April 03, 2020
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Of Mists, Fires And Pekoe

Reads like a loose collection of snippets, but Godden was in actuality writing notes to herself rather than putting together any kind of narrative flow.

Of Mists, Fires And Pekoe
Rungli Rungliot
By Rumer Godden
Speaking Tiger | Pages: 176 | Rs. 299

Rungli Rungliot is a tea app­arently christened by a Buddhist monk who was mesmerised by one sip—though that is an advertising spin on the act­ual story of a lama who halted the flooding Teesta waters with a command. The tea takes its name from the garden where it grows, just below Darjeeling. Some readers might remember that it is now in the hands of the struggl­ing Duncan Goe­nka Group. Rungli Rungl­iot is in some senses their flagship garden, the one which houses tea tourists in search of nostalgia.

Rumer Godden spent a year in Rungli Rungliot during World War II. Isola­ted from the theatre of war and trying to cope with a difficult marriage, she sat secluded in an office or an arbour of lemon trees and wrote, looking out across the tea bushes to a space of clouds and water. She learnt to separate shades of white as the sunlight passed thr­ough the rooms of her bungalow or at the red in a girl’s hair ribbon, and the mingling of red, pink and brown in her complexion, or a dog’s coat that is the colour of autumn marigolds. Starlight in the sky and on the hills during Diwali, briefly glimpsed, the crackle of the logs in the fire, logs brought by the woodcutter employed by her section of the garden—all these sights and sounds are part of her story.

For her it was an almost Zen-like retreat. Chinglam was the furthest of the bungalows in the garden, connec­ted to the manager’s house across the valley only by telephone. In the beginning, she had the Swiss governess Giovanna for adult company, but at 26 Giovanna needed to find her own world and Godden sent her away.

Rungli Rungliot is Godden’s journal of the time she spent in Chinglam, a quiet life ruled by the passing of the seasons and the changing fruits and flowers. She describes the people she had to interact with in her day-to-day life, the Munshi whose pony she bought, the bread runner whose son was conscripted—one of the 36 people from the garden sent on war duty—the dogs and the night soil and the tea-pickers. In a sense, a collection of Indian miniatures.

She learnt to separate the many shades of white as sunlight passed through her room or the red in a ribbon.

Godden’s daughters wandered the wat­erfalls or went to the factory below their cottage and had themselves wei­ghed after the picked leaves had been put away and the pickers paid for the day. Godden describes the withering process,  muses over the poetry of names like Flowery Orange Pekoe and talks of the tea year with its two cycles, the pruning and the growing.

She marvels at the fact that the garden was profitable eno­ugh to finance a suspension bridge for the Rungjeli section and that, despite the war and the inflation it cau­sed, W, the manager, was forecasting an incr­ea­sed harvest that year. She described him as a benevolent ruler pre­­siding over sports day, dis­­tributing cash bonuses and doing all the things that garden managers continue to do.

Occasionally, visitors from the outside would ask her whether she ever went to the ‘Club’, but God­­den never did—she was too busy focusing on her work and achieving who­leness as a writer rather than being a superior ‘koi hai’. The bungalow and the garden put a different perspective on life and marked a new period in her writing career.

Many readers may wonder why Godden’s book reads like a loose collection of snippets, but she was in actuality writing notes to herself rather than putting together any kind of narrative flow. It records animals, flowers, servants and children.

Originally called Thus Far and No Further, Rungli Rungliot was first published in 1961. Ruskin Bond has chosen it as one of his personal favourites because of its sense of place and simplicity of style. Godden captures a cycle of life that some people are lucky enough to experience still.

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