I sensed, right away, that Rajah Banerjee had something to tell us. It was in the measured way he carried himself, the arch of his eyebrows and the calculating glance he cast across the room. What's more, I immediately got the feeling that he would test me to see what I knew.
And I was right. Within a couple minutes of sitting down in his office at the Makaibari Tea Estate, the estate's owner — and one of Mercy Corps' most ardent supporters in India's Darjeeling District — made his move.
"Why do we mulch?" he asked succinctly, as cups of fresh, steaming Darjeeling tea were placed in front of each person in the room. I wasn't sure how to answer. Should I demonstrate my own knowledge or defer to his? I mistakenly chose the latter.
"Well, I'm not really sure," I offered, hesitantly.
"Your friend is either stupid or cunning," he said to Thatcher Cook, the photographer who accompanied me on the trip.
"Actually, he's a little of both," Thatcher grinned.
"Landscaping, weed control, topsoil building," I blurted out.
"Good. And don't forget erosion control," Banerjee reminded me. "After all, healthy soil means healthy mankind." Then he smiled, raised a cup of the estate's Silver Tips tea and toasted our delegation.
I'd played into his game.
History, harmony and compassionate leadership
"Here at Makaibari, we are looking for flavor in the balance sheet of life," Banerjee explained, trying subtly to ascertain our reaction to his award-winning tea. "Shall I tell you how we work to achieve it?"
I nodded. We all did, in fact. So he continued.
Makaibari, he told us, was the first tea factory in this part of the world. It was completed in 1859. In fact, some of the 150-year-old machinery is still used to process tea today. The 1574-acre estate is also the only tea plantation to have never been owned by a British citizen; it has been in Indian hands for more than four generations.
But even the estate's rich history pales in comparison to its dynamic present: In 1988, it became the first tea garden in Darjeeling to be certified organic. Then, two years later, it pioneered the use of biodynamic agriculture in the area. Finally, in 1997, it was recognized by the World Wildlife Fund for its commitment to integrating tea plantations with existing forestlands. In fact, two-thirds of Makaibari is covered with trees.
"There are two acres of virgin subtropical rainforest here for every one acre of cultivated tea," Banerjee told us. "Connectivity to the trees will save us."
While harmony between work and environment is central to life at Makaibari, it's respect and understanding between its people that makes it such a special place. As with almost any bond between owner and employee, the relationship between tea estate management and workers in Darjeeling can be strained. In recent years, labor disputes on some tea estates have led to factory shutdowns and even violence.
Banerjee has largely avoided such issues by keeping in constant dialogue with Makaibari's workers — from managers to tea pluckers. He holds regular meetings — "joint bodies," he calls them — to discuss matters from forest management to children's education to the current tea crop to healthier living conditions for families.
"Makaibari is a way of life, not just a tea garden," he explained.
And that compassionate, collaborative leadership has created a natural partnership between Banerjee and Mercy Corps.
Small business and stinging nettles
I know it might sound like I've been unduly influenced by too much good tea and swayed by platitudes, but I'm by no means the only believer in Banerjee's lofty visions.
"Thunderbolt Rajah — that guy's a character," said John Strickland, Mercy Corps' Northeast India Director, of Banerjee. "He's a legend around these hills. And there's no bigger champion for Mercy Corps."
Banerjee is not only an environmental pioneer in this area, but a social entrepreneur. He has given Mercy Corps' Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI) program staff unfettered access to the seven tea garden communities on the Makaibari estate, and provided financial and other resources for Mercy Corps' work here. He's been instrumental in building improved roads for villages, bringing reliable electricity to the tea worker villages and creating a library for the area's children.
One of the most recent projects is a small packaging business located in one of the estate's villages. Here, women are able to supplement their family incomes by turning sheets of local artisan paper from the Manokamana Handmade Paper Factory — another Mercy Corps-supported initiative — into beautiful packaging for Makaibari's organic teas. Banerjee has supported the project in a number of ways, including placing an initial order for 72,000 packages.
Banerjee believes that small businesses, fostered by the relationship between tea estates and organizations such as Mercy Corps, can go a long way toward improving the prospects of tea estate residents mired in poverty.
"Sustainability is the road to freedom," he said. "It's a win-win situation."
Then, suddenly, it was back to the hot seat for me.
"Have you heard of biodynamics?" Banerjee asked, furtively searching my eyes.
"No," I answered, remembering my skewering over why we mulch.
"Then, once again, you've come to the right place!" he exclaimed.
And that's how I came to know how about Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and scientist, and the founding of biodynamic agriculture. Banerjee adheres to Steiner's principles, using such diverse ingredients as yarrow flower, stinging nettle, rainwater tea and quartz in preparations to unify and balance Makaibari's soil. It sounded strange to me, but the proof is in the profit: the Silver Tips tea I was drinking recently sold for almost US$1,300 a kilogram at auction in Japan.
"With biodynamics, you have actually made an inert mass alive," Banerjee instructed. "The land now vibrates with energy."
I was definitely buzzing from the tea and conversation.
Soon, it was time to leave Makaibari and move onto our next destination in India: Assam. But, in those last few moments near Darjeeling's oldest tea factory, I came to appreciate the interconnectedness between Banerjee, his workers, Mercy Corps and the land on which we stood.