In the Aaj newsroom, chai is given and taken abundantly. Desk editors type furiously on their laptops, scroll through wires, translate snippets sent by reporters, intermittently taking a sip from their cup of tea. It’s what gets them through the day, the special potion of productivity, the ultimate cure for brain-freeze. Nothing has changed ever since Ahsan Iqbal, the Minister for Planning and Development, urged the nation to drink less tea. That’s just not possible.
On my first day of the internship, a cup of chai appears next to me suddenly. I’ve been too engrossed with writing my article to notice who so kindly placed it at my desk. In fact, I am not even sure if the cup is supposed to be mine. Sometime later, the cup disappears on its own and I am once again too engrossed to notice the mystery man who took it. Perhaps, I’ve unconsciously followed Iqbal’s “drink less tea” maxim.
Today, there’s a new link in the Aaj Digital Team WhatsApp group, directing me to “Aaj Pakistan’s” studio. In the video, television host Sidra Iqbal discussed Ahsan Iqbal’s comment regarding tea consumption with her guest Syed Mohammad Shah Nawaz Azam. Azam is the CEO of Ahbab Impex’s tea brand and he wants us to refuse from cutting down on chai consumption.
Most Pakistanis will agree. Ever since Iqbal’s comment, people have responded with their fair share of memes, jokes, and scornful remarks. Instead of dismissing the comment, Pakistanis have taken it to heart, offended that the Minister even proposed such a solution. Why is that?
Chai and Culture
“Chai” is on almost every Pakistani household’s grocery list. The hot, refreshing beverage, complete with a serving of milk, is offered to every guest welcomed into the household. Sometimes, biscuits and cakes are also served alongside it. Families gather around the table, sharing gossip, jokes, and stories.
For a lot of households, drinking tea with family members is part of their daily routine. Both parents and children abandon their work for fifteen minutes, taking their sweet time drinking the chai, each sip a pleasurable, relaxing experience.
Weddings often end with chai too, sometimes, ironically alongside ice cream. My mother and grandmother often take both, one after the other. The chai serving is especially a blessing when the winter hits, chilling the guests in open-air banquets. The beverage immediately warms the body and the soul.
Tea is ubiquitous even outside of households and weddings. A walk in the streets of Pakistan will reveal the hustle-bustle of dhabas, selling the famous “Pathan ke chai”. These dhabas offer a variety of options: Doodh Patti Chai, Adrak Chai, Masala Chai, Kashmir Chai, Kehva, and so on. Each type of tea evokes a different sentiment: some are to be enjoyed with friends; others are household “totkas” for health issues.
What does chai mean to the average Pakistani? It is a source of relief, comfort, and inspiration. It’s equivalent to a warm hug from a friend – it immediately makes one feel better.
The puzzle of the Pakistani response to Iqbal’s comment starts to make sense in this context. Chai isn’t just a part of Pakistani culture, it is the Pakistani culture.
Chai and the Common Pakistani
In Sidra Iqbal’s program, Syed Mohammad Shahnawaz Azam insisted that the people should not stop drinking tea. “Chai is not a luxury item,” he said indignantly, “Both the rich and the poor will drink chai. When the poor have no money for food, they’ll sometimes sustain themselves on a cup of chai.”
Culture is not simply created by the actions of elite people. Tea is a large part of our culture exactly because it is consumed by masses from all socioeconomic backgrounds. It is the beverage of the common Pakistani. And frankly, common Pakistanis are tired of being instructed to make sacrifices while the people in power live in their lavish homes, drive lavish cars, and intermittently drop by to comment on Pakistan’s worsening economy.
These powerful people can’t understand the everyday struggle of people caused by the fuel price hike and cutting down on chai is the worst suggestion in the current circumstances.
With prices rising all over the country, across all food items, capitalism is the invisible monster that decides who deserves to be fed and who doesn’t. Meanwhile, wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of the powerful and does not flow into the streets of Pakistan. That’s where the common Pakistanis are – drinking chai after a long day of work.
What’s the solution?
There is no doubt that Pakistan’s chai imports are high. In 2020 only, the country imported tea worth $590 million, according to Statistica.com.
“The solution is not to cut down on chai consumption,” Azam said in the show, “It is to figure out how to make tea less expensive. The taxes are too high on the beverage.”
According to Azam, 95% of Pakistan’s tea is imported from Kenya. “Our trade balance with Kenya is in almost a hundred percent deficit. We need to establish trade agreements with the country to fix the issue of tea.”
This sounds like a plausible solution – if it’s actually executed.
Cutting down on tea consumption is a horrifying proposition for most of us. Whether you use chai to relax after a day of back-breaking work or to garner inspiration before you write your next news story, chai is ultimately indispensable. It is the thread that connects Pakistanis together, after all. So, long live the chai era! I still haven’t figured out the origins of the mysterious chai which was placed next to me, but whoever kept it there, I appreciate the idea. Perhaps, I should get a cup of my own right now.