Three hundred angry workers had surrounded Dolly Jabbar’s bungalow, and her manager had run away. But Dolly did not capitulate. “She stood at the top of the stairs, raised her hand until the shouting died down and then calmly pointed out that she was the only one who could sort out their problems. If they killed, injured or even upset her, well, they would just end up killing their best bet. An hour later, everyone was back to work and the garden was back to its daily routine," her daughter Sonia recounts the story on their website.

Sonia is third in a line of women tea estate owners who have been at the forefront of the Nuxalbari Tea Estate in Darjeeling. Her grandmother, Sayeeda Badrunisa, was one of the grand old ladies of the estate, and her mother, Dolly, was devoted to the place. Sonia has inherited her love for Nuxalbari, her way with plants, and her deep concern for nature.

One night, a herd of 60 elephants entered the estate. A section had been replanted recently with 150,000 saplings. Sonia left the elephants alone but spent a sleepless night worrying about the possible damage. At dawn, she rushed out to see how many plants had been trampled upon. Seven, she says, a tone of happy surprise still lingering in her voice. The herd, left alone by humans, had returned the favour. Today Nuxalbari is “certified elephant friendly".

If Sonia is ushering in a harmonious coexistence between people and nature, Avantika Jalan of Chota Tingrai, also in Assam, has been propagating organic farming and sustainability. Alongside this, she mentors young women to equip them for managerial roles.

Women make up half the workforce in the Indian tea industry, but at the bottom of the pack. It’s only in the last decade that they have begun to enter the top ranks. In 2015, Lassi Tamang made news when she became the first woman factory manager in Darjeeling. In late 2018, when Apeejay Tea’s chairman Karan Paul called Manju Baruah about her appointment as manager of the group’s Hilika Estate, she meant to say thanks. But what slipped out was “congratulations". Paul reportedly laughed but given that Baruah is the first woman garden manager in Assam’s tea history, perhaps congratulations were in order. The glass ceiling was finally showing cracks.

And this month, Mrinalini Shrivastava completes her three-year term as managing director of Sikkim’s Temi Tea Garden. It is owned and run by the state government, and sees a rotating set of managing directors. In her brief time, the 2002-batch Indian Police Service officer has successfully created alternative income sources at Temi. The heritage “bada bunglow" is now an eco-adventure resort, and her annual Autumn Carnival is a big draw. But Shrivastava downplays her role, “I think I have been able to offer a catalytic effect." What she leaves behind are large shoes for her successor to fill.

TEA TAKES

Other women-run/women-led tea gardens are Nayantara Linnebank’s Lakyrsiew, Shillong, Meghalaya, Samabeong Tea Estate, with Bhuvana Rai as manager, and Husna Tara Prakash’s Glenburn Tea Estate & Boutique Hotel in Darjeeling.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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