Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Price of Tea in India

Last week, I got a bit hot and bothered about the price of tea in why does tea cost so much? Well, although there's been some interesting discussion on Tea Trade and twitter even about the topic (I actually agree with yaya that sometimes tea isn't too expensive - that the amount of tea you get from just a bit of leaf is rather impressive). However, it did bring a bit of joking at my expense from an Indian twitter friend

Here's what she said exactly:
Well, although I don't understand '0 Rs/$' (that sounds like free tea to me...I'm not ready for free tea), I think she was exaggerating a bit. I thanked her for her dastardly taunting. She then offered to write a bit of a rant along the same line as my blogpost. Well, you know I love a good guest blogpost, so I present to you Radhika (@levis517) and her unabashed ridicule of us - those of us paying far too much for our tea. Even if you don't agree with all of what she says, I think you'll appreciate her enthusiasm. Oh, and her taunting. That's priceless, as it were.

Without further ado, here's Radhika:

'It was only a couple of days ago that Lahikmajoe posted something on his teablog that I absolutely HAD to reply to. Actually, the post was itself inspired by a comment made by someone else on the outrageous price of tea in their part of the world. Of my 25 years on the planet, 21 have been spent in India, and 4 in Australia – a subset of ‘that part of the world’. Based on my experience, I can say this: yes, you are being duped.

As a good little Indian girl, I am a tea drinker. I made friends with some great people on twitter that were initially based around this drink. However, owing to the fact that I am the only one from a major tea-producing nation I find that, oddly enough, a lot of the time I can’t relate to the others’ tea escapades. There are only two occasions where I must respond.

The first is my endless quest to teach the Anglophone world the difference between chai and tea which is simply this: there is none. I won’t dwell on the topic much because I harp on about it enough both on and offline, and also it’ll detract from the point on hand.

The other thing I can’t resist commenting on is the price of tea abroad.  – i.e. where most of you are. In the case of Lahikmajoe’s post, the response was smug and self-satisfied. But that is because I’m back in the land of accessible tea. Were I still in Australia, the response would probably have been a tearful, heart wrenching ‘It’s not FAIR!

Now I understand there are a number of economic forces that interact to determine the price of a commodity within a given market, but I’m not here to gripe about economics. Why should I? It has no bearing on me if I’m not in said market. And in any case, I don’t feel I have enough expertise in the area to comment on it with any authority. No, the reason I get so upset about the disparity in the price of tea in India and abroad is not based on how much I have to spend to drink it (though I did switch to coffee for a year and a half because I find the tea in Australia intolerable as well as expensive). The reason it is an issue at all, in fact, is a matter of principle. (regular teablogger's note: changing to coffee is most definitely not recommended)

Tea is not meant to be expensive.

Lahikmajoe points out quite rightly in his post that tea is marketed in foreign lands as a luxury product. Can I just say I cannot think of a bigger insult to the drink than to call it a luxury product.

Australia was/is an absolute disgrace to the little leaf. The place is full of ‘tea houses’ and ‘teashops’ where you spend 4-5 dollars (200 – 250 rupees) on tepid, flavoured water with absolutely no personality or charm or purpose. They have this appalling institution called T2 which has made a business out of denigrating the innocent little tea leaf by engaging in a vile and I daresay mostly fictitious form of tea snobbery that tramples all over what I regard as the true purpose of tea. Tea brings people together – in a country of so many different languages, faiths and  facial features, it unifies an entire population. In Australia, and I imagine most of the developed world, it is marketed to serve the opposite purpose. You show off your tea, your wide and varied knowledge, the many different kinds you can identify, what flush, which leaves, how long should they be steeped and, most importantly, how much each is worth – the same way you do with wine and gadgets. But maybe that’s why I can’t take part in any other tea-discussions on Twitter. 

