Silent shades of the tea leaf

The posters show the women smiling, with the picker’s basket behind them. In truth, they are maximally exploited minimally paid by the tea industry.

A group of men huddles by the side of the tea bushes in the shade at Dheklapara Tea Estate in the Dooars. Close by in the sun, about 30 or so women work their famed “nimble fingers” on the first-flush tea leaves, heads trying to balance the heavy loads of pickings.

One of the men has just tossed up a green papaya salad on a Bengali broadsheet folded in half. The unripe fruit is neatly peeled and diced, and dressed with coarsely-ground green chilli and salt. Chilli-induced shhus and shhaas fill the air as portions of the spiced berry go around, along with stale news.

Nimble fingers keep plucking, steady heads don’t turn.

It’s one in the afternoon—the end of work day. It’s not a normal business day since the estate is officially closed, as it has been for the past 17 years. It’s just a group of workers—those that remain—plucking and selling the green leaves to outside factories as a survival strategy. Given the nature of tea work and the workers’ habitual discipline, everything is still done by the clock, though for shorter hours, and smaller pay. At 1p.m., the women trudge to the makeshift leaf shade, measure their day’s work in kilos, offload; and vanish into the labour lines.

The men have had their salad; they load a pick-up van waiting by the side of the bamboo bearing faded flags of the Trinamool Congress party. For women, their labour in the tea estates seldom bears fruit.

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