A Legacy Beyond Tea

What started out as an effort to reach Basamlu Kisikro, the famed tea lady in the Indian village of Wakro in Lohit district, leads me to a documentary film by Indian director, Ramchandra PN, and a casual email correspondence with him. (Basamlu uses tea cultivation as a form of social agriculture to convert opium farming to tea plantation.)

His film, Lohit Diary (on Youtube here) centred mainly on three residents from that district. One was a tax inspector called Uncle Moosa who gave up a career and started a library for children, Basamlu who encouraged people to switch from opium cultivation to tea farming, and a former drug addict who operates a rehabilitation center.

Don’t expect a sleek production like Netflix’s Chef’s Table, or even production values approaching what we usually watch on BBC or other channels. Ramchandra’s film is more ‘raw’ where the shots are seemingly spontaneous, and there’s neither an eureka moment nor a central take-home message at the end. The film is unvarnished and meanders as in real life. It did get me thinking. It planted the notion of legacy in me for the first time. For common folks, legacy is often not celebrated on television or feted in glossy magazine spread. More often, it’s about ordinary people doing uncommon things.

Basamlu & Her Tea Garden

Stills from Lohit Diary featuring Basamlu Kisikro

But first, let me digress slightly and focus on Basamlu. Her story is documented in various media in India (Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, Newsgram). She first turned to tea farming when her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009. Doctors advised Basamlu to give her mother regular cups of green tea as it’s full of antioxidants. It wasn’t always possible to travel miles from her village to get the beverage and it’s also expensive, so she decided to DIY in the backyard of her house. From filial piety, it grew into an effort to change one’s community for greater good.

Lohit district and its surroundings in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state are notorious for opium cultivation. The money investment is low and harvest time is short compared to tea farming. Unsurprisingly, lots of farmers cultivate opium as a sustainable source of income. Along with opium cultivation, comes social ills like drug addiction which tears the social fabric and family unit. One of Basamlu’s challenges is to show that organic green tea farming is a viable alternate source of income. She managed to prove cynics wrong by selling her product to buyers from Canada, Australia, USA, Japan and Germany for her Wakro Organic Tea brand. Since starting her own tea garden, she had convinced a few farmers to switch and they had increased their tea plantation acreage.

Director Ramchandra & His Social Documentary

Indian film director Ramchandra made Rohit Diary.

I wanted to contact Basamlu to get first-hand insight into her challenge to convert opium farmers into organic green tea farming. Though my effort was unsuccessful but my research lead me to film maker, Ramchandra. I asked Ramchandra why he decided to film Basamlu, and he was pragmatic in saying once he started making the documentary about Lohit, there was no way not to include opium cultivation as the roots run deep. He said Basamlu’s energetic personality and her story has great social value that needs to be told.

Through his film, I know there’s a beautiful folklore with a tragic legacy behind opium cultivation. Long ago there was a very beautiful maiden with many suitors. She knew she can’t make everyone happy and decided to sacrifice her life for the benefit of society. Seven days after her death, a plant grew in the position between her legs where she died. The villagers slit a portion of the plant and a liquid with medicinal qualities emerged. They named the plant Kaani, which we know it as opium. The people began to utilise the liquid, and thus, the cultivation of the plant spreads.

Legacy Musings
The maiden’s legacy is one of uncompromising love for her people, aside from the destructive forces of opium. For Basamlu, her legacy is beyond tea gardens but a healthy community. For Uncle Moosa, it’s an education for the young. To me, leaving the world a better place than we found it is a solid principle to live by. And we don’t need to colonise Mars to leave something profound, it could be something closer to home, as long as we effect a positive ripple.

So I was musing about my legacy. Quinteassential? Honestly, I can say I am very proud of Quinteassential, and I am going to make it the best of my ability. But this goes beyond a mere business plan to take it from A to B. In the fork of life, there’re many possibilities. Motherhood? Charitable cause? I don’t know but I am going to enjoy the journey, and follow my heart.

On a parting note, Basamlu seemed to have converted another to green tea. Director Ramchandra been having black tea with milk over the years, but off late, he wrote, “I have taken a liking for green tea.”

Bernadine Tay is a tea designer and founder of Quinteassential. She tells stories and relives memories through her tea designs. She is the tea curator and brand ambassador for Wedgwood, and has designed bespoke blends for luxury brands and hotels. She had won 7 Great Taste awards out of her 12 blend designs for her own tea range and is now also a tea judge.