‘The stories of despair and distress seemed unending. By the time we left the estate we were simmering with rage. As we prepared ourselves for another sleepless night, we asked each other where the estate owners were. In their comfortable homes in big cities, where the tragedy of tea workers was too far away to cause discomfort’
The undulating terrain of North Bengal resonates with the soft chuckle of River Teesta as it happily skips around its home territory. Narrow, often circuitous, roads yield to criss-crossing rivulets. Hills are carpeted with tea bushes and lush forests. Tea country is a sheer treat. And yet, all this beauty is merely skin deep. It's a cosmetic cover up for stories of unending despair, narrated in terrifying darkness by distraught tea plantation workers. An excerpt from Beautiful Country - Stories From Another India (Harper Collins).
We were eleven women from different walks of life and age groups, the youngest amongst us being twenty-six-years old, the oldest, over seventy. What had brought us together was our growing concern for the tea plantation workers. By the time we had all collected to go to the estates, it was getting dark. We reached our first stop, Ranicherra Tea Estate after 7 pm.
It was pitch-dark but we could sense the large crowd which had gathered to meet us. Torches flashed, showing the way to a small hut. By the light of a battery powered bulb, we saw a young girl not more than nineteen or twenty years old. Her face was blank; her eyes had a terrified expression. She clutched a small child in her arms. An older one clung to her sari. ‘This is Lakshmi,’ said a voice out of the dark.
In her silent presence, the same voice recounted her story. Ten days earlier, Lakshmi had been sitting outside her hut with her husband, Sanyasi Mungeri. Their two sons aged one and four were asleep inside. Suddenly they heard a crash. The elephants... Run! shouted Sanyasi. Lakshmi grabbed her sons and ran without looking back. She managed to drag her children to safety. Breathing a sigh of relief she turned towards her husband only to realize that he was not there. The elephants had taken him away. ...
‘What now? How will you take care of yourself and your sons?’ one of our companions asked gently. Lakshmi remained silent; we could sense she was crying again. Then a woman's voice answered, 'Madam, as always the owners simply washed their hands of the incident. Since her husband was not a registered employee, just a bigha mazdoor.’
‘Bigha mazdoor?’ we asked.
‘Yes. Normally, if an estate needs 1,000 workers during the peak season, only 300 are employed as registered workers. The rest are hired on a daily basis as bigha mazdoors. They find work for three-four days in a week. While a registered worker gets between Rs 50 and 60 a day, bighas earn that much in one week. They are only paid Rs 3 per hour.’
‘Rs 3 an hour?’
‘Yes. Madamji, even when Sanyasi was alive, this family lived on Rs 12 a day. Now Lakshmi will have to find work as a bigha mazdoor. But she is scared to leave her children alone.’
‘What about compensation?’
The Forest Department gave a compensation of Rs 25,000. But no bank account was opened. The money is lying with the local shop-owner.
We turned to Lakshmi. ‘Do you have an Antyodaya card? The one on which you can get ration at Rs 2 per kg?’ Almost imperceptibly, she shook her head. We learnt that Lakshmi did not even have a ration card. Her only asset was her house, plastic sheets strung on bamboo poles. We could find no words of consolation to offer the young girl who sat with her head bowed.
After a bumpy half-hour ride, our cars came to the hundred-year-old Nagaisuree Tea Estate, owned by the Goenkas. In the terrifying darkness, we picked our way with great care; someone spoke about snakes and leopards freely wandering around. 'Leopards always attack the necks of young girls,' someone said and all of us hurriedly wrapped sari pallus and dupattas around our necks and quickened our pace. 'Stamp your feet. It'll keep the snakes away,' another advised. In the pitch-black we used cell phones to light our path. The people here had never seen electricity. Not once in the last seventy-five years did the tea estate owners think of bringing light into the lives of their plantation workers, we were told. ...
