West Bengal: Place the tip of your thumb and index finger below the apical bud (the topmost bud which usually has two to three leaves) of a tea plant so that the inner side of your palm falls to the left of the shoot. Then pluck the shoot in a semi- circular motion, gently moving from left to right. Do not pluck the fish leaves (small leaves growing below the apical bud) as they eventually grow into the apical leaves. Also, remember, if you pluck the shoot at 90 degrees, moving your hand from bottom to the top, you won’t be able to break the stem properly and risk harming the leaves.
And this is how you pluck tea leaves.
How did I learn this? Not by reading articles about the cryptic techniques of plucking tea leave properly or watching videos of people doing it, but from plantation workers themselves in a tea estate in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district.
With polling going on for the West Bengal assembly elections, we were visiting the north Bengal region—which went to polls on 17 April—to report on the election. The area, for those not familiar with it, is home to about 276 tea estates spread across Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Cooch Behar and till date about 10 out of these 276 estates have been shut down, pushing many labourers out of work.
On reaching the Bhagatpur tea estate in Jalpaiguri, I started talking to plantation workers, all of them women. However, I could only manage to get a reply in the form of a nod, and in some cases, a yes or a no. Half an hour later, standing with the women workers, I realized this conversation wasn’t heading anywhere. These people were too scared to reveal even their names, let alone their political affiliations, lest the news reached plantation owners or trade union leaders.
Watching their hands move mechanically from plucking tea leaves to their bags (which they carried on their back) where they collected the leaves, I realized where I had gone wrong. These women have to pluck 24kg of tea leaves every day and I was clearly keeping them from achieving their target.
So, I thought, why not break the ice by breaking some shoots.
I put my notebook back into my bag and asked one of the women to teach me how to pluck leaves. Surprisingly, she obliged me happily. I imitated the movement of her hands and started putting whatever I collected in her bag. Some handfuls of tea leaves later, she looked at me and asked, “Are you from the press?” I nodded my head, pretty sure the conversation would end there. “My name is Chandni,” came the reply.
This was working.
Soon, I was talking to these women, stopping only to put tea leaves in their bags. They told me that most of them had migrated from Bihar, Jharkhand and Nepal and had been living here for more than a decade now. I got to know about their families, their previous jobs, where they lived and their children who studied in Siliguri. Though cautiously, they even spoke about the issues they face and which party they would support in this election.
An hour later, I had learnt about the problems of the tea plantation industry in West Bengal, had been professionally trained to pluck tea leaves and picked up a key lesson in reporting.
At times you need to give people their space and the story will follow. After all, the story is not as important as the people it is about.