MAKING TIME FOR TEA

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By 2017-07-16

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Ceylon Today Features

There is no need to emphasize, especially to us Sri Lankans, how popular a drink tea is in the world. We love it so much that most of us would drink a cuppa at least twice a day. Sri Lanka is not just popular for harbouring heavy tea drinkers but also for producing world class tea.

The eye-soothing, nice-smelling and invigorating cups of tea we savour are the final product of a long and meticulous process. It all starts when a quality young tea leaf is plucked carefully from a Camellia sinensis shrub. We call the ones who initiate the whole process, tea pluckers. It is not just an occupation but a major part of Sri Lanka's tea sub-culture. There are even songs written about them. Mostly consisting of women, teal pluckers on duty are truly a sight to behold. M. Navaneetham who is one of many eye-catching tea pluckers in the hill country carries out her work on Pedro Estate, Nuwara Eliya. Ceylon Today decided to take a peek into a day in Navaneetham's life to witness how a tea plucker's day is spent.

Navaneetham reports for duty every morning at eight. But her day starts four hours earlier when she switches off the alarm at four in the morning. She cooks breakfast and lunch for her family, gets her children ready for school and takes them to school. She arrives at the estate at eight and sets off to pluck tea leaves with her basket. "Everyone is assigned to a certain section to pluck leaves. Once that section is finished, we move on to a different section. It is not as if we can go and start plucking from wherever we want," says Navaneetham.

Navaneetham plucks tea leaves until ten in the morning and then takes a brief tea break. On some days when the morning routine chores get extra busy, she packs and brings her breakfast to work and has it during the tea break.

After the tea break it is back to work and Navaneetham again plucks until noon. At noon everyone gets their lunch break which is about two hours long. One of the perks of living close to where you work is the short commute. Navaneetham who lives in one of many line rooms for estate workers goes back to her home every day during the lunch break. She has her lunch back at home and finishes whatever chores that got left undone in the morning before heading back to work. From two in the afternoon it is again business as usual and Navaneetham continues to pluck tea leaves until four or four thirty in the evening before returning home to her loved ones. She arrives home a little after five in the evening. She spends her evening cooking supper for the family and tending to her children. She calls it a day at around ten or ten thirty at night when she decides to sleep. With plans of repeating the same routine the next day Navaneetham slumbers until four in the morning the following day.

According to Navaneetham not everyone can pluck teal leaves from the word go. It takes some time to master the act and execute it quickly and efficiently. Only leaf buds - young leaves and may be one grown leaf is plucked from a single branch. Once a certain tree is plucked off its usable tea leaves, it takes about a week for it to be able to be renewed and plucked again.

When Navaneetham finishes a full circle of section-wise plucking, the very first section is ready again to be plucked and the cycle goes on.

At this time of the year, Navaneetham plucks about ten to twelve kilos of leaves a day but during the months when the yield is good, her daily amount of plucked leaves exceeds 16 kilos. Sometimes her fellow tea pluckers have a hard time finishing plucking in their designated section. Navaneetham helps them out whenever she can so that the section is covered on time. "Normally, we have to pluck 16 kilos of tea leaves a day. The yield is not that good this time of the year so we can't pluck that much but when it is good, we pluck more than 16 kilos a day. The company pays us Rs. 35 for every kilo we pluck extra" says Navaneetham.

Although the company pays money for excess amounts of tea leaves plucked, it is not as if Navaneetham can pluck as much as possible in quick succession. "We don't use the woven tea leaves plucking basket anymore. Since 2015, we have been given new cap baskets which are smaller and lighter. Old baskets could hold up to 20 kilos but it was not good for our health. Some try to press the tea leaves down and up the amount of tea leaves carried to the factory in a single go. The factory doesn't accept damaged leaves. We have to be fast and at the same time careful not to press leaves down and damage them" says Navaneetham.

Despite being a mother of three children, Navaneetham is 35 years young and still has that youthful vigour in her. Ideally, she could have picked some other job which pays more. Many of the estate people, men more than women, opt to work in vegetable patches which pay Rs 1,500 a day. As opposed to the Rs 20,000 odd she earns a month by plucking tea, Navaneetham could've easily doubled the amount had she gone and worked in a vegetable patch. But her priorities lie elsewhere. "It sure does pay a lot but the work is hard. You have to work long hours and you are not allowed to have long lunch breaks. It is only daily payment and no other benefits. Tea plucking has ETF, EPF, health care and crèches for our children to stay while we are at work" explains Navaneetham.
To Navaneetham, tending to her children comes first. Her choosing tea plucking over working in vegetable patches is mainly due to her devotion to her kids. "It is easy to look after my children and work at the same time if I pluck tea. The estate has Child Development Centres where we can keep our kids and work."

Navaneetham has been plucking tea leaves for seven years now. According to her there are some older women who are veterans in tea plucking and who still continue to pluck. When asked whether she plans to continue plucking tea for the foreseeable future, Navaneetham said that she does not necessarily plan to do so. "I plan to continue working until my children are all grown up. We need money to do so. When my children are big and are in good positions, I won't have to pluck tea anymore" Navaneetham added optimistically.

(Pix by Rajitha Jagoda)

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