A Tale of a Tea City

Years ago, when my younger sister was about four, she developed a real fondness for tea. It started with my mother allowing her an occasional sip from her own cup during tea time but she soon graduated to her having her own small blue bakelite cup and saucer (taken from a very English picnic set so popular in the 60’s) from which she was allowed to take her own few sips. My eldest paternal aunt, a tall, spare, strict lady, who often dropped in on the weekends at tea time, once chanced upon my baby sister busily drinking tea from her own little cup. The heavens sort of opened up then, the gist of it being that my mother was jeopardizing my sisters fair complexion by allowing her to have tea and it’s further implied calamities such as jeopardizing her marriage prospects etc. The myth that tea could darken anyone’s complexion due to its caffeine content, was apparently a proven fact then. My mother clearly chose not to heed her sister in law’s stern admonition because the blue cup continued to appear on the tea tray and fortunately, my sisters complexion too, retained its rosy color. That was of course a revolutionary step because children then were certainly not allowed to drink tea, as it is even now. Entering college, generally, still marks tea drinking age and sometimes, that too, if one is living in a hostel where a cup of stewed tea is provided with breakfast.

My own initiation into the hallowed world of tea, started after marriage in the late 70’s when I was in my early twenties.The sight of a polished wooden tea tray on the breakfast table, set with a silver tea service, stiff white organdie tray cloth, matching tea cosy and a tiny, padded teapot holder, all delicately embroidered by Christian nuns in a mission in south India, filled me with glee. Every sip was like a rite of passage, symbolic of the end of childhood restrictions and being let loose into the world of adult choices.

Although some branded teas were available, the tea we drank, like most Calcuttans then, came from the ‘tea houses'( tea stores) that dot many a city neighborhood, even now. Most people still get their own loose leaf mix( cha pata)from there or just buy a particular variety they favour the most. Usually, open fronted, elongated stores, a row of big square tins generally marched down the counter, with ‘cha’ written in Bengali script in bright red paint,with a bold capital T cutting through it. Interesting trivia.. the Mandarin word for tea is also ‘cha’. These tins were kept more to lure in the customer for behind the counter because to the rear stood the real McCoy, the stack of wooden tea chests, filled with an infinite number of teas from Darjeeling, Assam and at times even Nepal, bought from the Calcutta tea auctions.

The store owner would gently insert a long handled metal scoop into a round lidded opening to the side of the chests, spoon out the required amount into a small tray, weigh it on a brass ‘dari palla’, traditional weighing scales and hand it over, usually in 250 GM’s packets because these teas didnt stay as well as the branded, packaged ones With only years of experience and no professional training, he could also deftly mix different teas in the right proportions to get the desired brew requested by a customer. Till date, these tea houses in newer avatars continue to be pilgrimage places for the dedicated teaholics, as the permanently long lines in front of iconic tea houses like Dhruba Tea Centre in Lal Bazar, clearly prove.

Though the prosaic mug has been steadily nudging out the use of the dainty cup and saucer, there’s one unique tea tradition in Bengal, that’s defied all odds and stayed staunchly true to the soil. The humble yet iconic,’ bharer cha’, tea drunk from handmade, earthenware cups. A true Bangali will define tea from a bhar quite seriously, as not a drink but an emotion. As the sun rises on Bengals villages and cities, the countless tea stalls dotting the roadsides with rickety wooden benches placed in front of them, will have many a gent poring over the morning’s newspaper, sneaking a puff or two, all of it hinging on the wonderfully full bodied sweet, milky taste of the tea sipped from a small earthenware cup which comes free and is thrown away as soon as the tea is done. The rest of India drinks tea from kullhars too ( often charged for) but the relationship that a Bengali has with bharer cha, borders on the mystical.

Whole studies have been done on the middle class Bengali’s passion for tea and it’s best buddy, the biscuit, which probably explains why West Bengal is one of five highest consumers of biscuits in the country. It’s hard to beat the first taste of a ‘leri biskut’, (locally made, semi sweet rusks) dunked into the tea or the other low cost biscuits from small, local bakeries, that are stocked plentifully, by the cha wallahs. One can stand as long as ones ‘tea break’ permits, nonchalantly, clutching a bhar and a biscuit, happily evesdropping on entire conversations on politics, the weather and football, that happen between perfect strangers,over their cup of cha and biscuit. One chaiwallah, working the pavements in office areas like Dalhousie Square or outside an University, armed with paper cups stacked in a bucket, hawking tea from a gigantic aluminium kettle, can also be regarded as a one man mobile tea stall.

