It is easy to forget just how soon tea or chai as its called in Hindi colonised, or shall we say, won over Indians. A couple of hundred years ago, just about no one in India had heard of tea, and much less know how to drink it. Tea is the flavour of the season again. Along with a whole lot of luxury end tea promotions and a new installed PM connected to the brew, however nebulously, tea has definitely made a comeback of sorts. A drink that has crossed the diversity of divides in India, long sought after and imbibed by the rich and poor – if not alike, but in their own fashions. In the last couple of centuries, tea became a pan India connector – and this is the story that writer Rekha Sarin and entrepreneur and photographer Rajan Kapoor amply bring out in Chai: The Experience of Indian Tea.
Chai is a richly detailed and visually arresting paean to Indian tea. The lavishly produced book covers various aspects of the tea culture, from tracing the chronological development of tea to giving behind the scenes glimpses into life in plantations and even detailing a few tea recipes! That extensive research went into the book gets perhaps best reflected in the anecdotes or the intimate photographs that the book showcases.
The history of tea, at least in its organised industrial form, is just about a century and a half old. The tale is a fascinating one, though its murkiness vis-à-vis China’s opium trade sullies it somewhat. Britain’s desperate need to break China’s monopoly of tea and yet save its own bullion led to the former’s strategy of growing opium in India and trying to get the Chinese addicted, with initial success. The arrangement collapsed when opium began to be grown in China itself, leading the British again to search desperately for an alternate site for growing tea. With India as an option, “…GJ Gordon, Secretary of the Tea Committee, was despatched to China to collect ‘seeds and plants of the very best stocks’. He returned with 80,000 seeds, of which 20,000 seeds were planted in the Botanical Gardens of Kolkata, and the rest were sent in equal ratios to Assam, the hills of Darjeeling and down south to the Madras Presidency.” Apparently none survived, but the search did not stop.
Tea plantations finally took root nearer to the end of the 19th century. This book’s visual include archival material – old photos of tea plantations and planters, posters eg of early tea making, tea godowns, even share certificates of early companies and much more that makes the reader linger over each page. The world of English planters, Indian entrepreneurs, the dedicated labour, even the wildlife in the areas – all smile at you from the pages. The contemporary world of Indian tea and its barons also get their own chapters. As do the scenic tea growing regions of India – amazingly evocative visuals bring out not just the topography but also the lives impacted by the tea industry.
However you prefer your tea – Darjeeling First Flush, Assam single estate, kahva, khade chammach ki chai, at Kolkata’s Russel Punjabi Dhaba or at Moosa Tea Stall in Chennai, or indeed any highway dhaba, having this book to accompany is sure to bring out the flavours even better. As the Tea Board puts it, “Chai piyo, mast jiyo”.
• The tea plant is actually a tree that naturally grows to a height of about 10 feet.
• The original tea drinkers of India were the Singphos of Assam.
• Maniram Dewan was hanged in 1858 by the imperial powers as a warning to ‘native’ entrepreneurs to stay off the tea industry.
• Charles A Bruce, A Scottish tradesman was the first to realise the potential of India growing tea.