'Cha' or 'chai' – whatever tea may be called - integrates Indians in more ways than one, and yet there are so many layers in this national tea drinking habit. How the upper crust of society looks at its morning 'cuppa', and how is it that different from the way the wage earner does? I explored Delhi, a city where I spent many years as a student and worker - days when money was scarce. I walked the city in search of a sense of tea, a common thread that connects people in the city and country.
I began my little trip round Delhi on a cold wintry morning. The fog was hiding the famous ramparts of the Red Fort. In a city such as this, the old, the new, the modern and the conservative all live in perfect harmony carrying on with their lives with complete ease. The Red Fort is surrounded by markets that date back centuries. It houses shops that sell every conceivable thing being more a centre for wholesalers-I could not have homed on to a better place to seek a study in contrast.
Bilal, 36, Cobbler
“We make tea in a large kettle - strong black tea, lots of sugar, cardamom powder is added to it and sometimes even ginger juice...In fact I’ll offer you a cup if you buy some of my juttis (laughs)..." -Bilal
Bilal, 36, was standing right outside his shop that sold handmade juttis - or leather shoes that he sold to showrooms and also exported them to the Middle East countries. I asked him about his morning drink. “Of course, it’s tea-there can be no better wake up drink than this. In our house be it my mother, grandmother or the twenty workers who work in our factory-we serve them tea.”I wanted to know from him if he made some special tea for himself and a different one for the workers. “Nahin! (no) We make tea in a large kettle - strong black tea, lots of sugar, cardamom powder is added to it and sometimes even ginger juice, and we serve it to all our workers as they stream in each morning. In fact I’ll offer you a cup if you buy some of my juttis (laughs).”
In fact all over the old market area of Chandni Chowk, Darya Ganj and Jama Masjid, you can see the morning rush at tea stalls. Muffler clad men, all waiting for their cup of tea-some on their way to the train station holding a briefcase in hand, another- a basket, perhaps a vegetable vendor-all waiting for their aromatic cup of Assam tea.
I decide to sieve a little stronger to get to another social strata subsumed in the same area-the wealthy owner of the famous restaurant whose chefs are regularly cooking for the foreign dignitaries who come to India-the Moti Mahal Delux Restaurant.
Mr. Dinesh, 60s, Restaurant Owner
“When it comes to India, tea is that single beverage which does not really abide with the class divisions." -Mr. Dinesh
The portly gentleman, who looked in his early sixties, who ushers me in explains that he has been managing the place for the last thirty years. The décor is Mughal. The gorgeous prints with gold etchings make them seem like the real stuff. A marble inlay plaque captures my attention- “That was presented to us by a foreign delegation from Turkey” said Mr. Dinesh.
“When it comes to India” he added, “tea is that single beverage which does not really abide with the class divisions. We may prepare the tea differently here in this restaurant. We offer you Darjeeling to Oolong and even Kashmiri Kahwa, but when it comes to drinking of tea on a daily basis, each Indian wants his or her cup, done a particular way-strong black tea served with milk and sugar. Other choices are quite immaterial and neither does health benefit matter so much to us. We are an ancient tea drinking country and produce some of the finest varieties-it is only logical that we boost its production by keeping its demand high (chuckles). Would you believe how many cups do I drink? Four in the morning and by evening it totals to almost 10-12 I’m served in fine bone china cups, but while working and managing the restaurant, I simply pick up one of those glasses that my cooks and waiters are drinking from. I like the homogeneity and the speed of that kind of tea drinking.”
Sirish, 38, Businessman
"When I was growing up in my home town, my morning cup was all about this glorified ‘chai’, with a large amount of milk and sugar added and a bit of cardamom powder..." -Sirish
The corporate hub of Delhi is in the suburban area called Gurgaon. Multinationals like Ford, Suzuki, Infosys, Adobe and many such giants of industry and commerce have stormed the bastions of the Indian economy and have supercharged it for the last decade with some serious business. It isn’t uncommon to find bank or company executives who earn pay packages equivalent to their counterparts in New York or Tokyo! So does the tea culture differ here?
Sirish, 38, is an old friend who works for Vodafone India and when I asked him how the morning cuppa figured in his life he said something I expected.
“Costa Coffee, Starbucks and any other cappuccino giants will get enough market from us Indians-we are one of those who like experimenting-it’s a new found buying power you see-but we are equally close to our traditional drink.”
He hurriedly takes a call and rings for two cups of tea. “Look, when I was growing up in my home town, my morning cup was all about this glorified ‘chai’, with a large amount of milk and sugar added and a bit of cardamom powder, only in the winter months. I still crave for that taste. During our board meetings, when things get utterly stressful, you crave for some comfort food-for me it still is my cup of tea. But the younger generations are taking to drinking coffee in a big way. At home though they prefer drinking tea. Coffee is more a once in a day outdoor drink-somewhat like grabbing a beer in Australia could be!”
The tray that came in was laden with a pot of hot water and some strange looking sticks in a glass jar, a pot of brown sugar and some milk.
“I like green tea and sometimes Makaibari or lemon-just depends on the mood.” He picked up one of those tea sticks and poured the water into each. He chose ginger, honey- lemon tea while I took an Earl Grey-both went for no milk and sugar version.
"I’m searching for that pedestrian tea aroma that reminds me of days at the college tea stalls, the tea that kept me awake through exam time and the tea that reminds me of my mother’s kitchen." -Sirish
“You know sometimes when I’m headed home, far away from this concrete jungle of office blocks, I see this makeshift tea stall and I always stop the car for that special cup of tea in which the water, milk, sugar and tea leaves are boiled together till it gets this rich brew. I don’t care if its Tetley or Tata, dust or CTC, or even long leaf-to me I’m searching for that pedestrian tea aroma that reminds me of days at the college tea stalls, the tea that kept me awake through exam time and the tea that reminds me of my mother’s kitchen.”
In India tea indeed crosses social barriers as it is a nation where social mobility does not mean forgetting one’s roots, and tea drinking is integral to the roots of our everyday life.
About the Author
Sharmila Mukherjee: As a resident of Assam, India, Sharmila Mukherjee is surrounded by tea and tea culture. With a Master's Degree in Social Science from University of Delhi, and years of teaching experience in both English and History, Sharmila has a strong sense of writing and society. As a principal and teacher she has developed projects for the international curriculum in her schools. Her writings reflect her world-vision and her extensive travelling. Sharmila has worked with the Times of India and as a school principal.
Image Credits: Image by Aliaksandr Mazurkevich (used under 123RF license)