Story: The Tea Planter's Wife

The following pages are just a snippet of my Grandma’s (Glenda Winn) amazing life. She has never written down any of her stories so I feel very privileged to be the first one to document parts of her life for posterity. These are my Grandma’s stories, not mine. I remember as a child being engrossed by the tales she would recount of elephants tramping on the lawn and venomous snakes hiding in the house, so I want to convey, in part, a sense of that childhood delight in hearing about India. 

I sit down with a cup of tea and a gingernut. Tendrils of steam rise from the floral teacup in my hand as I place the recording device on a stack of old books. A small wooden elephant stands rigid in the corner of the room, a brass coffee table with intricate detailing is just across from me, and decorative trinket boxes adorn the shelves, memorabilia harking back to the days of my Grandma’s life in India. I’ve heard many stories of black panthers, wild elephants, thieving servants and monsoon rains from my Grandma, but today I want to know more. I sip my tea and breathe in the wonderful aroma, and wonder – is this what India smells like? I lean over and press record, pull out my notes and prepare to ask my first question, “Grandma, how on earth did you end up on an Indian tea plantation?” She pauses before answering, “Well, it was 1955...”

Meeting my Husband
It was 1955 and I’d just had my 21st birthday. I was travelling to England to continue my singing studies so I was very excited! Even though I’d completed my diploma of music in Adelaide there were no paid music careers available in Australia. I was travelling with a friend named Norma. She was a singer, a bit older than me, about 25 I think. We set sail from Adelaide and I met Gordon ten days later. Now this is a story! 

A week or so into the trip we berthed in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). It was my first sight of anything other than Australia and the first place we visited, so it was very exciting. You had to get on a little ferry to go to the mainland and on the mainland there were passengers waiting to embark on our ship. Apparently Gordon was amongst these people with two other bachelors. These men were all tea planters from India and they’d travelled across India to Ceylon to board the ship for England. They were waiting to embark on the ferry when they saw us. Gordon told me later that he had been praying for a wife. He’d had a dream about the girl he was going to marry, and when he saw me he knew I was the one he’d dreamt about. Sounds a bit far-fetched but he assures me it was true! Now, they had booked their passage on the ship in tourist, but I was on first-class. Gordon talked to the purser and asked if they could swap to first-class. The purser said yes, so the three bachelors were moved to new cabins in first-class just so Gordon could meet me.

Meanwhile, Norma and I were in Ceylon for the day. When we came back on board, about 5 o’clock, we went up to the bar to get a soft drink. We were hot and tired but happy because we’d had a lovely time. It was an open bar and I noticed a table with young men dressed in white shirts and white pants, I’d never seen this before but I guessed they were tea planters. I had read novels about tea planters and I had an idea of what they were like – Somerset Maughan type of stories – and I was a bit wary because we were young and travelling on our own.                                    

Anyway, these young men spoke to the steward and invited us to join them at their table, but I didn’t want to do that. However, I suggested that they join us. So they did. And that’s how I first met Gordon – he sat next to me and asked lots of questions! I wasn’t attracted to him immediately; there was another young man I quite liked. After dinner we went upstairs for coffee, you always went for coffee in the lounge after dinner; they came and joined us and we got talking. I think there might have been a movie on that night, Moulin Rouge, and I sat next to Gordon in the movie. After the film he wanted to explore, so I showed him all over the ship. We got to the top deck but as we were coming down the stairs I slipped and ended up in his arms! So he caught me, and that was that! The next day flowers arrived at the cabin with a little note asking me if I’d go and have afternoon tea with him in the restaurant. We went up for afternoon tea and we had cucumber sandwiches and little cream cakes. We talked and talked. I suddenly realised that we had a lot in common. It was lovely, he was just like a good friend and I felt very comfortable with him. On Sunday we went to church on the ship and I wrote down after the church service – because I’d noticed how much he’d enjoyed it and how much we had in common – “Is this the man I’m going to marry?” And this was only after the third day! Two days later we went on shore together in Naples. He had a bit of money so he was buying me little gifts and writing me notes, a tradition he carried on right throughout our married life. In Naples, he proposed to me. I think we’d known each other just five or six days. He said to me, “When we get to England may I buy a ring for the third finger of your left hand? Would you wear it? Would you accept it?”

