Fish is to the Bengali as tea is to us Assamese. So, this post on us Assamese people and our obsession with tea-drinking.
You can take the “xo” out of the Oxomiya, you can even make him give up his “Lahe-Lahe” habits ( a discourse on that will be added later, but essentially it means give us any task and we will achieve it at the slowest pace imaginable), but dare you try to regulate the ten or fifteen cups of tea he needs each day and your usual mild-mannered and cheerful Barua or Xorma will tend to become cranky and out of sorts. Deprive him of tea for a day or two, and he will shrivel like a neglected plant in a pot. No wonder that any self-respecting Assamese carries a kg or two (depending on the duration of his stay away from the source of good tea) when he travels. That, and a packet of betel-nuts and paan leaves, packed in old newspaper so it does not become too soggy, and all put into a separate bag, topped off with a Gamocha. The gamocha, btw, is another thing that no Assamese will travel without. Isn’t it the most multi-purpose piece of cloth ever woven by mankind? Wipe your sweaty face? Out comes the gamocha. Dirty towel in the hotel? Why, you don’t even need their dirty towel, you have your gamocha. Baby needs to be wrapped up – use the gamocha. You name it, and we can find out a use for it. Feeling that nobody should be left out of the use of this wonderful creation, we gift it to all and sundry; to the potential son-in-law, to the politician on stage with his paan-stained lips, to the visitor from outside our state.
But I digress. Back to that live-giving drink of the Assamese, chai, or as we pronounce it, “saah”. In a typical Assamese household the first cup is “Laal saah”; even my 4 year old daughter, growing up far from Assam, knows what Laal saah is. Tea without sugar, reddish-brown in the first light of the sun (which happens to be at 5 am, being as we are in the far Eastern corner of the country). BLACK TEA, OR LAAL SAAH After this people go about their daily rituals, getting together at breakfast followed by some more saah, this time with milk (and sugar if non-diabetic, a vast majority of people in the state now suffer from this disease, so sugarless tea has become more or less a norm). Tea is served ready, not with additional work for the guest such as mixing in the milk or sugar or what have you. Next people go out for work, to schools and colleges and offices. There they consume during the course of the day at least 4 cups of tea before returning home. As soon as they enter the house, they are greeted by whoever is in the house with a cup of tea. Add one to the list if they have, en-route popped in to visit somebody. Late evening snacks are accompanied by yet another cup, and that makes it, for the average person, close to 8 cups (conservative estimate) of tea per person. I wonder, how do we even manage to export any of the stuff? This tea drinking obsession is carried to whatever place the Assamese finds himself.
My dad is right now lying in a hospital bed – and drinking about 10 cups of the stuff a day. Mom and I are giving him company. Every hour or so I am getting up to fill the electric tea-pot with water, getting a good boil going, putting good earthy nice-smelling tea leaves into the sieve, pouring out hot cuppas for each of us. I took a break from hospital duty to pay a visit to the neighbourhood primary school where my aunt teaches ( I go there every time I come to Guwahati, and today I am treated to the sight of kids running out pell-mell at the sound of the bell ringing, freedom, their body language says). I enter, and am offered tea by the headmistress. I protest saying I just had my lunch and tamul ( betel nut and paan, see Appapappa’s post in this regard), but to no avail. To refuse the tea would be to refuse the hospitality of the school. So I dutifully drink my 7th cup of the day (I am only a moderate drinker of tea, after all!).
I suspect that the real reason tea is so popular among the Assamese is because we believe that life should be enjoyed in slow motion. I mean 10 cups a day, even if you manage to drink one in 5 minutes, is 50 min. Which is to say about an hour of your day is spent sipping from a delicate cup and just watching life pass by. Is that bliss or what? I admit, as I grow older, I am finding more of the Assamese in me. Which is to say, I have increased my tea drinking from a mere cup or two to five or six and day, and aim to increase this number every year.