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[RECIPE] Satyagrahi Cha And Other Ways That Tea Touched The Indian Independence Movement

Protests and tea have had a long and varied history.

15/08/2017 10:48 AM IST | Updated 15/08/2017 10:48 AM IST
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Protests are not new to society, and neither is tea. Protests make news headlines, inspire conversations, and energise movements to motivate generations. With their strong undercurrents of anarchism, protests get us to reflect, pause and think, and act, making incremental changes—be it to our day, or to our world. Both protests and tea "wake" us up.

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As a food writer, I am particularly interested in protests that involve tea, for it is my caffeinated beverage of choice. Also, perhaps because my first memory of understanding a protest was in grade school. I thought the Boston Tea Party of 1773 (above) was a waste of perfectly good tea/cha'. You must excuse the sentiment—I was ten.

I don't know any other caffeinated beverage that may have eavesdropped on as many conversations, coups or been part of both the joys and sorrows of life, as much as tea.

Tea not only fuels us, but also stirs up our imagination. It takes our minds to magical lands where we ponder over deeper meanings. It lends itself to conversation and bonding activities. J.K Rowling fans will recall the reading of tea leaves where the tea leaves predicted doom and death! Jane Austin fans will recognise that drinking tea represents a civilised, controlled social activity, suitable for young women. Parents often participate in mock tea parties with their young children. And who can ever forget the classic Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland? It should surprise no one that an undergraduate student once submitted a paper arguing that Lewis Carroll used the tea party chapter as a parody of society!

(c) Nandita Godbole, 2014

Tea is no ordinary pawn, and has held its place in society for centuries. Tea and tea parties also became part of revolutions not only in tea-growing but also tea-drinking nations. Much like the historic Boston Tea Party, the Tea Party Movement became an iconic crusade in 2009-2010. In recent events, there are a growing number of protests in tea-growing regions of India, most revolving around poor labour conditions, and in some cases, over land rights. And not long ago, the "pancakes and protest tea gatherings" of Khimki, Russia, in 2016, brought to light the grassroots activism of truckers protesting taxation.

I don't know any other caffeinated beverage that may have eavesdropped on as many conversations, coups or been part of both the joys and sorrows of life, as much as tea. Real or in fiction, tea is part of society, and all its protests—and it's here to stay.

Tea and the Indian independence movement

On the 70th anniversary of India's independence from Britain, I wondered how tea was involved in this grand, sweeping, nationwide revolution.

Historians believe that the roots of the Indian Freedom Movement can be found in the troubles of the tea plantations of Assam, back in the mid-1800s. Contractors would procure starving labourers from drought- and famine-stricken states nearby to work on the tea plantations. These, alongside the local Assamese tea plantations workers were heavily exploited at the hands of the contractors, as the British and the landlords demanded more and more for less pay. Workers were underpaid, overworked and suffered greatly at the hands of the contractors in a system akin to slavery. As the opium addiction crisis in India was slowly on the rise, tea was increasingly marketed as an addiction-free stimulant.

The nearly tyrannical regime that favoured only the British pockets slowly became known and fuelled political unrest across the country. Although it did not change the working conditions of tea workers in Assam, their plight in some part inspired the marches and protests iconic of the Indian freedom movement. The unrest was not limited to Assam, but existed all over the country. Every region of India participated, whether it was through non-cooperation, boycotts, marches and demonstrations.

I can only imagine the morchas (marches, such as the one pictured below) that moved that nation, trying to uproot a brutal regime that had dug its claws into India and prospered standing on the backs of Indians for more than 300 years!

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My grandparents (and great-grandparents) lived in western India in the early 20th century. Based on a memoir/autobiography that my grandfather wrote, I can only picture the many protests he participated in: the Salt March, the Civil Disobedience Movement and the non-violence movement. He grew up in the Western coastal region, outside of Bombay, in Alibag. When he worked as teacher in Bombay, he participated in 'Bonfires' where Indians like him burned foreign-made clothes, learned to spin their own cotton, and began wearing khadi—garments made from home-spun cotton. They relinquished their footwear and boots for hand-tooled leather slippers made by the local cobbler. They would rely on the small-scale local economy to help their country.

There was a period when millions of Indians lived and breathed a doctrine with a singular purpose—to spread the message of the Freedom Movement. And they gave up tea as part of the protest.

My grandfather would often leave home for weeks, and travel on foot with others like him through villages across Maharashtra. These bands of men spread the Gandhian gospel of non-co-operation, non-violence and Satyagraha (activism). They stopped to rest with host farmer families. In his book, he mentioned that Satyagrahis ate whatever simple foods the famers' wives made them, grateful for the nourishment. Even an ordinary pithla-bhaat (a chickpea gravy over steam rice) was welcome. It felt like a regal feast to the tired and hungry.

The women generally stayed home, raising families while the fervour of independence brewed. My grandmother participated silently—the social implications of her mixed faith marriage disturbed and disrupted their day-to-day lives more. And even though she converted to Hinduism, she felt like an outcast— once a Jewish woman, now married to a Brahmin man. She was isolated from her community because of her roots but never strayed from her commitment to the greater cause. And until the very end, they both remained true to principles they adopted in their youth—imparting education for the enrichment of society, the support of local and home-grown and the rejection of all things that would restrict their freedom as human beings.