Getting Married
I didn’t say yes straight away, there was so much riding on my decision.  When we got to England, Gordon’s sister, Barbara, was encouraging me to say yes. I remember we went to dinner near the Thames and during a walk along the river Barbara tried to get me to make a decision. I did say yes eventually and Gordon wrote to my parents who were then on their way to England to live with me while I was at the London Conservatorium of music doing my singing training. In his letter, Gordon said we wouldn’t get married for a couple of years and I was to go on with my singing. Gordon returned to India but found he was too lonely without me. After a few months he wrote and told me he couldn’t wait for another two years. So just after my parents arrived in England I received a letter saying that Gordon was planning on coming home in November. It was very hard for my parents knowing that he was coming back to marry me and then we’d leave England. My mother took it very badly; she didn’t even want to meet Gordon.

It was hard giving up my career but I knew firmly it was what I had to do. I very much wanted marriage and I didn’t have a strong ambition in my heart to be a singer.  A lot of the ambition was my mother’s which she’d sown in me as a young person. She would have loved a singing career, and she was actually more gifted than I was. It was a stressful time and my mother was very sad, but I’ve never regretted the decision I made. 

Arriving in India
We arrived in India a week before Christmas in 1956. The first thing that stood out was the smell! All the streets and pavements were splattered with what I assumed was blood. I thought “Oh no, all these poor people are suffering from some terrible lung disease!” But Gordon laughed and said no, it was beetlejuice. The Indians chew it and then they spit it everywhere. Children were following us, asking for, “Bakshee, bakshee!” which means money in Hindi. My heart went out to all these beggar children, they were poor and dirty. Those were my first impressions of India – absolute horror at the poverty!  

We stayed at the famous hotel - The Taj Mahal in Bombay (now Mumbai). It was beautiful, it’d been built in the time of Queen Victoria and it was all marble and very luxurious, like a palace. We flew out from Bombay two days later to the Port of Cochin (in South India) in a very old aircraft, a Dakota I think. The plane didn’t get up very high and it had little vents in the floor where the wind whistled up under the seats, I remember hoping it wasn’t going to crash. We landed twice on the way. There were no airport buildings, only a tree and oil drums to manually refuel the aircraft. The tree served as the only toilet. Gordon said he’d watch for me when it was my turn to go behind the tree. You had to queue up and oh it was disgusting! But I coped with that. When we arrived a car was waiting to drive us to the tea estate. On the way I was feeling terribly carsick and I never got carsick. But soon after I found out that I’d been sick because I was pregnant. 

The Protocol of Colonial India
It was only a few years since India had been partitioned and established self-government so there were still elements of Victorian etiquette and protocol from the British Raj days. I saw the end of it really. But because we lived far away from the city, our community still practiced some of the protocol from colonial times. For instance, the senior people in the district, like the senior managers’ wives, didn’t mix with the junior wives. I was a junior wife when I arrived. We had things like separate tennis courts for the senior and junior wives. The senior wives were quite superior. But some of them were lovely, for example, when I first arrived the local senior manager’s wife came to visit. The process was that she would bring hers and her husband’s cards, which would have a name, the tea estate where they lived and telephone number on it. You had a tray on a table in the hall and she’d place her cards there. Gordon had to tell me all this because I didn’t know what to do, it was very old fashioned. She came to visit and we had afternoon tea and after she left I was supposed to phone her and invite her for dinner. There was another senior lady who actually visited me with hat and gloves on, which was never done in Australia, so I was quite surprised to see that.

