19 August 2014


Ratna Raman
chances upon an Unrecorded
Vocabularian-Phonetic Rebellion
Hitherto Unknown Even to the Postmodern
Phase of Subatern Studies History

How Subalterns
Squashed the Tea Estate Burra Sahibs

From Bagdogra Airport it is a lovely afternoon ride to the Dooteriah tea estate. The tree plantations start almost as soon as we get off the main highway and both sides of the road are thickly carpeted, with dense green tea bushes. Tea leaves plucked from bushes growing at a higher altitude are more flavourful, Babua, the man at the wheel, informs us while the car begins its smooth, gradual ascent into the hills. The journey is beautiful and we unwind on the way to the tea estate, drinking in the colours of the sky and the earth. At the start of the tea estate the smooth road is replaced by badly rutted, narrow roads that were originally horse carriage routes through which the tea estate managers travelled up and down. Now cars and jeeps travel on them jostling shock absorbers and the innards of people sitting in them.
Photograph by the author

We arrive at the Dooteriah Estate in the early evening and alight at the Guest house, a gorgeous old building with high ceilings and ancient red oxide floors, once characteristic of South Indian architecture. The floor has a fabulous sheen, despite hairline cracks all over, rather like those on heritage porcelain taken out of ancient family chests. There is many a slip and unceremonious sprawl to be got past before we eventually sit down to our first cups of freshly brewed Darjeeling leaf tea, the flavour enhanced by Britannia Top biscuits. The view from the top is nothing short of spectacular. Lush, blue-green, triangular mountain ranges frame sloping valleys with large circular bushes of tea that taper into greenness while all around the bungalow, end-of-summer flowers  burst into colour within beds and in black polythene bags filled with soil. This horticultural practice of growing plants in durable black polythene containers in most places in these mountains sustains not only green life but also precious clayey soil since the requirement for terracotta containers has been greatly reduced by the sustained use of portable polythene.

The visiting estate manager invites us to look at the sifting and processing of tea on the estate. The journey begins from the point handpicked leaves packed into plastic bags arrive via ropeway from different gardens in the mountains. The leaves are spread out to dry and then processed, eventually dried and then sorted into four categories. It is a fascinating process and we also taste different flavours. When asked if the name Dooteriah meant anything specifically, he draws our attention to the tall Datura bushes with large white flowers that grow all over the estate. “It is possibly a corruption from the name Datura,” he observed laconically, pushing us to recall how many similar instances of naming were part of the legacy that the British left behind in India, in the course of moving back to their more scientifically named destinations. We have, of course, quickly renamed all our significant roads and cities. (Not that such change is ideal or advisable since it short-circuits and compresses memory while erasing history.) However, in quieter and relatively undisturbed pockets of the Indian subcontinent, older names remain and reverberate, endorsing the multiculturalism of time via language.

Dooteriah for Datura is a charming example of the sort of naming specific to the British residency in India. As was the elaborate ritual of tea tasting that we were drawn into during the  subsequent  period of our stay. Although great tea grows now on our mountain ranges, our tea drinking (and coffee drinking) traditions date back to the British, who planted and oversaw the idyllic, luxurious tea estates, where the only thing that everyone really did was to grow, pluck, process, pack, brew, and drink tea. Every other activity was only incidental, since in good weather the mountains ask very little of inhabitants and visitors alike.

On the way to other tea estates as we drove in and around the various valleys, we saw little shops selling green produce on different sides of the road. Many kinds of mountain greens, violet radishes, luscious green gourds, and small round red chillies that I first mistook for cherry tomatoes greeted us. Among the spread out vegetable ware, I was struck by the abundance of a vegetable that appeared sporadically on Delhi’s vegetable carts for two days in October and disappeared almost as if it were only a mirage.