We reached a cluster of huts. This is Sujtao Oraon, someone told us as another woman came out of the dark. By the light of our cell phones, we saw her face; she must have been in her late forties. It was 3 am, she spoke softly. I was sleeping insider my house when they (the elephants) came. See here ... they broke the wall, then dragged him. It was from his own home that her husband Ram Oraon had been taken away and mauled. Didi, I could do nothing. I hid my five children in the farthest corner of the hut and waited. The elephants must have had their fill, they never came back. Some villagers searched all night. She broke down. Someone moved to place an arm around her. 'His body was found the next day, she said, her voice choked with tears.
Sujtao, we learnt, was luckier than most widows in the area; and there were many of them. She was a registered worker, so Rs 60 per day was confirmed. By now, other shadowy figures had surrounded us. The atmosphere was eerie and, ever so often, we found ourselves straining for sounds of some animal on the prowl. One by one, the shadowy figures (nameless, faceless workers) told us their life in the gardens without bijli (electricity), paani (water) and sometimes even sadak (road). There was no drinking water in this particular labour line. The garden school was up to Class 4. To study further, children had to go to Malbazaar; it took at least one hour by bus. Many had dropped out. The stories of despair and distress seemed unending. By the time we left the estate we were simmering with rage. As we prepared ourselves for another sleepless night, we asked each other where the estate owners were. In their comfortable homes in big cities, where the tragedy of tea workers was too far away to cause discomfort. (Women’s Feature Service)
Aroon Raman could be India's answer to Robert Ludlum
‘That we are passing through challenging times on the internal and external security front seems widely accepted, and political and bureaucratic stasis in times like these can have far-reaching consequences’
He turned a family company into the world’s largest transformer board manufacturer with a presence in 25 countries before divesting it to start a material sciences laboratory in Mysore. If he continues in the same vein as his debut novel The Shadow Throne, Aroon Raman could well become the Robert Ludlum of the Indian thriller genre.
“It was my intent to place The Shadow Throne (Pan Macmillan) against a backdrop that mirrors current underlying reality - especially as it applies to India’s current political predicament and its inevitable impact on our geopolitical security,” Raman, who was in the capital to promote the just published book, which has an initial print-run of 20,000 copies, said.
“That we are passing through challenging times on the internal and external security front seems widely accepted, and political and bureaucratic stasis in times like these can have far-reaching consequences,” he added.
The Shadow Throne, in fact, is 52-year-old Raman's second novel, but the first to be published. The previous work, tentatively titled Abduction, an adventure set in Mughal India, had been accepted by Pan Macmillan but the publisher wanted a more contemporary work.
Thus, The Shadow Throne, a roller-coaster ride of nail-biting suspense, takes off from the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals in his Abbottabad hideout. Pakistan's spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the army have their back to the wall as the country's relationship with the US hits rock bottom. On the other side of the border, India too is gripped with a crisis of scandal and political paralysis.
Against this backdrop, a shadowy group - a collection of individuals from Indian intelligence and security agencies - plans an audacious nuclear strike by smuggling a Pakistani ballistic missile into Afghanistan and firing it into India from the Durand Line, the Af-Pak frontier, in the hope of igniting a sub-continental Armageddon. Just two men and a woman - an Indian journalist, a police officer and a college lecturer - stand between them. Do they succeed?
The proof lies in the reading, but one thing is for for sure: Here is India’s Robert Ludlum in the making.
Raman’s journey into adulthood began in the late 1980s with a post-graduate degree in economics from New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and an MBA from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, majoring in finance and marketing.
He ran his family company, Raman Boards Limited, from 1994 till 2006. Under his leadership, Raman Boards became the third largest player in the transformer board market globally, with a sales presence in more than 25 countries and a client list that included companies like Siemens, ABB, Alstom and Hyundai. The company also set up its largest manufacturing facility in China in 2006.
In 2007, he divested Raman Boards to ABB - the world's largest power products company - and promoted Raman FibreScience, a research and innovation company in the area of technical non-wovens and composites.
So, how did the writing bug come his way?
“Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and Kalki's novels in Tamil fired my imagination at an early age with their classics of detection and adventure and I've been hooked to a good yarn ever since. I also love history and travel writing,” he said.
Raman now divides time between his business and other personal interests. He is a keen tennis player and trekker. He also regularly contributes features to The Hindu Sunday Magazine and will feature at next month's Kovalam literary festival.(IANS)