Tea-scapades of a Tea-totaler
September 20, 2011
I don’t really like tea. No, not ginger, not black, not earl grey, not jasmine, Sri Lankan or any variety you may please. I detest its immediate impact on my bladder and bowel (more on that later). I grew up in a house where tea was more important than afternoon meals, but that has nothing to do with my dislike for this I-don’t-understand-anything-about-it drink. I don’t quite get the dichotomy of its effect- how it manages to refresh someone in the smoldering heat of a summer and how almost with the same intensity gives warmth in the harshest of winters. I’ve stopped comprehending the versatility of this drink. So why am I writing about a subject I can neither comprehend nor like? That’s because for a journalist, I’m quite the rare variety. Tea-totalers (my word for non tea drinkers) have a distinct disadvantage as reporters. Agreeing to a cup of tea usually buys one more time with the source, or even a stern officer who’s not really entertained by you in the first 15 minutes. Strangely tea warms up the host, perhaps it could have something to do with the atithi devo bhav (a guest is a version of god) syndrome. Or it’s probably because you have chosen to ask for tea, he has been able to avoid the stress of work for those few moments. Sometimes tea has to be had only so that the host/story subject/source feels he’s connected to you. Tea from his office/home is an ideal connection because it’s out of his own kitchen and any refusal could imply turning away his hospitality and therefore distancing you from your subject. In India you see, nobody really buys the I-don’t-like-tea excuse. So you are always balancing on a thin rope. To drink or not to drink..etc. So what am I usually left with? Well, I give in. But not without eliciting a fury of apprehensions in my mind about the color, taste, consistency and quantity of tea that will be served. At this point, I must mention that the only tea I can just about tolerate is the one that's steeps just for two minutes in hot water, with just about three drops of milk and half a spoon of sugar. It can't be too thick and it can't be too watery. The consistency has to be just this perfect for the tea to not mess with my system. Given the variety that this country offers in terms of regions, for me, the perfect concoction is a mirage. Allow me to explain how. In Mumbai tea is not brewed, it’s literally cooked. It’s boiled over and over again, as if the tea leaves merit a punishment for not being grown closer home. In Delhi or Punjab, their prosperity reflects in their tea- rich with milk almost as if it’s a tea flavored milk shake. In Ladakh what you get is unfathomable- tea is served with butter, not on the toast accompanying it, but large cubes of butter inside the tea (as if just it being tea wasn’t bad enough). Rajasthan almost feels like it holds the patent for sugar, at least their tea will tell you that. In Uttarakhand somehow, the tea is rarely brewed sans cardamom (it’s not even grown locally!!) What happens when this detestable potion manages entry into my system? Well, unadulterated havoc. An inappropriate concoction of tea does to my bowels what beer does to men’s bladders. I remember breaking out into beads of sweat at the Dalanwala police station in Dehradun while interviewing two policemen in their different cabins. Each one offered a brew worse than the other (almost in competition) not realizing that my insides had begun a revolt. I scraped through the first interview by praying a hundred times to the gods my grandmother had taught me about. The second interview was beyond toleration. You don’t have to be a reporter to know that there are no toilets for women in police stations. Besides, how do I abandon the interview at the call of my intestines? The moustached man in khakhi had just warmed up to me when the burden begun to churn my stomach (I think it was my stomach). His insistence on me taking another sip of the tea he had so lovingly offered was providing no respite. The situation was sticky (no pun intended) and shitting in my pants no longer seemed like an unreal proverb. Beads of sweat on my forehead transformed into waterfalls. The policeman volunteered to lower the AC temperature which served no purpose- The small hair on my hands had stood up like it had been electrocuted. I knew the end was near. I would see my own death in shame- at the hands of that rotten saucer of tea. “Oh No!!’’ I shrieked. It wasn’t me but the battery of my camera that died an instant death. I had left the charger back in the hotel. It was a signal from god. I left the camera behind, indicated to the officer, the urgency of the situation (pun intended here) – the need for the charger. He understood and I fled. That 10 minute journey back to my hotel seemed the longest ever. Thus go the tales of the tea. Each time I step out to meet someone for a story, it manages to seep into my mind. Apart from the times I’ve had to hold my stomach, there have been times when I’ve had to risk my tongue and gulp down piping hot tea just so I didn’t have to bear the torture of the painful poison. So then I devised a plan- pretend to be so busy as to not have the time to drink the tea meant for you. When the tea has turned beautifully cold with a thick layer of the brown cream veiled over it, hold the cup pretend like you really want to honor the host by drinking out of that cup. Out of confounded guilt, the host would insist you don’t do him that favor!! The problem with my problem is that nobody really considers it a problem. You don’t like tea? Well then don’t drink it. What’s to waste a 1000 words on it? Hmmm….I could write a tome on tea, but then I you won’t read it would you? Update from 7 years later: The writer has warmed up to some ginger tea.