If street tea (validated by The Guardian, no less, as the best in India) isn’t your thing, scoot right over to the famed ‘cabins’, like Anadi Cabin, (unpretentious eateries known for their superlative fried eats) established in 1916 or to very pucca tea rooms like Flurys and never be disappointed because the cuppa always crowns the menu. Balwant Singhs Eating House on Harish Mukherjee Road, sees car loads of pooped partygoers ( pre Covid days) honking zestily at 3 am for a cup of their famous kesari tea, while Sharma Tea House on the opposite side of the road, is Mecca for the morning walkers.Another famed tea spot, Maharaja, came up as direct competition to Maharani a few yards away, on the same side of Sarat Bose Road, with both having their own loyal bands of acolytes.The list keeps growing, just like the cups of tea.

Rain, hail, swelter, freeze, no matter what the time or temperature, the Bengalis “cha er nesha”( tea addiction), is always up for a steaming cup of ‘ likker cha’ ( tea liquor/black tea) or milky sweet bharer cha or brewed and tea bagged too. Lately, lebu cha( sweetened tea with a squeeze of lemon), a favourite with the intellectual types, has also quietly inched its way into the inner circle. Masala tea, boiled tea, ginger tea, ‘cutting chai'( tea with ginger cardamom and milk) the other types of ‘chai,’ so loved in other parts of the country, are mostly, still kept at a polite distance here.

A posher edition of the morning and afternoon tea tradition, probably one of the last few remaining vestiges of the days of the Raj, still unfolds daily in the eminent social clubs of Kolkata. Calcutta Club, Bengal Club and Saturday Club, are all rooted in a pre Independence past, with unique historical and cultural identities that are stories by themselves. A turbanned bearer, dressed in a long white tunic,cinched with a black and gold striped cummerbund, will come majestically bearing a tea tray, with the Club’s initials stamped on the ceramic tea service and gently remind one if it’s Darjeeling, to let it to steep a minute more before drinking it. In Calcutta Cricket & Football Club, established 1792, Darjeeling tea is served without milk or sugar and ignoramuses clamouring for them,are politely informed that Darjeeling, especially the finer varieties like the Muscatel, second flush, can be savoured only by itself with nothing to interfere with its musky, spicy, fruity taste.

Cha in Bengal,is a tradition,a habit, a ritual, a tea party, an adda starter, essential incredient to set the famous Bengali creative juices flowing and despite its Imperial past, simply a way of life now.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out the reason behind this steamy love affair between Bengalis and tea in a country which is the world’s largest consumer of tea and also the second biggest producer of tea. We drank ayurvedic medicinal teas before the Britishers, in an attempt break China’s monopoly over tea, planted tea in Assam, Darjeeling and the Nilgiris in the mid 1800’s. It worked and Calcutta, then the capital of the Raj, enjoying close proximity to the North Bengal tea growing regions of Darjeeling (producing the ‘champagne’ of all teas) the Dooars/Terai, and Assam, soon became the trade hub.

Trade links grew, the distinctive tea community and culture surrounding it flourished, commercially affordable and easily available tea was plentiful, leaving behind forever, a tale of a tea city. And as tales go, this one is definitely living, happily ever after.

Published by Diti Sen

An independent writer and author, currently exploring blogging, tracking life from India and ready to explore anything from the tried and tested to the wierd and the eclectic. You will find, nature, travel, food, children, folklore, customs, myths, festivals, reflections, inspirations, hope, amongst many other things here. Anything that makes me think and ponder and want to know more about, shared in an informative and entertaining sort of way.

24 thoughts on “A Tale of a Tea City

  1. A wonderful write up into the world of tea lovers. The personal touches of the Bengali bhodrolok and bhodromohila aficionados of the Chai was amusingly amazing. Though the little girl in the first paragraph, your younger sister stole my heart. My second sister was the same as your younger one. And I drank tea only after becoming a mum.
    You are a super brilliant writer. Perfect reading for reminiscing the nostalgia over a cup of steaming tea.

    Liked by 3 people

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