“Two leaves and a bud”, declared Ravi Puran as he escorted us through the maze of tea bushes on a hillside in Mauritius in May1982.
“That is all it takes,” he continued enthusiastically as Margaret, Raj Rani, and Durga Prasad tried to keep up with him as we wound our way around the tea estate.
Ravi was the manager of the tea estate: we had met him through the kindness of Sunil Arora, one of my colleagues in Air India. Margaret and I had been married for just about a year and this 6 week posting in Mauritius was like a honeymoon gift from the company! Raj Rani and Durga Prasad were my fellow crew members.
I had been drinking tea ever since I could remember, but this was the very first time in my 30 years that I had come to the source!
Ravi went on to explain that the workers who picked the tea harvest would focus only on the most tender trio of “Two Leaves and a Bud” which they plucked nimbly with their fingers before tossing it into the wicker baskets on their backs which were suspended with a tump line on their foreheads.
So for the first time in my life the faded monochrome images I had seen of tea gardens and their industrious workers came to life in a colourful three dimensional way on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from Kolkata, the hub of the erstwhile British Empire’s at one time global monopoly on the tea trade.
Napoleon rightly dubbed the English as a nation of shopkeepers. Their merchants ventured to the far corners of the globe in search of spices, timber, mineral riches, silks and textiles and all manner of commodities through which they enriched the coffers of their monarchs and their country.
I had been drinking tea for as long as I can remember : even in the food shortage days of the early 1960s when India’s hungry masses were subjected to the rationing system, our family somehow allocated the sugar quota for drinking tea. Unlike the Chinese we Indians always add sugar and milk to this beverage, thus producing a brew which was rightly described by William Cowper as the cup “that cheers but not inebriates”!
That may be so, but as far as I am concerned, I was hooked. It was an addiction I embraced and have nursed all my life. Since sugar and milk were ingredients unknown in the tribal diet in the village of Barutola (in the Ranchi district state of Jharkhand) where we would go for the summer holidays, I became used to drinking “Lal Chai” – literally “Red Tea”, lightly flavoured with a few sparse leaves of black tea. Decades later I came to appreciate the Chinese practice of always having a jug of mild sugarless “Lal Chai” as a handy beverage when dining. On a chilly and windy evening in 1979, my friend Padmanand and I cupped large mugs of tea in a cafe at Silvermine Bay on the island of Lantau, waiting for the ferry to take us back to Kowloon after an invigorating hike to Lantau Peak. Watching the waves whipped up by the wind I was glad that I held my comfort drink in my hands.
Having been brought up as a typical Indian male child, I did not learn to make my own cuppa until I moved to Bombay in 1977 and began to live on my own. Then when I began to girdle the globe as a Flight Attendant with Air India, the need to invest in a small immersion heater became paramount! Like my colleagues, I bought and used these little coils of metal to boil water in hotel rooms around the world and make myself a cup of tea whenever I would wake up from my jet-lagged slumber: the brew would work its magic and the fatigue of long hours and crossing multiple time zones would begin to fade. The warm soothing liquid would help to combat the rapid changes in climatic zones that the profession imposed on its workers, like flying from a pleasant 10 deg Celsius in New Delhi to a numbing -30 deg in Moscow in the space of 6 hours!
This tea making ritual would also help in getting the crew gathered in one room in a social setting where we would swap stories, getting to know one another better, relate hilarious or annoying and frustrating incidents on board. Though the brew may be light, it acted as a great bonding glue!
Most Indians that I know, with the exception of my South Indian friends, need a cup of chai to nudge them out of bed and yes, it is a mild laxative which helps the bowels move!
The process of making chai is as varied as the cuisine of India – in Kashmir they are fond of adding fragrant herbs and spices to the brew while Gujaratis have their own little bag of tricks to produce value added concoctions. This habit extends even to the ubiquitious tea vendors who dispense tea along the length and breadth of India’s massive railway network, sometimes transferring themselves and their wares from carriage to carriage by swinging nimbly from one door to the next from the outside as the train hurtles through the countryside at 100 km an hour! Once, when I had just bought and drank a cup in a train, another vendor passed by. When he asked me if I would like to buy a cuppa, I told him that I had just drank a cup from the previous seller. He gave me a winning smile and said, “Sirji, give my tea a shot – I make it with cardamom!” Needless to say, it was an offer I could not refuse.
In the eco friendly decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the tea was sold in clay cups which were then thrown away by the consumer out of the window and eventually became part of the soil once again. A few years ago when I travelled across India by train, the tracks were lined for hundreds of miles with the plastic cups that were being used now. I believe in the years that the peasant politician Laloo Prasad Yadav was the Railway Minister, he had made it mandatory for the railways to re-introduce the humble clay cups : which was a great move in the right direction.
Drinking chai in the mountains is of course beloved by anyone who treks, climbs or just travels at altitudes where the air is guaranteed to be chilly. I took chai drinking to a personal high when Ravi Wadaskar and I made the first ascent of a modest peak in the Chango Glacier of Kinnaur in 1998. We brewed a flask of tea for the climb and for the summit.
I can do without a lot of things in this life, but the one thing that will be the absolute last luxury that I will sacrifice will certainly be chai, the humble ambrosia of millions around the world!