A satire in the form of an open letter by Sashi Kumar, columnist and Chairman, Asian College of Journalism
Dear Shri. Mani Shankar Aiyar,
We know we need no introduction. And yet it may be useful to highlight some aspects of our reputation which you and others have been carelessly sullying in the run-up to the general elections. When Hillary and Tenzing scaled Mount Everest, imagine their chagrin when they found one of us had already set up shop there. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon he almost forgot his lines “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, because he ran into one of us, and that was not part of the script. That is how ubiquitous we are. It takes a lot of enterprise and hard work to be that.
It is, therefore, a matter of deep dismay and hurt, in fact a crisis of identity, for us when you and others like you mention Modi and us in the same breath, or mention the one and mean the other.
Let us make this very clear. Modi may or may not have what it takes to become the prime minister. But he certainly doesn’t have what it takes to be a tea seller.
We are, of course, assuming here that the term tea seller includes what it takes to brew the stuff, and doesn’t just mean going around selling tea made by someone else as, we suspect, you meant when you suggested he could distribute tea at Congress melas.
Tea selling, in the holistic sense of the term, requires skills that are tested and unique to members of our association.
They say tea sellers are born, Malayalees, not made. They don’t make them like that, in Gujarat or anywhere else.
Please ponder for a moment on why there is so little of the BJP in Kerala, even if this little is all over the local television news shows all the time, giving the misleading impression of a considerable constituency out there. This is because the generic tea seller is secular and the typical tea shop is a nodal point for discussion and argument conducted in the secular spirit, with an inclusive political awareness.
Indeed, as you may know, scholars like Robin Jeffrey acknowledge the role of the tea shop in Kerala’s capitalist newspaper revolution. Given that we already have another even-longer-standing anti-capitalist revolution on there, we guess we could, taking liberties with Regis Debray, call this a revolution in the revolution.
To put it another way, tea shops have been to Kerala what coffee houses have been to Europe in the evolution of journalism and the public discourse. We trust these scholarly citations will suffice to vest the profession of tea selling with some gravitas in your mind and that you will not mix up what Modi and tea selling stand for.
Moving beyond signification to hands-on adeptness, can Modi, by any stretch of imagination, stretch the tea out from one vessel to another at anywhere even remotely close to the gravity defying horizontal angles that a Beeran, a Varkey, or a Nair can?
That kind of tea treatment requires consummate skill. Rhetoric will not do. It is the ritual equivalent, in the Kerala tea shop, of the Japanese tea ceremony, sans the sophistication.
True, as Beeran, Varkey and Nair moved out of Kerala to other parts of India and the world, often forsaking tea selling for better prospects, immigrants (internally displaced persons, we are told, is the correct term) from Orissa, Bengal, Assam, or Uttar Pradesh may have taken their place in Kerala and made tea selling a lacklustre affair.
True too, that with small-time retail outfits having no place in the market model of Manmohanomics, tea shops may not be around too much longer as places for the more outgoing males of the local community to meet, exchange and contest views.
The opinion-making and rumour-mongering roles of tea shops may have been taken over by the social media. But we still value our notional brand equity, which is jeopardised by indiscriminate comparisons, by politicians, between politicians and tea sellers.
Some of this may be purely by way of tailing what is fashionable in the US of A.
After all they have a very attention grabbing Tea party on the Right there and it may be fashionable for the Right here to have some association with tea. You may like to consider whether, by talking about Modi and tea the way you do, you are not unwittingly enhancing your political adversary’s prestige in the eyes of Indians starry-eyed about anything US, not to mention the vast NRI community already enthused by him.
Before you know it, they may replicate a version of the JC Penny Hitler teapot for the Indian market.
No brew from that pot, we know, will be your cup of tea. But do consider whether you may be playing into a larger well thought-out scheme of tea selling Modi.
Global Kerala Tea Sellers’ Association