What I learnt about life and farming as a tea plantation owner in Kerala

Anjana Das shares her experience of life as a tea plantation owner in Waynad.


When my husband bought us a tea plantation on a remote hill in Waynad on the edge of Kerala’s Western Ghats to retire to, I was ready to brave any challenge. We were in our early forties, there was much to be done and there couldn’t have been a better place to start.

Surrounded by mountain slopes covered in wild forest and streams that gurgled with sweet water, the air was so crisp you could see the villages in the neighbouring state from our viewpoint 1,800 m high. You heard wild elephants trample through dry bamboo shoots in the night while mornings brought the loud cackling of birds like the Malabar Grey hornbill, as well as other endangered birds.

A week after moving in I watched the mist roll over our goat loft and remembered what the local estate real agent had told us, “People pay thousands a day for a view like this. You could build a few cottages and run a resort,” he had said, “Why not make some money too.”

All through winter we pruned and raked, weeding out tenacious creepers; adding neem and turmeric to the diseased, nurturing them back to life. And each plant reciprocated with a new shoot, tendril or bloom. The farmhouse too acquired a refrigerator and a washing machine when we got our power supply. A gas stove replaced the wood-fired brazier and gradually our makeshift garage took on the look of a cosy cottage as we commissioned George, a local carpenter to fit us with beds, benches and a working table.

Farm animals were added too. A hundred egg-laying chickens, two water buffaloes, a sheep – bought on a whim by our farmhand Mohamed Ali at a temple auction – and two small pups that were found abandoned on the street. It truly felt like ‘God’s own country’ as they called the advertising campaign for Kerala tourism.

Three months into this idyllic existence, the first signs of trouble started brewing. The elderly neighbour – among the three on our hill – caught up with me on a morning walk to inform me how a group of men were drinking all night in the worker’s shed at the bottom of the hill.

“You must not allow Mohamed Ali a free run like this,” she confided. It was puzzling. This woman yelled at her son each night for coming home drunk; sometimes, neighbours had to intervene to break up the fight. The man’s wife came once to apologize for the racket they made.

Kerala had a serious drinking problem. According to a report in the Economist, up to 70% of all crimes in the state can be attributed to drinking and a 2010 survey revealed alcohol abuse as the cause, in 80% of divorces in the state. We had two suicides within our own family. If I had assumed that this pristine patch would remain untouched by the troubles that tainted the rest of Kerala, I was mistaken.

Another beautiful spring night our telephones and internet stopped working. Upon investigating we found the newly laid cables cut up and thrown into an unused drainage.  The perpetrator of the cable cutting crime turned out to be a young chap in the neighbourhood who was settling a personal vendetta with the elderly cable worker after a bout of drinking at a friend’s house. His mother picked tea for a living and his father was unemployed. The wife was already pregnant with their second child and they lived largely on the meagre earnings of the mother.

“This is how they welcome new people into the neighbourhood,” Raj, owner of the 80-acre coffee estate across the valley, remarked in jest. Over home brewed coffee, he described how, as the only son he had to take over the coffee cultivation from his parents and how the couple decided to start a bed and breakfast place, but only for three couples.

By then Ali had begun disappearing for several days altogether. When summoned to air his grievances, he confessed he wanted someone to look over the livestock while he only ‘managed’ the farm. He refused to say anything more.

“There are no more workers in Kerala,” Raj had said, when we discussed the issues we were facing, “everyone wants to be the boss or run his own business.” This was a sentiment we heard repeatedly, from different people. Raj admitted demand was high enough to turn requests away regularly, but refused to expand the business to require hiring help.

Spring brought new life to the farm – flaming orange flowers on giant trees, butterflies flitting about, reptiles in the most resplendent colours while mangoes and guavas filled the air with their distinct flavours. The nights were the most spectacular, though. Thousands of fireflies hovered above the tea bushes flickering in the dark in our own backyard. Tourists paid a hundred dollars to view the breath taking sight in Malaysia.

By then, the day to day travails of running a farm had begun to bear down heavily and I remembered a remark from an uncle who had paid us a visit ‘to check how we were doing holed up in Waynad.’

“How do you think she will adjust in these conditions,” he had demanded of my husband. As far as he was concerned I was a city-bred kid, having spent most of my life outside India. He couldn’t picture me in stained overalls, calloused hands and dung-splotched shoes.

Too stubborn to see things as they were I continued making plans. When we harvested our green pepper I bought 10-litre jars for brine and vinegar to try pickling them and see if I could scale it up with the help of local farmers. I wrote to the local government bodies for advice, met experts to register my company and sought other entrepreneurs who had walked similar paths in rural Kerala.

They all came back with one advice: ‘Anything to do with agriculture was a risk’. The statistics were not promising, at all. Up to 2,000 farmers in India were abandoning agriculture each day. (As per official figures, one farmer takes his life every half hour in India.) Two people who had started a pepper bottling factory had closed down in a year, pointed out an official at the local trade promotion office. “Why don’t you start a dental clinic instead?” he asked, trying to be helpful.

People like George’s father had migrated to Waynad in the 1950s for cheap land to farm. They had prospered. “Today vast swathes of fertile land remain uncultivated while our youth go to Dubai on false promises and end up working as construction site labourers in temperatures 45 degrees and above,” he vented. After a decade of working in the Gulf they return, confident they can live off their remittances, instead they drink their savings away.

George who ran his own woodwork shop had five workers but admitted it was difficult meeting deadlines “because of the many times the men wouldn’t show up, after a night of binge drinking”.

In other words, any project that required relying on someone else was ruled out including running a resort, poultry farming or even pickling. I had to re-evaluate the skills I had, and the ones I could use. Just as dark clouds were ushering in the first monsoon rains, I gathered up my belongings into a bundle, loaded them into the boot of the car and began the return journey back to the city, afraid I would cry if I looked back.

I don’t know what people could learn from my experience. But I understood it took a lot of grit to endure in the remote. And it took even more grit to persevere and make a difference.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in India and brought up in Ghana, Anjana Das lived the most exciting part of her life in Egypt where she worked as foreign correspondent from 1999 to 2012, cruising the Nile, snorkelling along the Red Sea coast, hiking Mt. Sinai, camping in the Western desert and writing stories about people and their life, until the Arab revolution sent her packing from Cairo. Her work has appeared in Egyp... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in India and brought up in Ghana, Anjana Das lived the most exciting part of her life in Egypt where she worked as foreign correspondent from 1999 to 2012, cruising the Nile, snorkelling along the Red Sea coast, hiking Mt. Sinai, camping in the Western desert and writing stories about people and their life, until the Arab revolution sent her packing from Cairo. Her work has appeared in Egyp... more
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