By Amitava Sanyal
Like the swilling spoon in the boiling water, the history of tea closes a circle every now and then. Trouble is, more often than not, a British-born finds himself in the middle of the boiling brew.
The latest was, perhaps, Tony Blair saying that he rued the lack of a decent cuppa in the capital.
Councillor Pat Karney invited Blair to a tea tour of Manchester to show that not all was lost. Recently, in its ‘Living Britain’ report , insurance giant Zurich claimed that there was a fair bit of bonding happening in different parts of Britain over the brown brew.
The report cited Manchester University’s Tea Cake Tuesday group, where the young and the angsty gather weekly to “drink tea, eat cake, and have a nice chat”.
But then, Blair was probably being fair about London itself. The better places to be served a decent brew are now probably to be found up north.
Even Lincoln, which does not claim to have had much more than a grand cathedral and the world’s first zebra crossing, has extremely nice tea rooms. The humour of history lies elsewhere. The former prime minister said all this while on tour in the US, the former colony where the battle of independence was lent the decisive spark with the raising of tea taxes.
Not such a big deal, to be fair. But consider why the taxes were raised and you get into another interesting loop of history – one that goes towards the east, to the root of the plant itself. Tea taxes in the US were raised to fund, among other things, the rising cost of Britain’s wars in India.
This is the loop the organisers of next year’s BUPA Great Manchester Run stepped into when they decided to give some of the money to tea workers in India.
This loop of history started almost a century after the American war of independence, when a couple of enterprising Scottish brothers, Robert and Charles Alexander Bruce, went hunting for the shrub in India.
One found some plants in Assam remarkably similar to the shrub they knew. The other had land on which it could be planted. They started the enterprise with the help of a few friends who brought in cheap plantation labour from several parts of India. The workers’ plight has been bad ever since, as several folk songs of the region would tell you.
But India itself was not yet a tea-drinking nation. There was no history of brewing the leaves except among some tribes in the northeastern states.
So the Tea Board of India embarked on what some claim to be one of the largest promotional exercises ever – to educate urban India on how to make and drink tea.
Armies of tea-toting ambassadors were sent into homes with cups and literature to demonstrate the subtleties of the brew. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, India became the largest tea growing and guzzling nations.
The latest loop of history has to do with the modern trade. As with every human industry, China claims to be the first in brewing tea. They are said to have done it some four millenniums before anyone else did. And sure enough, that’s where most of the tea came from before India stepped into the trade. India even borrowed its word for tea – cha – from China.
So while India grew in the trade and remained the largest tea trader for the most of the 20th century, China bristled. The hundred-year war turned last year when China produced more than a billion kilos of the leaves, pipping India to the piping pot by a good 50 million kilos.
In the last decade, Indian companies have picked up some of the largest tea brands in Britain. The Tata group has bought Tetley and the Apeejay group has bagged Typhoo tea. Will the Chinese give chase?
If they do, the tea rooms of Britain might just turn out to be yet another warring ground between the eastern neighbours.
Let’s take a sip and watch.