Essay: My Cup of Tea by Sekhar Banerjee

It was a Wednesday evening. We did not have power since the Amphan, a cyclone of sinister proportions, had made a landfall on Tuesday afternoon lashing Calcutta with ferocious wind and rain in the middle of a lockdown. The part of Calcutta where we live had the look of a cornfield ravaged by a hoard of rogue elephants – thousands of trees uprooted, boundary walls collapsed, and we did not have electricity for the previous 24 hours. It was not at all an appropriate time to upload photos of tea cups on social media and snobbishly announce the elevated status that had been accorded to an old brew on a sleepy mobile phone tangled with a power bank. But I could not resist the temptation to share the breaking news – ‘The United Nations recognizes the importance of one of the oldest brews on earth and declares May 21 as World Tea Day. Cheers!’ It was instinctive. Like itching.

Now, as an afterthought, I ponder over my unconstrained reaction. As we always do with impulses. I know that my tea drinking habit is not something extraordinarily special. It resonates with millions of others who grew up on tea of various flavors, textures, colors and infusions around the globe. But, I presume, it has more to do with my upbringing than my habit. My upbringing was special. 

I grew up in a small town in the sub-Himalayan Bengal which has tea estates as its northern boundary. Tea was ubiquitous.  I have never felt something special about tea as we don’t feel about air or water. But air and water are special. So does tea. 

It was so special for me that I wanted to be a tea taster in my childhood. Of all professions, the job of a tea taster was a class apart – I thought, while listening to such nuances of tea as – fruity, floral, grassy, nutty, astringent, vegetal, mineral, muscatel. It felt almost like classical music or, rather, my own box of favorite perfumes. I know, since my childhood, that a tea taster’s tongue is as sensitive as a blind man’s fingertips. I would love to eschew everything for finding the true notes of a cup of tea. Like a perfumer who is affectionately called a Nose (French: le nez), I would be called a Tongue (French:  le langue)!  

Nevertheless, what is still left in tea, a colonial aromatic beverage?  Has not tea become as archaic as a harmonium?  

But such special words as orange pekoe or fanning or more difficult and finer characteristics of tea leaves like golden flowery orange pekoe, tippy golden flowery orange pekoe or simply flowery orange pekoe abounded throughout my growing up years like foot-notes on a botanist’s diary. I wanted to be botanist at first, then a tea taster. The old tea stores in the small town always smelt different. A heavy, multilayered aroma of different varieties of tea would engulf me, as though, every instrument in an orchestra was playing a different note, and it was too much a complexity for a single nose to deal with.  There were ply-wood tea chests with ink-markings and logos of various tea plantations and tin boxes or glass jars with labels pasted on them.  Tea was etiquette. One needed to know his or her tea to claim refinement in an old town with closed head offices of large tea estates.  For long, tea acted as a social determinant in the closed society of Jalpaiguri, a provincial town of the Baboos – the gentry, which was five hundred kilometres away from its nearest city – Calcutta. The town is still five hundred kilometres away from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and it still has nearly one hundred and fifty tea estates and five hundred or so small tea plantations spread across its hinterland but it is no more a tea town.  

My earliest recollection of tea is intertwined with morning and winter. The early morning tea – a golden brown full-bodied concoction of one-fourth Darjeeling and three-fourth Dooars CTC mixed with milk powder and fine sugar – was my Boromashi’s (eldest maternal aunt) favourite potion in wintry mornings in our small town. But, in hindsight, I understand that tea was not a habit but, rather, a delicacy for my spinster Baromashi, a teacher, who also worked tirelessly in a middle-class joint family. Tea, for her, was a golden pause before the humdrums of a daily life shattered the stillness. It was a Zen moment in her own way. And she had passed a part of that divine pause on to me like a precious heirloom on such wintry mornings. 

Ours was a small town with tea offices in most of the roads in the older part of the town. And we had native tea barons with huge residential quarters. They were mostly Indians who had made it big competing with the tea gardens run by the European planters before and after the independence of India.  But the glory of being a resident in a town with so many head offices of tea gardens did not last after the seventies. Most of the head offices were shut or shifted to Calcutta either due to operational advantages or for a dwindling business.

However, the inherent continuity of a sense of history resurfaced in the town, often quite funnily, on the day of AGMs of mostly sick tea estates.  A majority of the old residents  in the small town had some shares of once flourishing tea estates descending down the generations which, after a few decades , finally , boiled down to a printed and audited annual profit and loss report.  I can still recall my Boromama (eldest maternal uncle),  a primary school teacher and a share holder in an old tea garden, returning from such an AGM carrying his dividends on the carrier of his Hercules cycle – two one  kilogram packets of CTC tea ! Now, even after a lapse of forty years, I can still see his flustered face and realize that our small town had seen its golden phase for a century since  the English planters had started establishing tea estates in the Dooars region as early as 1872, and that , by then,  was over.  But, still, my obsession for tea is not only an heirloom but also a natural legacy of a lost time.  

