Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
I was born aged 15, knowing everything, in the endangered narcissistic Meitei species. Far too late. I should have been born aged 1O months. I’m not nostalgic, just opportunistic, to grab this space that, precociousness isn’t a nice thing to be. You lose your childhood innocence. As a well-dressed and smart post-war boy with a cooked ‘primordial soup’ of my brain, I considered my contemporaries a bit infantile and so, I kept company with older guys like Ta-Gojen Moirangthem, Ta-Indramani Tourangbam, Ta-Achoubi Pukhrambam et cetera.
And I spoke like them. That caused pain in the bum of a few fathers in my neighbourhood, who had sons about my age, but none-too- bright. I was disliked like someone who uses the rising inflection at the end of each sentence, and in modernity, like someone who preface every second word with “like” and drawn out as “likaaa”.
I loved my youthful tea-drinking La Dolce Vita. I enjoyed drinking piping hot tea from a small cheap glass, for four paisa at the famous Aigya Pishak’s hotel (local teashop) at Uripok. With tea you could also eat Nimki (Namkin in Hindi), a fried triangular salted crispy bread with a sparse sprinkling of black sesame seed (Thoiding in Manipuri, full of oxidants) for four paisa. At this teashop, one such disgruntled father, from across the road, used to pile on me alarmingly unpleasant piece of his mind. I ate humble pie as he was of my father’s age and quite muscular. I waited for 5 years to grow up until, I was at college, to pay him back in his own coin, at the same teashop.
I can now say without a tingling afterburn of pepper that, there is medical amnesty for tea-drinkers in Manipur and the Northeast. Tea is now a Life Extender. Tea, especially green tea, works wonders because of its oxidants, particularly catechin, which acts to prevent our body from ‘rusting’. It’s like ‘anti-rust’ treatment to your car to prevent oxygen from combining with iron to form rust.
Tea-drinkers are now reprieved with no shocks from science-fiction writers, who claimed tea ruining public health. So are the obese people. A recent American presentation, “The Obesity Paradox” at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Barcelona in August 2017, has disentangled truth from fiction for the long-suffering obese, in terms of longer survival than skinny patients who are five times more likely to die after heart treatments than those who are overweight.
I’ve been to Barcelona, Spain, two weeks ago, where there is a statue of Columbus, who was the last to discover America, as tall as the Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square, London. We dined at Restaurante Salamanca, famous for seafood, near the beach, that seats 1,500 diners.
Old age has long been officially here for me, but I’ve been putting it off until, the past three years. I’ve been enjoying a middle-age life all along. Some people are happier at being teenagers and lively, and some are ambitious enough to suit their twenties best. In my old age, time seems to have just zipped by. Einstein in 1952 said, “the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” I’ve come to realise that he was correct.
Old habits die hard. One such habit for me is drinking tea early in the morning. I still can’t do without a cuppa. The British introduced bed-tea or palang-chai in Hindi. The practice belatedly traipsed across the mountains to Imphal valley after WWII.
During my travels in India and Britain, even budget hotels provided bed-tea. As you registered, you would be asked what time you would want your bed-tea. Not anymore. Instead, you would be asked when you would like to have your wake-up calls. 4 and 5 Star hotels in Britain, provide DIY kettle, tea, coffee, milk, sugar, cups and spoons in the room. Europeans do not indulge in this British habit.
I don’t know about tea-drinking in Imphal before WWII, but after the war, tea-drinking became popular at homes, and at tea-shops run by Brahmins, which had sprung up everywhere. Hao, Meitei, Pangal were welcome. With a wisp of long-awaited civilisation, and the establishment of the Manipur State Transport (MST), essential commodities from Dimapur railhead to Imphal arrived daily. Tea-drinking become affordable. Tea-stalls became rendezvous places for local folks.
