It Takes Tea To Tango

Nishiraj A. Baruah turns tourist in his own town as he discovers the rainsoaked joys of Dibrugarh in Assam through the eyes of his Delhi-bred better half.

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The orgasmic sounds that my wife is making has got nothing to do with sex. The oohs and aahs are actually inspired by the rain washed tea garden right in front of my house in Dibrugarh, Upper Assam. Sitting in the verandah with a steaming cuppa every morning, she stares at the sprawling garden spread out till the horizon like a well fed carpet for hours, alone and lost, until her mom-in-law calls her down for lunch. Indeed, she shares a peculiar chemistry with the tea garden that I, born and brought up alongside the garden, don’t quite understand.

While we were growing up, the tea garden, in fact, was considered more a bane than a boon. It is the source of pests and snakes: With pesticides sprayed on the garden, mosquitoes and all kinds of insects escape to the safer environs of our house compound. Sometimes, snakes take shelter in our kitchen cupboard and foxes wail every evening.

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The area also remains pitch dark after nightfall with noisy drunk garden laboureres walking past our house to their labour lane huts on the other end of the garden. This also means our house is more vulnerable to anti socials – our house was broken into a couple of times. Not surprisingly, my dad used to complain bitterly about the ‘jungle’ he had decided to build his house on…

While these nuisances continue, people living alongside the garden no longer crib about it as much. Calm, quiet and obviously green, this is possibly one of the most sought after residential neighbourhoods in laid back Dibrugarh now. So there we go, after a gap of three years, taking along our five month old for a month. For me the holiday was about being with family and relatives, catching up with old friends and neighbours and, of course, do some maintenance job on the house. But soon I end up being a tourist in my own town, thanks to my Delhi bred better half, exploring a side of Dibrugarh that I had never quite seen…

You won’t find Dibrugarh, the largest tea exporting town in the country, in the tourist map. This tea town surrounded by a oil rich belt is rather a base town to explore other interesting sites such as the ancient capital of Ahom dynasty Shivsagar, forests reserves of Dibru Saikhowa and neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh just across the Brahmaputra river. However, if you are a tea fan, Dibrugarh is the right place to be: You will still find a colonial culture in the golf courses, polo ground, planter’s clubs and so on. There is more to Dibrugarh, of course. But I needed my wife to point these out to me.

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There is the river, for example. The great Brahmaputra is barely 15 minutes drive from my house. However, I have never given a thought to the fact that my house is actually by a river. So you have a pleading wife begging me to take her to the river banks and off we scoot our way and up the embankment and explore quiet and serene corners. Mom don’t quite like the idea, but who can stop a bahu coming from a landlocked Delhi. And there we are walking and taking in the riverside scenes with its ferries, fishing boats and anchored, abandoned barges. Local anglers dot the bank, sitting patiently for a catch. We see a frustrated angler throwing away a handful of tiny fish he caught back to the river coz “it is as good as nothing”. He hopes for a bigger catch, he says. Chewing raw betel nut and pan, sometimes we sit by the banks and watch bamboos, logs and tree trunks floating down the river from Arunachal Pradesh side. Sometime we stroll on the soft sand… It is unusual for urban couples to be in the area. Naturally people regard us curiously. “Let’s go home,” I say, uncomfortable. “Let me enjoy the attention,” she says.

The river is there, has been there, and will be there —what’s the big deal! For the residents, the Brahmaputra is more of a threat than a treat. Every monsoon, it would swell to dangerous levels and towners are on their toes. And why not? Back in 1950, half of the original Dibrugarh town has been swallowed up by the river that changed its course thanks to an earthquake. A week of incessant rains and people are making arrangements to move to floors above or get away from the town altogether to higher places. The sandy river banks are also home to nomads and all things immoral. Besides, every year there would be reports about how riverside picnickers would meet watery ends. As children, we were forbidden from venturing out. Brahmaputra can be a very angry river, very turbulent, and when it roars in all its ferocity, you get goose bumps.

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Of course, with wifey enjoying so much, I couldn’t but be infected. A trip to the local veggie market was next, even as it brought out another spell of ‘O’ shrieks. This time it is about the mind boggling variety of local saag and vegetables; about crabs, duck and tortoise eggs; Bhoot joloikia (supposed to be the hottest chilly on earth); bambbo shoot, joha chawal (local basmati rice), ripe jackfruits, green branches of raw pepper, a variety of lemons and at least five variety of bannans – from the size of a thumb to the size of a cola can, and so much more. It is fresh and green, no doubt, but the slush and the mud that you have to walk over to reach the open market puts me off. “You have become more Delhiite than me,’ she whines.

And then, you have the rains. It rains. It rains. And it rains. For someone from Delhi out for a holiday, rains could provide for a refreshing break. And so was with wifey, making her go crazy like a peacock, as it makes the tea garden come alive, as it tap dances on the tin roof lulling you to sleep, as it brings the temperature down and make the green vegetation wear a luscious look. Frogs croak louder and kids play with tadpoles.

For the residents, however, rains spell trouble. June-July is a period I avoid going to Assam. Rains can act as a depressant. You are all dressed up and nowhere to go. Day to day work comes to a grinding halt. Roads are flooded and roof leakage is common. Rain also nurtures the vegetation and what you have at the end is an overgrown rainforest right in your compound. Labourers have to be called in to clear it all. Rains also bring indoors the creepy crawlies — leeches, snails and worms typical of a tropical weather. Wifey doesn’t take the last bit well, but when she realises that even fishes swim into our compound from the overflowing rain drain, and that you can actually angle from your verandah, she is ecstatic: Whoever needs to go to Alaska for angling, she exclaims, and goes looking for a fishing rod.

And thus our holiday comes to an end, but not without one last little sojourn. “Stop, stop, stop,” says wifey, while riding back home on my twenty year old Bajaj Super along a pitch dark road with gardens on the either side. We are returning from a vist to one of my aunts. “What, yaar?” I say, suddenly braking and balancing the scooter. Has her dupatta got stuck somewhere? Then comes a mushy one liner: “Can’t you see the stars?” I say I can, but what about it? And then I notice: I have never seen stars more clearer, more closer than this. The stars are not just over us, but all around us, closing in upon us, twinkling bright on a dark canvas with a ‘pluck me’ look. We get lost, when suddenly a screeching bike breaks our spell. Riding on it are a middle aged couple. “Bondhu (friend), everything all right? Any problem with the scooter?” the man asks. “No, no, everything is fine,” I say, touched by his concern, but wondering how odd it would have seemed to him if I had said that we are just stopping by to stare at stars!

Twinkle, twinkle, little stars… Yes, Dibrugrah has made me a kid again.

BOX

How to go:

There are daily flights to Dibrugarh via Guwahati
Dibrugarh is well connected by Rajdhani Express and Brahmaputra Mail from New Delhi.
Where to stay: There a number of hotels in the price range of Rs 200 (pretty decent rooms) to Rs 2000 (3 star)
Local transporst: Bus service is extremely efficient. Taxi service is also available.

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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