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Murky Waters: Confessions of a life soaked in chai

When it is my time to go, My Love, do not be afraid,

Scatter me amongst tea leaves bright as jade,

Allow my fragrance to move from the earth to heavens above

Take me in your hands and remember how we almost fell in love,

Crossing the mountains and rivers of two nations we met

I am here to remind you of your promise ‘lest you forget,

You vowed to let the laws of Mother Nature be

And when time comes that you will set me free

So, when it is my time to go, My Love, do not be afraid,

Scatter me amongst tea leaves bright as jade.

It is true, that my life was born out of the violent struggle that was soaked in my mother’s viscous blood, yet in some ways, it has been the many shades, fragrances, textures and tastes of tea that have carved out the essence of my being. Over countless cups during this life, tea has been the sole witness to the friendships I have nurtured; it has brewed patiently to watch me slowly fall in love; it has comforted me as my heart broke; it awaited my return as I ceased to exist and so far it has fulfilled an unspoken promised to remain my sole companion as the life continues to accumulate fragments of joy, sorrow, pain and hopefully, healing.

There are over a thousand different types of tea, and even more varieties that my imagination can conjure. Even the same type of tea can have several blends and different methods of preparation. Similarly, the experiences of my life have been silently witnessed by such different teas - each with its own aroma, its own taste and its own lessons and certainly its own set of memories etched into individual neurons that fire away and light up my brain as a small meteor shower lights up a dark sky.

The most primitive memory and the fundamental basics of my introduction to tea has been the elaichi chai that I have seen my mother prepare. Chai has been the most serious of family business and has often bordered on obsession. From the naashta to shaam, this chai has been a moment of temporary respite, almost like an addict taking that one final hit of a euphoric high. I have grown up listening to Ammi describing it as her nasha – an inexpensive but loved habit passed through to each household member as their virsa. Black tea leaves are placed in a well-used and tired pan and brought to a boil. Once the water reaches a bubbling essence to it, freshly ground elaichi powder is added leading the tea leaves to sizzle frantically before eventually settling down. Two minutes later milk is added and the concoction is tested against the Celsius until it comes to a boil, then simmered for a further few minutes before being decanted into a kaitli, and eventually finding way into a trusted worn out mug that is old enough to be classed as a family heirloom. Elaichi chai has shaped my ethics, values and perhaps even the backbone of my existence; through it I have seen, felt and tasted love, tradition and ritual.

My first flavour of subtle, fruity and fresh tea was through a fine blend of Darjeeling, otherwise known as the champagne of teas. One spoon of whole tea leaves line my glass pot to which I add water just below boiling point and allow them to dance freely in their chaotic surroundings, almost like a whirling dervaish. Do not let the subtle taste of this tea fool you into thinking it is weak. The Darjeeling is the foundation of my definition of friendship and love; it has seen me come of age, it has encouraged me through trials, it has held me as I broke down and it has been my sole cheerleader whenever I have found myself against the tide. The Darjeeling is deeply rooted in my existence and understanding of who I am; without it I am rudderless and without direction. To lose sense of the taste, texture and aroma of this tea is to essentially lose sense of my being.

There are other teas that are also worthy odes to friendship of which one is Cha Yen, Thai Iced Tea. Made with a black tea blend including orange blossom, star anise, tamarind seed and rich orange colouring, this tea is completed with evaporated and condensed milk to be enjoyed over ice. Cha Yen is equally fun to prepare and consume and it often transports me to the best years of my life that were full of laughter and life. Whilst I am left with fragments of those memories that sometimes feel like they are slipping away, it is a comforting thought to know that there is someone from my previous world who always stands by my side in vigil; continuing to teach me all that I need to know of light, darkness and dreams; Zamindar.

Then of course, one that is very close to me and my contribution to a weekend chai ritual that Ammi and I share; adrak chai. Prepared similarly to the elaichi chai, this boasts the rich aroma and hit of ginger to the tastebuds. The somewhat subtle aspects of this chai are universal in their encapsulation of a world of memories. Whether it was concocted by Rajni didi in Haridwar or my adopted Noidian-Garhwal family; consumed by the roadside kulhar after kulhar in Benares or required as a defibrillator on a fateful (rather, fearful) drive with Priyam and Dilshad Sahab Agra Walay - the adrak chai evokes a nostalgia and a longing to go back, which is always stronger than before each and every time.

Moving back to the British turf, I come to the Earl Grey. This tea is almost like the elixir of life – tempting, gratifying and royal. Prepared similarly to the Darjeeling, it is a sweet tea boasting rounded hints of bergamot. Its disposition on the surface is amenable, but it can also be fickle and at times no less than a series of trials, tribulations and battles destined to be lost. The same method of its preparation has sometimes yielded one of the most exhilarating experiences of a sweet, well rounded and delicate taste. But the Earl Grey also denotes betrayal and heartbreak. The mighty varieties, blends and mixtures of this tea have been a labyrinth where I have previously lost myself. The Earl Grey has also been cruel and left me banished from the land of tea and everything I know of it. And thus, I have to remind myself to remain cautious in indulging in it for time has often demonstrated to humankind that histories can repeat themselves.