You see, In my part of the world, tea is comfort, warmth, and hospitality. In its classic, romantic avatar, it’s a boy and a girl at a railway station on a monsoon evening, with a glass of chai, sharing a packet of Parle-G biscuits. That’s from an ad for Parle-G based on millions of real life scenarios that take place across the country. I had my own on a train back from Lucknow when I was 17 and the man next to me asked if I’d like a cup of tea from the chaiwalla doing the rounds of the carriages. Please, don’t get any unsavoury ideas. Like I said, it is a literal and figurative token of warmth. The gent himself was Muslim and they often tend to be hospitable. We spoke a little over our chai and chips. He managed to soothe my edgy teenage nerves, this being my first solo train trip and all. I think he got off at Nizammudin, while I debarked at Delhi. Natch, we never saw each other again. 

Our tailor offers us a cup of chai whenever we visit to pick up our clothes. It’s his way of stalling us while his minions start and finish the job they were meant to have done the week before. The tea is from one of the shopowners in the market who’s known us for the past two decades. It’s sweet, milky and is sharpened with ginger. Absolutely beautiful. We don’t even mind the tailor’s slacking off. We wouldn’t go to anyone else.

I have a job now and I am delighted everyday by the cup of chai that apparates on my desk moments after I arrive. Without our chaiwalla, the office would fall apart. It’s why his name is the second one on the website’s staff page – just under the head honcho’s. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it’s what makes me get up in the morning. The stuff is so potent, the aroma comes wafting through the rooms from the kitchen.

One of my best friends and I have taken it upon ourselves to spend more time together now that we know how much we miss each other when I’m away. We go to a handicrafts market near her house – it includes food stalls representing each state in the nation. We sit down over a cup of kawha or kulhar chai and talk about a list of topics that somehow hasn’t run dry after 17 years.

We have a shawlwalla who visits us in winter – for obvious reasons, selling shawls. I happened to mention how much I wanted to try to make kahwa yet how I was constantly thwarted by the absence of the right kind of tea. A week later, he dropped by bearing a bag of the stuff as a gift. 

My favourite memories of my undergrad involved me and my three closest friends sitting around 4 cups of tea (maybe one or two of coffee) on the college lawns on a sunny but nippy winter day, working on assignments due or just tossing ideas about our favourite theorists back and forth. The tea was the oversweet teabag variety, and I still get served it now and then. By tea snob standards it’s not worth the calories you burn drinking it, but for me the taste is a constant throwback to three of the best years I ever had.

I make tea as well. Some years ago, my father made a work visit to the North East. It must have been Assam because he returned bearing a bag of tea that weighed a kilo. I was admiring it in his house, he asked if I wanted it and I thought that was a great way to nick it. It’s the best tea I have ever had. It’s not high brow, not the top leaves, not full leaf, either, but it’s strong and sweet and powerful enough to hold its own against any spices I might add without losing any of its flavour. It’s my favourite tea to make – a silent kitchen, a pot, some water on the boil – add your ingredients and inhale. It’s one of the most therapeutic activities I can recommend.

There’s no room for snobbery in a tea culture. There’s also no room for economics. We don’t discuss price or quality of tea. We might spare a sentence to how we like our chai if we do. But, like I said, tea is an expression of fondness. A kind of catalyst that brings people together. Most of the tea you drink in India will cost you little or nothing. You’ll pay something between 3 and 10 rupees for a paper cup of nectar. Mostly, it’ll come to you. It’s a part of life, you know? It’s not something you think about. It’s just always there. It’s like a friend and friends aren’t luxuries.'

1 comment:

  1. Although I anticipate this is not going to be strictly non-controversial, I really like the spirit of this post.

    I love high-quality teas, but I do think that when tea gets expensive beyond a certain point, it starts to exclude people, like any product. Tea is pretty cheap to begin with, so tea can get pretty pricey per cup before it starts to be unaffordable relative to other widely-consumed beverages: compare artisan tea to cheap beer, per cup, for an example.

    But if it gets beyond that point, I will say, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think in general, I'm not a fan of luxury goods, of huge disparities in price, wealth, purchasing power, and all of those things. I think those big financial differences divide people rather than bring people together. I also think that it's a bit sad that, nowadays, believing that is sometimes seen as taking a political stance, rather than just being accepted as a universal fact of the way money works.