I clearly remember my stay in the different tea estates of Assam while I was growing up. My dad had been working there for almost 30 years. The experience was nothing short of beautiful. The luxury of the bungalows with lush green lawns and swimming pools was something that I am yet to get over, six years after leaving the place. The culture of the tea estates is predominantly influenced by the British, and hence the infamous ‘Club’ system—be it the Gymkhana or any other Club specifically for the planters (as they are called)—in that regional meant a lot of social events such as potlucks, lavish dinner parties, sports tournaments, an a large scale celebration of festivals and pretty much everything else under the sun. You can ask any ‘Chai ka Baccha‘ (any kid who has ever lived in the tea gardens) about their stay and you will know about their glorious lives.
My dad was the manager of the Hilika Tea Estate (under the Apeejay company) in the year 2001, the year Manju Barua joined Apeejay and was assigned Hokonguri Tea estate. In 2018, Manju becomes the first woman manager of Hilika after almost 180 years of the tea industry’s existence. This is not just a moment of great pride and happiness for women all over the state, but a privilege for everybody to be able to witness such a historic event while during our lifetime.
The tea estates always had women welfare officers and assistant managers, but for Manju to be officially appointed as the first ‘Bada Memsaheb’ (as she is called by the workers in the tea gardens) is revolutionary. You would always hear the workers calling the managers as ‘Bada Saheb’ and their spouses would be referred to as ‘Memsaheb’. The whole concept of ‘Bada Memsaheb’ that has come in with Manju also gives us a ray of hope and shows us the positive changes that we can look forward to 2019 onward—from people, society, and organisations, not just in terms of understanding the concept of ‘Gender Equality’ for the sake of statistics and reputation, but truly understanding the value and merit of an individual based on their work and giving them their rightful due.
We often say that we are in the 21st century, but our actions fail to match our words. Gender equality will make a lot of sense when we see organisations (I do not intend to generalise) actually breaking the pattern of their routine recruitment style, which has so far been ‘male only’ or ‘mostly’ male, and give equal opportunity to women at every level, based on their merit.
Hopefully we will see a lot of ‘Manjus’ and know that we are finally living in the 21st century.