March Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

It took Raihana Hasan over 40 years to share her experience of witnessing the last days of a united Pakistan. Perhaps this is because she was not just a journalist or historian busily recording the rush of events. Her narrative is deeply personal and one can discern that in telling her story, even after the distance of time, a sense of sorrow returns.

Sips from a Broken Teacup is an extremely well-written account of 10 years spent on the tea estates of Sylhet. Married to her cousin, a tea planter, the author opens her story with her first encounter of Sylhet when she had to disembark from a train on a darkened platform in the middle of nowhere on a cold January night. Catapulted from life in urban Karachi to the wilds of Sylhet, it took her husband’s sense of humour and her own growing resolve for Raihana Hasan to gradually come to terms with life in the tea gardens.

And, by and large, it was a charmed life. The lifestyle, with all the colonial comforts, chota andburra bungalows, appears trapped in time. With a retinue of servants, the privileged lifestyle, in spite of hardships, was very much in place when the author arrived at the tea estates in 1962, decades after the British had left though some English planters and companies remained. Doloi Tea Estate, for example, was managed by James Finlay and Patrakhola Tea Company by Duncan Brothers — names that are deeply etched in the history of tea gardens in the subcontinent.

The social aspect of life on the tea estates is aptly described by the author:

“The Doloi Club looked as if it had been transplanted from the English countryside. It fronted a vast golf course edged by the Doloi River. I already knew most of the people. The only stranger was the English Manager of Doloi Tea Estate. He was perched precariously on a stool at the bar, and at six in the evening he was already so drunk that he was swaying dangerously. … I soon learned to take that swaying presence for granted. The eccentric son of a retired admiral in the Royal Navy, he (Stanley) was the one who kept three mistresses.”

Sips from a Broken Teacup is full of rather unconventional characters — people who, both because of remoteness of their location and interdependence, develop deep bonds of friendship and camaraderie. Some bonds would stand the test of time, while some relationships would disintegrate in the face of chaos and danger as, with the passage of years, political developments in East Pakistan would bring an end to life as most of the planters knew it.

Raihana Hasan is an equally astute observer of the tea pickers and workers on the estates. These men and women had their own special skills. She is particularly impressed by the women whom she found “more liberated than their sisters elsewhere in Pakistan.” Working long hours, they “matched their menfolk drink for drink during the pooja season.” Steeped in mythology, both religious and those originating in their surroundings, they, too, organised their own entertainment centred round the changing seasons.

Sips from a Broken Teacup is divided into five ‘books’ chronologically, and it is from Book Three, appropriately titled ‘Omens,’ that the writer begins to sense and record the rapid changes that would ultimately endanger their lives. The first ominous sign is an envelope arriving on a morning in January 1971 containing a Bengali primer and a hand-written note in capital letters saying, “If you want to live in this country, it is high time you learnt the language.” Puzzled and perturbed, they discover that all non-Bengalis on the plantations had received the same alarming message.

From that day on, events move very quickly. The declaration of a non-cooperation movement by Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, the killing of non-Bengalis, followed by the ruthless crackdown and killings by the Pakistan army are facts known to history. Raihana Hasan and her family were, like other ‘West Pakistani’ tree planters living in a state of terror, trying to make some sense of the rapidly changing scenario. Suspicion and fear replace friendship and trust. For some time, hope sustains the planters as news comes through that the army is planning their evacuation. Nothing of the sort happens and they spend their days and nights packing essentials and trying to get out of the way of the Mukti Bahini.

Although many accounts have been written of the last days of united Pakistan, Hasan’s personal narrative has a different type of urgency. It draws the reader into the inner circles of the planters’ and their families’ lives as, confined to their homes, they anxiously contemplate their next moves, ending up making many mistakes along the way.

In fact, the last section of the book is a page-turner reading almost like a thriller as the writer describes the escape through indescribable terrain and, often under barely human conditions. The account records both betrayals as well as amazing courage from the least expected quarters. Hasan and her family, along with some friends, end up crossing the border into India on foot, escorted by a smuggler. And she describes part of the experience: “Was I having a nightmare? Had we actually left our comfortable homes to battle our way through these cruelly scratching bushes, towards an unknown destination? It was like something out of a melodramatic movie: the hero, the heroine and their sidekicks, with three small children, following a stranger in the dark, not knowing what awaited them at the next bend in the track. Such things didn’t happen in real life.”

The journey into and across India is full of perils. The reader almost heaves a sigh of relief when the author, her husband and children are finally safe with their family in Pakistan. While many stories and individual accounts have been written in both India and Pakistan about the travails of the 1947 division, not enough personal accounts have been published about the second division that took place in the subcontinent. Compelling as it is,Sips from a Broken Teacup should inspire others to share their stories. And for tea aficionados, the book contains a lot of history about tea gardens and excellent quotes on drinking tea, not necessarily from a broken teacup.

This book review was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Of Tea and Times Past.”