elephant in the middle is carrying a sacred document and the tooth of the Buddha dating back thousands of years. That’s what I was told.” said Robert.
“ It must be very special whatever it is. The elephant is really big . I would hate to be in it’s path.” said James.
The procession passed along and sounds became more distant.
They walked back towards the hotel and had some refreshments.
“ Are you coming back to my place for the night James.” asked Robert.
“ I think I will stay over in the hotel. It will be easier for me to meet the government agent in the morning” said James.
Robert spoke to the hotel manager and made arrangements for his coach to take him back to Peradeniya.
* * *
In the morning, James made inquiries with the hotel manager and was told to go with one of the young local lads who will show him the government agent’s office. James competed his application form for a piece of land at the government agent’s office. He was told to that it would take about a month for the decision to be made as to who had been granted the land. It seemed that he will get it as he was already in the country and ready to start work on the land.
James wrote a letter home and posted it in Kandy where there was a post office and shops to buy stationery.
“ Dear Father,
I trust all at home are keeping fine. I had a good trip sailing from London to Ceylon. Uncle Henry came with me and helped me to get to my work place up in the hills where the coffee plantations are. I have been very busy since coming to Ceylon. There is a lot of work to be done clearing the trees and bushes before planting coffee. I have a lot of people working in the coffee estate. They come from South India. They do a good job of cleaning up and digging the land. I have a supervisor who looks after the workers.
“They even built a house for me. It was strange though. Because the masons came and built little huts for themselves first. Then they found a place which had a lot of red clay and started digging up the soil. They started making bricks from the red clay and fired the bricks with wood fires until the bricks turned hard and dark red. Before a couple of weeks had passed they started building the house. I gave them a hand. I enjoyed laying bricks. Within a few weeks the windows were made by carpenters working inside their huts with hand saws. The finish was done with a mixture of chalk and sand and some kind of soft rock they called kabuk. The walls were lime washed and they look fine.”
“Coffee planting is going through a bad patch. The trees are affected by a disease called coffee rust. It’s a fungus that settles on the leaves and makes the leaf look rust coloured and stops the tree from getting the Sun and the nourishment it needs. The tree does not die but the coffee berries stop growing. The only thing that can be done is to cut the tree and start again. Some planters have been getting human excreta and using it as manure hoping the berries and the trees will grow better. But it has not worked. So more planters have left the country. The outlook is very poor. I have been without a good house and have barely managed to build a house.”
“Looking on the bright side, I have applied for land. They call for bids and everyone can apply. Even some local people apply and get large parcels of land if the government thinks that the person has the funds and is able to use the land to grow coffee.”
“My contract has some months to run. So I will try to do some thing here during this time. We are going to plant cinchona which is used for preparing medicines to treat malaria. Some of the plantation owners are trying to grow tea. Tea plants are sent here from Assam in India. It’s not been a great success. The prices for Ceylon tea are not good. The taste is not what the tea tasters want. But I’m trying to work on this. There is a Dr. Tom Barron who is helping me to grow tea and try different methods of making tea. Tea rolling by hand is the best. The quality is good but the cost is high. It’s difficult to compete with tea made in China and India. But I’m going to try. I’m thinking of using a machine to dry the tea and roll it. This will keep the cost of labour low. But it’s not easy to find companies that can build a machine even if I can find the money.”
“The mosquitoes are a problem but it’s not bad at all up in the hills. It’s very cool most of the time. There are plenty of insects around.”
“Please give my love and best wishes to all at home. “James”
James posted the letter. He felt a little dizzy at the post office. He put it down to the beers he had been drinking in the hotel. The return trip was not easy as finding transport was always a problem. He managed to get on a coach which was going in the direction of Loolecondere.