Thursday, July 5, 2007

Kerala plantations: The bed tea ceremony that was

In my childhood Kerala’s High Ranges where full of sahibs, almost all of them connected with plantations – tea, coffee, rubber, cardamom, pepper. I remember that in the Planters’ Clubs that I used to visit with my maternal uncles during summer holidays, they far outnumbered the Indians.

With India’s Independence, the situation changed. By the 1950s, the plantation sector in Kerala was in turmoil. Mainly labor trouble. The sahibs, most of them British, started selling out to Indians and leaving the country. After my youngest uncle Michael A. Kallivayalil bought JJ Murphy’s Yendayar Estate and my brother Joe (PKJ Tharakan) was posted as manager there, staying in the Irishman’s bungalow, I went there to spend a weekend, I think in December, 1959. Murphy’s staff was still there and the place was run on the old routine.

Those days the plantations had no public power supply. The estates with tea or crepe rubber factories had their own generators. But they were run only during the day when the factories worked. As a result there was no power in the bungalows during nights.

Before we retired after dinner, the butler, a pleasant chap named Muthu who had spent years with Murphy had checked when I wanted bed tea to be served.

At the appointed time there was a knock at the door. A ceremonial parade was on. In front of the line was a bearer carrying a Petro Max lamp; it was still quite dark and cold. The second person had a small light table, I suppose in case I preferred to have tea in bed. They were followed by Muthu in full livery, turban and all, holding the tray in his right hand in level with his shoulder. All very proper.

After the ‘good mornings’ Muthu gave me an enquiring look and I pointed to table in front of the sofa set. He placed the tray on it and waited. I told him thank you, I’ll pour myself. The trio withdrew, but in reversed order – Muthu first and then the other two.

On the tray were tea pot, milk jug in case a guest wanted to be sacrilegious enough to add cream to unblended estate tea, cup and saucer and one ripe yellow banana. That was the standard menu.

All that is gone. Now it is more down to earth bed tea, or coffee.


Also see: Irish planter, punter, soldier, playboy

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