Wednesday, 24 August 2011

devouring the Memoirs of a Memsahib

I'd like to go into a bit more detail about The Empire of Tea, which I introduced last week (contemplating The Empire of Tea).

After the book's Introduction, it opens with a description by Iris MacFarlane of marrying a tea planter and her life on the plantation (she's the mother of her co-author Alan MacFarlane). This first chapter is called Memoirs of a Memsahib.

I've resolved to be a bit more concise in my blogging, when possible, so I'll boil down her primary themes. The most important seems to be that the people actually growing and processing the tea weren't treated very well at all. She describes the colonial beliefs with which she was raised and that she brought with her into this new life. She even says near the end of the chapter that the other planters' wives, who hadn't bothered questioning the status quo, had had a far more pleasant life than she did.

But the majority of the chapter has to do with the relationship between the master and his servant, as well as the way in which the tea growing society/company did nearly everything it could to keep things as they were. Those are the main thoughts. Her writing is quite compelling, so I'd recommend you get your hands on a copy of this enthralling story.

She watched her mother keep a very close eye on the cook and his accounts years before she knew she'd be a tea planter's wife. As she writes, '...The cook went to the bazaar every morning and my mother wrote down his purchases in her Mensahib's Account Book. Everything was very cheap but the cook's figures were daily questioned; Indians were "chilarky", a word that covered lying, cheating and a general (innate of course) inability to resist being saucily devious.'

There's much more of this. She's instructed by the other planters' wives in how to avoid the servants stealing silverware. The remarkable thing is that she slowly becomes curious about these people's lives and tries valiantly to do her part to improve the situation. The depictions of these attempts and her awakening to the servants' plight is what makes the story continue to draw me in. It's as if the reader's watching her consciousness develop as the story unfolds.

But I'll leave you with how she describes her initial impressions of her arrival. On page 5, she says:

I had absolutely no idea of the process that turned this perfumed profusion into a drink from a pot. I arrived in July 1946 with all my misconceptions in place.

Then a bit later on page 9, she continues:

I went to bed happily unaware that I would actually spend twenty years in tea; it would be 1966 before I was carried out on a stretcher from this beautiful, vibrant, exhausting, magical country.

Isn't that alluring? Why did she have to go out on a stretcher? We have to keep reading to find out. And how about the phrase perfumed profusion? I'll use that one again, I'm sure.

No chilarky from me. I can't wait to guide you along through the rest of this book.

(Source: The Empire of Tea pp 1-27)

1 comment:

  1. I've read this book too, quite a while ago, though. I should revisit it.

    As mentioned on twitter earlier - if you enjoy this book you should check out Roy Moxham's 'Tea: addiction, exploitation and empire' - it is a really interesting read, although a bit depressing in terms of the revelations (to me) of just how exploitative the tea industry can be.