Let's take a sip

Chai: The Experience of Indian Tea Rekha Sarin & Rajan KapoorNiyogi Books2014, pp 2841,564

Even before you notice the book title, the cover of Chai: The Experience of Indian Tea, reminds you, well, of tea. That luxuriant golden shade of a perfectly brewed tea. Steeped diligently for that to-die-for hue. Rich in antioxidants, laden with polyphenols and tannins. In the centre sits a teapot with the map of India etched on its heart. The book title is a giveaway, so you do not wait for surprises within the 301-page book with text by Rekha Sarin and photographs by Rajan Kapoor — Sarin is a freelance writer and professional floral decorator based in New Delhi with an inveterate love for nature; Kapoor is an industrialist with countless national and international awards for photography.  

Open the book and you are tempted to break open a tin of white tea. Darjeeling. Gidda Pahar. That double spread tea-tin image lends its margin to the blurb, which describes the book as “a pictorial journey through time, into the heartlands of tea… offering the reader a varied selection of universally popular brew”. Leaf through another panoramic shot of a tea garden and the contents list the broad sections of the tea journey: Chai the Indian Way; Into the Heartlands of Tea; From the Leaf to the Sip; Tea the Universal Brew. 

The tea story begins lyrically with a poem by Rabindranath Tagore: “Come, oh come, ye tea-thirsty restless ones — the kettle boils, bubbles and sings musically…” and then hastens to fascinating facts: the average per capita consumption of tea in India is 718 grams that adds up to 890 million kilograms per year. If every Indian were to have one more cup of tea every day, there would be no tea left to export! Chapter 1 sets the mood for Indian cutting-chai; Chapter 2 follows the method of a quote on the page forehead followed by fascinating fact — the first-ever cargo of Indian tea reached London on May 8, 1838, on a sailing ship called Calcutta. That method is followed throughout the book — each chapter begins with a quote, steeps information sequentially and scatters interesting images.  

Facts, not its narrative style, are the book’s strength. It tells you everything about how tea came to India (Singhpo and Khamti tribes, the earliest tea drinkers, lived in the jungles of Assam); how Assam Company, the world’s first commercial tea company, was formed on February 12, 1839; to its spread across Indian landscape; the process of turning a tea leaf into tea; the tea planter’s life; the verdict of a tea taster… Later in the book, the Indian tea experience is suddenly interrupted by its beginnings in China — its discovery in the Yunan province of ancient China by Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC. 

With history done, the reader gets a cupful of health. And guess who is endorsing the goodness of tea? Theodore Roosevelt. He thinks “tea is so much better than brandy”; during his six months in Africa, he took no brandy even when sick; he took tea instead. An entire chapter talks of tea for beauty and relaxation; tea as a source of minerals; tea as an invaluable antioxidant. Now, there’s also a yoga tea! 

To fend off the label of an academic tea tome that probably would find space only in library shelves, Sarin and Kapoor, throw in tea DIY at the end — recipes with tea. There’s how-to on making Kashmiri kahwa; grandma’s recipe for cough and cold; blood orange ice tea; hot toddy; voodoo; spirited punch; rosehip tea consommé with star anise, topped with mint foam. Even a green tea marinated tofu.  

Kapoor’s photographs complement the text. Through his lens, one sees the panorama of a sprawling tea estate, of men quaffing tea by the street; women in pearls and bouffant sipping off gold-rimmed tea cups; tea pluckers with baskets; the flower of a tea tree. Interspersed within black/white and colour photographs are sepia-toned sourced archival images that tell a story of the splendour of tea during the Raj-era — men in sola toupee, women in Victorian frocks and wide-brim hats.  

This book, surely, is a labour of love. As Sarin admits in her musings she spent “hours in the stimulating silence of various libraries”, interviewing tea professionals, and writing/rewriting drafts, Kapoor “armed with heavy cameras, had no hesitation about climbing up a machan or sneaking onto the roof of a village dwelling to get a bird’s eye shot of the tea garden…” The book is laden with information. Like an all-you-ever-wanted-to-know kinda info load. What it lacks is lyrical story-telling. Like a morning cuppa that was not brewed perfectly.

The book is heavy, probably weighs more than 10 teacups held together. Try picking it up. It is worth its weight in gold. Nay, tea.

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