Have you ever come upon a Chai freak, if not then I congratulate you on being introduced to at least one. I am a Chai freak because I have the lifelong love relationship with my perfect Chai (cup of tea) and it’s in my genes. Though strange it may seem, in my own limited scientific knowledge, the concept of love for tea and genetics can go hand in hand. Modern geneticists have discovered that our ancestors’ lousy childhoods or glorious adventures might possibly affect our personalities by altering the epigenetic expressions of our genes in the brain and this might be passed down from parent to child or one generation to the following. Thus, you see I’m the victim of this epigenetic change relating to my obsession with tea.
As far as I might remember the tea time was an epicenter of discussions and debate in our house. After Lunch, we were accustomed to or rather forced into taking a catnap and then used to wake up usually with the call for afternoon tea. The tea time was n ‘t just about drinking tea. It has been everything above and beyond it as from sharing of our daily diaries, tittle-tattle or small talks to intense political discussions everything happened over a cup of tea. Once I asked my father why we all love tea so much and I still remember his epic answer to the present date, “Chai To Chah Keh Liye Hoti Hai” means that a cup of tea is consumed for the sake of its love.
My Nani Ama/ granny was a tea enthusiast like me. She used to have a tea ritual at her home which she followed religiously all her life. At precisely four in the late afternoon, we used to find our Lodhi Pathan granny in the kitchen brewing perfect British style tea. She attributed this skill to her British teachers at school before Indo-Pak partition. She asserted that she learned great things from them and brewing tea was just one of it. The fumes coming out of the hot simmering ceramic bowl of tea (as she preferred it over cups) were itself intoxicating. I remember my granddad used to bring her favorite tea leaves packed in a brown paper bag and string. These tea leaves used to be bought from a trusted vendor in the local market, who imported it directly from Kenya. So tea was some serious business in my granny’s household.
My granny ‘s father used to tell her the story that how tea came to the Indian subcontinent and gradually became part and parcel of their lives. She used to narrate the whole journey to us while most ardently remembering her father and how he loved tea made by her. This whole account fascinated me so much that I got curious to start an inquest into the history of tea myself. The Chinese had been drinking tea for millennia. The tea was one of the first few goods that Dutch merchants brought back to Europe from their trips to the Far East way back at the beginning of the 17th century. The drink instantly got hyped up, first as a medicine and then as an exotic new menu item in the coffee shops of European capitals, making its way as far as New Amsterdam (New York). Its popularity grew steadily but for the next century, this fragrant but bitter brew remained a rare and expensive treat enjoyed only by the elite.
Tea arrived drum rolling at Indian subcontinent with East India Company. So, it had been British, who introduced us to our much-beloved drink Chai (cup of tea) as before this milk and other drinks (which were either by product or derived from milk like Lassi, Rabri etc.) were prevalent. When East India Company managed to conquest large part of the Indian subcontinent, during the early 19th century, they found out that environment of certain areas is quite suitable for tea production. The British were cunning traders so they planned to produce tea not solely in good quality but in bulk quantities. So as to succeed in their planning, they initially experimented with different types of tea plants to search out which plant yields high-quality tea leaves. Then started converting larger and larger tracts of land into tea plantations. The tea plantations were first established in Assam and later in Darjeeling and other areas.
After ensuring the bulk production, they diverted their energies into producing enough demand to reciprocate and eventually reap huge profits. In order to accomplish the mammoth task of curbing the taste of milk doting people of the Indian subcontinent, the Tea board (responsible for the trade of tea) and tea corporations launched a marketing campaign of its own kind. Brooke Bond, an English tea company started its marketing campaign by hiring a fleet of horse-drawn vans that distributed tea samples across the length and breadth of the country. The British tradition of taking tea with a touch of milk and sugar was introduced to people of the subcontinent. Passengers were offered a cup of tea at railway stations free of cost to accustom them with aroma and flavor of the tea.
It is worth noting though, that tea wasn’t an overnight success in the subcontinent. Over time, an exchange of cultural ideas led to a growing thirst for tea among all strata of subcontinent’s society. Slowly but surely tea seeped into their taste buds and became a habit that eventually percolated down to common people. With the passage of time, tea drinking itself evolved in many ways, with every region of the subcontinent making their own tea variants. Thanks to British, the new concepts of tea time and little roadside shacks (Chaiwallas) came into existence.
Today on the one end, there is an astronomical number of those humble roadside shacks making hundreds of steaming cups each day that connect all strata of society, and on the other end of the spectrum are the gourmet restaurants that serve fine tea. The next time once you reach sleepily for your morning cup of tea or dunk your favorite biscuits in your beloved afternoon cup of tea bring it to mind, it isn’t simply the Chai (cup of tea) you are consuming – it’s history, diversity and popular culture, all intermixed into one cup!