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Tea with my father

The thin, sinewy legs emerging from the folds of the dhoti made me think of a grasshopper.  The owner of the legs stood on a wobbly stool and reached up to a wooden chest on the top shelf of his modest shop.  The chest had a small round opening with a fitted lid which the man removed and put in his pocket.  In his left hand he had a steel bowl and a long iron hook which he inserted into the opening.  With careful motions he drew out a portion of dark leaves that filled the bowl, put the lid back, and jumped down with surprising agility.  As he held the bowl out to my father, the smile that bared his paan-stained teeth could only be described as beatific.  From the lower elevation of a seven-year-old, I looked up and saw my father inhale deeply and hand the bowl back to the man.  The smile on his face was no less beatific, though his teeth were far whiter.  

Cholbey (will this do)?” asked Mr. Sarkar from behind the counter.

Cholbey,” said my father from the customer’s side.

I had no idea of course of the deep appreciation for this particular tea conveyed by the deliberate understatement of “cholbey.”  It was the very first time I had gone with my father on one of his tea purchasing expeditions, and the dim mystique of the store’s interior, redolent of an unfamiliar scent, was what fascinated me, as did Mr. Sarkar, lean as a hungry dog, keen as a hunting eagle as he assessed his customer’s reaction.  During my high school and college years, however, whenever I heard protesters marching on the streets of Calcutta, shouting “cholchhey, cholbey,” or “cholbey na, cholbey na,” I invariably went back to that little teashop.

In Kolkata, time tends to stand still.

In Kolkata, time stands still. And the times change less rapidly than elsewhere in the country.

My father had a love of the good things of life—food, music, poetry, conversation, movies—as everyone in our family knew.  That he was also a man of limited means who showed little eagerness to pursue the acquisition of wealth puzzled people.  Throughout his life he conducted himself as an aristocrat by temperament, and the lack of necessary means troubled him little.  Tea—the expensive first or second flush harvests from estates in the Darjeeling area—was one luxury on which he spent large sums of money, often provoking irritated reactions from my mother.  This was a dissonance that I recognized from childhood.  My parents were bonded by their love of good food and an overflowing impulse of hospitality.  My mother was a renowned cook and my father was not only a discerning shopper, but also a consumer with an exquisite palate.  However, when it came to tea, a world of separation rose between them.  My mother who only started drinking tea when she was studying for her M.A. exams, found no merit in it except as an enabler of late-night wakefulness.  She found the taste obnoxious, with or without milk and sugar.  The only way she could drink it down was by adding lime juice to it.  After their marriage, my father must have been dismayed to find his bride so lacking in appreciation of what he considered a glorious beverage.  He bought the best tea he could get hold of, brewed it himself instead of letting any servant touch it, and looked hopefully at my mother as she took her first sips.  Inevitably, as he told me in later years, her wrinkled nose and frowning forehead indicated his failure.  After some time, he gave up on her.  And she, having discovered in instant coffee an easy-to-make hot stimulant, was equally happy not to be subjected to his experiments.  Ordinary, not too expensive tea was also used in our household.  There were too many visitors of all kinds who had to be offered the obligatory cup and my mother occasionally had some with them, just to be polite.  But her ingrained inability to appreciate a really superior cup of tea bred my father’s determination to induct me into its rarefied pleasures—when the time was ripe.

Yes, time was an important factor.  Like everybody in our extended family, he too believed that tea was not to be given to young children or even those in their early teens.  I would have to wait till I was in college before I was allowed to have it.  Others in the family, especially older, female relatives, reinforced the ban by saying that tea had a ruinous effect on the livers of young people, and worse, that it darkened your skin—a mortal danger for a girl who had to face the marriage market.  Still, there was no embargo on learning, and with that first expedition to Mr. Sarkar’s shop, my father started telling me about the many different varieties of a plant whose botanical name, camellia sinensis, carried an aura of exotic elegance.  He described its roots in China and dispersal in India, Ceylon, and Africa, its historical role in Buddhist cultures and, inevitably, he elaborated on the wiliness of the British in getting Indians addicted to tea through shrewd marketing.  When I think back to those conversations after all these intervening decades, I am amazed at the depth and extent of his knowledge.  In the days before Google, information was not at one’s finger tips.  Yet, as I have found, none of his stories was inaccurate.  All of them filled me with an intense expectation of the time when I would be old enough to freely drink this marvelous beverage which had so much variety of flavor, color, and depth depending on origin, harvesting, and processing, when terms like orange pekoe and pekoe would immediately tell me what a tea was like.  

