My cup of tea

During my last visit to India some of my relatives asked me what I missed most from my life in India in the US. I did not have an immediate answer, but thought about that question off and on for a long time.

My cup of tea

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During my last visit to India some of my relatives asked me what I missed most from my life in India in the US. I did not have an immediate answer, but thought about that question off and on for a long time. I loved visiting wonderful places, unique to India’s history and culture. The sight of the Taj Mahal from the entrance to the premises during my first visit to Agra is one of the most awe-struck moments of my life.

Crossing the pedestrian bridge over the river Ganges in Rishikesh against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayas made me want to leave everything behind and wander around the mountains in quest of the Supreme Being. It was not just the travel destinations but the train journey itself was a joy. Traveling in a sleeper berth on the Delhi-Kalka or Bombay-Nagpur mail was magical. It was like living in a toy house for a day with my family. The bathroom was nearby, and one could order food from the dining car.

Sleeping in the train with that rhythmic “jhak jhak” sound of the wheels on the track was like sleeping in the arms of my mother, gently swaying me and singing a lullaby. I certainly crave real Indian food. Although Indian restaurants have popped up in every large American city and there are excellent cooks in my social circle, there is something special in desi food.


I do not know if it is the use of ghee and mustard oil or freshness of all the ingredients, or some hidden recipes that the locals here have not learned yet. Celebration of Durga Puja is an occasion I feel nostalgic about.

I am not a religious person, but the annual Puja is a major social event that involves reunion with friends and relatives, gift exchanges, various entertainments and of course, fabulous feasts in addition to the religious ceremonies. Unlike Christmas, it goes on for four days! The game of cricket was part and parcel of life in India.

Whether standing in line for a ticket on an early winter morning at the Eden Gardens or listening to the commentary by “Vizzy” on the radio, we all followed the game even when India lost virtually all the test matches. Then there were those meaningless leisurely “addas” with my friends at the Coffee House on College Street, discussing everything from politics and philosophy to the latest Bollywood songs and the beautiful women who had captivated our hearts. The Coffee House was the breeding ground for the next evolution in academia and the next revolution on the political front.

On further thoughts, I said to myself – nah, I really do not miss any of these. I did miss them during my early days in this country, but the Indian diaspora has continued to grow in size over the years, and has brought many elements of Indian culture with them. Such imported activities may not provide the same experiences as I had back in India, but they come close enough. After more soulsearching, I concluded what I miss most is simple: a good cup of tea in the afternoon! Literally and figuratively, that is my cup of tea. I thank the Chinese for discovering tea leaves and the British for showing us how to drink it.

I do not remember when I drank my first cup of tea. It was a seamless transition from my mother’s breast milk to tea. During a visit to Ranchi when I was about eight, we stayed at a hotel which offered “bed tea” as room service. Although offering “breakfast in bed” is a popular way to spoil someone in the US, having the whole breakfast in bed is a cumbersome and messy idea. Just having a cup of tea before washing up and getting ready for a full breakfast is perfect.

One of my fond childhood memories is an advertisement in neon lighting at night on a building at the curve where Chowringhee Road merges into Central Avenue in front of the Statesman House in Kolkata. It was probably from Brooke Bond Tea company and showed tea being poured into a cup. The fluctuating lighting gave the illusion of a liquid flowing from the spout of a kettle into the cup. My favourite is having tea in the style of a British afternoon tea, served in a teapot.

Time of the event, temperature of tea, type of milk, kind of cup I drink from, surrounding ambience and weather – all must blend perfectly along with the taste and flavour of tea itself to make it an occasion to crave. My other favourite was drinking tea from a cup made of clay (“bhand”) at a train station or roadside shop. Perhaps it is not the travel itself that I miss but a tea break at some junction station like Mughal Sarai (train stops longer at a junction station). The amount is not that much, but I can still taste the sweetness and flavour. Clay makes its own contribution, and the unique shape of the cups added to the mystique. While the US grocery stores and restaurants are bountiful with all kinds of foods and drinks, finding the right tea has been a disappointing experience.

Most people settle for those tea bags which fit the fast pace of the American lifestyle. In many restaurants, especially the fast-food joints, if you ask for tea, they will give you a paper cup of lukewarm water and a tea bag. I am not into herbal tea, decaffeinated tea or tea with herbs like ginseng or spices. “Iced Tea” is an Oxymoron. Some people complain that they have a hard time falling asleep if they drink tea late in the evening. In my case, I need to have a late evening tea to get a good night’s sleep.

When I visit India, it is a pleasure to see that I am offered a cup of tea without even being asked no matter where I visit; houses of friends and relatives or some company for some official business. On overseas travel, while coffee is available everywhere, finding tea is always a struggle. The best tea I had during my world travels was at a hotel breakfast in Singapore. While I like tea served in Chinese and Japanese restaurants without milk or cream, it is nothing compared to the classic Indian tea.

I do not know why tea could not compete with coffee in becoming the preferred hot beverage. They both have health benefits but coffee has three to four times more caffeine content. Some companies have tried without much success to introduce a tea culture a la Starbucks. The problem lies in offering too many varieties of tea. I believe just selling Indian style tea which is hot with its unique flavour, and lots of milk is the way to go. I am addicted to tea. Fortunately for me, it is an addiction that does not kill.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.)