The Servants
The servants spoke English but in a distinctly Indian manner, “Oh I am telling you madam that I am very happy to be here and you are such a good madam, yes madam, thank you, thank you, thank you.” They were educated to the point where they could communicate well and some of them were very bright. When I first arrived we had five servants, a cook, a butler, a sweeper, a matey (who helped the cook), and a gardener.                                                                                                                                                                   
One of the things I personally found hard, and couldn’t do at first, was giving orders to the servants. I felt it was very demeaning to them and I wanted to do the work myself, like the washing and the cooking. I wouldn’t ring the bell if I wanted a servant, instead I would go and look for them and ask for help. Gordon had to be very firm with me and explain that this was their livelihood and with it came a certain amount of dignity that they had a job in a European household. For them, working as a servant was a very good job which gave them clothing, food, healthcare and education for their children.

We had a cook, named Arithythian, and he made a wonderful dessert called a Chocolate Icebox Cake. He was a good cook, and when I employed him all my friends were envious because he was very clever at doing things and his icebox cake was well-known throughout the district. Arithythian used to cook meringues out in the sun. He’d beat up the eggs and sugar and make beautiful meringues. But he could only make them on a very sunny, hot day. He knew how to tell the weather and if it was going to be a fine day, he’d put them out. I don’t know how he protected them from flies and things, perhaps he stood there, but anyway he cooked the meringues in the sun.    

Arithythian had a weakness – he liked beer. For some weeks my husband had been noticing that the beer was very flat every time he opened a bottle, so he’d send it back and get another one, and then that’d be flat so he’d send it back and finally he’d get a good one, so he never suspected anything. Until one day, after the same thing happened, he decided to taste it. Before, he had just opened the bottle and if it wasn’t fizzing he’d send it back to the kitchen, but he tasted this one and realised it was actually cold tea! Arithythian had been ciphering off the beer and replacing it with tea. Meanwhile, Gordon had been to the liquor shop and complained and got very annoyed with the poor owners who said, “So sorry master, so sorry, we not knowing, we didn’t do anything.” And they gave him a fresh lot. Once Gordon found out it was actually Arithythian he took some of the cook’s wages away.    

I had to lock all the food up in a storeroom. It was a big room with shelving because we bought in bulk as we didn’t go to the bazaar every week. I had stacks of tinned food and all sorts of lovely things in there. But I kept it locked for the servants own well-being as they had a real weakness for stealing things. In India there is also a huge bribery problem, they give gifts to get good things. Working for the Scottish company, Finlay’s Tea, we were told that we weren’t to take bribes. We were allowed to take fruit and things that the Indian’s had grown, but not jewellery, alcohol or money. A lot of Indians wanted to give bottles of whiskey, which were very costly and hard to get, but we had to say no. 

On the Tea Plantation
We lived in the High Range, an area of extensive hill country surrounded by jungle in Southern India. All the flavoured, expensive teas are grown here as the higher elevation gives a better quality leaf. We had Orange Pekoe and Broken Orange Pekoe and Lapsang which were very costly. We received good prices for our tea. 

I used to walk around the tea plantations, and they were lovely. There were lots of little roads and tracks so the labourers could get from one field to the next. The tea is grown in fields, and the bushes are so flat you’d almost think they’d been mown with a lawnmower, but the labourers actually have a stick which they lay on top of the bush and they pick two fresh leaves and a bud above the stick.  

The tea is picked every day and a tractor goes around on the little roads. There’s a gathering point at a certain time of day when all the women come with their big baskets and a staff member, called a conductor, will weigh their tea leaves and give them a receipt. The labourers don’t get paid by the hour, but by what they pick. Gordon was a very good manager and he wanted to increase production so he put in place incentives schemes. He had prizes for the top pickers and they loved that, they’d all work harder to win a competition. The labourers plucked all day and they’d take a little lunch container made of brass, and they’d have curry with rice and maybe a poppadum, and they’d sit in the fields to eat lunch. They carried big baskets on their backs with a headband to take the weight of the tea leaves. The women labourers would pluck until they were quite pregnant, and sometimes these women would give birth in the fields because they wouldn’t stop working.

