The Intellectual Applications of Chai


Black Tea (commonly known as chai) for the people of the Indian subcontinent (particularly Northern India and the Punjab) has been a dietary staple for nearly two centuries. A colonial import (like cricket and the civil service), the battle to bring tea into the mainstream was waged and won at India’s railway stations, where shouts of garam garam chai are still called across train platforms (the shouts are symptomatic of an advertising campaign launched by The Tea Board of pre-partition India.)        

After establishing itself as a crucial part of the Pakistani diet, chai swiftly turned its attention to becoming a social lubricant (Aisha Hamid in her piece on ‘The Perfect Chai’ delves further into its social nuances). Travelling around modern day Pakistan (apart from the northern areas where one is served green tea), an introductory meeting with someone can’t be conducted without an offering of chai. I have been pre-warned in abundance before such visits that all is forgivable apart from blasphemy and not taking up an offering of tea. Chai is used not only for warm gatherings but at hostile ones as well. Pakistan’s local justice systems, which see community elders and notables gather to hand out verdicts and judgements, are also solemnized with chai.  

Tea as this dietary staple and social custom is understood by all locals and to a certain extent, foreigners as well. However, less people know about the role that tea houses played as a civic space in pre and post partition India. The flagship tea house of this movement was ‘Pak Tea House’ in Lahore, Pakistan. In the mid to late 1900s, the lion’s share of the subcontinent’s intellectuals either resided or visited Lahore. Located on Mall road (the main artery of Lahore), Pak Tea House was their watering hole.

Established in 1940 by two Sikh brothers as the India Tea House, it was renamed Pak Tea House after the partition. What was more significant than the small cups of sugary tea that were served, was that Pak Tea House signified freedom of thought and expression. Progressive writers would go there to have endless discussions about everything under the sun, creating a constructive space to cross pollinate ideas, think critically and share experiences. Imminent writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto were regulars at Pak Tea House. It was also the meeting place for the Progressive Writers Association.

As a Pakistani TCK delving into history, Pak Tea House and the plethora of other tea houses around Pakistan and the greater Indian subcontinent would have been an ideal venue for me to spend an evening indulging in discussion with people across the arts, where that open platform would allow conversations around issues which were swept under the rug. Chai back then was not only a dietary staple and a social lubricant but also a key liquid in the intellectual discourse of the Indian subcontinent.   

garam garam chai: hot hot tea!

This article was first published on 11 Feb 2017