Looking for a book to read, I decided to see if the prolific Alexander McCall Smith had come out with anything new. Sure enough, there it was: The Pavilion In The Clouds, set on a tea estate in Ceylon in 1938. McCall Smith’s love for tea is legendary among his fans; the lengths to which he goes to ensure that his teatime is never compromised meets the highest connoisseur standards. Tea often makes its way into his books, so I suppose it was a matter of time before he wrote a book set in a tea garden.
The novel is in two parts: The first takes place in the late 1930s in Pitlochry, a tea estate in Nuwara Eliya, owned and run by a Scotsman, Henry Ferguson, who lives there with his wife, Virginia, and young daughter, Bella. In Part 2, it’s 1952; Bella is in university in Scotland, trying to make sense of events from her childhood.
It’s a window to an era when the British knew the time had come for them to leave. We only hear of it as a collective event but at the individual level, it was, expectedly, difficult. Many of these planters or their families had been born in Ceylon or had spent most of their lives there. Virginia speaks of her views on both, how they treated workers and their lack of belonging, with gentle empathy: “They had no right to order these people about—she, at least, understood that …. We are uninvited guests, just as we are uninvited guests in every corner of the globe…”
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The colonial tea industry changed the world of tea, making it a commodity—and ubiquitous. But what it also did was create a human rights problem; a hundred years later, this continues to be a problem. Little has been written about the planters’ eventual exit from the colonies. In India, in the aftermath of independence, the British planters remained in the country well until the 1970s. Their exit came on the heel of developments such as the devaluation of the rupee in 1966 and the introduction of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act in 1974.
Some of the planters moved to Africa, where tea cultivation was under way, some to Australia and New Zealand, while others returned “home”. That their connection with India remained close and deep can still be seen in online communities, like Koi-Hai and Indian Chai Stories, where former planters and their families continue to preserve the nostalgia, exchange updates and post obituaries. Younger generations often pose questions about places where their parents or grandparents once lived and worked. Legends are brought out of the memory closet and dusted. Family stories and photographs are shared. Some even make the trip back to see the places that make up their family legends.
“I loved Ceylon,” says Bella, in the book to her friend, who replies: “I know somebody who lived in India. Same thing, more or less, isn’t it.… She was always talking about India and the things she did there. She missed it.”
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1
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