Nevertheless, I eventually came out of the labyrinth and back to tea with a vow to not leave it again. However, there is one variety of tea that I am not ready to face, and that is the rich and deep. I shall not name the tea as we both are not ready to face each other just yet. However, I can tell you that it is the only tea that I have never prepared, in fact it was always prepared especially for me. This tea marked the intensity of life, both good and bad. The fine-tuned earthy and smoky aroma, not too dissimilar to lapsang souchong, taught me the responsibility that comes with being someone’s entire world; of what it means to love and be loved; and, what it means to lose, to grieve and to break.

Not all tea has a dark and black colour, though. And here comes Noon chai, otherwise known as Kashmiri pink tea. It has an earthy fragrance and salty taste that takes me to a special winter in Srinagar. It evokes the nostalgia of late night talks, laughter and being somewhere between home and not home. The rich pink colour evokes a sense of temporary stillness as I liken the rosy colour to the land’s flora in spring, however, soon it dawns on me that it remains some shades light of deep rouge that brings a sense of shame and guilt by association. The struggles of a people, community and its nation flash before my eyes and remind me of being complicit in their suffering.

Oppression, power hierarchies and the national drink

Whilst this humble beverage has shaped me to be the person that I am and stood loyally next to me as I have navigated and begun to come to terms with all that life has, and undoubtedly, will continue to hand out – I cannot hold myself in the same high regard and loyalty when it comes to tea itself. I have spent most of my life not questioning the source of my tea or considering the trials and difficulties of the worker who has worked hard for this taste to reach me.

The combination of oppression, power hierarchies and tea are not just limited to the traditional role of subservient women in the kitchen, but extend to the world we live in. The origins of this drink date approximately back to 2700 BC and through the slow fermentation of time, tea has found itself to be a staple ingredient across the globe. In fact, in India, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, tea is the national drink. The humble leaf, however, has historically been associated with a murky past embroiled in politics, colonialism and exploitation of people.

Looking at the Indian example - Tea cultivation initiated in British India who broke the monopoly on the supply of leaves held by China. In 1830’s the British began with experiments of tea cultivation in the hills of Bengal and Assam. Through Tea, British dealers and the British Government were able to reach the planes of the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean and the American colonies. It enabled the Raj to recover a slumping economy and boom Britain to financial riches.

In 2019, tea accounted for global revenue of approximately $215 million with an estimated growth rate increase of 6.9% until 2023. The demand for tea continues to grow as we nourish our bodies, beings and existence with this beverage. However, when it comes to issues of sustainability, there remains a lack of nuanced, meaningful and constructive dialogue amongst the average tea drinker.

Labour is the single most social issue that has not only threatened, but impinged upon the ethics of sustainable tea supplying. Taking the example of India, communities traditionally contributing to labour are often in incredibly oppressive conditions. Tea producers remain competitive in the market through the control of minimum wage, which is not sustainable to maintain a basic quality of life. For example, in Darjeeling the minimum wage is reported to be as low as $2. A report from the international development charity Traidcraft Exchange highlighted tea companies that trap female workers in a culture of surveillance and control by management. The housing is inadequate and sanitation is poor or non-existent that has often led to open defaecation when working. A BBC Four documentary focused on other abuses, which include child labour, controlled access to worker’s accommodation, exposure to harmful chemicals and adverse health outcomes secondary to chemical exposure.

Activists and charities have called upon tea companies to publish their list of suppliers and demonstrate transparency so tea estates can be held accountable for their treatment of workers. However, unless the average consumer is looking for this information and consciously makes ethical choices, there is ample scope for this to become another tick box exercise and loop hole, which continues in the systems of oppression.

So, there we have it. The journey through, with and in tea seems to have meandered more than I had intended for it on paper. As I glance at my empty teacup, I am trying to contend with all the emotions it has evoked through memory as well as some sense of resolve and determination in doing justice and repaying this drink for all it has taught me. My final transgression of this elementary understanding, dear reader, is to conclude with the philosophy of tea, with words that have encompassed all that I have to say, and perhaps even more so:

“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

(Kakuzo Okakura in The Book of Tea)


Ammi / Mother

Elaichi / Cardamom

Kaitli / Teapot

Kulhar / Clay cup

Naashta / Breakfast

Nasha / Intoxication

Shaam / Evening

Virsa / Heritage

Huma Riaz Khan (she/her) is a resident Psychiatry doctor in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Her clinical, academic and personal interests include forensic, global and conflict psychiatry in addition to wider inequalities within education and health specific to intersections of race, gender and social class. She volunteers for The Rights Collective and is the lead for the تحریر // Tehreer program.

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