Camelia sinensis: the wind beneath the traveler’s wings. ‘Cha’, ‘sah’, ‘chay’. Known to the West as ‘tea’. Across Asia and now the planet, this infusion of legend and mystery is on offer, be it in the exquisite tea houses of Kyoto and Dushanbe or in the humblest roadside shelters. Whatever its shrine, tea commands a devoted following – mountain warlord, rickshaw wallah, tycoon, or geisha.
The aesthetic of the tea ceremony or stately samovar aside, there is a personal liturgy to tea-drinking. A taxi driver one morning, on the road from Naini Tal to Kaladhungi in the Himalayan foothills, swerved off the road and dashed through traffic to a tea shop. He came back bearing cups of the brew with huge satisfaction. Handing them to passengers he pronounced as how there was no comparable tea – not anywhere – on the dicey road to Delhi. The secret? Milk for this tea had come from the family cow that very morning. It was as sacred, pure and rich as dawn touching the eternal snows. How could we quibble? Especially now that automatic brewing machines had abandoned orthodoxy by dispensing untouched by human hand, a ghastly semblance of the drink in ‘modern’ hotels, restaurants, on the trains and in the air? And – horrors! – in plastic cups.
Yes, there are a few corners of the Indian rail network where station ‘chai wallahs’ still serve up their elixir in fired-clay cups. An endangered species, that lot. With panache, the tea pot is tilted arcing the brew into that one-of-a-kind vessel, many even bearing the fingerprints of some village artisan, and the passengers rumble off carefree toward the next stop disposing of their cups by returning the clay shards to the soil from which they came.
As guests in a poor farmer’s home, it happens even today, that ‘lal sah’ (tea without milk) is served not sweetened, but seasoned in a brass bowl with salt. (The Tibetans obligingly add yak butter.) You learn soon enough to take the steaming bowl gingerly at the very rim, pinky fingers extended, lifting it to the lips and slurping with gusto. It has the marks of fashionable society, the pinky extended and all. And tea aficionados, professionals who know their first flush varieties, their souchong from gunpowder, also know that the most delicate nuances of tea are best tasted only with barbaric slurping – like vintage wine.
There is a story once reported by the BBC of an extended family household in Kolkata where, a young servant girl, bless her soul, has the sole task of satisfying this thirsty clan of tea-drinkers. There is early morning ‘bed-tea’, breakfast tea, tea with business colleagues and visitors, afternoon ‘English’ tea, and tea at supper. She produces and serves 400 cups of tea daily. Surely, she must feature in the pantheon of the tea-gods!
But what gives lasting inspiration in those temples of tea, most memorably in the humble roadside shrines to tea, are the stories – confessional, in a way – of what touches the soul most deeply. In an unremarkable such tea shop on the northside of Dhaka, I sat relishing a cup next to an elderly Bengali gentleman who was poring over a stack of papers. He greeted me, and chat ensued. He had once served in the air force, before East Pakistan won its independence as Bangladesh, he recalled.
The streets produced daily skirmishes and demonstrations in late March, 1971. His superior officers, mostly from West Pakistan, ordered him into the city to suppress the protests with gunfire. He refused, and instead fled north to his family home in Sylhet. There the police came hunting for him as he ran nightly from place to place. Learning that a resistance was forming in India, he made his way to the frontier with Tripura, but the border was closely guarded and he knew his name must figure on a list of abscondees who would ‘suffer extreme prejudice’. There were crowds of Hindus fleeing the strife, believing they would only be losers in the outcome of what was now civil war. A passing family, though knowing he was Muslim, took him in as a member, and incognito as a Hindu, he jostled his way to safety in India where he joined the national movement that led to a day of delirious freedom.
Then he paused over his steaming tea and added this sentiment, “Should Bangladesh ever cause suffering to our Hindu minority, it will only be over my dead body.”
There is no tea house in old Edo, in Samarkand or Srinagar more exquisite than the metal chairs and formica table top marked by telltale rings of tea cups there by the road in north Dhaka. The elixir had produced an inspiration – a sacred word – worthy of the road ahead.