Wild Elephants
There was an estate we lived on called Kadalaar, a very pretty estate, but it had been built on an elephant walk. Now, the local people who lived in the hills had warned the company surveyors against building a bungalow in this particular area but the company hadn’t listened and the bungalow had been built. After the monsoon, once the dry weather began, the elephants would come back to the hilly areas to feed on the sprouting bamboo. And one of the tracks they came up was, of course, right through our garden! Well we should’ve learnt shouldn’t we, we’d just planted our vegetable garden and spent ages building a new tennis court. I think the elephants used to have dances up there on the tennis court! They pulled down the wire and broke the net and stomp, stomp, stomp all over the court and through our vegetable garden. 

One evening, at the end of the monsoon, Gordon had come in with a lot of leeches on him and he really wanted a hot bath. He’d asked Anthony, the butler, to run him a bath but Anthony had come back saying, “Oh master, no good, water not coming.” So Gordon sent the matey, Sevenandy, to see what had happened to the water. Now, we had a spring that fed our house, and the pipes to this spring were up a track at the back of the garage. Sevenandy went up with an umbrella, because we were still getting a little rain, and suddenly we heard this terrible noise! The trumpeting of an elephant! Down came Sevenandy, running as fast as he could, there was an elephant following him and it was very angry, trumpeting and crashing into anything in its way. Well, the elephant knocked down our garage, it was terrible! The story was, Sevenandy had gone up in the rain with his umbrella in front of him and he’d gone slap-bang into this elephant with the point of the umbrella! So the elephant had turned on him and charged! The reason the water wasn’t working was because the elephant had trodden on the pipe. So that was quite an experience for us and poor Sevenandy.
The Beauty of the Black Panther
One day we were travelling by car down a windy, narrow road through the jungle and I needed to go to the toilet. Gordon said we’d stop at the next bend, so we slowed down and pulled over to a stop. To one side of the road there was a concrete parapet, and suddenly onto this parapet jumped a beautiful black panther. Black ones are quite rare. The amazing thing about this sighting was that we were so close I could’ve put my hand out and touched him. We just looked at each other and I observed his eyes. I felt safe because we were in the car and the windows were up. I remember a blue butterfly flew past him as I watched. Of course Gordon wanted to take a photo so he quietly put his hand out to grab his camera but just that little movement and the panther was off. I shall never forget that experience and to this day it remains the most beautiful of pictures in my mind.

An Indian Hospital
My son David was born at the local Indian hospital. By that time the European doctor who’d delivered our daughter Penny had left the district and we had an Indian doctor, but he wasn’t available when I went in at 2 o’clock in the morning for David’s birth. That was a bit difficult because we lived about an hour from the hospital and my labour pains were coming very quickly. Gordon had to leave me standing outside the hospital in the middle of the night with the watchman, who was dressed in his night gear with a blanket over his head, and who couldn’t speak any English. Gordon left me there while he went to find a nurse to open up the hospital. The nurse came and she was lovely, but she didn’t speak any English either. Between Gordon and the nurse we managed to deliver David safely without the doctor. It was a very fast labour at the end and I must have been pushing back hard because I accidentally got my head caught in the bars of the iron bed. Gordon and the nurse were very worried about it but I said, “Don’t worry about me! Just deliver this child!” So I was in labour and my head was stuck between the bars of the bed! After the birth they had to get a carpenter to come. I think he tried to bend the bars but couldn’t, he had to cut one of them eventually. It was quite a business, and of course it was talked about in the district and there was a great deal of humour about it. 

