Raise a toast to a cup of tea

Raise a toast to a cup of tea

Vishavjeet Chaudhary

As actor Virginia Wood once remarked, this story is one of empires and espionage, smuggling and addiction, rampage and passion. The protagonist of this remarkable tryst with history is none other than the humble leaf of tea. Shrouded in mystery and intrigue, the origins are not fully deciphered. Some believe it was by sheer accident that the leaf made its way into boiling water — and then, into civilisations. Its export from the extensive plantations in India was a huge boon to the Raj. Today, India continues to supply the finest teas around the world, so much so that tea is believed to be the most consumed beverage across the globe.

Among the most famous are the robust ‘Assam’, the sprightly ‘Darjeeling’ and the invigorating ‘Earl Grey’. The Indian masala chai is famed for its awakening aroma and distinct sweetness. In fact, tea is seen as the perfect companion to most occasions. Winter invites a hot cup of tea; monsoon calls for a celebratory cup; in summer, it cools you down; and in autumn, it provides for quiet pensiveness.

The depiction of tea is varied — from the famed parties in Alice in Wonderland to the scenes of tea drinking in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. CS Lewis said, ‘You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough for me!’ The ceremonies accompanying a cup of tea are just as elaborate. The Japanese, for instance, have a technique and art to pour each cup. The English tea parties are famed for their invitation lists and continue to be a hallmark of the monarchy.

India, too, has a special relationship with tea. As an empire, our history will be incomplete without tea. The US (known more for its love of coffee than tea) has an equally close connection to tea — the Boston Tea Party, which was anything but that!

George Orwell, known for his dystopian writing, scripted a short piece, unusually happy, on the right way to drink tea. He suggested that first of all, the tea leaf should not be Chinese; Indian or Ceylonese tea is far better. Milk should be added after the brew has matured, and sugar must be avoided. Orwell himself encapsulated all cultures — being of English descent, born in Bihar and having served in Burma. His fascination for tea perhaps truly reflects this shared cultural heritage.

A cup of tea holds a million possibilities. It can calm, it can invigorate. One of the most reassuring sounds is that of the kettle coming to a boil, and hot water being poured onto tea. The aroma is one that arouses distinctive nostalgia. Next time, while you sip your favourite brew, think of all that has gone into that one cup — centuries of history, hours of work, countless tea tastings, meticulous blending. How it is made is a whole different story that each household holds unique. It certainly is a storm in a teacup!

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