Who cares for a cuppa?

Published: August 14, 2019
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The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan and ex-Assistant Secretary General of the OIC

The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan and ex-Assistant Secretary General of the OIC

Tea not only maintains its hold over the masses in this blessed land, but indications show that the tea-imbibing habit is spreading its tentacles to untouched areas. Tea companies appear to have geared up their campaigns to convert the already converted. TV advertisements — stressing the health and other benefits of various brands — gush forth like geysers. Why this deluge of tea commercials? Has the all-invasive tea imbibing habit suffered a decline lately? Or, has the sugar “inflation” affected tea sales? Be that as it may, it tempts one to delve into the “history” of this beverage.

Tea is not indigenous to our land. Yet, surprisingly it is held in awe as if it were a fetish. Have we ever deigned to ask ourselves, why? The British 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. It is not for them to demean the coveted beverage by imbibing it at all odd hours, as our compatriots do.

The beverage has figured rather frequently in literature. A few stray examples include: William Cowper calling it “The cup that cheers”. Samuel Pepys, in his 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 complained, “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”.

Many hold the view that it was the British colonialists who introduced tea to the Sub-continent. This is only partly true. 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 across the British Empire, the colonial administration cleverly manipulated a campaign to introduce tea into the Sub-continental homes.

A vast indoctrination campaign was launched, more or less on the lines of psychological warfare. Despite their commercial tricks, when that “nation of shopkeepers” finally quit the subcontinent, their campaign to make the people dependent on tea had achieved only partial success. While the Anglophiles and the town babus took to tea like ducklings to water, our sturdy rural folk stuck to their traditional beverages.

Our post-independence masters finally broke that resistance. Ironically, after independence Pakistan was separated from most of the major tea-producing areas in the subcontinent. After the traumatic events of 1971, we produced no tea at all. Despite that, it quickly became the universal 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!

Habits die hard, though. A habit like tea drinking will not 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? The problem of tea drinking is much too entrenched and widespread to yield a quick-fix solution. Nonetheless, a bit of brainstorming never did anyone any harm. The pity is that how else can brainstorming sessions occur except over endless cups of tea? And that brings us back to square one!

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2019.

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