 When we visited our grandparents in Chennai and uncles and cousins in Bangalore and Mysore, usually in the summer, we were first introduced to this vegetable. Akin to the gourd and the pumpkin families, at home we referred to it as chow chow and in South India it was called Bengalooru Katthirikai (eggplant). Other than the fact that its oval shape was reminiscent of medium-sized green brinjals, there was little other similarity between the real eggplant and this green vegetable that grew on a vine. It could be cooked into a stew, along with lentils or cubed  and cooked into a dry vegetable, garnished with coconut and eaten as an accompaniment to Saambar rice (spicy tamarind lentil mixed with plain rice). The peel of the chow chow was thick and covered with a sort of white stubble. This was usually transformed into a smooth thohayal (chutney). For making the chutney, the peel was roasted along with black gram dhal and ground with a little tamarind and red chillies. The resultant paste was garnished with mustard seeds and asafoetida and subsequently eaten with rice, dosas, chappatis, and pooris. The peeled vegetable was often cut into roundels and dipped into thick chickpea batter (mixed with a little rice flour, salt, and a pinch of asafoetida) and served up as platefuls of hot fritters, with steaming cups of coffee, that we consumed on hot lazy afternoons.

 Here in the hills there seemed to be two varieties of chow chow,  pale green and creamy white. Stopping by the stately Teesta river at the vegetable market adjoining the highway, I am informed by the women selling the vegetable that the white variety is costlier and has a longer shelf life. I am intrigued further by its local name, Iskush. They offer me stems and leaves of the Iskush and I learn that these are cooked by themselves as greens or with yellow lentils and eaten with rice. As I mouth the name Iskush in order to remember it better, Babua, our charioteer, amused by my interest, regales me with stories of the Iskush.
When he was a little boy, Babua tells us, in a village not very far from Kalej valley, his grandfather would come home beaming from ear to ear, at the end of a day’s work. When asked why he was so happy, he would proudly announce “momo khaya (I ate momos). ” Babua went on to explain that long ago “momos” (steamed dumplings), now part of popular street food in much of North India, were made by monks at the not-so-nearby Buddhist monasteries. Cooking food for an entire community, these dumplings (mostly vegetable) were steamed inside enormous containers, and lay visitors such as his grandfather had access to them if they were in the vicinity of the monastery at mealtimes. “We used to wonder then,” Babua muses, “what this momo was that made our grandfather so happy. Only when we were older and could head to the monasteries did we find out. These days, every household makes momos, not only with vegetables, but also with chicken and pork, and everyone owns small steamers in which they cook them, so now every child knows the taste of momos.”

“You must try iskush momos,”  he adds, deferring to our herbivorous preferences. As we head home he stops and draws our attention to a small wood-and-iron shed beside a tea garden over which green leafy vines have been trained. Stepping out of the car we can see Iskush gourds of varying sizes draped in pleasant green foliage. My daughter, who does not share my fascination for Iskush, asks Babua why he does not extol the potato which is so much more delicious. “The potato can be found all the year round,” replies Babua. “The Ishkush is there for only a season and we eat its leaves and its stems and its fruit. Then it is gone and we miss it. In my village, after the fruit is over and the leaves and vines have been consumed, the roots are dug out and eaten and relished. Then we wait for the next season!”

We reach the guest house and savour Iskush momos (reminiscent of ravioli-stuffed zucchini) that Mahendra has made for dinner. The next morning, following a pre-breakfast huddle with Mahendra, green Iskush paranthas (the leaves and vines are cooked and ground and kneaded with flour and spices) find pride of place at the dining table. Crisp and green, the paranthas are served with savoury yellow lentils cooked with Iskush stem and leaf. Washing all this goodness down with steaming cups of tea, I wonder idly if Iskush was introduced to the Kanchenjunga ranges  by plantation wives who grew them in the impromptu kitchen gardens that frame the sides of magnificent tea estate bungalows. 
The Ishkush on its vine. Photograph by the author.

Slowly, it dawns on me that maybe, when plantation wives arrived in India, they were armed with squash from their gardens. They must have planted a few aged squash in the lush soil, longingly hoping to propagate familiar associations of home in a strange new land. Emboldened by the familiar climate, the squash rooted itself effortlessly in this foreign environment. It appealed to local residents who took to this English vegetable, root, shoot, and leaf. They eventually appropriated its name and made it their own. Iskool and iscooter  are two significant (north) Indianizations of  the words ‘school‘ and ‘scooter’,  both of European origin. The third and perhaps more endearing (north) Indianization that I have come upon is the exotic Iskush which has now replaced the low profile, more prosaic, ‘squash’.  With the season’s last crop of Iskush carefully rolled in old newspapers, and tucked into carry bags, we headed for Bagdogra, from where we would soon return to the workaday plains.

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