Darjeeling- A History of The World’s Greatest Tea: Book Impressions

There is a certain beauty in coincidences.

Stephen Day’s variation of raag Ahir Bhairav underscores this write-up. The twinkling notes on the sarod punctuated by the tabla beats; the more marketable version of Indian classical music packaged for the audience that might not digest the raag in its originality.

The book ‘Darjeeling- A History of The World’s Greatest Tea’ by Jeff Koehler has left a rich aftertaste. The vibrant notes of his lyrical prose still cloud my mind. To write a book about ‘tea’ and not just any kinds but the brew favoured by the rich and famous (The Queen pays Rs. 20,0000 per kg for hers, the book informs me. Yes, I counted the number of zeroes twice, too).

Of course, I had heard of this exquisite tea. I even tasted it last year when I went to Darjeeling. I am an unabashed masala chai person and that the cup I was offered resembled a watery concoction of honey and lemon. My heart sank but out of politeness I took a sip. It was a subtle jolt to my senses because it did taste like a cupful of heaven. If I had known how pricey, how rare that cup of tea was, I might have paid more attention; savoured it better. But I was an ignoramus.

The book tells the reader not just how tea arrived in India (thanks to East India Company), how we stole the knowledge from the Chinese (Chinese planters were brought to India at gunpoint literally) but how after all the savagery, indigenous tea in Assam was discovered. However, Darjeeling tea was unequalled in taste, quality and it’s experience.

There is history of how Darjeeling became a town from a settlement of a few huts, how the packaged teas we consume are different from the orthodox black tea that is Darjeeling Tea, the nostalgia for the past days, the crises that assail the tea gardens today and how the vein of optimism throbs through each tea-planters body.

Never again I am going to take my tea leaves lightly (pun unintended). Every tea leaf that is plucked is processed and packaged within a day as the moment you pluck it, it starts fermenting. Speed is the key to a good cup of tea. You have to beat the Father Time to ensure that maximum amount of flavour can be preserved. Tea leaves have a different flavour not just in the four seasons or flushes (in tea terms) but every single day.

I quote the author here.
“Coffee in India might have the moment, but Darjeeling tea has romance- not in the colonial vestiges of how a tea estate is structured, but in the green hills, in Darjeeling and it’s backdrop of majestic, icy Himalayan peaks, in the pure mountain air and vintage Raj-era bungalows with peaked tin roofs and latticed eaves.

The romance is also in the tea themselves: struggling artisans in the truest sense, individually producing teas using methods and tools that have changed little in a century, against odds so improbably stacked against them that the very survival of their industry is in peril.

Darjeeling tea is different. Soft-spoken rather than brash. Simplicity over baroque flamboyance. Contemplative more than energetic, with little sense of urgency or heavy handedness.”

The fitting finale to the tea sojourn was the music that accompanied me. It takes people from the world over to make us appreciate the treasures that we have. William Dalrymple rightly lamented the idiocy of indians in not appreciating what they have when he went around discovering the Mughal ruins around Delhi in his book, ‘City of Djinns’. (He put it more delicately but that’s what he meant.)

I am guilty as charged.

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