Tea for two ! | By Khalid Saleem


Tea for two !

TEA, as a beverage, is not only maintaining its hold over the masses in this blessed land, but indications are that the tea-imbibing habit is spreading its tentacles to hitherto untouched areas.

The ongoing corona-virus Pandemic does not appear to have affected the tea-imbibing habit of this blessed nation either way.

The tea-houses and eateries of Islamabad are crowded as ever; the smart lock-down notwithstanding! In fact, if the overflowing car-parking areas around these establishments are any guide, the clientele of these establishments is now overflowing as never before.

One may be excused for dwelling on this unlikely subject in these difficult times. Let us begin at the beginning!
Tea, let it be understood, is not indigenous to our land. And yet, surprisingly, it is held in awe as if it were a fetish.

Have we ever deigned to ask ourselves, why? The British, it may be argued with reason, too are in a similar situation.

But, then, the British are prone to treat tea as an institution! For them, there is a time for ‘tea’ and this hour is sacred.

Not for them to demean the coveted beverage by imbibing it at all odd hours during the day or night, as our fellow country people have the tendency to do.

The beverage has figured rather frequently in English literature. Tea apparently but not surprisingly held a fascination for writers of all genres. To take just a few stray examples: William Cowper called it “The cup that cheers”.

Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary for 1660, records, “I did send for a cup of tea (a China drink) of which I never had drank before”.

Presumably, he made it a habit to drink it subsequently. J. B. Priestly opined, “Our trouble is that we drink too much tea”. Even Lewis Carol could not resist the temptation of including the Mad Hatter’s tea party in his “Alice in Wonderland”.

Rivers of tea have flowed down the kettle spouts since. And, one regrets to report, things have not changed for the better.

By the way, has the reader noticed how things invariably appear to change for the worse? Why cannot they change for the better, for a change? But, that, as they say, is another story.

Coming back to our topic of today, the cup of tea is no longer a mere drink; it has become something of a ritual; an institution.

It may hardly be an exaggeration to state that the cup of tea has become the biggest single influence on our lives today.

A not inconsiderable number of people in this land hold the view that it was the British colonialists who introduced tea to the sub-continent. This observation would appear to be true only in part.

Our region with its centuries old link with China via the Silk Route surely had access to Chinese tea much before the advent of British colonialism. But tea as we know it today was definitely introduced by the British.

With its financial interest in the tea gardens spread all over the British Empire, the colonial administration cleverly manipulated a campaign to introduce tea into the sub-continental homes.

A vast indoctrination exercise was launched, more or less on the lines of psychological warfare.

Our elders talked of the rather cryptic slogan: “In hot weather, a hot cup of tea cools you down” {Garmion mein garam chai thandak pohnchati hai}, which the British tea companies in pre-independence India appear to have utilized with devastating effect.

And yet, despite all their commercial tricks, when that “nation of shopkeepers” finally quit the sub-continent, their campaign to make the people dependent on tea had achieved, at best, only partial success.

While the Anglophiles and the town babus took to tea like ducklings to water, our sturdy rural folk (the overwhelming majority) stuck manfully to their traditional values and their traditional beverages.

It was left to our post-independence masters to finally break down that resistance. The irony was that after independence Pakistan was separated from most of the major tea-producing areas and after the traumatic events of 1971 we produced no tea at all.

Despite all that, tea quickly became the universal, all pervasive, beverage in this country.

Be it the office, the hearth or the tilling field, it is ever the cup of tea that changes hands as a mark of hospitality!

One wonders if anyone in the Land of the Pure gives a wee thought to where the tea comes from and, more importantly, what it costs the national kitty.

Statistics kindly provided by a friend show that the value of our annual imports of tea from five countries figures in the over a billion dollar range.

Makes one wonder, if it is worth it! Before our tea-lovers start sharpening their knives, allow one to explain that one is not advocating that we give up taking tea altogether.

But, could we not make a beginning by taking it in moderation? Our office baboos could perhaps set an example by restricting their daily intake to two cups.

Or, perhaps, all of us could chip in by resolving to have one cup of tea less in a day, the compelling TV commercials notwithstanding! Habits die hard, though.

A habit like tea drinking will hardly be easy to give up. Besides, for the poor folk, having a cup of tea is perhaps the only luxury within their reach.

Take that away and what do you give them in return? Does give one food for thought, that! Come to think of it, the problem of tea drinking is much too entrenched and too widespread to yield to a quick-fix solution. Nonetheless a bit of brainstorming never did anyone any harm.

The pity is that how else can brainstorming sessions go through except over endless cups of tea? And that, as they say, brings us back to square one!

— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.

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