Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Thursday, 3 February 2011

India's passion for traditional tea in a clay cup

A Indian man drinking Chai in a clay cup
Tea drinking is a national pastime crossing social boundaries

By Judy Swallow
Calcutta, India

Tea gained mass popularity in India only with British involvement in the cultivation of the tea plant in Assam in the 19th Century. India adopted it with enthusiasm, transforming its preparation and how it is served.

"Chai, chai."

It is the hawkers' call you hear all over India. The call I first heard more than 30 years ago, at the start of my first, long, overnight train journey out of the city then called Bombay (now Mumbai).

Chai. Tea. But not as we know it. Chai, on that first tasting, was like a joke played by the Indians on the British habit of, to eastern taste-buds, bastardising this delicate exotic brew.

The recipe for chai: Start with a big, battered pot of rapidly boiling water. Add a packet of powdered milk, one of sugar and then chuck in a generous measure of coarse tea leaves and carry on boiling until you have a thick, sticky, stewed cloying mix.

Chai seller
Chai is sold for a few rupees a cup

And then there is one last essential ingredient for the total experience - the gritty aftertaste of red Indian clay.

Chai always came in tiny rough-hewn pottery cups, lightly fired, unglazed, always with a bit of grit at the bottom

That first time I tried it, I thought it was utterly disgusting, and tipped it out of the window, much to the horror of my fellow passengers.

Then to my horror, they threw their cups out of the window.

Eurgh! Not only had I been given a vile drink, but witnessed a national vile habit, littering on a criminal scale.

Or so I thought. I had a lot to learn about India.

The next morning, after a sleepless night on that sleeper train, the point of chai became clear.

Weary, shaky and hungry, it was the total restorative - the caffeine hit of the long-stewed tea, the energy of the sugar and the nourishment of the double-strength milk.

A day or two in the baking summer sun or the monsoon rains and these crude cups disintegrated, Indian clay returning to Indian soil

It was all this soft, over-fed Westerner needed to face the day, all for one rupee ($0.02). That rupee's worth would be all that many a rickshaw driver would have to keep running or peddling for hours.

As for the littering, wrong again. A day or two in the baking summer sun or the monsoon rains, and these crude cups disintegrated, Indian clay returning to Indian soil. A perfect ecological model.

But that was old India. These primitive little pots did not fit the modern image of new India.

Out they went and in came plastic. The result can be seen on every street, pavement and park, and railway tracks are no longer lined with red, but with mountains of these tiny plastic cups.

The traditional clay cups have become a rare sight.

Mother India

Except here in Calcutta.

A map of India

At stalls in front of the majestic law courts or the back streets of the slums, Indians gather for their traditional brew, still costing a pittance, three rupees a cup, and still served in the traditional way.

"It's part of the taste," one bank clerk said to me, during his lunchtime break, "the taste of Mother India."

And he might have added, Mother India does not get trashed.

The clay cups can have an economic benefit as well.

Too many of India's poor have been left behind in the new India. For every information technology whiz-kid, there is an illiterate villager with no skill to sell.

I met the Prajapati brothers, Ashok, Ajay and Pijoy, potters who know there is money to be made from the old way of doing things.

I met these three wiry, shaggy-haired guys in their baggy shorts and singlets, squatting on their haunches on the mud floor of their workshop, a small open-air shed that was little more than a corrugated iron roof on a bamboo scaffold.

A potter making Chai cups
There is a constant demand for the potter's disposable clay cups

Their business, for that was what it was, was on the banks of a reeking cesspit of a river, tucked behind the red light district and slum.

But for the three of them, making cups is their families' living, their children's future.

Millions of impoverished villagers come to Calcutta to survive. These three were potters from rural Bihar.

With no demand there, no work, they came here, and now they are flat out dawn to dusk.

They do not get much per cup of course, not when the tea costs three rupees, but they turn out tens of thousands a day, on muscle power alone.

The wheels are just big flat stones, which they get spinning faster and faster with a stick. It is pretty primitive, but Ashok's speed was pure production-line efficiency. Eight seconds on average per cup.

Racks of them were drying on the river bank and the roof of their shack. What they earn here supports their three wives and many young sons and daughters back in their village.

Thanks to the chai cup trade, the Prajapati children do not have to work.

I asked Ashok if he wanted his son to be a potter, like him.

"Oh no," he said. "This is very hard labour, very hard, and very boring work. No, my sons - they go to school. My son will be a businessman."

With those words, he sliced another clay cup off his wheel.

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