The reasonably priced tea we drank in Imphal was ‘fannings’ (broken leaves). Tea comes in three qualities depending on the integrity of tea leaves: whole leaf, fannings and dust. The cheapest was “dust”, consisting of fannings and tea dust. The best quality tea was called ‘Brook Bond Red Label’ ie Tea with whole leaf in airtight six-inch square boxes that was first launched in India. In Britain it was PG (pre-Gest) tips in 1930. It had a malty flavour.
Brooke, Bond & Co was a British company, launched in Calcutta in 1903. The British were prolific tea drinkers. They still drink their usual ‘cuppa’. Tea-drinking in Britain was established during the 17th century, from the returning Portuguese priests and merchants, who were introduced to tea-drinking in China in the 16th century.
The British East India Company introduced tea plantation in Assam with tea seeds, plantation and cultivation expertise, brought from Yunnan province in China. It was to break Chinese monopoly on tea, while introducing opium grown in Bengal to China. The company gave free land to European planters, willing to grow tea for export. It was first laid out in the 1830s. In that year in Kolkata, in a tea taster’s chamber, ‘Brooke Bond Taj Mahal’ Tea, India’s first premium brand, was born.
The Chinese have been drinking tea for millennia. The Indian word ‘chai’ came from its Mandarin root ‘chá’. Tea was first imported to Britain from Assam, grown on both sides of the Brahmaputra River. By 1889, tea was grown in the Niligiri hills in south India and also in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh.
Silchar town in Assam, became a meeting place once in a week and at Christmas for all European tea planters, staying at the Planters’ Club. They used to travel there on horseback. Loitering among the tea shrubs at Kaziranga, Assam and driving through tea estates in the Niligiri mountains from Cochin en route to Thekkady, transcended a mere holiday to something beyond the surface-level experience of a tourist.
The colonial British officers’ habit of drinking tea in the afternoon between 3 and 4.30 in India, began in the 19th century. It was inadvertently, introduced in the Victorian years (1840s) by Anna Maria Stanhope, the Duchess of Bedford, north of London. She was one of Queen Victoria’s ladies of the Bedchamber and a lifelong friend. Anna was always too hungry to wait for dinner, which in the 19th century, used to be served as late as 9.30 pm in the summer time. So she requested a little bit of bread with butter, biscuits and cakes, to enjoy with a customary cup of Darjeeling tea in her dressing room, often with her friends.
Queen Victoria learnt about it. She also fell for afternoon tea with light-cake, butter cream and fresh raspberries. The tradition of afternoon Tea- drinking was born in England. It soon became a custom all over the British empire.
By the beginning of the 20th century when tea prices became less expensive, the indulgence in tea in Britain was no more an upper-class ritual. It spread to the middle class. Tea became a prominent feature of British culture. Visitors would often be welcomed in an English home with the offer of a cuppa at anytime.
This British legacy has become an enduring staple of Indian culture. In America, “The Boston Tea Party” of 1773 marked the beginning of the end of British control of America. Thereafter, Americans switched tea to coffee as a patriotic duty.
Current research in tea drinking has overturned the previous negative academic publications. Many oxidants in tea seem to cleanse our system of many unwanted compounds known as ‘free radicals’ – harmful substances that are formed as byproduct of certain foods and drinks we consume every day. That makes us healthy.
Though there are inevitable quibbles in confronting awkward truths, we need to consider the received wisdom of our time: ‘to drink or not to drink tea’. That’s the question.
Studies have found that tea drinking helps to keep us young. It may protect against heart attacks and strokes, help in weight loss, prevent bone loss and tooth decay. It boosts our immune system and helps battle cancer. Antioxidants also help body’s ability to burn fat as fuel. This improves muscle endurance.
Dutch research (2010), published in The Journal of American heart Association, found that drinking more than six cups of tea per day was associated with a 36% lower risk of heart disease, compared to those who drank less than a single cup of tea per day. Another in Australia (2015), published in The Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that women in their 70s and 80s lived longer if they had the equivalent of two cuppas a day. A recent study (2017) at the National University of Singapore, has suggested that tea drinking reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 50%. Make your choice.
(The writer is based in the UK. Email: [email protected] Website: www.drimsingh.co.uk)
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh