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066: Chai - not exactly an "Indian" tradition

How did a marketing campaign by the Indian Tea Association change the way an entire subcontinent drank and socialised? Last year, I was shocked to learn that “chai” was not a “traditional” Indian drink. I had assumed incorrectly that like masala dosa and tomato rasam, we had been consuming chai for centuries. In 1900, most people on the subcontinent did not consume tea at all, with momentum only picking up post independence. However, last year, India not only consumed 1.1 billion kilograms of tea per year, but produced the second largest amount of tea in the world, after China.

For the Yayavr Book Club, we are currently reading Collingham’s chapter titled “Chai: the great tea campaign” from her book “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors”. We will meet online on Tuesday, August 23, 2022.

The following questions come to mind:

  1. How is tea sold? How does paraphernalia - disposable cups versus porcelain china - change its social value and economic cost? Why does “desi chai” at Chaayos cost INR 100/- ten times more than a chai at a local stall?

  2. How is chai tied to ‘nationalism’ and national identity?

  3. How is the “exotic” created and marketed? Think Indian khidmutgars in the Paris exhibition of 1889, to the current “turmeric latte”/ haldi doodh craze.

  4. What is the relationship between “dining out” and untouchability? How do caste, class and religious boundaries continue to be imposed despite a so-called “civic culture”?

  5. What are the working conditions at tea plantations? Have they changed since the 1800s?

  6. How do international trade sanctions, taxes and war directly impact what we eat and drink on a daily basis?

  7. How did factories, coal mines, cotton mills, railways stations - products of the industrial revolution - provide captive customers for the Indian Tea Association? What are current captive markets for a commercialisation of food - IT parks, movie theatres, schools, hospitals, prisons?

  8. Are women expected to not transgress “cultural/familial” boundaries? What is the relationship between anonymity and working outside your home?

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