Man Bahadur Gurung received me at the gate of the Makaibari bungalow. Despite the practiced smile on his face, the shock is still apparent. Beyond the little green gate at the top of the steep stairs, lies the remains of what has been the first address of Darjeeling and its priceless teas. Gurung has been one of the guards at the estate for years and has seen the house since he was just a boy. He guides me along the shards of glass and burnt hedges to what was, the main entrance of the residence.
It is a lot to take in.
The opulent residence that has been graced by dignitaries, connoisseurs and celebrities over 159 years now stands charred and reduced to its skeletal form. “Do you want to go in?” Gurung asks me, and then looks away immediately confused. The shock of the incident written large on his face.
The foundation of the Makabari House was laid in the year 1859, the same year as the estate itself. The structured was completely renovated to its present form between 1935 and 1940, according to the estate’s Manager, Sanjay Das. Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, or Rajah Banerjee as he has been known to all, is the fourth generation of his family to own and stay at the estate. “The residence housed the soul of Makaibari and all of its people. It is a huge loss,” Das told me when I met him later that evening in his office chambers. “He has treated me like a son and every member of Makaibari as family. He is like a father to us and we could not help him.” The pause that follows speaks of the regret that each person on the estate is experiencing.
The accident, which took place around 2 pm on March 16, caught almost everyone at the estate off guard. Banerjee was travelling to Kolkata while Das was in Vishakhapattnam at an important business event. Mrs Banerjee had taken lunch and moved to the Manager’s residence, a little further up the hillside. It is believed that an electrical failure in a geyser led to the fire. Since no one was in the residence it could not be acted upon immediately. By the time help arrived, the entire house was blazing. As people rushed up from the factory below and the guards from their posts around the estate, efforts were made to salvage whatever could be saved from the raging house. By the time the fire was put out, the entire house had been gutted. There was nothing left to save.
“We never expected anything like this and never prepared a collection of pictures of the house. Everything the Rajah collected was in the house, all our memories. I remember the taxidermies of leopards and tigers. The head of deer and even a bison. Pictures of Rajah from his travels to across 87 countries of the world, several times. Priceless artefact and souvenirs that his guests brought with them,” Das shared. The house was considered a museum that held the records of the four generations who had owned the Makaibari estate.
In the Chairman’s chambers, Rajah Banerjee remains a picture of calm and strength. It is easy to see why the people turn to him for support during one of his biggest personal tragedies. In his interview, he continues to talk about the future, the need for the youth to remain connected to their roots and the empowerment of women as the only sustainable way to support the economy, over cups of First Flush, or MMHH (Magical Mystical Himalayan Herb) as he calls Makaibari’s exquisite teas.
“I had a bit of a dental mishap following which I have been forbidden a lot of solid forms of food,” he says. “And with the kitchen gone, I have to take food by hand. It’s been years since I did that. My wife has gone to get new utensils so that I can start using a fork and spoon again!”
Das explains that engineers had arrived on the same day as the accident and are currently working on how much of the property can be saved while Rajah Banerjee decides what he plans to do next while living in a makeshift accommodation despite being offered an accommodation in Siliguri.
“He just needed time to cool off after the incident,” Das remarked. “By Monday, he will be back fully and Makaibari will continue its journey forward.” He then turns his attention to pending orders that need to be cleared as he fires away instructions to his staff in true Makaibari manner.
Seeing the unity and strength displayed by the Makaibari family in these trying times, is an inspiration for all tea lovers around the world. For the Vahdam family, among the youngest in the tea trade, it is a lesson in dealing with the challenges that come our way.
We stand with the Makaibari family and know that the estate will come out stronger, despite the personal challenge it has just undergone. The heritage lost will never be regained but we look forward to creating many more chapters with you.
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