In a recent trip to my home, the first thing I did was to take a drive with my cousin through the closest tea garden  that  acts as the northern boundary of the town, and the next day we went to the Darjeeling hills to visit a new tea  deck. The first visit lasted for hours together – driving through the shaded winding roads, stopping at  ‘labor lines’ and the  old church , getting down and taking a stroll inside tea blocks,  sitting down under an ancient shade tree and letting the organic smell of tea bushes spread over hundreds of  acres to soak in . It has now almost become a ritual for me whenever I go home. With my parents and most of my older relatives gone, the tea gardens have become old wombs – a sense of home. If the first trip lasted for hours, the second trip to a swank tea deck in Tung in the Darjeeling hills was essentially a short trip: much time was gone reaching the place – driving for hours through the old and misty Hill Cart Road just to reach Tung and have our tea in a huge wood and glass deck in the middle of the rolling mountains. The entire trip to the northern Bengal was as calming and relaxing as a good, colorful sleep.  

When the British planters had started commercial production of tea in 1856 at Aloobari in the Darjeeling hills – a place where an earlier attempt of potato cultivation failed, they did not know that their experimentation with tea would, ultimately, result in a multi- billion pound trade worldwide. They did not even realize that this unknown non-alcoholic brew would create a discrete sub-culture in the region and a tea-culture internationally. They did not also apprehend that this tea culture would grow so much so that American War of Independence would start with the Boston Tea Party. 

Tea is all about migration – the white planters, the native Baboos and the tribal laborer’s. The Baboos like my ancestors had rushed from the eastern part of undivided Bengal to Terai ( marshy land ), Darjeeling hills and the Dooars ( ancient doors to Bhutan) to settle down in small new towns to become a part of the tea sub-system. However, it was most punishing for the lowest rung of tea industry – tea laborer’s or the coolies as they were described then. The planters knew that they would require enough labourers to process tea in more than three hundred tea estates spread across the Darjeeling hills, Terai and the Dooras region and an equal number of tea estates in Assam.  It was one of the largest migrations for any agro-based industry in the world where agents were recruited all over India and Nepal to ensure cheap labor flow – both men and women, mostly tribal, no matter how. Now I know that we, fortunately, belonged to the second tier of the hierarchy. The second tier, or the middle class, is always rescued by its definition of being in the middle of everything, safely. 

Once on a trip to a large tea estate in the Dooars in my adolescence, I spotted a tribal tea labourer wearing a red T-shirt with a huge statement – ‘My business is so secret that even I don’t know what I am doing!’ He might have bought the tee in the local Haat (weekly market). There were three possibilities involved in the whole episode: the first being he might not have, at all, understood the statement or he might have only liked the color of the shirt because it was the early eighties and the communist rule in Bengal was only half a decade old and the third being he knew what he wore if he was a Christian because the Christian missionaries spearheaded conversion and education simultaneously in the tea estates. It is only common to find an Anastasia or a Pascal or a Augustine peacefully co-existing with a Shanicharia , or a Mongra or a Budhua in a tea estate. 

But, without validating his understanding or non-understating of the statement, it can undoubtedly be ascertained that the statement held true for him and millions like him spread over the tea gardens in Bengal and Assam. They lived and worked in tea estates like bonded laborer without any labor rights. Let alone labor rights, microphones were allowed in the tea gardens only in the fifties as was the Plantation Labor Act. They really did not know for nearly a century what they were doing in tea gardens so cut off, so far off from their homes. With meagre income and harsh institutional supervision, the early settlers could not even think of going back to the places where they had come from. So they had settled down in the tea gardens, and the labor lines had become their ancestral homes for generations. This, eventually, gave birth to a unique culture, a pan-tribal mixed dialect (Sadri) and a heterogeneous demography in the tea gardens. Each tea garden that endlessly dots the Assam and Bengal landscape is now a biosphere and a mini India. In these intimate biospheres of  plants , trees and the humans, the change in seasons  is conspicuous by the rhythmic schedule of plucking the first flush (spring flush) or a second flush (summer flush) or a monsoon flush or the autumn flush tea leaves. It is this rhythm that keeps the planters, the clerks and the laborers in sync with the industry and the elements. It is often said that a tea estate manager’s job is dependent on rain because the pouring monsoon yields the maximum quantity of tea and keeps the soil hydrated throughout the year. I have tried to imagine a world without tea estate managers or without rain and, eventually, without tea. But, we still have enough rain and enough tea. 

