An ode to the golden brew

Annie Zaidi | Updated on January 16, 2018

All is well: There are people who say tea is everything: A comment and a distraction, an activity and a love affair   -  Vishnupriya Bhandaram

Some like it hot: Train journeys and tea — a combination that never fails to charm   -  Thulasi Kakkat

Through a cuppa, clearly: Tea is a fascinating lens through which to examine gender, public space, class and caste   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Time — that’s what tea is about. Not just a way of filling time or killing time but a morsel of time that stands in for something else

It’s a stale line and not so funny after all, but I like to give it an airing now and again: Cut me open and you’ll see not blood but a thin treacly tea flow out.

I don’t usually keep a count of the cups I drink every day. If you catch me saying ‘no’ to chai, it may well be that my teeth are furry and my tongue coated with a milk-sugar patina that prevents me from tasting anything at all. I will still say yes to green tea and once I’m home, I’ll brush my teeth and make myself yet another cup of chai. Nauseating, yes. Puzzling too, for I came to tea later than most of my contemporaries and rather reluctantly.

Children were not allowed tea in our family, except an occasional treat of mild black tea with too much sugar and a splash of lemon in it. At weddings, Kashmiri tea was served but this was neither kahwa nor noon chai, which is salty. ‘Kashmiri chai’ as cooked in the plains of Uttar Pradesh is a hot sherbet — pink, milky, sugary. Aside from this, kids had to beg to be allowed to dip a biscuit into a grown-up’s cup of tea. Mine was the mother who never failed to look disapproving on long train journeys while other passengers filled the baby’s milk bottle with tea. Of course, I had sneaked a few sips at home but having found it disgusting, I did not try it again until after college, when I got my first job as a reporter.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about tea in my first collection, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, wherein I boasted that there wasn’t a cup of tea I would not drink and no sort of person I would not drink it with. I had tea with ex-bandits. I had tea with bureaucrats and politicians. I’m reasonably certain I’ve had tea made with water contaminated by chemical pesticides and fertilisers. But then, tea opened doors; tea loosened tongues; tea held clues to culture and economic status. It was stupid to refuse to be drawn into the confidence of tea.

So, it shames me now to confess it, but here it is: I have become fussy. I’ve turned into the type of person who hesitates when someone offers a cup of tea, wondering if it will be boiled to bitter death or if there will be a tea bag. The type that wants to know what sort of tea bag is available, and who wants just so much sugar and just so much milk, and if it is pre-mixed tea that comes out of a machine, the type that declines to drink it. The type, in short, that I used to turn my nose up at.

Well, we are all doomed to turn into the thing we turn up our noses at. And besides, I did not necessarily enjoy all those non-discriminatory varieties of chai. One particular concoction, often encountered in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, made me want to throw up. It took me a while to figure out that the problem lay in the water (high on fluoride). In other states, especially Punjab, there was the opposite problem. There was no water at all in ‘ doodh-patti’ (milk and leaves). This is essentially full-cream milk lightly flavoured with tea, a mark of either prosperity (cows and buffaloes in the household) or warm hospitality (you wouldn’t serve watery tea to a visitor). And then there was the delightfully named abomination, ‘ khade chammach ki chai’ — tea with so much sugar, the stirring spoon stands upright in the glass.

It is the last type for which I found a heart-stoppingly romantic description in a new documentary film on tea, Steeped and Stirred. A nonagenarian from Hyderabad said it was called ‘ lab-bandh’, Urdu for sealed lips. In other words, tea so sweet it practically sealed your lips. The other two attributes of a truly desirous cup of tea, he recalled, were ‘ labaalab’ (full to the brim) and ‘ lab-soz’ (hot enough to scald the lips).

Watching the elderly gent wax eloquent about the beauty and romance of tea-drinking, I was filled with both envy (I should have been the one talking to him!) and a sort of satisfaction that goes right down to the bone, like a perfect cup of tea does.

Once I gave up my full-time reporter’s job, there was no need to drink so much tea. Yet, I find myself reaching for it through the day. I’ve gotten picky about strength and colour and consistency. I even say that I prefer a mediocre coffee to a bad chai. But coffee means nothing to me; tea means something. There are people who say tea is everything — a comment and a distraction, an activity and a love affair. It is with these words that Steeped and Stirred begins.

