Calcutta, or Kolkata, is a bizarre city where the old world coexists seamlessly with the new. Her grand colonial structure also succeeds in accommodating art deco style residences, cafe chains and shopping malls. Restaurants like TGIF and Mocambo both enjoy a clientele, as do Globe and Inox. The crowded and noisy bookstores of college street are still frequented by users of Flipkart and Amazon. Even in the age of Uber and Ola, the trams run proudly across the streets of the city’s ancient north. And Calcutta’s love for tea is something that unites the young and the old, the white collar workforce with the city’s less privileged, and in a way, tells more intimate stories about her children than most would be aware of.
How tea came to the country in itself is a fascinating tale, and has much to do with the east. At one point, the Chinese held monopoly in the tea trade. To break it, the Company offered in the early nineteenth century free land in Assam to any European planter willing to cultivate tea. The first Indian tea planter, ostensibly, was Maniram Dewan, who history also credits with establishing the first commercial plantations of Assam tea. Calcutta, with a large population of anglicised bureaucrats, landlords, intellectuals and others with western tastes, sensibilities and means, took to the consumption of tea in a big way. In a way, it can be said that the Bengal Renaissance, which brought to Calcutta a culture of western learning and indulging in intellectual pursuits, also catalysed the popularity of this beverage. It is not surprising that Calcutta, said to suffer from heavy colonial hangover, is truly passionate about her tea.
Tea is in this city an indispensable part of daily life. People demand a doze on waking up, before leaving for work and during ‘adda’ sessions, a quintessential Bengali way of catching up and chatting. The culture of adda and love for tea go hand in hand in many ways. Their are popular adda spaces in the city like Nandan, Dakshinapan and maidan, and assuredly, these spaces sprawl with tea stalls and tea peddler. War cries of “Lemon tea! Lemon tea!” and “Dudh cha, lebu cha!” (“Milk tea, lemon tea!”) can be discerned from a distance as one approaches these spaces. In fact, local tea stalls themselves become spots where friends catch up for a heartfelt conversation over a cup of steaming beverage. Non-resident Calcuttans fixing appointments with old comrades to meet at these tea stalls before catching a train or flight home tells you of the amount of nostalgia and sense of attachment they feel that centres around these spots. Songs, such as Bijoner Chaer Cabin (Bijon’s Tea Cabin) by singer turned politician Indranil Sen, are a treatise to the varied emotions the Calcuttan feels about these spaces.
Tea is, and always has been, a lot more than merely something to drink to the Bengali. It is a necessity. People have a fair amount of class consciousness surrounding it as well. The kind of tea one keeps at home and serves one’s guests is a benchmark for judging that person’s stature. Feluda, the sleuth created by the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray, is one of the most popular literary characters in Bengali literature. He is Makaibari tea loyalist, and carries a tin of it even when he travels. That he is a man of refined taste and someone worthy of emulation, becomes crystal clear to all his readers. Indeed, a cup of tea with a smoke, and pointless discussion with a friend, is often all it takes to reduce a Bengali’s stress and tension, and lift his or her mood.
Calcutta and Bengal have a tradition of not letting go of the old while embracing what is new. Tea has fit in, over the years, in various scenarios and equations irrespective of demographics, financial disposition, social standing and likewise. It is like an old friend, who has seen it all, knows and understands everything, yet says nothing. It only comes, time and again, to offer its warmth.
The author, Ritwik Sinha is a resident of Kolkata and a student of Satyajit Ray Film And Television Institute.