There were occasions when I did think of sneaking a sip, if I saw a half-filled teapot sitting ignored on a table.  But the fear of being found out with a mouthful of hot liquid was a deterrent.  That changed during one summer when a younger cousin from Delhi came to visit.  Full of charm and energy, he was also mischief incarnate and talked me into reaching for forbidden pleasure.  We chose an afternoon when the adults were either napping or engrossed in conversation far from the kitchen.  After boiling some water, we poured it over a portion of tea leaves in the largest cup we could find.  Somehow, the slow seeping of color happening before our eyes lacked the magic of transformation that happened invisibly in a teapot.  To this day I believe my reluctance to use teabags in a cup stems from that incident.  After staring at the liquid for what seemed an eternity, we each took a spoonful and sipped.  Aside from the burning heat and a weird astringency, we tasted nothing.  

“Milk and sugar?” said my cousin rather doubtfully.

“No, the milk is in the fridge, they’ll hear us opening it,” I said.

With the gleam of sudden inspiration in his eyes, my cousin looked inside the kitchen cupboards, took out my mother’s jar of instant coffee, and added a little bit to the tea.

“Now, taste,” he commanded.

“Taste,” I said incensed. “How can you expect me to taste this vile mixture?”

“Scientists always taste new things themselves,” he replied pompously. “This will be my own creation—chaffee,” he replied and put a spoonful in his mouth.

The next moment, he choked and burst into a violent fit of coughing, splattering ‘chaffee’ all over the kitchen counter.  The noise brought our mothers rushing to the kitchen and we had our ears boxed thoroughly.  That was the end of my secret forays into tea tasting.

The day I learned I had been admitted to the English Department at Presidency College, my father declared it was time for a celebratory cup of tea.  I felt I was being given the membership of an exclusive club as I sat at the dining table.  Secretly, I was also afraid that after years of expectation, even the best available tea, brewed by a master like my father, would be a disappointment.  I need not have worried.  Being a purist, he first gave me a half cup without any milk or sugar.  I bent forward to find my reflection in the pale golden liquid as the fragrance rose to my nostrils.  I remembered my father inhaling the tea leaves in Mr. Sarkar’s tea shop that was no longer in business.  And I took my first sip.  What a difference from the awful potation my cousin and I had created.  It was a lesson in the value of deferred desires.  I was given another portion with sugar and a third with both milk and sugar.  Surprisingly, for a young and unsophisticated drinker, I preferred the version with sugar and no milk.  

My mother, watching us with fond exasperation, said she was glad that I was rejecting the combination of milk with tea, just the way she had.  My father gave her a look, but wisely said nothing. Instead, he reminded me that run-of-the-mill teas were better with the addition of milk and sugar.  I had no trouble believing that.  The roadside tea stalls, serving cheap tea, did not allow for individual preferences.  Their tea was brewed together with milk and sugar.  And I was sure that many people preferred that to the thin, delicate, aromatic liquid my father loved.  A great example was the pundit who used to give me home tutorials in Sanskrit before my final school-leaving exams.  He had only two visible teeth and every time my mother brought him a cup of tea, sweetened with extra sugar as per his request, he asked for some muri (puffed rice).  Taking a handful of muri, he dropped it into the cup and took a gigantic slurp that conveyed the floating muri and a large amount of tea into his mouth.  The sequence was repeated until the muri and the tea had been consumed.  Each time he put his cup down and reached for the next portion of muri, I took a good look at the remaining tea, but never did I find a single leftover grain of muri.  He had developed his art of suction to perfection, but he had no palate.

Kolkata's trams still run on its streets, chugging along slowly.

Kolkata’s trams still run on its streets, chugging along slowly.

Going to college changed my world and my habits.  Suddenly, I was freed from the restrictions and tight supervision of school life.  The hour-long commute by tram or bus to and from home in South Calcutta meant my parents could not demand my return by a specific time.  College Street, where Presidency College was located, hummed with a dynamic liveliness.  The sidewalk stalls selling second-hand books and foreign magazines, the “proper” bookstores staffed by arrogant yet knowledgeable men who seemed curiously reluctant to sell their volumes, the milling crowd of students, teachers, office workers and vendors of street food—all added up to an atmosphere of exuberant contention.  And most wonderful of all was the luring portal of the Coffee House, an institution almost as venerable and irresistible as the college itself.  

It was in the Coffee House that I first learned to savor the pleasures of coffee, especially the hitherto unknown “cold coffee,” or “cold coffee with cream”, which came in tall glasses.  My friends, like me, had little pocket money.  We dealt with that by asking for three or four straws which we dipped in the single glass we ordered and took turns in sipping the liquid that invested us with an aura of foreign sophistication.  All around us, the tables were abuzz with loud conversation, mostly focusing on leftist ideas—an internal reflection of the “cholbey na, cholbey na” that was heard so often on the streets.  This was the Calcutta of the sixties when the Naxalite movement was at its peak.  As we were to discover later, even institutions like Presidency were not immune to the violent disruptions created by the movement.  Although politics aroused little interest in me, the charged atmosphere of the Coffee House brought a new kind of excitement to my life.  I found the place addictive and spent too many hours there when I should have been attending classes.

