Taste of life: Opium rumours bring this Pune tea story to a boil
Shrikrishna Govind Phadke was famished when he reached Pune one summer afternoon in 1921. He was 14-years old and had walked to Pune from Dapoli, near Ratnagiri, where he was employed in a small inn. He had five rupees with him.
Phadke had come to the city in the hope of earning a better living. One of his distant uncles was working as a cook in a local restaurant and he wished to join him. Phadke had been told by this uncle in a letter, that wages were better in Pune and that he would never sleep hungry in the city.
Phadke had been planning to get out of Dapoli for months and now that he was in Pune, he suddenly realised that he did not know where to find his uncle. All he knew was that he worked in a restaurant near the mandai, and despite making enquiries in all the nearby inns and restaurants, his search drew a blank.
Hungry and exhausted, he decided to have something to eat. It was almost 3 pm and most of the eating houses were closed. The only shop that was open was the one selling tea and biscuits. Written on a pale blue slate in beautiful yellow font was the name of the shop - “Gandharva Golden Tea”.
“Gandharva Golden Tea” was named after the legendary actor-singer Balgandharva. Established in 1911, it had shortly acquired a cult status and a greater notoriety. For soon after it opened its doors to patrons, whispers in the city suggested that the proprietor of the shop added opium poppy-seed pods to the concoction, which got its customers addicted to the tea.
Now it was not uncommon amongst Europeans to enjoy opium tea, especially those with a connection too China and the Levant. But opium tea in the peths of Pune was unheard of till then.
The owners of “Gandharva Golden Tea” strived hard to dispel the rumours. At least five advertisements in the newspapers “Kesari”, “Subodh Patrika” and “Kaal”, placed by the owners between 1912 and 1915, appealed to the public to not believe the grapevine and urged them to patronise the shop.
We do not know if the advertisements had their desired effect.
It was not unusual for rumours to be taken seriously in Pune. In January 1896, pandemonium broke out in the local vegetable market after a rumour circulated that a ship carrying vegetables from Calcutta to Pune had sunk in a storm.
Half the city rushed to the market to buy vegetables in the fear that they would not be able to buy any for the next few days. Had they paused a bit to think, they would have realised that there was no waterway connecting Calcutta and Pune, and that the city did not source its vegetables from Calcutta in the first place.
Exactly a year later, a ship ferrying goods, mostly cotton fabric, from Calcutta to Patna did sink in a river. After the news appeared in “Kesari”, people thronged the market to buy clothes. This too was published in the same newspaper with the editor urging its readers to think before they acted.
Similarly, the “opium in tea” story was bought by many. How would they otherwise explain the addiction to tea? The shop prospered. There’s a possibility that several customers went there to relish what they thought was “opium tea”.
“Gandharva Golden Tea” soon started selling tea powder in the shop as well. An article in “Jnanaprakash” in 1938 mentions how several conservative citizens would stand outside the shop and shout slogans in the initial years of the establishment. The owner would always offer them tea with a smile and after they refused, ignored them throughout the day.
Phadke could not meet his uncle that day. He returned to the shop that evening and requested the owner to let him work in the shop. The owner agreed. Phadke got a roof over his head and he did not sleep hungry ever.
Five years later, he established his own restaurant near Appa Balwant chowk. And a couple of years later, he left Pune for Aden in Yemen, where he started a tea shop and named it “Gandharva Tea”. It was located near the port and was popular among Indians living in Aden.
This is all we know about Phadke and his tryst with the two tea shops, both named “Gandharva”, one in Pune and the other in Aden.
He passed away childless in 1961 in Aden. A short obituary appeared in an issue of the periodical “Kirloskar”.