How The Great Indian Railways Played A Role In Globalising Tea

A look back at the history of India’s railways and why they’re to thank for the popularity tea enjoys today.

Arup Chatterjee

Railways may do for India,’ wrote Edward Arnold in 1865, ‘what dynasties have never done—what the genius of Akbar the Magnificent could not effect by government, nor the cruelty of Tipu Sahib by violence—they may make India a nation.’ That was twelve years after the first passenger train ran from Bombay to Thane, in 1853, and nearly thirty years after the first experimental goods train had its first service from Chintadripet, near Madras, in 1835-36.

The tea story: Chai garrram chaiiii, sabse kharab chai 

Indian Railways were the harbingers of modern enchantments; from being an emblem, sketched by RK Laxman, of RK Narayan’s quaint fictional town of Malgudi, to rural siblings chasing the engines of change in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, to Ruskin Bond’s small-town short stories in search of charming railway colonies situated in the Himalayan foothills, to Shahrukh Khan watching helplessly as his object of love crosses him obliviously, aboard the Barak Valley Express, in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. Drops of isolated rain splash into the teacup, held by Khan, as Manisha Koirala looks away, from inside the compartment.

The narrative of tea rewrites the narrative of the Indian railways. There is great diversity in the cries of ‘chai, gurram chai,’ ‘khurrab se khurrab chai, sabse khurrab chai’, a clever marketing idea that launched a thousand teacups!

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Interestingly, the first major experiment of the Indian Tea Association for globalising tea began in the railways. In 1901, India was designated as a ‘potentially large market for tea.’ In 1903 the Tea Cess Bill was passed regulating cess on tea exports, which would then be used for tea promotions in India and globally. By the 1930s the ‘Tea Association proudly pronounced the railway campaign a success,’ concluding that ‘a better cup of tea could, in general, be had at the platform tea stalls than in the first-class restaurant cars on the trains.’

After World War I, petty contractors were provided with tea packets and kettles to serve at the chief railway junctions of Bengal, Punjab and North West provinces. Defying the advice of their English instructors, they used more milk and sugar, to appropriate the taste of the Indian buttermilk or lassi. Tea was transformed into a typical Indian phenomenon.

How Anglo-Indian came into its own

In 1935, the Annual of the East reported ‘tourist cars are really homes-on-wheels, as they contain in themselves bedrooms, day rooms, lavatories and kitchens. The railway also provides crockery, glassware, cooking utensils and cutlery, which are under the custody of the attendant in charge of the car. All that occupants have to do is to make arrangements for their own catering.’

The firm that governed the upkeep of this luxuriant architecture of restaurant cars, was Kellner’s. GF Kellner & Co, Wine Merchants, Agents and Proprietors of Railway Refreshment Rooms. The firm had to bear with the subcontinent’s humid climate and ‘innumerable difficulties connected with obtaining fresh food during long journeys.’ Alongside restaurant cars, what also made railway travelling closer to the domestic imperial experience was the proliferation of dak bungalows, in railway colonies as well as remote locations.

According to the historian, Lizzie Collingham, ‘one of the places where Anglo-Indian cookery really came into its own was on the railways…The standard of the food served at the station restaurant and in the dining car was similar to that provided at the dak bungalow.’ Trains stopped at stations beyond civilisation, and even there, in the midst of the hissing of the steam engine, a man would walk up the lobby with cries of ‘Lunch, lunch!’ While lunch comprised leftover roasts from the previous nights’ journey, called cold meat, dinners were better organised in the form of soups, fish, railway lamb curries, or minced mutton along with custard pudding or soufflé.

Photo: Shutterstock


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