Vikas Saraswat
Mindsnack #16 : Chai Ki Charcha
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For this week’s Mindsnack our good friend and CRI commentator Vikas Saraswat talks about tea and its history in India.

Past week saw a literal storm in a tea cup in the event of the year so far- “Chai Pe Charcha”. Mr Modi the frontrunner for Prime Ministerial post in next elections discussed issues political, social and developmental with the people over a cup of chai. It was a talk over serious issues but in a milieu which resembled the chit chat over tea we all are so used to.  Chai in its myriad desi forms – Masala chai, Cutting chai, Chai malai mar ke, special chai, Irani chai, Jaffrani chai, elaichi chai, kullar chai, aadha paani, ek meter chai (tea master tosses the beverage from one tumbler to the other with the distance between his hands running to as much as one meter) has almost become a staple fare in our daily lives and it is difficult to imagine an Indian past without chai.

Tea, in India, however was a virtual secret with Singphos of Assam until early nineteenth century from whom the Britons of East Indian Company came to know about it and it did not become a truly national beverage until 1950s till when it was mainly an Anglo Indian indulgence. There are accounts of British botanists and East India company employees, particularly one Major Robert Bruce reporting the knowledge of tea as a wild plantation in Assam in 1830s but in another account by a knowledgeable tea planter from Darjeeling, I was told that it was a certain Maniram Dewan who brought tea to the attention of Britons of East India Company. He paid for it dearly when his plantations, the first ever commercial tea plantations, were forcibly taken over by British.

Initially the British thought of growing Chinese tea in Assamese soil but the results were not very encouraging and they stuck to the native Assam tea in main. British found it comparatively convenient to grow tea in India rather than trade it with Chinese. The tea plantations which started off in Brahmaputra valley, under the enterprising Britons went far and wide to Darjeeling, Dooars, Kangra and Nilgiris in the South. The plantations spawned, in the regions, a distinct estate culture of sprawling bungalows, servants at command, Memsahibs, burrasahibs and the benignly despotic managers. On the other hand “exploitation” of tea workers with issues of minimum wages and entitlements became a protracted conflict between workers and managements.

In popular culture the romance of tea plantations finds its magical expression in Bhupen Hazarika as has the plight of workers stirred some soulful compositions from Salil Chaudhary (non film). Tea gardens and the plight of plantation workers has continued to find expression in cinema also from time to time- the two notable ventures being Sagina Mahato in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (remade in Hindi as Sagina) and Paradesi in Tamil by Bala recently. Mulk Raj Anand’s novel “Two leaves and a bud” is one famous literary work set in tea plantations which I can easily remember.

The charm of the tea estates is best explored with a stay at the estates itself. Temi tea estate in Sikkim, Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling and Devonshire Greens at Munnar provide some of the most beautiful vistas a tea garden can offer. My most memorable cuppas have been at Nathmull’s in Darjeeling, Chamraj in Coimbatore and at the famous Nathdwara temple near Udaipur. However, the tea which I have relished most is not from cups but in the form of deep inhalations near tea factories in the remote hamlets of Ellithorai, Thuthur Mattam and Nihung in The Nilgiris- a fortune which my travelling job bestows on me.