I was a sickly child growing up, constantly afflicted with an irritable stomach that threw industrial-sized tantrums at the slightest provocation and unionised sinuses that went on strike every time a single grain of dust entered the air. My parents tried all sorts of treatments on me, from allopathic antibiotics and anti-allergens through ayurvedic ghees and cordials, to — being good parents, their desperation at my suffering must have surely led them thus far at some point, I’m convinced — even the dark arts of homoeopathy, numerology, Reiki and witchcraft. (Somewhere deep in the nether worlds, goes a recurring nightmare, there is a demonic soul-mortgaging contract bound in an ancient skin that bears my family’s name in mirror-writing, and the damned thing is filled with fork-tongued promises of impending good health.)
At no point during these medical struggles was the concept of tea as a tonic ever raised in our home, because, of course, the imbibing of tea and coffee has always been considered an adult province among the Malayali Hindu orthodoxy. My brother and I were often fed the egregious fiction that tea stunts mental and physical growth in children, that if we drank the stuff we would inexorably become deformed idiots. The truth was that the grown-ups were probably tired enough as it was, having to deal with our youthful energies, without us being supercharged with caffeine and bouncing off the walls like a couple of coked-up Koosh Kins on the warpath. (Tea is “too strong for children”, all the aunties and uncles would say, even as they poured you a mollifying tumbler of Thums-Up or Campa Cola. So much for the wisdom of one’s elders.)
I’m properly into my thirties now, and while my immunity continues to show no miraculous signs of repair, age and experience have brought with them the knowledge that I can exercise some measure of control over how my illnesses pan out. Having fought the same battles countless times already, I have an array of strategems and weapons ready to be deployed on my bacterial nemeses, and among these a good, strong cup of tea has time and again proven my best counter-measure. When I have a bad tummy, I get better by eating dry toast and washing it down with warm, mild black tea. When I have the flu or an inflamed sinus, drinking lots of hot, spicy tea helps unclog my breathing tubes. Whether I’m stressed or cold or hot or tired or travelling, I always drink tea. It’s the only medication that’s independent of occasion, weather, mood, and geography.
I wish I’d known about this palliative aspect of the beverage as a child, every time I was sick and helpless and stuck in bed waiting for help from the grown-ups. But I got around to it eventually, once I’d left home as a seventeen-year-old, thanks in part to roadside bicycle chaiwallahs who were the only source of sustenance in the cold wee hours after a night on the town, friends who made excellent masala tea on working evenings, and repeated references to tea and its wonders in my other go-to source of comfort: the writings of P.G. Wodehouse (“I turned on the pillow with a little moan, and at this juncture Jeeves entered with the vital oolong. I clutched at it like a drowning man at a straw hat. A deep sip or two, and I felt — I won’t say restored, because a birthday party like Pongo Twistleton’s isn’t a thing you get restored after with a mere mouthful of tea, but sufficiently the old Bertram to be able to bend the mind on this awful thing which had come upon me.” This is valuable advice from Bertie, particularly if your whole life seems like the destructive aftermath of Pongo Twistleton’s birthday). The first time I had the flu while living alone, after arriving in Bangalore for my higher studies, I brewed batch after batch of tea to right myself. And when the flu left me a couple of days later, it was probably for the first time in my life that I felt in control of my own health. This was a big deal for me.
Much has been claimed and disputed in equal measure, by the so-called experts, about the restorative abilities of tea. The pro-tea lobbies keep making the usual fuss about anti-oxidants and tannins and longevity and suchlike, countered by other amateur scientists who say that the only real benefit of tea is that the water it’s steeped in has been boiled free of germs. I don’t know sufficiently about chemistry or the human physiology to adopt or deride either viewpoint. To be honest, the positive impact of tea — that of the leaf and its chemical composition — on our health could well be a placebo effect, for all I care, and for the purposes of my argument I’m willing to fully embrace that possibility. In fact, let’s just go ahead and assume that tea is merely flavoured water — no more, no less. Such an assumption, however, still doesn’t detract from the fact that a cup of that empty flavour, such as it might be, has always made me feel like some faulty component of my body has just been serviced and upgraded. It’s a flavour that clearly has a bit of a kick to it. It improves my mood and fills me with a general feeling of benevolence. It’s a soothing balm for the mind and body. And when you have a nervous stomach that’s often aggravated by mental stress, a little mind balm goes a long way, placebo or not.
By that token, tea is a sort of rough sketch on a blank canvas that makes room for all kinds of creative experimentation, adaptable to every manner of palate and need. This is an idea that we Indians, in particular, have happily picked up and sprinted with. Our tea-drinking culture isn’t merely limited to the somewhat dispiriting English cliche of the limp teabag in a mug, but that of rampant rule-breaking and world-building. For us, variety in tea isn’t just about where the leaf originated but about a million different modes of preparation. It’s about chai and cha and lalchai and suleimanis and kahwahs, it involves not just tea leaves but the addition of ginger and cardamom and pepper and liquorice and almonds and cloves, it’s served not just with biscuits or toast or scones or cake but with pazhamporis and onion pakoras and samosas and daabelis and rusk and bun maska and Bombay toast and vada pav and dosas and murukkus and luchis and momos and… you get the drift. The list has no limits. We’ve understood and thoroughly applied the knowledge that you can customise your infusion precisely to what you want it to achieve and to what degree. You can even build an entire diet plan around it.
My own canvas of tea, over time, has taken a rather Cubist multidimensionality. My mid-morning green tea wakes me up and helps me think (and, if what they say is true, lose weight and age well), my postprandial ginger tea kick-starts the digestion, and my cinnamon tea in the evening rids me of headaches. I’ve got it down to a science now (even if such a science might be inconclusive). I still fall sick every so often, sure, but the feeling of it isn’t quite as horrible as I remember it. I have all my many sick-day teas to look forward to now, and they, in turn, work in concert to make the whole ordeal just a little bit happier. And that, for me, is a game-changer.
Vinayak Varma, 2016
(First published by Still Steeping, the Teabox blog.)