Cha: Pouring the Perfect Cup

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The suffering of the Dooars tea workers notwithstanding, tea remains a perfectly tranquilo topic. I’ve been focusing on its production (or, in the closed gardens, the lack thereof) but now a word is due on tea’s consumption.

Nearly everyone we visit — from dirt-poor laborers to self-important garden managers, from communist party flunkies to trade union goondas, from our neighbors Bodi and Dada to our buddy down at Lovely, even our laundry-wallah in the market, who bought me a shot of dood-chai as I waited for him to fold my clothes. All of these people serve us tea until I worry that it will pour from our foreheads in this profoundly hot monsoon humidity. But though our various hosts are well-intentioned, and though most of their lives are awash in, and dependent upon, tea, few actually serve us a right proper cuppa.

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For one, they often add milk and sugar, a strict no-no for purists. A grumpy George Orwell once huffed, “How can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

Little did George know that 50 years after writing those words, families who make a living picking it would take tea for breakfast with salt every day because they could not afford sugar (nearly every family we’ve surveyed has nothing for breakfast but salty tea with fire-cooked roti bread).

On then, with the preparation. At one nearby garden, where we were denied permission to survey but graciously given a tour of the factory, a shorts-shirt-socks-wearing manager gave us precise brewing instructions, prefaced with a firm dismissal of any tea that comes in a bag. “Tear open a teabag sometime and look at what you are drinking,” he scoffed, shaking his head sadly at my wife’s travel mug with its soppy bag of herbal at the bottom (S. packs her own to avoid the constant flow of caffeine).

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Having made his point, shirt-shorts continued: “You are to be placing 2.5 grams of tea for every 50 milliliters of water, heated to 100 degrees Celsius (no-more-no-less); then steeping it for five minutes (no-more-no-less), covered, and only in a neutral ceramic or porcelain pot. Tea is very sensitive. It is picking up the flavor of anything you are putting it in, even that of a cigarette smoked in the same room. For that reason we do not allow smoking inside our factory.”

But alas, such perfection is rarely attainable, especially at most of the offices-homes-storefronts where we can only politely accept cup after cup of imperfect cha, usually served with a plate of “biscuits” (that’s British for “cookies”). Nay, the one perfect cup is the one I drink each morning: a basic Darjeeling blend, expertly prepared by Debasish or Sarmishtah, poured into a tall, square glass, and placed next to my elbow, cooling as I type.

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