Daughter of an army officer who was in NEFA during the war with China and having worked as an airhostess who flew into Assam umpteen times, Israel-based author Sophie Judah is no stranger to what life in tea gardens is and now her new novel has the tea plantations of eastern India as its backdrop.
“Victory Tea Estate” brings alive the smell, colours and sounds from these tea gardens along with their complicated rules and taboos. Judah describes “Victory Tea Estate”, published by Palimpsest, as a celebration of life as it really is. The novel, intricately woven around tea-garden life in the eastern Himalayas in the 20th century, is about a gutsy young woman, Chanda, who moves into uncertainties and risks obloquy to be with the man she loves.
She suffers, bears a heavy cross for challenging social inhibition, but at the end, earns admiration for being steadfast in her commitment. Pune-born Judah was 13 years old when she heard about the tea gardens and wanted to write about this particular story.
“However, I did not believe I could be a published writer. I did a creative writing course when I was in my 50s. I wrote a short story about this. My professor said that it was material for a novel not a short story. That is when I decided to research it. I wrote it seven times from seven different points of view and under seven different titles,” she says.
“I had named this one ‘Chanda’. ‘Victory Tea Estate’ was a different version but the editors preferred this title. I was not satisfied with my depiction of English men and women’s speech. I therefore used an Indian narrator who tells the story in her own words,” Judah said. She worked as an airhostess and flew the eastern sector before immigrating to Israel after marrying the man she had first loved as a schoolgirl.
Asked if “Victory Tea Estate” is based on her recollection or some solid research as she left India about 40 years ago, she says, “This story was inspired by a story my father told me. He was an army officer who was in NEFA during the war we had with China. During this time the tea planters opened their clubs to the officers in the military.
“My dad met an Anglo-Indian school teacher who refused to go into the club with him. She told him her father was there. Then she explained the custom of the English planters keeping an Indian mistress until the time they married. These children could not meet their fathers anymore. If by some mischance they did they had to address him as Mr whatever his name was.”
Judah recalls further, “I went to Calcutta and went to the head office of Goodricke Tea. Mr David Kuppa gave me many books to read. Another planter gave me old correspondence between the gardens and the head office in London. I learned a lot from these.”
She says her story is supported by the research she did. “My dad was also posted at Kohima and he brought back a lot of photographs from the military cemetery. I put in the words on the memorial and those around the tennis court of the district commissioner into the computer and got a heap of material.
“Half-remembered stories of the Second World War, read about and heard from my father, came to life again. I incorporated them into the story,” she says. Asked about the children out of the relationship between the planter and tea picker who carry many races, ethnicities, cultures, bloods in them, she says “The tea gardens imported workers from all over India. I have merely been faithful to the life there.”