But what is, again, still left in tea – an old, colonial, cruel and almost classical brew?    

‘Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday life….It is essentially a worship of the imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’

Writes Okakura Kakuzo ( Okakura Tenshin), a pioneering Japanese scholar in his The Book of Tea ( 1906) . This quote, for me, always brings back my Baromashi’s calm face while making her first cup of tea early in the morning when nobody was awake besides her little sleepy nephew. She knew that she could at least try to do the only possible thing in the most perfect way at each dawn before the impossible juggernaut of a large family and an uncertain future began to roll.   

I attended a traditional Japanese tea ceremony once. Ajioka Sosei , a seventeenth-generation descendent of Sen no Rikyu, was making tea with everything he had in his body and in his mind. It was elaborate, precise, silent, and endlessly dignified and, moreover, it was tranquil and meditational to such an extent that the whole experience translated itself into a spiritual exercise. I watched the calm and composed face of the tea-master of the Urasenke School of Tea in Japan. When you practice an art for seventeen generations, it has to be so perfect, so honest and so overwhelmingly important that you cast a spell.  He cast a spell.  It was a prayer and a meditation over a cup of tea.  

On the contrary, tea has entered into the English language as an idiom for blowing up something out of proportion l. There are different angles to look at this anti-inflammatory and antioxidant drink. My perception of tea – its texture and flavour, went for a toss when I lived in Bhutan for a few years. My first experience of drinking traditional Suja, a variant of traditional tea in a Tibetan way, was like drinking a health drink – no aroma, no flavour, no lingering taste on your taste buds, but a sense of wellbeing in a cold country. Made with tea bricks (fermented tea blocks) or loose black tea leaves and fused with butter, bicarbonate soda and salt, it is therapeutic. Tea bricks were the most frequently produced and consumed form of tea in ancient China prior to the Ming dynasty. If Suja is sipped with a plate of Desi or the butter rice in Bhutan, it is wholesome. In contrast, the indigenous sweetened Masala Chai infusion at any Dhaba (mostly truckers’ eateries) on any of the national highways or in most of the roadside tea souks in any city or town in India or Bangladesh or in Nepal would remind you more about of your childhood days of sugar and milk than tea!  

Different cultures have molded tea into their unique ways – black tea, tea with milk, tea with no milk but spices, tea with milk and spices, tea with butter and salt and let it grow as a staple non-alcoholic drink in the sub-continent and beyond.  However, depending upon the method of processing, tea can be grouped into only two basic categories -Orthodox   (whole leaf) and CTC (Culr, Tear, Crush). This can be again divided traditionally into five basic variants – black, white, green, Pu’erh and Oolong. But, with the passage of time and the changing taste of the tea connoisseurs, now the variations of tea are almost endless. A few months ago, much before the pandemic, my daughter, who stays in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in southern India, had ordered and sent us a box of tea online. When the courier delivered the box, it was a usual container which I had thought would reveal a few packets of traditional tea – the kind I have been drinking since my childhood. However, it was a box of herbal tea. There were such tea packets as ginger tea, lemon-grass tea, mint tea, chamomile tea, cardamom tea, clove tea, cinnamon tea, black pepper tea and even a holy basil tea!  It is this distinctive suppleness of tea that has made it a commoner’s drink and, at the same time, a connoisseur’s brew. 

Nevertheless, tea is also folklore besides it being a real brew. Otherwise, how can one possibly explain the reality of the ‘Moon Drop’ – a special white tea manufactured by the old tea estates in the Darjeeling hills? It is said that the ‘Moon Drop’ leaves are plucked and processed in a traditional non-mechanized way on full moon nights and made into tiny white balls of tea.  The Moon Drop is as costly as fine champagne. On the other hand, the ‘fanning’ or the ‘dust’ is the cheapest grade of tea which quenches the thirst of millions in India.  

However , we, in our small town of closed tea offices and dwindling shares, always knew that we make a full bodied, strong CTC brew in the Dooars for the common man while the connoisseur’s tea is harvested in the Darjeeling hills . 

On a sunlit morning, much after returning from my trip to the Dooars and the Darjeeling hills, a strange realization dawned on me while sipping my first cup of tea. I suddenly figured out that the whole trip, or, for that matter, my life as someone from a small tea town,   stood firmly on the same magic ratio and the proportion that my Boromashi used for her morning potion – three parts of Doors and one part of Darjeeling. 

Author’s Bio

Sekhar Banerjee is a bilingual writer .  He has four collections of poems and a monograph on an Indo-Nepal border tribe to his credit. He served as Secretary, Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi (a premier institute of Bengali language and literature) under Government of West Bengal.  He lives in Kolkata, India. 

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