25 April 2014

Post Facto - The Long Dark Tea-time of the Indian Soul

Vintage tea ad suggests tea instead of alcohol.
From my Sunday Guardian column:
Do you drink tea? If you're Indian and your answer is no, you're probably (a) from one of those lucky parts of the country that grows coffee; (b) ridiculously young, with enough spare cash for the coffee chains; (c) a champion of milk who thinks tea is an artificial stimulant (and makes you dark); or (d) a freak healthy type who favours aloe vera juice or something equally odd.
Because despite Montek Singh Ahluwalia failing to declare tea our national drink in 2012 (apparently the coffee manufacturers objected), India is the world's largest tea-drinking nation. It was also the largest tea-producing one, until China recently outstripped us. Though that is perhaps as it should be: it was to break the Chinese monopoly on tea production that the British, already becoming a country of tea-drinkers, first introduced the plant on a commercial scale in Assam (and later North Bengal and the Western Ghats). Remarkably for something first grown here in the 1820s, and initially intended only for export, tea is today our most consumed beverage. An ORG study in 2012 said 83% Indian households drink tea. According to the Cambridge World History of Food, 70% of India's immense crop is now consumed locally, with Indians averaging half a cup of tea daily on per capita basis.
The half-cup of tea might just be an Indian speciality, anointed in some parts of the country with its own memorable name: cutting chai. Elsewhere in India, that three-sips-worth of hot, sweet, concentrated brown liquid might not have a name, but it's the usual amount — unlike the British working class, which drinks its tea in a large mug, most of India favours the small glass tumbler.
"Tea is Swadeshi." 
Poster made for the Indian Tea Market 
Expansion Board, 1947.

The brown sahibs who first learnt to drink tea from colonial Englishmen adopted the upper class ceremony. The cost of full-leaf tea and its accoutrements kept tea out of reach for much of the populace — all Lipton print advertisements as late as the 1940s show a proper bone china tea service. The democratisation of tea in India only really dates to the mid-20th century, when aggressive marketing achieved the symbolic transition from "imperial brew" to "swadeshi", and the Crushed, Torn and Curled (CTC) technology made it possible to make more cups of strong tea from less leaf.
The late Rituparno Ghosh, adapting Tagore's novel Chokher Bali to the screen, had much fun with the depiction of tea-drinking as a memsahebi innovation. Aishwarya Rai's young widow Binodini intrigues and then woos the household's more conservative older women — with tea. The cleverness of Ghosh's touch lay in evoking the sensuous pleasure of an elaborate afternoon tea ritual, associating it with the guilty secret it was for a 19th century Hindu widow to enjoy anything at all.
Today depriving someone of tea might be popularly understood as something of a human rights violation. In September 2013, when a sub-inspector in Kolhapur arrested a man called Vijay Patil for "drinking tea in a suspicious manner", the Bombay High Court, was not impressed. Mr Justice Gautam Patel's ruling, as reported in the media, was a marvellously eloquent paean to tea: "We were unaware that the law required anyone to give an explanation for having tea, whether in the morning, noon or night. One might take tea in a variety of ways, not all of them always elegant or delicate, some of them perhaps even noisy. But we know of no way to drink tea 'suspiciously'."
Jyoti Dogra's brilliant solo theatre performance Notes on Chai, which I recently watched in Delhi, is ostensibly about that "variety of ways" in which we might take our tea. Dogra has suggested in interviews that tea was a way of approaching the everyday; that differences in tea-drinking habits are indicative of class, cultural origins, social status. And it is true that Dogra's character sketches — the old Punjabi lady so endearingly proud of her Lahore college degree who will endure no water in her tea; the government clerk for whom tea-break means stopping mid-sentence, like an automaton; the woman who insists on pressing Malaysian green tea and favours upon a reluctant acquaintance — are about those things.
But Dogra does herself injustice. The people she brings to life do mention tea. Sometimes they return to tea over and over. But their talk is not really of tea. It is of time, and of the self. For the old person with not much to do, tea is a filler of time. For the body looping through unalterable cycles of work, it is "me-time" that makes the daily grind bearable. And yet it is a ritual pause, as sharply demarcated and routinised as labour. For the woman whose life is lived at the "suggestions" of her father and husband, to drink her morning cup of tea in the balcony — and to refuse to wake her husband until she's finished — is her single act of everyday resistance. "Mujhe subah ki chai milti hai balkoney mein, toh phir main sab kucch lightly leti hoon." Tea is the assurance that things are running as they always do. But just below the surface of Dogra's performance is a profound, disturbing unease: will things never run any other way? Does tea simmer so we stay calm?
Published in the Sunday Guardian, 20th April, 2014.

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