A couple of years back I happened to spend some time in the USA. I was far away from my family and friends. In the initial days, homesickness was strangulating me. My introvert nature was not making it any easier for me to make friends here in the exotic, alien, unfamiliar land. Amidst such circumstances, a mere cup of Pakistani tea rescued me. Yes, you read it right. Our own traditional chai. One we consume many times on the daily. This sweet little beverage made me befriend other South Asian fellows in that foreign land as I invited them over for a cup of tea.
I soon realized that they were missing this traditional homely beverage even more than I was. Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi; we all seemed to love tea. The tradition of drinking “chai” transcends all boundaries of the sub-continent. However, the beverage that unites me with other South Asian fellows, is ironically the same drink used by the “Great Dividers” as a tool to exploit and divide the people of the Sub-continent. The chai we drink today actually has a different and lesser-known past, which makes it a less traditional and a more exotic beverage.
A past rooted in our dark colonial history.
Tea originated in China. Mostly used by Buddhist and Taoist monks as a meditation aid due to its invigorating effects. That is why it was imported by England as a medicine. It was later treated as an exotic beverage, soon becoming an English drinking habit. The British, doing what colonials do, realized the potential of Indian fields for growing tea. The first tea estates, established in the 1830’s in the Indian state of Assam, grew imported Chinese tea plants. The British Empire systematically seized Indian fields and generated revenues by selling tea produced by labor and land.
“It was a perfect example of the West taking over from the East,” Erika Rappaport, a professor of history at the University of California says.“I thought this was a real example of the British Empire using its power, law, army, and resources to seize the market.”
Britain’s East India Company systematically created a monopoly over the tea trade, which drastically increased British power. By 1888, British tea imports from India were for the very first time higher than those from China. The obsession with tea drove colonials to clear large jungles in India for their tea plantations.
Millions of Indian laborers forcibly worked in the tea fields under despicable working conditions. Hundreds of thousands died for the mere production of the beloved British beverage. The increasing tea fields and fresh marketing strategies for tea were hand in hand with British imperial might and the new wave of consumerism in British India. By late 1900’s most Indians were not much interested in drinking tea. The Indian Tea Association, therefore, in 1901, decided to increase their revenues by making Indians drink ‘chai’. For that purpose, they intentionally entrenched the tea drinking habit among Indians. They did so by first offering free tea. Once the habit was established, the British sold tea to the Indians at much higher prices.
And so, the British English Tea became our beloved Chai.
At major railway stations, vendors set up shops and were famously termed as “chai-walas”. Therefore, the process of consumerism began and flooded Indian homes. The entire point, in the end was the “domestication” of tea in the sub-continent. Over time, the custom of drinking tea became our very own tradition.
So next time, before sipping that cozy cup of imperialism with a dark color of history, ask yourselves; to tea or not to tea?!