For centuries tea has played an important role in history. From being the catalyst of the Opium Wars and being dumped in the port of Boston, to being part of royal dowries, exquisite Japanese ceremonies and a marker of British eccentricity, tea has been at the centre of great debate. Sadly the recent politics in India centred on the brewed beverage is really quite disturbing in that it not only reduces politics to a superficial absurdity but does not even attempt to symbolize anything deeper. The American Tea Party, where TEA was a symbolic allusion to the Boston Tea Party and was an acronym for ‘Taxed Enough Already,’ at least had an ideological vision, however apocalyptic and troubling. However, the Great Indian Tea Tamasha (GITT) not only perpetuates a shallow form of political engagement but also serves to entrench the fact that Indian politics is more about personalities than ideas, with various people vying with each other to serve the perfect charchaa-ful, communal-free chaai.
Indians by and large do not drink milkless tea. Some do, when they are ill. So one can only wonder what Rahul Gandhi’s milkmen would have to say about a concoction that contains both tea and milk. To counter the NaMo tea stalls, Congress workers have set up Rahul milk stalls, with banners proudly proclaiming “BJP ki zahriilii chaai nahiiN, doodh pilaayenge, desh ke naujawaano ko pahalwaan banaayenge”. Gorakhpur district Congress president Syed Jamal also added that tea is a ‘foreign’ beverage and milk is of course Indian. Clearly the rest of the world stole cows from India in order to benefit from this distinctly South Asian drink. Apart from the fact that Congress workers are also using that age-old foreign-local distinction, which is more often the hallmark of the BJP, the attempt to counter the NaMo tea stalls, in itself the result of a Congress leader’s attempt at mockery, is laughable.
Maybe the next Congress manifesto can list the many ills that tea spreads in society. Infant mortality? Tea! Corruption? Tea! Stagnant economy? Tea! Communal riots? Tea! The last of course being ideal, given that the beverage of choice at the moment for the BJP is tea. Of course, one mustn’t forget Lalu Prasad Yadav’s timely intervention in the whole matter. After all, he makes much of the fact that his family were goat herders, so milk is much more his area of expertise than Rahul’s. He also countered Modi by claiming that not only did he sell tea when he was younger but he also drove a rickshaw to fund his studies. It would not be out of place to remind Lalu that he also pioneered the serving of tea in earthenware cups on trains, which was an ingenious way of being not only eco-friendly but also desi. It is unfortunate, however, that in the middle of GITT no one has felt compelled to speak of the plight of plantation labourers who are often exploited.
Beyond the shallow bickering over tea stalls, it is important to remember that tea and coffee houses in South Asia were important public spaces where people would come to meet others, discuss politics and debate ideas all over a cup of potent pekoe. Sadly these spaces have fallen on hard times and have either been replaced by coffee chains with their tinny music, unaffordable prices and characterless interiors or have become a shadow of their former selves.
In the 1940s there were nearly 40 Indian Coffee Houses all over the country, which were initially run by the British and then taken over by a socialist cooperative on the encouragement of the communist leader A.K. Gopalan. Kerala to this day has dozens of branches. The one in Delhi is still a popular haunt for artists, activists and research students, though ‘development’ might mean that the branch is closed down soon. The Coffee House in Calcutta was once popular with the likes of Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey and many others.
In Lahore two Sikh brothers had opened an India Coffee House and an India Tea House facing each other. The former became a bank and the latter became the Pak Tea house, a vibrant intellectual space, which was visited by many musicians, journalists, writers, poets and thinkers including Faiz, Manto, Faraz, Amanat Ali Khanand Intezar Hussain amongst many others. There is now even a blog using the name Pak Tea House, which is somewhat fitting given that the cyberspace has now partly taken the role of the traditional tea house. But it can never be the same, for the internet rarely allows for conversation and almost always is more useful for people to either indulge in monologues or blindly, and often viciously, attack those they disagree with.
Spaces such as these tea and coffee houses were crucial as popular social sites where people would meet others from different backgrounds and share and argue over their experiences, thoughts and ideas. Of course they were urban spaces but their pricing meant that most people could afford a drink. Indeed the importance of such spaces is illustrated at length in one section of Jurgen Habermas’ book on the public sphere, which deals with the role of the cafés, amongst other such spaces, in the articulation and formation of a public sphere in Europe. Closer to home one part of scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book Provincialising Europe deals with the institution of adda in Bengal and its social role.
These formal and informal environments then can serve as nodes of key social networks, and so it is important to preserve and create such spaces without them being the temporary result of political vanities. In the midst of GITT, one of the best places to get a feeling for the politics of a constituency, particularly in rural areas, is one of the dhabas where you might just get some insight into local problems and grievances or hear people’s opinions.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge who writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu Daily Inqilab