How many times have we groaned about needing some coffee or tea to get us moving in the morning, or to keep us going for long nights? The memes, quotes, articles, documentaries and personality quizzes are here to stay — we’re addicted. “Don’t talk to me before my first cup of (insert caffeinated beverage here),” we disclaim. But deep down, there’s also a fondness mixed with pride. In our preference for tea or coffee, there is something so quintessential about us, so needed, so given, that it often acts shorthand to our entire personalities. You’re just a Google search away from finding out if you’re a tea or coffee personality. We identify intensely with our habits, our compulsions, our indulgences and in a world characterised by identity politics, we also become what we drink.
So it wakes us up in the morning, gives us energy to deal with the day and the demands of the university or workplace. It also works as an amazing pick-me-up in the middle of the day when all that sleep deprivation tends to snowball and threaten our eyes shut right in the middle of a lecture or meeting. On the odd (but not rare) days that we need to pull all-nighters, an evening cup bypasses our bodily desire for sleep and hopefully pushes us into overdrive. Then, of course, there are those of us who are simply addicted, jittery until the next cup. But why do we only seem to romanticize this drinking? Why do we not talk about the rigors of a system that necessitate our being under-slept and overworked? As we consume our way, organically or not, into meeting the demands of a life under late capitalism and neoliberalism, we pay little attention to being consumed by capitalistic notions of productivity.
These are the questions that filmmaker Shweta Ghosh’s 2016 documentary Steeped and Stirred quietly brings up. Ghosh is a consummate filmmaker and writer. Her previous films, Accsex (2013) and Chatkorichya Athvani (A Slice of Memory) (2015) tackle completely different subjects but are connected by a common desire to read agency into the invisiblised corners of our social and personal lives. Steeped and Stirred (produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust), in its quest to trace the history of chai’s presence and role in India, is infused with the same ambition.
At just a little under 60 minutes, Ghosh’s film works as a wonderful sampler of the various entryways into the history of tea. We look at the colonial history of tea and its relatively recent introduction into Indian consciousness, the socio-economics of tea cultivation and tea drinking, who drinks it, how they drink, why they drink it and where. At times, just when you’re getting settled into the narrative (and Ghosh is a deft storyteller) the audience is yanked out of it hurriedly to visit another part on India’s map. Where Steeped and Stirred is vulnerable to its film length, it makes up for it in an expansiveness that is impressive for being under an hour. We are taken to West Bengal, Gujarat, Kerala, Mumbai and grapple with the intertwining histories of tea consumption in India. From scriptures written millennia ago to the neoliberalised economy that ensure most high-grade tea grown in India is exported outside it, Ghosh takes us on a stimulating journey. According to the film, which quotes Professor Gautam Bhadra on this, what we take to be so quintessentially Indian was in fact the product of a colonial marketing operation.
On the way, we meet Shilpa Phadke in Mumbai, whose brilliant book (co-authored with Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan) Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011) looks at how public spaces in India are gendered. In the movie, Phadke talks about the dynamics of who gets to sit in roadside tea-stalls. This is, of course, gendered – women are read differently if seen loitering/spending time in a roadside public space than men. But it’s not only gendered, it’s also a symptom of class. In his essay, ‘Adda, Calcutta: Dwelling in Modernity’, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty looks at the role of addas in capitalism. Addas, the social practice of friends coming together for long, informal conversations, are for Chakrabarty “a flawed social practice” because they are predominantly male, oblivious to the materiality of labour in a capitalistic society and also neglect entirely the existence of the working classes.
What makes the crowd in a trendy café more respectable and safer than a roadside tea-stall? What are the politics of spending time in a coffee shop as opposed to a roadside chai tapri? When is it considered “spending” one’s time and when is it deemed “wasting” one’s time? It’s important to note that in the absence of economic consumption, public spaces for tea/coffee drinking are inaccessible. The State of Bombay legislates against loitering, you can be thus penalised if found wandering aimlessly or without sufficient accountability. But this idea of time as being wasteful, purposeless etc. is inextricable from capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency. How dare you waste time when you have so much work to do? This rhetoric is especially exercised in the case of the lower working class. Tea breaks are meant to be fuel pit stops so you can cope with being underpaid and overworked, not indulgences.
Ghosh’s film is a veritable love letter to tea and tea-drinking culture, but it does not shy away from looking at its embarrassing or problematic parts. A considerable chunk of the film looks at the caste politics of drinking tea. Ghosh takes us to Gujarat, where we are introduced to the idea of ‘Ram Patras’ — vessels segregated by upper caste employers for use by Dalits. We also look at the economics of tea, who gets the high grade, who is left with the low, the colonial interventions that pushed for making tea popular in the first place. In doing exactly this, in inviting us to stare into these questions of caste, class, gender, race, colonialism and neoliberalism embedded in this drink we love, Ghosh’s movie is an act of love. To look this lovingly and critically at something dear to you is not a minor act. This is Ghosh’s liquid courage.
This is of course not to say that we boycott drinking tea or coffee in a bid to extricate completely ourselves from the Great Evils of Capitalism. It couldn’t be that simple. We can continue being unabashed chai enthusiasts and lovers, but maybe not unaware ones. Irrespective of whether your chai is fair trade and/or organic, beyond the nitty-gritties of how we drink it (tea first, milk later obviously) it is important we are also aware of the politics of why we drink it and where we are allowed to drink it.
What do we long for when we long for a cup of tea? A moment’s peace, some energy, the sugar hit, the soothing heat trickling down a sore throat? When it rains, we yearn for its full-bodied warmth, crave the crunch of a pakora or the snap of a biscuit, the fluffiness of sponge cake. The promise of tea can be whatever you want it to be, a moment of solitude during your workplace clamour, shared conversation amongst friends, the only reason you’re at that insufferable conference or event. But tea (like most everything else) is as meditatively personal as it is strategically political. The danger of not engaging with the political is to risk individualising a systemic problem.
We buy, drink and make tea to make us more efficient, to arrest dwindling attention and the increasing need for fitful sleep, to just make it through the day in one piece. But why should we not be able to make it in one piece? What threatens this peace of mind and the restful sleep? Why should being overworked and woefully underpaid (for a huge chunk of humanity) be accepted so matter-of-factly? Like Ghosh’s film invites us to ask ourselves, why do we romanticise chai the way we do? Given its complicated and current socio-political history, do we add to the dissonance by romanticising it? We spend money to consume tea in order to meet the demands of a job so that we can get paid to be able to afford things like tea. Tea instigates — it wakes you up, it organises revolts (the Boston Tea Party for one), but it also suppresses. In many ways, it pacifies us, giving us just enough comfort and warmth to, paradoxically, keep us from boiling over.
The writer is studying The Social Justice Institute, University of British Columbia