My grandmother, Nawabzadi Sayeeda Badrun Nessa Khatun, was called Mimi by her family, Munni by us kids and Amma, or mother by all and sundry, including her many employees.
She was an unconventional woman for her time, and unlike her mother and sister she refused the purdah.
She loved music and chose to learn to play the sitar, an instrument traditionally played only by men. In time she became an accomplished player.
Yesterday we had a visitor at the estate. Old Jyoti Babu had been our store clerk for 40 years before retiring a few years ago. Over a cup of tea together he reminisced about the old days and told me stories about my mother and then about Amma.
'You won't believe this, but what I am about to tell you I have seen with my very own eyes. I don't talk about it because it is so unbelievable, but you should know your grandmother was a very special person.' And when I nodded my head and encouraged him to continue he told me what happened when she once visited the estate in the hot season.
There was no rain and the heat was oppressive. The tea bushes were withering and because there was no electricity in those days there was no question of irrigation. Everyone hoped for rain, waking up each morning and scanning the sky for a sign: a cloud, some breeze, but there was nothing. The leaves on the trees never stirred; the sun burnished the sky until it was white-hot.
Amma woke one morning and called for her tabaliyah and harmonium player. 'I am going to bring rain.'
'We all looked at the sky and saw not a speck of cloud and told Amma gently,' Jyoti Babu said. They probably thought she had become quite maddened by the heat, although he didn't quite say that.
'Then?' I prompted.
'Then Amma began to play and she played all morning, and you won't believe it, but by afternoon, thick dark clouds gathered and by evening the heavens burst and we had glorious rain.'
'I don't believe you.'
'But I told you you wouldn't. Your grandmother was a very special lady. I have seen myself how like Tansen she could bring the rain.'
I don't know what to think, but it was such a beautiful story I had to share it here. The magic of Nuxalbari Tea Estate can't be mine alone.
~ Sonia Jabbar
Nuxalbari Tea Estate
February 1, 2014.
Dolly Jabbar had just been running Nuxalbari Tea Estate for a few months when she woke up one fine April morning to find the manager missing and 300 armed and irate workers surrounding her bungalow. Tea planters unlucky enough to have had the experience will know the panic and desperation that seizes one who is ‘gheraoed.’ But this was not a tea planter, and not even a man. The woman who now confronted an irate mob was less than 5 feet tall and who, for forty odd years had known little more than being wife to the ‘Burra Sahib’ of the tea broking firm, W.S. Cresswells, raising three children and hosting some of Calcutta’s most talked about parties.
But Dolly Jabbar behaved true to form. She stood at the top of the stairs, raised her hand until the shouting died down and then calmly pointed out to them that she was the only one who could sort out their problems. If they killed, injured or even upset her, well, they’d just end up killing their best bet. An hour later everyone was back to work and the garden was back to its daily routine.
This was the pluck and insouciance that marked her life. Born in Benaras as Lalita Dev, she spent much of her early life in her family home in Lahore and Sheikhupura. After Partition in 1947 the family moved first to Delhi and eventually to Calcutta. Here as a teenager she met Sayeed Jabbar, grandson of the Nawab of Jalpaiguri.
The Hindu-Muslim alliance was frowned upon, but Dolly and Sayeed were young and very much in love and married in a quiet ceremony in Shillong. By the time their first son, Rahil was born, everyone in tea knew Dolly and Sayeed as just another young, fun-loving couple.
By the late 1960’s tea markets crashed around the world and most tea estates fell into total disarray and were sold for a song. Sayeed's family lost many of their estates within two short decades.
But when they contemplated selling Nuxalbari, Dolly put her foot down. When they tried to convince her that the property was debt-ridden and didn't have anyone capable to run it, she volunteered herself. Brushing aside the pessimism and doubts of the old tea hands in the industry, she took over as managing director in 1981. Dolly Jabbar may not have had a business degree, but she had 3 things going for her: common sense, determination and most importantly, a green thumb. When she could create one of the most beautiful gardens in Calcutta, how difficult could it be to grow and tend a hardy tea bush, she reasoned? Never mind if there were 1200 acres of it.
For the next 30 years she tended her "garden" with great love and devotion. She cleared the debts, upgraded the old factory, planted vast acres of young tea and hundreds of trees and slowly but surely transformed Nuxalbari Tea Estate into one the best tea estates of the area.
Dolly Jabbar, always a bundle of energy, suddenly suffered a heart attack and passed away swiftly on the estate on 20 May, 2011. Following her wishes, her children cremated her at her favourite spot on the estate and scattered her ashes among the tea bushes. Thousands of workers bid farewell to a woman who lived and laughed and loved so well.
Sonia Jabbar has had many avatars in one lifetime: from graphic designer & photographer, to essayist, travel writer, artist and peace activist until the death of her beloved mother, Dolly in 2011, when she began nurturing Nuxalbari.
Most pluckers picking tea leaves on estates are women, because of the delicate nature of the work. However, the 'sardars' or supervisors watching over them or in positions of power are invariably men.
We at Nuxalbari do not discriminate. On the contrary we encourage and mentor leadership in women. A number of women have made it to the position of sardar, both in the field and in our factory, and wear their responsibility with pride and distinction.