Legend has it that a Chinese emperor developed an obsession with tea. So much so that he failed to notice the Mongol army gathering at the gates. Eventually, his enchantment with tea led to the decimation of his kingdom.
Fortunately, other connoisseurs of this ancient beverage — the drink is supposed to have been discovered in Yunnan before the birth of Christ — have profited greatly by their love for tea. The English, after seeing how the Singpho people grew tea, undertook commercial cultivation in Assam, helping the Company prosper. Indians, too, have taken to tea since the British introduced it. It is estimated that 890 million kilogrammes of tea are consumed domestically every year.
Rekha Sarin’s text in CHAI: THE EXPERIENCE OF INDIAN TEA (Niyogi, Rs 1,995) is a compilation of several such illuminating anecdotes. But the book, which also includes pretty, yet anodyne, photographs by Rajan Kapoor, does not merely offer an informative peek into history. It examines, among other themes, the diverse kinds of tea available in different parts of India. Kashmir, for instance, loves its kahwa (green tea); North India gulps down masala chai (a concoction of black tea, milk, sugar and spices) while Bengal wakes up to the aroma of Darjeeling tea each morning. Tea not only mirrors India’s inherent pluralism, but it also holds together a nation that is a complex, and often fragile, patchwork of caste and communities. Not just tea-lovers but tourists would be delighted by this offering, for the contributors have journeyed through some of India’s most verdant locations in the course of their research. Assam and Darjeeling in the east and Coorg, Ooty and Idukki in the south are represented here at their picturesque best.
Sarin also pays attention to the technical aspects of production and marketing that are critical to the survival of the trade in tea. The chapter on planters’ lives is suitably nostalgic. Those who toil in the gardens have been given a voice as well. The section on the delectable recipes — such as the one for Darjeeling tea and evaporated milk jelly with strawberry caviar — would certainly help a section of the readers forget the tea garden workers’ daily battle with starvation, migration and poverty.
Left is a reproduction of a poster from the colonial era. The poster — it was designed to draw the attention of the French market to the myriad charms of tea — is a testimony to the ingenuity of the colonial enterprise. Bottom left is an image that portrays intelligently the centrality of tea to the Indian way of life. Even the mighty American cola, having failed to win over the loyal tea drinker, has had to share space with its competitor. The image of an ornate teapot (bottom right) is a reminder of the aesthetics of tea-drinking. Top depicts an ordinary day at a plantation.