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067: Yayavr Book Club ed. 3 - Chai

Yesterday, I hosted the third edition of the Yayavr Book Club. The community has swelled with participants who are observant, curious, interested and invested in learning.

On August 23rd, 2022, we read “Chai: the Great Tea Campaign” from Lizzie Collingham’s book Curry (2005). The reading was a stepping stone to explore larger questions of foodways, agriculture, habits and gendered spaces. Here is a glimpse of what we discussed:

1. Production of Tea - Agriculture and Labour Conditions

Collingham wrote about the “Coolie Catchers” who forced “desperate peasants as labour for the tea plantations” in Assam, following the “Tea Gold Rush” in the 1860s. Gazal and Soumya highlighted how the conditions of tea laborers, and sugarcane workers in India, are still abysmal. Naomi remarked at how they are often stuck in a “closed economy” of chits and rations, with no access to cash. Paramita informed us that tea pickers do not fall under the category of “farmers” and hence cannot avail of Government benefits. How do we define the category of “farming” for policies, and where do fishing and foraging (edible leaves, honey, wild fruits) fit into the agricultural system? What makes a piece of land “unsuitable” for agriculture or reclamation ? How could this result in animal-human/ city-forest conflicts? How do we differentiate between “efficient” agriculture and food production within a holistic system? How is the gig economy (Big Basket, Blinkit, Swiggy) affecting food distribution and farmer welfare?

2. Distribution - Marketing Campaigns and Habit

Most of us, including Amar, Ankita, Debo, Vanita and Ravi were amazed at how a marketing campaign by the Indian Tea Association changed the way an entire subcontinent drank and socialised. We spoke about “habits” and “traditions” and how beverages can sometimes be conflated with nationalism. We wondered about pre-colonial tea traditions in India - such as the salted butter tea in Ladakh and the phalep (fermented tea leaves in hollow bamboos) in the North-East. As well as the marketing challenges for tea in Southern India, where it had to compete with coffee.

Kritika questioned what we drank before tea. These beverages probably varied according to region and climatic conditions - nimbu pani, sharbat, fruit juices, lassi, chaas, jeera-water, karingali vellum, kanji ka paani, kashayam, roasted rice water etc. It would be wonderful to compile a list of beverages consumed in different regions of the subcontinent - please add in the comments below.

3. Consumption - Congregation around a tea stall and public spaces

While Collingham praised the emergence of a new “civic space” around tea stalls, Zoya, Sumaiya, Manaswi and Fehmida brought up nuances on gender and public spaces. Do women have equal access to public “eating and drinking” spaces in the city? Can a woman drink chai/ coffee/beer alone in a cafe/bar and feel comfortable? How is the experience in metropolitan cities different for women as compared to smaller towns and villages?

Thank you all for your thought-provoking questions and discussions. I am still buzzing from last evening.

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