I am in the middle of the latest book by Alexander McCall Smith in his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, THE MIRACLE AT SPEEDY MOTORS. McCall Smith says in the book, "The telling of a story, like virtually everything in this life, was always made all the easier by a cup of tea."
This delightfully languid series features the 'traditionally-built' (oh, what a lovely excuse for obesity!) detective-of-life's-little-problems and dispenser-of-wise-wand-warm-solutions, Mma Precious Ramotswe, and her assistant,the much-more-rigid Mma Grace Makutsi. Both of them drink plentiful cups of tea throughout the day, with Mma Ramotswe preferring the red bush tea (lovely forest-y name, don't you think?).
When McCall Smith praises the virtues of tea as a nerves-soother,temper-calmer, tongue-loosener, soul-refresher,camaraderie-builder, feel-gooder, most of us in India would echo, "How true".
Tea, perhaps, unites more people than any religion does. But, just as religions divide themselves into factions and sects and whatnots, tea is also divided into a number of different categories - of colour, cut and method-of-preparation.
We grew up knowing that there were two 'best' kinds of tea - the Assam variety and the Darjeeling variety - and, being parochial, fond-of-debates-at-the-drop-of-a-hat Bengalis, we vociferously championed the Darjeeling variety (never mind if Shubhas Ghising and his Gorkhaland cronies were trying to chuck Bengalis out of Darjeeling). A good cup of tea was made by adding the aromatic leaves of Darjeeling tea to just-boiling-water, taking it off the gas/stove, letting it soak for a while, and adding sugar and/or milk only if you liked it that way. True tea connoisseurs preferred not to let anything dilute the taste and fragrance of tea, sniffing in the aroma deeply and pleasurably and closing their eyes in ecstasy before taking the first sip of the elixir.
What a culture shock when I shifted to Mumbai! Here the most-loved cuppa is the one which is boiled with large amounts of milk till possibly nothing remains of the distinctive tea-aroma. To add to the sacrilege (from the Bengali point of view), people often add things like adrak (ginger) and elaichi (cardamom) to the over-bolied concoction! And the resultant muddy, thickish liquid is gulped down with relish, either the whole cup, or half-a-cup (the cutely named 'cutting' chai).
And coffee, the hot 'South-Indian filter coffee', is a SERIOUS CONTENDER to the supremacy of tea! Coffee, for most Bengalis, is a diversion-drink, to be taken in fancy bone-china mugs (coffee MUST be served in mugs, tea in CUPS, or so we were told) when guests drop in, especially in winter. It is emphatically NOT a dozens-of-time-a-day-drink-of-sustenance, for Bengalis at least.
And as for the new-fangled entrants like green tea, and herbal tea, all true-tea-addicted Bengalis will say, "Jatto shob! (Bosh!!). We'd rather believe in ANTI-CAPITALISM than in ANTI-OXIDANTS, you see. Tea is for pure pleasure, health-issues are completely secondary.
Not to take sides on the tea-vs-coffee debate, let me confess that I am a tea-totaller. I DO NOT DRINK TEA and I DO NOT DRINK COFFEE. Not the hot varieties, anyway. I like my tea cold, with lemon, or with ice-cream (they did a great job of that at Dolly's in Dakshinapan, the tea-boutique in Kolkata). And when I go to Barista, or Cafe Coffee Day, I have my frappe or my latte ice-cold (but no chocolate, please). And if there is fresh-lime-soda (or jaljira or nimbu-paani) I'll opt for that!
I guess that makes me a FREAK in the eyes of most tea/coffee/both- addicted Indians.What's your brew?