I am filled with pride as I write this very special article today, as she not only happens to be the first lady in India, to join the male-dominated world of tea but she’s also one of my closest friends and I feel so proud and honored to have her as a friend. She is an example of strength, dedication and courage!
In a country where women are often told that their only place is in the kitchen, Laxmi has gone and shown the world how women can not only work at par with men but can also excel in whatever they do! She challenged the belief that women can’t be tea planters!
Before I interview her, we catch up on all the latest that’s been going on in our lives and as usual Laxmi cracks one of her jokes, when I tell her “ Ok, let’s start right from the beginning, how it all started etc,” to which she answers “You already know everything what more do I tell you!”And laughs that carefree infectious laughter of hers!
How It All Started
Laxmi would often visit her sister and brother in law, Prem Tamang, a tea planter. She enjoyed going around the tea plantation and visiting the tea factory. On one of her visits there, she started wondering why there were no female planters? Not a single one! That was when she decided to take up the challenging job.
With her brother in law’s guidance, she joined the Tea Management Institute and excelled there, winning a gold medal as a star student.She then applied for the job once she completed her training and with her determination and confidence, there was no way she wouldn’t get the post as Assistant Manager.
Chhota Saheb Madam
At 23, Laxmi became the Chhota Saheb, a term used to address assistant tea garden managers, ever since tea gardens were set up in the Darjeeling hills by the British. While the assistant managers have been addressed as Chhota Sahebs, the managers are Bara Sahebs!
But with Laxmi as the assistant manager that was changed forever, she was called Chhota Saheb Madam! She reminiscences, “I still remember my first day at work. At 6.30 in the morning, I went for a kamjari, 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 and it felt good.” This madam was not going to give up early even though gaining the respect of the labours at the garden was tough initially. Laxmi says, “There was considerable hostility among the male labours etc.hey were very reluctant to accept a woman as an assistant manager and my biggest challenge was to get them to accept the change.”
Life as Chhota Saheb Madam
The job as an assistant tea manager is not an easy one, it meant tough timings of the daily ‘kaamjaari’. All night factory duty, or early morning processing or field duty from 7 am. Bracing the rough roads and weather conditions, something funnily men tend to think women can’t handle. But handle she did and more. Most of these bungalows are at remote places and the roads to get there are mostly rough.I remember one time when three of us friends had gone to spend a long weekend with Laxmi at her tea garden bungalow, at the Seeyok Tea Estate. It had been around a month since she joined the job. We were enjoying our time together, sitting with post-dinner garam cups of chai when we heard a lot of commotion outside.We looked out of the window there were about five to six male garden workers, each armed with a ‘khukuri’(a Gorkha weapon). They were protesting as they did not want to take orders from a woman! Without thinking twice laxmi stormed out to face them, caught hold of one of them and forced the knife out of his hand! They all left immediately! While we stood watching with open mouths!
When I tell her about the incident she recollects, “Of Course I remember! Though that was one of the many small incidents. 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. I remember how scared all three of you were!” she laughs!
But this was one incident that changed the way they looked at her. “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 also remember all the bike rides with her around the tea garden. Within a year of joining the garden she had to learn driving an open jeep across the hilly garden terrain. In fact, it was the male workers at the garden factory who taught her to ride a bike in the hills and then she started driving her jeep. Laxmi gives due credit to the men for her success both in personal and professional life too.
While some colleagues had doubts about her abilty as a woman doing a man’s job, fortunately most of her colleagues were more supportive. But that did not mean she had it easy, Laxmi had to work harder than a man would to prove she could do what a man could. She even insisted her seniors to give her equal work at par with her male colleagues. “To break the barrier, you have to prove that it’s the work that matters, not the fact that a person is a man or woman,” she adds.
While doing her duty as a tea planter, she also built a home and family side by side. She’s a wife and a hands-on mother to an extremely well brought up daughter, Vidisha. Her husband Vikrant Kaushal has been a great support too says Lakshmi. After working as a planter for 10 years, Laxmi joined the Confederation of Indian Industries as its North Bengal head. “ It is the 10 years I spent as a tea planter and also the fact that since my childhood, my parents taught me not to see myself as a woman, but as a good human being, capable of facing any challenge, is what made me what I am today !” says Laxmi.
And I say like I always do, “More Woman Power to you girl! You make all of us women proud!”
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