But in all this, where was the tea?

Fortunately, like the telltale signs of tea rings on a table, in the photocopied pages of his now out-of-print memoir about his participation in the freedom movement, we found trace mentions of tea. The Gandhian doctrine of self-control had asked Satyagrahis to relinquish all forms of addictions, including tea, coffee and tobacco. Not only did addiction hinder self-control, tea was also a revenue stream for the British. So, in one sweep, the Satyagrahis gave up tea.

Can you imagine an India or an Indian without the iconic brew, cha or tea that warms their soul several times a day?

And yet, there was a period when millions of Indians lived and breathed a doctrine with a singular purpose—to spread the message of the Freedom Movement. And they gave up tea as part of the protest.

The morning tea of Satyagrahis was replaced with a different brew. This one was made with herbs and jaggery, typically consumed without milk. It was nicknamed "kora c'ha" or "dry tea"...

The morning tea of Satyagrahis was replaced with a different brew. This one was made with herbs and jaggery, typically consumed without milk. It was nicknamed "kora c'ha" or "dry tea," a brew still made across Maharashtra, albeit using tea leaves, i.e. conventionally known today as black tea.

As I researched and wrote recipes for my two-part fiction Not For You (Turmeric Press, 2017), I learned more and more about my characters through the events that surrounded tea. Tea and the act of drinking tea became a way for my characters to bond, console, heal, and to come together. From the tea that my grandfather mentions, and that I call "Satyagrahi cha" in my book, to the subtle differences between teas made with different kinds of milks, the addition of different herbs, digestive teas and more. Some kinds of cha (chai) include milk, others don't. And even though old-fashioned tea or cha uses one of three basic grades of tea leaves: dust, Darjeeling/leaf, or orange pekoe, there is a reason every cup tastes different. This is because there are many nuances to the brew—the ingredients and their respective time of addition, the proportions of milk to water, brewing time, and even the kind of sugar!

In this day and age when we are separated from our friends and communities by distances of geography and/or ideology—what better way than using tea as a medium to reconnect?

Tea drinkers in India are very fond of the fixings around tea time or cha(i)-time. It can be seemingly ordinary things like the iconic batter-fried onion bhajiya, samosas, a mix of spicy puffed rice and nuts (chiwda and its various types), sliced white bread with butter, rusks, sugared toast, a roll of bread from a local bakery slathered with softened salted Amul butter, or fanciful preparations like paneer-filled toaster sandwiches, tikkis or medallions like this one with pumpkin, vermicelli upma and laminated puff pastries stuffed with spicy fillings. Communal gatherings around tea become unifiers across class, age or occasion.

Since each "chai-time" is unique, why should a brew as complex as tea, so powerful and potent both in flavour and significance, not be celebrated more? Why should "Indian tea" only gain a spot on the global stage through commercial representations of a cheap and often distasteful decoction of a kitchen sink blend of garam masala, whereas in fact it uses simple ingredients but relies on the mindful finesse of a careful host? And, why should I not share my recipes of cha with those who don't make cha, so that my friends too can make me a cup and we gather to ponder on bigger issues together?

In this day and age when we are separated from our friends and communities by distances of geography and/or ideology—what better way than using tea as a medium to reconnect?

(c) V. Umashankar, 2016

In honour of the 70th Anniversary of India's independence, and to protest the seasonal introduction of the "gourd-spiced chai-tea-latte"across grocery shelves and cafeterias, I invite you to try some other types of warming and significant brews we Indians love to put under the magnificent umbrella called cha.

(c) Nandita Godbole, 2017

Satyagrahi Cha/Freedom Fighters' Tea

INGREDIENTS

2 cups water

1 entire leaflet of lemongrass or about 8-10, 2" pieces

1 tbsp whole coriander seeds

¼ tsp dried ginger powder (to taste)

1" jaggery piece

METHOD

Set the water to boil in a saucepan. When the water comes to a gentle boil, add the lemongrass leaflets to the water and let this simmer for three minutes on medium-low. The water will pick up a pale green hue, this is normal. Add the whole coriander seeds and dried ginger powder and allow this to simmer for another minute. Simmer longer if you want a stronger decoction. Remove from heat and strain into desired drinking containers. Serve with a side of jaggery. Jaggery may be dissolved into the tea if desired, or may be consumed alongside the tea itself.

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For additional recipes of Indian brews and teas made in our home, visit: Brews.

About 'Not For You: Family Narratives of Denial & Comfort Foods':This two-part hybrid fiction-cookbook, shadows three generations of a family to understand their brush with discrimination and denial, and the comfort foods they came home to. It provides food for thought on many issues including culinary heritage, migration and feminism and prevalent social issues of the times. The first book of this two book series was released on August 1, 2017 on Amazon-Kindle, iBooks (iBooks are not available in India) & GooglePlay.

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