A walk across the rusty hanging bridge
to sway from the new to the old.
A magical transformation
from fake to real.
More to revel,
as stories of tea and Munnar wait to be unveiled...
Margaret Bridge, Munnar
What colour is the soil in Munnar?
"What colour is the soil on which tea grows?" my Mother asked as we drove through Munnar, a mountain range converted to a tea estate by the British colonists in India. The rich beauty of the carefully arranged tea trees-row after row and plantation after plantation-overwhelms even the hardest of senses. The crisp, thin air and the clear water below must infact make your heart skip a beat or two. My Mother happens to be more of a British adorer-a rung higher than a sympathizer; perhaps comes with her being a person with a bias-having taken English literature as her academic pursuit.
My Mother had a reason to ask me that question this time; for she was a witness during the times the great whites packed up their stuff to leave the country after 335 glorious years of their ravishing tenure in India. She has always insisted that the Brits have to be thanked for signs like the rail tracks and road ways-laid by them that have fueled economic growth-which if had been done by Indians, thanks to our bureaucracy, redtapism and corruption connected there-with, we never would have managed such a feat.
This is where we begin to argue; for I see the railway tracks and every other monumental feat left behind by the Brits-the tracks and the cracks-a joint symbolic display of British (ill)governance and East India Company's dirty game on unsuspecting, innocent and a careless crowd-the natives of the land. Every rail track that was laid can be traced from the spot where the Brits found a fancy for something and anything they considered wealth that could be exploited and looted to the nearest port from where it could be boxed and shipped to her majesty's service straight to the white man's shore. All 33 and a half decades of wealth, human lives and innocence-spotted, looted and packed to be shipped-for which we as natives on whose back the dirty empire rode, even considered it our obligation to pay for their stray stay and upkeep while they were here to loot us; we even learnt to wave and say, "Thank you! please..." like a commission-earning Tourist Guide.
All of a sudden, to hear this question of what colour is the soil in Munnar to come from my mother, made me wonder if she was (finally) beginning to see the substratum buried beneath these beautiful fields that held stories of horror and barbarism waiting to be unearthed to let the ghosts of the air howl their stories to fill the misty mountains... once in a while. Stories the poor Indian labourer might tell of how the Cha’ips on horsebacks would whip the bare Indian backs to force them to work, stories of how families would be stolen, lives would be lost, children would be separated and human dignity suspended to build what the empire wanted, the company demanded and the white man commanded-with an order to prepare the ground to grow tea. Tea-even if it meant tunneling out a whole mountain to plant, pluck, process and pack it to the white man’s wish and supply it along the established spice route to his friends, family and customers back home. What colour could the ground be where lives were caught by the throat, suffocated, frozen and killed-where shouts of violence and cries for help were ignored, unrecorded and unaddressed? What colour could the colour of the soil of Munnar be anything but red? A deep red perhaps… like blood that flows-that boils right now at the very thought of the greatest injustice done to humanity to spread a green carpet of tea over a red carpet of slavery, bondage and blood.
Today, when one walks past the little town of Munnar amidst its tea estates in plenty, buses with boards in the vernacular (Malayalam) that ply tourists who land for guided tours and to sip their chilled beer in the comforts of a chillier cold, walk past government buildings with name boards in the vernacular (in Malayalam and Tamil too) with hoisted red flags that sway with passive aggression. The aggravates of the tension in the air is smothered by the presence of local commercial establishments like the wayside eateries, taxi and auto-wallas, lodges and hotels that depends solely on the influx of the crowd of tourist. Early in the morning, armouring the heavy chill, a bunch of tourists drip in everyday. They are feast to the eye for the handicraft shop owners and the masseur and masseuse in massage parlors who have mastered the art of squeezing someone (literally) to earn their living. Today every brown man in Munnar owning a commercial establishment waits for a 'Cha'ip' (a white man) or a 'Madaam'may' (a white lady)-as he was taught to call-to earn back every penny they looted. Miles and years to go before that can be done to tally the account. Yet, it moves...
To be continued...