Chai that cheers

UNIQUE BREW Laxman Rao, a tea seller and author near Hindi Bhawan Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma  

The chai cup is in limelight. Considered for long as part of our daily ordinary routine life, it is seen differently by all. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi extending invitation to national and international leaders and common citizens for exchange of views over a cup of tea, it received a further heads up. So there is a lot brewing over and around the cup that cheers .

Believed to have grown in the wild, legend states that it was a Buddhist monk who 2000 years ago chewed tea leaves to help him to stay awake during long penance. Though in the past it is known to have been brewed or prepared by locals as a vegetable dish with garlic and oil, in its present form it was introduced by British on a commercial scale in the country in the 19th Century. The CTC soon adapted based on climate, geographical region and overall culinary practices giving rise to varied methods of preparing it with some liking it sweet others taking it with salt. Regional preferences varies the quantity of milk and tea too.

Whatever may be the method of making it, it rules homes and hearts, being consumed by commoners and the elite alike. Laxman Rao, a tea vendor in New Delhi is an interesting example of how tea brings people of different tastes together. An author of several books, Rao makes a living as a tea seller and his mobile ‘outlet’ on the pavement is a meeting point of students and activists of different hues and the stories in his novels reflect the lives of his consumers.

Similarly, the sweet strongly brewed chai with lots of milk becomes an afternoon meal with rotis for a rickshaw puller and factory worker while helping folks in white collar jobs to get over their post-lunch lethargy. As a ubiquitous drink that cheers and relaxes, it is consumed throughout the day and has limitless reach and is found from home to office to college canteens to roadside stalls to five star hotels to highways to railway stations.

Name the place and it is there. At home the aroma of tea is the first thing in the morning to emanate from the kitchen just as tea shops are the first ones to open at day break to serve the early officegoers and those returning weary after night shift.

What makes this concoction of boiled milk, water with sugar and tea the darling of the masses? While all tea drinkers find it relaxing and refreshing the drink hold special significance for every individual.

Tea taster Anamika Singh, observes that tea as part of our daily life and culture helps to strengthen bonds among family members and friends. Sharing her experience she says, “At home the evening tea brings my father, mother, brother and me together for a light hearted chit chat and how the day unfolded. Even my young nephew joins us in these sessions.” For Shyam Charan, a courier company employee, chai time is to connect with the family. “Reaching home late, I catch up with my children and parents over the morning tea while discussing with my wife important things that need to be done.” Many see the sipping the warm drink as a perfect time to bond but for some it provides moments of reflection. “After the morning walk, tea puts me at ease enabling to work out the action plan for the day,” says Sonali Subudhi, Founder of Mieaayas Tea.

The magic of the drink goes beyond flavour and taste. It charmed filmmaker Shweta Ghosh to make Steeped And Stirred, a documentary exploring the multiple meanings of tea, screened recently at PSBT’s Open Frame festival. “The objective was to see something as mundane as tea with more perspective. The point was also to evoke this information with the warmth and excitement tea actually brings with it! This film stemmed out of my love for all things tea.” She is not the only one in love with tea. Watch 90-year-old Bilal Yasin of Hyderabad in the documentary who explains meticulously how tea was prepared in the past with care and patience in order to bring out its flavour and taste. “I can’t put the joy of that process and the joy of drinking it, in words,” he says with joy in his eyes.

Echoing similar sentiments, Singh, who owns Anandini Himalaya Tea, calls the drink as the heartline of the country while Subudhi sees it as a way of life and points out that it suits all moods, situations and occasions. “Kick-starting the day in the morning, at office the tea breaks create an informal setting to discuss work. In the evenings the cuppa with friends, colleagues and family members along with snacks takes an entirely different hue making one chill out.”

Describing making tea and serving to family members and guests as a great gesture she says the act makes people feel special and pampered.

Tea always held a special place as part of gatherings discussing myriad topics. Be it small roadside shops in Kerala and Tamil Nadu or tea houses in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, one is apt to find gathering of young and old alike discussing topics ranging from politics to international affairs to art and culture. Says Ghosh: “The significance of tea and the spaces created by it can really be a very powerful social and political tool. Tea stalls, Indian coffee houses and Irani cafes are a space for the middle and working classes to congregate and relax or heatedly discuss and debate cultural, political and social issues.”

Elaborating on this, Jha says that all their Tpot branches have several regular customers visiting daily. “Coming in pair or groups, over tea they converse and discuss current topics and other issues.”

The drink holds a special place in the heart of all college students, particularly hostlers, across the country. Irrespective of the place and language, tea occupies the centre-stage in university canteens where students congregate for plain fun or to change the world. And these memories often last a life time. There are several blog posts on how tea and dhabas are crucial in the student life of Aligarh Muslim University. Dripping with nostalgia, these blogs reflect that if there is one common link between Aligs, it is their addiction to tea.

Despite its mass popularity tea down the ages tea remained in the shadows of coffee. But now that trend is reversing. Leading coffee cafes, both Indian and multinational, were quick to note it and now offer tea options in their menu. That is not all. In all the metros tea cafes are coming up fast offering a great variety of tea like masala, jasmine, Darjeeling and Japanese. Explaining this Robin Jha, founder of Tpot, a tea café, says, “In the past it was hep to meet and catch up over coffee but now the same holds true for tea.” Not only this, but specialised stores selling only tea are fast making their presence felt in the cities.

“The frequent travel abroad has exposed us to a wide variety of tea like black, green, white and oolong, etc and knowing their health benefits like reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, improving eyesight among others. This has given fillip to demand for these which tea cafes and retailers are meeting,” explains Singh.

Ironically, while being a common denominator across rich and poor, religion and age, a closer look at tea mirrors space for division too.

“These may be blatant as in the case of different cups for Dalits and non-Dalits or more subtle like the use of orthodox tea and CTC. So even though tea touches everyone across class, there are clear diversities in how it is drunk. It is really a wonderful example of the layered ways in which we live — not in categories and dichotomies but in all our complexities and inconsistencies,” says Ghosh.

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