On Tea

By Premlata Venkataraman

e-mail:  ThePittsburghPatrika@aol.com

Premlata works in the technical services library of a well-known university in Oakland, and has cataloged many books dealing with Fluid Mechanics.

Tea, geopolitics, revolutions and upheavals seem to go hand-in-hand.  Consider this: when the East India Company started trading tea and spices, the English got addicted to tea and ended up colonizing India! There is another theory making the rounds among British-Indians in the UK on how the British colonized India: they were running away from their terrible food, willing to go anywhere.
Wherever they went, the food they ate was better, far, far better. Their guns and cannons also helped.

North Americans, seeking independence from the British, dumped all their tea into the Atlantic Ocean, only to get addicted to coffee growing abundantly closer home. After declaring independence from the British, Americans almost dumped the English language as well, opting for German to be the lingua franca of the new nation. The resolution was defeated by one vote. Otherwise, we would be another Deutschland! Or at least, a Deutsch-speaking fremdes Land (“foreign land” in German)! Details here: http://www.watzmann.net/scg/german-by-one-vote.html.That’s the origin of the very American expression “every vote counts.”

The origins of Tea is the Chinese T’e, the word for the plant Camellia sinensis for the tea leaves. In Mandarin, the word was ch’a, and later became the Indian chai. Green and black teas are made from the same plant. Green tea has higher levels of anti-oxidants, because the tea leaves are simply steam-dried and not fermented like the black teas.

Initially tea became popular in Buddhist monasteries, because small amounts of caffeine in teas kept the monks awake during long hours of meditation. For this reason, many monasteries cultivated vast tea fields. The Book of Tea written over 1000 years ago gives a detailed account of the cultivation and preparation of tea, the best types of water for brewing, and different classifications of tea.

Of course, there are as many ways to drink tea as there are different strains of tea. The Japanese developed it into a highly artistic ceremony, almost a spiritual experience that embodies harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, and also a lot of mystique. People take classes to learn the perfect way to conduct the Japanese tea ceremony, like people trying to become wine snobs!  But ordinary Japanese sneer at this snobbery!

In India too tea is immensely popular especially when infused with spices and milk as a special drink for every occasion. Ginger-infused tea called masala chai was taken at the end of the meal as a digestive. Sweetened cardamom tea is popular as a restorative. But the Chinese look at the Indian sweet teas with disgust.

Tea shops all over Asia promote socializing, vigorous conversation, and debate; they were often the stage for discussing political intrigues, even cultural upheaval. Just imagine the samovar, tea and its imagery to the Russian revolution. In China, tea shops were hotbeds for discussing intrigues, new political ideas and communist ideology during the Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, in Kolkata, where Marxists held sway decades after their ideology died even in the Maoist China, tea shops were, and continue to be, the centers of literary and social movements. If you listen to them often, you’d believe that  India is on the brink of an upheaval.

To this day the ubiquitous street corner tea shops in India dole out tea, cigarettes and paan (betel leaves with accoutrements), and sometimes also mind-altering herbs. Here changing political scenes, corruption, cultural and social attitudes are hotly debated. This is where the heart of India pulsates. These popular venues for taking the pulse of the nation, particularly during elections, are more reliable than exit polls.

It is not surprising that the current Indian prime minister was once a tea-vendor (a chai-wallah). His critics, discrediting him for his background, were stumped when he sailed into parliament with an absolute majority two years ago. One reason why the Indian brown-saheb anglicized elite does not like him is because he doesn’t belong to their social class!

So the next time you sip your tea with your buddies discussing politics and cussing politicians, remember, you carry the potential to change the world.  ♦

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