This, naturally, was something I assiduously concealed at home.  With the typical innocence of loving parents, mine imagined their only child to be solely immersed in the scholarly regimen of an elite institution.  At home, on weekends, my father and I enjoyed our tea rituals.  Occasionally, he would tell me about discovering a different tea store that sold interesting new varieties as well as old favorites.  I knew better than to tell him about my new-found pleasure in drinking coffee.  

When I left Calcutta to study at Harvard, my parents were both proud and sad.  In the bustle of preparing for the momentous journey, I missed many occasions of having a leisurely cup of tea with my father.  And I wondered whether in America, I would become a coffee-drinker and lose my palate for tea.  I need not have worried.  One of the big disappointments in America was the kind of coffee I encountered—strong and bitter, a world apart from the chicory-flavored milky Indian coffee I knew.  The tea was an even greater disappointment.  In those days, the American public had not woken to the pleasures of fine teas, and all we could have was a tasteless liquid brewed with teabags.  

As the months passed, I had other things on my mind besides the lack of good tea. I fell in love with a fellow student who was considered absolutely unacceptable as a husband by the standards of our society.  Despite the violent objections of my family, and after months and months of furious argument by mail, we ended up getting married.  After that, my father stopped writing to me.  My mother, broken-hearted though she was, continued.  Thankfully, my parents loved me too much to ever think of disowning me.  Eventually, when I told them I was returning home for a visit, and that they would have the opportunity to meet my husband and see that he was not at all different from any of the “acceptable” men I had been expected to marry, they must have been petrified.  Not only was there the concern about how relatives and neighbors would behave, they probably quaked at the prospect of how they themselves would react to the outsider.  

I chose to go alone first, hoping to mend bridges and ease the way for the problematic son-in-law.  When I stepped out of the airport customs area, my heart beat fast and my throat felt dry. My parents had come with one of my aunts.  The three middle-aged figures stood there, straight and stiff, bracing themselves for the encounter with the prodigal child.  I looked first at my aunt.  She gave me an awkward smile that was almost a grimace.  My mother—a mother more than anything else—gave me a look of so much love and joy that I felt the anxiety ebb from my body.  Finally, I looked at my father.  He refused to meet my eyes, although a slight bending of his lips indicated an effort at a smile.  My body tensed again as I moved forward.  

We got home at lunchtime.  My mother had made several of my favorite items. Throughout the meal, my aunt kept up an endless patter about relatives, neighbors, friends and the inequities of the government—a well-meaning effort to bridge the silence that extended from my father to me.  I ate the delicious meal as if it was a penance and wondered what would happen at tea time.  I imagined my aunt or my mother bustling around to make tea and felt I would not be able to swallow a drop.  

I had reckoned without the love of a father.  Late in the afternoon, he finally looked at me.  It was not a look of anger or blame.  It was the look of a parent who knows that forgiving a child is more necessary to him than to the child, even though he feels bewildered by the depth of the child’s betrayal.  

“I’ve found a new store near Gariahat market,” he said. “They stock some really good teas.  I’ve been trying them out over the last few days.  I believe I know which one you’ll like best.”  

He rose to go to the kitchen.  I felt the tears in my eyes, the lump in my throat.  But I willed them away and gave him the biggest, brightest smile I could.

The featured banner is of Kolkata’s famous landmark, the Howrah Bridge. Photo credit Ayan Khasnabis. The inset images are by Sneha Bose. 

 

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  • Chitrita Banerji
    Chitrita Banerji is a food historian and author based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has authored several books on the food and culture of India, including Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices (Bloomsbury, 2007), which was listed among the best food books of 2008 by Time Out. Her novel, Mirror City, was published by Penguin Viking (2014). Chitrita's biography and details of her work are on chitritabanerji.com
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4 Comments

  1. Polly Griffith says

    What happy memories this story brings! I’m sure your father never sacrificed his very best tea on us who would not have appreciated it properly – but his hospitality was second to none. And I like the thought of your mother drinking instant coffee! Happy times and excellent meals.

  2. What a beautiful story. I could almost see your ma’s wrinkled forehead and your dad’s look of resignation. Even a non tea drinker like myself was tempted to have just a wee sip from your dad’s cuppa. Lovely, lovely story.

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