Losing Penny
One day, on the estate with the elephant walk, my daughter got lost. Penny was in the house, and she would have been 3 or 4 and David was 18 months, I said to her, “Go and tell Lily (the nanny) to come in for tea.”                                                                                                      

Now, earlier she’d seen Lily in the garden with David in the pushchair, so she went outside to find them. But when she couldn’t see them in the garden she decided to go down the drive. Meanwhile, Lily and David were inside, but Penny didn’t know that. She got down to the end of the drive and still couldn’t find them so she must’ve thought “Oh they’ve gone on.” There was a bridge over a big, rushing river and she went over the bridge, and on down the road still looking for Lily to call her for tea. When she turned the bend and went a little further on, she reached an intersection which forked in three different directions. It was just coming onto dusk so she must have got confused and didn’t know which way was back home. Meanwhile, Lily appeared at the door for her tea and I asked, “Where’s Penny?”  “Oh I not seeing her madam, I thought she was with you,” she said. “No,” I said, “I sent her to get you.” Gordon was listening and when he heard this he leapt from his seat and called the butler, Anthony, to come and look for Penny. My heart was pounding as we ran outside. The first thing we thought about was the river, so Gordon and I went down to the water to look for Penny, thinking somehow she had tripped and fallen in. Anthony ran off down the road, I didn’t know where he was going. It was terrifying because it was getting dark by this time and we couldn’t find her. But just a few moments later, Anthony came walking up the road holding Penny in his arms and calling to us, “Master, Master, missy here, missy here.” And there she was, safe and sound with only a few ant bites up her legs.

Labour Disputes
One day there was a fight on the plantation, it wasn’t a private thing; it was something to do with work. There were two factions who were fighting each other and a stabbing occurred in the area near the tea factory. Lily, the children and I had just come back from a walk, when I saw a man lying on our lawn. I could see he was in pain and when I got closer I realised he had blood all over his body. He’d been knifed in the chest. My immediate reaction was to do something, so I called Anthony and we used cloths and bandages to try and stop the bleeding. I didn’t know who the injured man was; just that he was hurt. I called an ambulance and he was rushed to the local hospital - we saved his life! Gordon finally came home and I told him what I’d done. He was a little concerned because he knew how the legal system worked in India. We were due to go on leave a couple of weeks after the stabbing but a court case ensued. The court said that I was a witness and that I’d interfered with this particular event so I was subpoenaed, I couldn’t leave. Our company lawyer had to intervene at a high level to get them to agree to release me. A bribe had to be paid before I was allowed to leave the country – that’s how the legal system worked in India. I was advised at that time to never touch or help people who are injured in India because you can get into all sorts of trouble as they will use you for their own ends. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently even if I’d known this.

Grandma folds another shirt she’s been ironing, and I check the recorder. We’ve talked for almost three hours. There are only a couple more questions left on my list. I consider making myself another cup of tea but I’m so engrossed in my Grandma’s life story that I abandon the idea. Instead I ask, “What did you miss the most about India when you left?” Grandma contemplates my question for a moment before saying, “I think I miss the mystery of India the most. We lived in an amazing area in the hills, if was full of wildlife and excitement. There isn’t anything like that in New Zealand.”  

The Mystery of India, so that was the beauty of it. I get ready to ask my last question but I hesitate for a moment, I don’t want the storytelling to end. “Grandma, what was the biggest lesson you learnt while living on an Indian tea plantation?"   

She smiles and replies, “I learnt to respect other people from different cultures to my own, to see their way of life and not try to put mine upon them. I learnt this right from the beginning when I wouldn’t use the bell to summon the servants because I thought that it wasn’t right. But I had to learn it was ok, this was something they’d accepted and in fact, felt quite proud and pleased about. So that’s what I learnt – to appreciate people of other cultures and respect their way of life.”               

I thank Grandma before hitting “stop” on the recording device. We sit in companionable silence for a few moments reflecting on everything that has been said this afternoon. Grandma breaks the silence first and chuckles, “Well, that’s not even half of it. I still haven’t told you the story of the senior wife who crossed paths with a tiger!” I laugh and reply, “Wait a minute! I’m just going to make us a cup of tea.” Charging elephants, blood-sucking leeches, thieving cooks, babies born in fields, knife-wielding employees; it’s just another day on an Indian tea plantation. 

© Lydia Martin 2014