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Saheb or madam? No issue for tea first lady

(Left) Laxmi Limbu Kaushal with workers of the Barnsberg tea garden in Darjeeling; Limbu in a tea garden. Pictures by Suman Tamang

On her first day at work at Seeyok Tea Estate in Mirik, Laxmi Limbu Kaushal was introduced as “Chhota Saheb, Madam”.

Ever since tea gardens were set up in the Darjeeling hills from the 1850s, assistant managers have been addressed as Chhota Sahebs and managers as Bara Sahebs.

Things were uncomplicated because they were always male, till Laxmi joined Seeyok Tea Estate as an assistant manager in 1977, becoming the first woman planter in Indian history, and “Madam” had to be added to “Chhota Saheb”.

“I still remember my first day at work. At 6.30 in the morning, I went for a kamjari. Kamjari is an assembly where workers are allotted their daily tasks. The supervisors, assistant managers and the manager were present and one person from the management introduced me as Chhota Saheb, Madam. I was then 23-years-old, just out of college and it felt good,” says Laxmi, a Nepali who hails from Kalimpong.

It didn’t take long for Laxmi to realise that life, as a woman planter, who was up against tradition, was not easy. Within 15 days at work, Laxmi had to face a group of five to six male garden workers, each armed with a “khukuri”, the traditional Gorkha knife, demonstrating in front of her residence, refusing to take orders from a woman.

“It was a small incident. A driver of the factory’s tractor got drunk and took home the keys. I told him that this would not be accepted and that he was to keep the keys either at the factory or hand them over to me. Instead of listening to me he called his friends and gheraoed me,” says Laxmi.

But the incident gave Laxmi an opportunity to prove that she meant business. “They all probably thought that this is just a girl out of college and will not be able to cope with the pressures of a tea garden. I, however, refused to blink. I immediately rushed towards them, caught hold of one of them and forced the khukuri out of his hand. They were stunned and left immediately,” said Laxmi.

Laxmi had decided to become a tea planter for a reason.

“My brother-in-law, Prem Tamang, was a planter and during the winter vacations I used to visit tea gardens regularly. Women comprised 60 percent of the workforce but I found it surprising that there was no woman planter in this industry. It is then that I resolved to be a tea planter.”

Laxmi, who was then an undergraduate at St. Joseph’s College (North Point), where she was adjudged the best NCC cadet and awarded the governor’s medal, approached the late Brij Mohan, a veteran planter and director of Tea Promoters Private Limited, to speak to him about the lack of woman planters.

“He seemed to like my confidence and after taking an interview decided to send me to the National Institute of Tea Management at Shiv Mandir, Siliguri, for a one-year course. I got a gold medal from the institute and Mr Brij Mohan decided to recruit me as a tea planter,” says Laxmi.

Even after the gherao, Laxmi had to fight at every step to make the men accept a woman’s authority.

“Even my senior colleagues would ask me to do light work. They, too, were of the opinion that women cannot be good planters given the nature of work. However, I told them that I should be made to work like my male colleagues,” Laxmi says.

Her work meant visiting the garden factory sometimes around midnight, confronting garden workers who were not always sober and trekking for hours around difficult terrain to oversee fieldwork, whether in rain or sunshine.

“Slowly the acceptance came but I always had to work twice as hard as a male colleague,” she says. Within a year, she started driving an open jeep across the hilly garden terrain.

“Before, I learnt to drive; I learnt to ride a motorbike. In fact, it was the male workers at the garden factory who patiently taught me to ride the bike in the hills. I fell down innumerable times but they would always help me pick up my bike,” said Laxmi.

Laxmi tied the knot with an army officer Lt. Col. Vikrant Kaushal, a Punjabi, in 2002. By then she had moved out of Seeyok tea garden and had joined Goodricke’s Barnesbeg tea garden.

One of the toughest phases of her career was the duration of her pregnancy – she has a daughter.

She would have to start work by 7am and during the plucking and manufacturing season, which starts from March and stretches till November; she had to be at the factory till late night.

“I used to stay alone in the factory and during my pregnancy, my sister-in-law Reena Dharmshaktu decided to stay with me. She would carry a bottle of water, biscuits and other food items and would accompany me, trekking for almost four to five kilometres uphill as my guide,” says Laxmi.

Reena, incidentally, went on to become the first Indian woman to ski across the South Pole.

It was only in the eighth month of her pregnancy that she decided to take maternity leave.

“A woman's ability, confidence and toughness have always been doubted and every time these doubts must be cleared with determination and dedication. We all have to convince it is the work that matters and not the gender,” said Laxmi.

Laxmi left the tea industry in 2007 and joined the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) as the deputy director and head of North Bengal and Sikkim.

“Even today, I have to travel extensively and without my family’s support, I would not have been able to do much,” she says.

Laxmi had wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, the late Parsuram Limbu. He was a police officer at Arunachal Pradesh and a recipient of the President’s medal and always encouraged Laxmi to take on the world.

“I initially wanted to be an IPS officer before I was charmed by the tea industry,” said Laxmi.

Acknowledging the contribution of the men in her lives, Laxmi said: “In every phase of my life there were and are people who have guided me throughout. Apart from my mother and sister, I would like to acknowledge the men because I want all of them to know that women don’t become successful alone. They also need the support of their men in their lives, father, in-laws, partners, peers and mentors. My father was a role model for me as he taught me to be tough and disciplined, my brother P.B. Subba, my mentor Mr Brij Mohan and now my husband Vikrant Kaushal have always stood by me,” said Laxmi.

As head of the CII in the region, Laxmi interacts extensively with the women of the area. “Sometimes, I feel that women still lack the mental confidence to achieve their dreams,” she says.

“We have to throw away pre-conditioned notions and set our own boundaries, creating a balance that is unique to each. Women are born with inherent qualities, we need to explore them and be confident. There will be no looking back.”