It's tea time

one weakness I share with my distinguished predecessor as MP for Thiruvananthapuram, V.K. Krishna Menon, is for tea. Endless cups of it.

He acquired the habit in London; mine accompanied me around the world.

In an address to a joint session of the US Congress in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi recalled, with a twinkle in his eye, the great affinities between the American Revolution and the Indian colonial experience. Cornwallis, after surrendering at Yorktown, triumphed in Bengal. And then, Gandhi added mischievously, "Indian tea stimulated your revolutionary zeal."

He got a good laugh for the allusion to the Boston Tea Party. But he was wrong. In 1773 there was no Indian tea, at least none that was properly cultivated and traded. Tea was a Chinese monopoly, and the taxed tea the colonists tossed into Boston Bay came from Amoy, not Assam. Perhaps if it had been Indian tea, the American revolutionaries might have thought of a less wasteful method of protest.

It was the British who established Indian tea as a cultivated commodity. The story is interesting, and inevitably, commercial motives came into play. The British ruled India but not China: rather than spending good money on the Chinese, they reasoned, why not grow tea in India? Their desire to end their dependence on Chinese tea led the British to invent agricultural espionage. A secret agent, improbably enough named Robert Fortune, slipped into China in the early 1840s, during the chaos and confusion of the Opium War years, to procure tea plants for transplantation in the Indian Himalayas. But most of the thousands of specimens he sent to British India died, and the East India Company directors were left scratching their collective heads. The solution came by accident—when a wandering Briton discovered the Indian strain of tea growing wild in Assam, tested it in boiling water, tasted the results and realised he had struck gold: he had made tea.

That gave the British their own tea industry in India. Assam tea proved superior to the Chinese imports and more palatable to the British housewife. In the 1830s, the East India Company traded about 31.5 million pounds of Chinese tea a year; today India alone produces nearly 600 million pounds.

Even then, though, the British grew tea in India for themselves, not for the locals: the light, fragrant Darjeeling, the robust Assam, the heady Nilgiris tea, all reflected the soil, climate and geography of the respective parts of India for which they were named, but they were grown by Scots (and picked by woefully underpaid Indian labourers) to be shipped to the mother country, where demand was strong. A modest quantity was retained for sale to the British in India; Indians themselves did not drink the tea they produced.

It was only during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when demand in Britain dropped and the British traders had to unload their stocks, that they thought of selling their produce to the natives they had ignored for a century. The Indian masses turned to tea with delight, and the taste for it spread throughout the depression and the war years. Today, tea can be found in the remotest Indian village, and Indians drink more black tea than the rest of the world combined.

The global story today is a little more complicated. Tea, like other commodities, has been suffering a decline in prices, and exports are dwindling; many tea plantations, faced with rising wages and collapsing profits, are threatening to close down.

Internationally, Indian tea is competing for export markets with inferior teas from such unlikely sources as Argentina, Kenya and Malawi, as well as Sri Lanka.

But the British still drink Indian tea in more ways than one: Tata, the Indian business conglomerate, now owns Tetley, the venerable British tea firm. So perhaps it is we who have appropriated this colonial legacy and made it our own.

Krishna Menon, that doughty anti-imperialist, would be pleased.