Screened at the recent Open Frame festival in Delhi, the film attempts to look at the various meanings and contexts of tea in India. A few minutes in, a woman declares: “Tea is an integral part of Indian culture.” While it is true that one can find a tea stall on every other street in the subcontinent, historian Prof Gautam Bhadra points out, it wasn’t until the 19th century that tea became popular. It was known before but was treated as a herb rather than a daily beverage. Certain tribal communities, he points out, used it as medicine, perhaps to energise or to soothe somebody who was feeling poorly. After the crop began to be cultivated commercially in India, mainly for export to Europe and North America, there was a great push by estate owners to popularise tea, especially the strong, lower grades for local consumption. And what a push it was! It didn’t take long for tea to become enmeshed with politics, to change social encounters, filter into mythological literature and, inevitably, Bollywood movies.

Tea is a fascinating lens through which to examine gender, public space, class and caste. A tea stall is where people pause for a moment, linger, talk about the news. But who is allowed to linger, and where? A stall — or a wandering vendor with a kettle in his hand – is both, the site of broken caste and class barriers as well as the site of discrimination. Untouchability continues to be practised and one of the most common manifestations is the way Dalits are served tea.

There are other questions worth asking. Who uses “orthodox” tea? What is the “hierarchy of taste” that makes some people take their tea black, while others slap on a dollop of pure cream on top? What does it mean if a boy is invited to tea by a girl’s family? What is the real meaning of the elaborate ritual — instantly recognisable to Indian viewers as the setting for a potential marriage — wherein a young woman carries a tea tray into the living room and serves a young man and his family? Filmmaker Shweta Ghosh has cast a gently humorous, sensual eye over the sights and sounds linked to tea production and consumption. Lush hillsides, women plucking the leaves, a clanging factory, the clink of glasses being washed, a stack of ginger, a droll song, a clattering spoon at a stall near Jama Masjid, where the tea is heavy not just with milk but a dash of cream.

I have been tempted by that sort of tea once but had to abandon the glass after just a few sips. Half a glass is equivalent to a good, hot meal. It is heavy on the stomach and, for me, heavy on the heart too. The only person I knew who liked cream in her tea was my beloved grandmother. She would allow herself a very light breakfast and often skipped lunch. To compensate, her tea was made quite milky. I would myself load the cup with cream until she nearly begged for mercy.

My heart grows heavy now to think of how I never sat down with her over a cup of tea and asked her about herself, about her own heart, hope and heartbreak. I was old enough to drink tea with her while she was alive. But I didn’t. Instead, I took long, leisurely cups of tea outside, with friends, even acquaintances, interviewees. With everyone except those I took too much for granted until they ran out of time.

Time, then. That’s what tea is about. Not just a way of filling time or killing time but a morsel of time that stands in for something else. Sometimes it seems to stand in my blood, viscous with regret. Sometimes it stands uncertain, like the very last drops of rain on the edges of leaves outside a window. While I was out reporting, it was often others who were plying me with tea but it was time we were buying. Now, when I feel the need to get out of the house and find strangers’ faces to look at, a cup of tea buys me an hour at a café. Tea is also a way to dawdle in a public place, to hit the pause button on life. As researcher-writer Shilpa Phadke says in the film, a cup of tea can slow things down. Between jobs and chores and brutal commutes, for a couple of minutes, one stops to just breathe, sip, maybe even smile.

One of the fallouts of not having a regular job is that I do have the time for this. Time, as the poet said, to stand and stare. But with time came a sharper awareness of my own self — my patterns and preferences, my ego, my tastes, my needs. I imagine that my new-found fussiness about chai stems from this — a sharper awareness of what I want, a deeper disappointment when I cannot have it.

Most days, however, tea is a solitary and strange practice for me. A cup sits patiently at my side when I write. It serves as a bookmark for thought. I reach out every time I hesitate for a word, take a sip, then put it away again. Or perhaps it is a sort of security blanket.

I often forget all about it, let it get cold, then re-heat it and then forget about it all over again. Yet, I want it there, close enough to touch and reassure myself it is still there, and if it isn’t, I can always get up and make myself another cup.

Annie Zaidi is a poet, novelist and freelance writer living in Mumbai

Published on October 14, 2016

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