Excerpt: The Purveyors of Destiny by Arup K Chatterjee
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Excerpt: The Purveyors of Destiny by Arup K Chatterjee

This excerpt from a cultural biography of the Indian Railways highlights some little known facts about tea and the Indian railways

books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 18:19 IST
Arup K Chatterjee
Arup K Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
Railways,Tea,Arup K Chatterjee
Delhi’s Shahdara Railway Station photographed on 06 October, 1971.(Chawla/HT Photo)

Tea is the quintessential ingredient of an Indian railway experience. In Dil Se, it becomes the arbiter of an ephemeral bond —‘the world’s shortest love story’—between the protagonist-lovers. Drops of isolated rain splash into the tea cup, held by Khan, as Manisha Koirala looks away, from inside the compartment.

The narrative of tea inscribes the narrative of global capitalism in India, and of labour in the Indian railways. This nature of representation—through a metonymic device— has been extremely common in the history of the railways. However, a ‘standard Indian Railway cup of tea to be served with a standard Indian Railway Breakfast’ is not so standard after all. There is great diversity in the cries of ‘chai, gurram chai,’ (or more recently, khurrab se khurrab chai, sabse khurrab chai), as well as in the materials tea is served in—plastic, paper, polystyrene or earthenware cups.

The first major experiment of the Indian Tea Association (founded in 1881) for globalizing tea began in the railways. In 1901, India was designated as a ‘potentially large market for tea.’ In 1903 the Tea Cess Bill was passed regulating a cess on tea exports, which would then be used for tea promotions in India and globally. After World War I, petty contractors were provided with tea packets and kettles to serve at the chief railway junctions of Bengal, Punjab and North West provinces.

By the 1930s the ‘Tea Association proudly pronounced the railway campaign a success,’ concluding that ‘a better cup of tea could in general be had at the platform tea stalls than in the first class restaurant cars on the trains.’ It put on display hoardings and posters for recipes of tea, in Indian languages, on railway platforms. Some of these exist even today, such as those at the stations of Ballygunj, Dum Dum, Naihati, Bongaon, Santipur and Ranaghat, in and around Calcutta.

Ghaziabad railway sation in 2013 (Sakib Ali/HT)

Tea, that was a vital commodity and signifier of English imperialism in India, became a hybridized entity as Indian vendors customized the colonial recipe. Defying the advice of their English instructors they used more milk and sugar, to appropriate the taste of the Indian buttermilk or lassi. Tea was transformed into a typical Indian phenomenon, one that often singularly characterized the ancillary-industries emanating from the railways. The Indian population had remained largely alien to the taste of tea till the 1900s. But, by the end of the twentieth century, it was consuming over 70 per cent of its own produce of the crop. Thus, the English breakfast tea became the Indian morning or midnight tea, naturally determining the cinematography of popular Indian soundtracks, featuring small-town railway stations of Kumaon, Garhwal, Monghyr, Mughal Serai, or elsewhere—romantic landscapes drenched in rain or shrouded in fog.

The mechanisms of railway representation have percolated so deep in the Indian psyche that ‘[t]he chai wallah is still the first thing a passenger hears on waking up in a train in northern India as he marches through the carriages, a metal kettle swinging in one hand and glasses in the other, calling out “chaichai-chai.”’ However, such a chord seems to be strung with an essentially colonial or nostalgic harmony—or looking back in anger with a post-imperial perspective—when the refrain of the chai-wallah’s alarum, and the inappropriateness of the Indian railway tea-recipe is found, mostly in Western researches or narratives.

Read more: Indian Railways in the 1990s: The secular Kumbh Mela

…tea vendors crying “Chai, chai, chai” along the corridors and from the platforms of every station passed through all hours of the night…Anyone who has ever travelled on an Indian train could identify with the chai thing. One man comes along carrying a tea urn. You can hear him from the other end of the carriage…It is a deepthorated, high-pitched scream. I swear there must be a voice training school for them somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi. Anyway, after bellowing their way through the carriage, causing the utmost annoyance, they stop and look at you and in their normal voice ask “Chai?”…And after one goes, another arrives; then another and another. Good G-d, how much chai do they think a person needs? And I wouldn’t mind if it was decent tea, but it is not. They must destroy it by putting four spoons of sugar into each small cup. For a country that grows so much tea, Indian Railways does not seem to have conquered the art of making a decent pot yet.

Indian representations of the railways have sought to emplace its audiences in seats of desire through experiences of heroic protagonists. In doing so, popular culture has had the opportunity of consuming the railways in proxy, rather than having to really travel in them. Or, even during the act of travelling, the experience is undoubtedly mediated through the experiences of characters witnessed on celluloid.

First Published: Jul 20, 2017 18:18 IST