Hot tea. Photo: Flickr/Perry Cheng.
Hot tea. Photo: Flickr/Perry Cheng.

Hearing news of Mumbai’s iconic Tea Center shutting down this December was like reading the obituary of an old friend I was to visit soon. More life’s lessons learned: Never delay doing the happy things — Mr. Impermanence may take away the chance forever. And humanity’s caffeine culture serving more instance of the seemingly insignificant becoming significant, and vice versa.

Imagine a December morning without a hot cuppa…. The Tea Center closing down in winter is like Santa Claus going on strike on December 25. Tea became a life-saver, lemon teas in The Statesman newsroom keeping me from starvation during early days of an unforgettable winter in Kolkata in 1990.

In Mumbai that is India’s New York, tea fuels the ‘fast train’ engine of daily life. Like hot dog vendors and coffee carts of NYC,  vada-pau and tea are signature food of Mumbai streets. Cutting chai is the city’s contribution to the caffeine cosmos:  ‘cutting’ refers to half-glass of tea (costing approx. Rs 10 or 15 US cents), but worldly vocabulary cannot do full justice to this sugary brown beverage brewed with healthy ginger, sometimes cardamom, a frothing primordial liquid to charge up urban life.

Cutting chai  patrons feed a global tea market expected to reach US$47.20 billion by 2020, says the Albany (NY) – based Transparency Market Research. Like suburban trains being called Mumbai’s heartbeat, cutting chai is its lifeblood – part of caffeine power being an unsung story in history’s warnings to never underestimate the seemingly ordinary:

An artist’s version of the Boston Tea Party, December 16,  1773: Dressed as Native Americans, a group of Bostonians board a British ship laden with imported tea and throw out the full crates. This protest against British taxes on tea imports brought the country closer to the American War of Independence, the birth of the USA.  In life’s unplanned ironies, news of  Mumbai’s Tea Center shutting down was published on December 16 – date of the Boston Tea Party.

Tea and history’s odyssey of change

Easier to renounce most things in life, I realized, but not tea and cricket. Appropriately, the Tea Center in Churchgate (from where I write this chronicle) brewed Apple Tea and 100 other chai versions a three-minute walk from the Wankhede Stadium, where India memorably won the cricket World Cup in 2011.

So widespread is India’s love for tea and cricket that both feature even in remote Himalayan frontiers of the mundane world. Chandra Singh runs his ‘India’s Last Tea Shop’ in Mana Village near the India-Tibet border. In Mana and en route to snowy Kuari Pass, I saw young villagers watching the Twenty-20 World Cricket Cup on TV in mountainside cottages. Likewise in Rishikesh, the special gateway town to the Himalayas, ardent cricket fans and freshly made tea can be found 24/7.

A Rishikesh Tea Party, featuring The Beatles, 25th February 1968: George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney with actress Jane Asher, Maureen Starkey at a party to celebrate George Harrison’s 25th birthday, during their days at the Maharishi Ashram, Rishikesh.

Tea and cricket are India’s unifying cultural anthems, with both carrying on as usual despite upheavals such as the demonetization revolution.

Tea vendors joined the popular proof of demonetization not being the devil the media sometimes portrayed- ground realities contradicting economic ‘experts’ and their short-sighted, misinformed theories sneering at this process to courageously disrupt, if not discourage corruption and black money.

Change is civilization’s necessary brew for continuous evolution, and like a successful guerrilla attack, radical change sometimes needs to be sudden to maintain the integrity of change. Disproving cynical prophets of demonetization doom, ordinary people across India are pragmatically adapting to changes, like this tea vendor in New Delhi:

Tea stall owner Monu in national capital New Delhi explains how he accepts Rs 7 for a tea as digital payment, conveniently serving customers in daily cashless transactions.

‘Cutting Chai’ and transcontinental culture 

Fittingly India’s tea tribe coped with demonetization changes, given the global popularity of their professional brew. “Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, and can be found in almost 80% of all U.S. households,” records the New York-based Tea Association of the USA  Tea Fact Sheet. “On any given day, over 158 million Americans are drinking tea.”

While India is the world’s fourth largest tea exporter – 232.92 million kg during 2015-16, worth US$ 686.67 million – the U.S. is the third largest tea importer, the only western country to increase its tea imports and consumption. Tea unites the world’s two largest democracies thanks to China:

Farm workers sell tea leaves to a factory in the Chinese village of Tong Mu Guan, Wu Yi mountains, in the Fujiyan province renowned for ‘Red Tea’.  Tea, called ‘Divine Healer’ in China, is nearly 5,000 years old, with its discovery attributed to Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung in 2737 BC. Some tea leaves accidentally blew into the Emperor’s pot of boiling water, legend says, and the world had tea.

In Mumbai, tea went beyond being an beverage of daily diet, compulsive lifestyle habit, a cheery health drink with its antioxidants combating cancer and heart attack. Tea here became a transcontinental bridge between Persia (Iran) and India through the famous Irani Cafes – the world’s most eccentric tea shops.

Possibly Asia’s oldest surviving genre of restaurants (see Closing Time for India’s Irani’s Cafes, Asia Times, Nov 27, 2008), their unique contributions to urban legend includes notices sternly admonishing customers: “Food will not be served to over drunken persons. Do not sit for too long. Do not argue with waiters. Do not wash hands on plates.”

An employee packs the famous  bun maska (butter buns) at the B. Merwan Irani cafe in Mumbai. Most Irani cafes like Merwan have shut down, a few determinedly survive like the Yazdani Bakery near the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Jewish-Indian poet Nizzim Ezekiel (1924-2004) immortalized eccentricities of the Merwan, Yazdani tribe in his 1972 poem ‘Irani Restaurant Instructions’:

Do not spit
Do not sit more
Pay promptly, time is valuable
Do not write letter
without order refreshment
Do not comb,
hair is spoiling floor
Do not make mischief in cabin
our waiter is watching
Come again
All are welcome whatever caste
If not satisfied tell us
otherwise tell others…”

The six-decade old Tea Center is gone, Irani Cafes are going, but their legacy will live on through the Mumbai street culture celebrating ‘cutting chai.’ The Tea Center famously had a hand bell on each table for customers to summon waiters, but those quaint ting-tings will not be part of ‘silver bells’ tolling this December in the city – this festive season is going, the next Christmas is already on the way:

Here’s wishing Asia Times readers worldwide all good cheer in the cup of life’s changes, season’s greetings, and best wishes for each day of 2017, every new year thereafter.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.