Between cups of tea
For a civil servant, a cup of tea is far more than a humble beverage to be imbibed between intervals of work, it is an intrinsic part of their identity and their profession
As a government servant, one of the inevitables of life is the cup of tea that greets you at regular intervals during office hours. A senior colleague referred to it in a WhatsApp message where he pondered philosophically that the ability to drink tea the whole day was neither an addiction nor a habit, it was a code of honour practised and honed over the years as a bureaucrat. He added that with time the call of "chai lao" became a war cry automatically responded to by servitors like a well-oiled standard operational procedure and thus the ability and tradition to drink tea any time of the day and in any number of cups was established as one of the strengths of Indian bureaucrats, unrivalled across the globe.
That got me thinking and I realised how right he was. Tea is the 'Amrit', the elixir, the oil that gets you started and keeps your parts whirring during office hours. Without it, a government servant sitting in an office room is like a soldier in the front line without a rifle. Tea can be weaponised to one's advantage in different ways. When visited by pestilent and pesky visitors or colleagues one is not very fond of, some officers offer them little more than a cold stare and a "to what do I owe the honour of this visit" look on their face. There is no cry of "chai lao" and very soon the unwelcome visitor gets the message and leaves. On other occasions, when the visitor is more to the liking of the officer for reasons I cannot divulge owing to the 'Unofficial Secrets Act' except perhaps hinting at the possible raising of aesthetic levels of the room, the call is generally "aur chai lao"!
There other more subtle ways in which the cup of tea can send messages across without having to indulge in unpleasantries. A former boss would summon me and call for the customary tea as soon as I sat down but only for him. He would then proceed to sip the tea slowly and direct menacing glances at me as if I were a fly threatening to drop into his teacup! Hierarchy can also be communicated effectively through this humble offering. The host, especially a senior, will offer tea to his visitors in standard cups remarkable only for their uniformity and general inelegance but his own tea would be served in a totally different cup which looks like something out of a 'Wah Taj' advertisement! Further, even as the lesser mortals in front of him sip their canteen standard tea in their canteen standard cups, his will be taken out from a box by a peon and dipped in the warm water in a ceremonial way like an offering being made to a deity in a high temple.
Then, of course, a cup of tea is a convenient excuse to avoid unwanted visitors altogether. For this, the strategy is to simply exit the office and quietly sip endless cups at the canteen or the tea stall behind the office till such time the real-life Mussadi Lal gives up and leaves.
From the highest offices to the lowest nooks and corners of Government Bhawans, the humble cup of tea has stood its ground against all winds of changes and newcomers. There was a time when the Department of Expenditure was issuing circulars and OMs on austerity measures faster than a risograph machine could reproduce them, impacting upon all that civil servants hold so dear like foreign trips, business class travel, Foreign DA, LTCs, workshops in five-star hotels with lunch and dinner, number of cashew nuts that can be put on individual plates, etc. But one item remained untouched. Nobody dared to pull the cup of tea from under the nose of the babu or attempt to limit the quantity one could imbibe. The section officer who drafted these OMs would have
mentally debated over the measures in between sipping away at his favourite brew without which these OMs would not have seen the light of the day!
The one change that did take place has been the choice available. Earlier we had tea in one form only — with milk. Then somebody discovered that sans milk, there is something called 'lal' chai or black tea. Soon, you were given another choice — with or without sugar. Then came sugar-free sugar. Now when I am offered tea, I feel like a Niti Ayog advisor mulling different policy options to spring upon the Government and it takes me some time to decide whether I want red tea, black tea, sugar-free tea, milk tea, peppermint tea, green tea, masala tea, ginger tea, cardamom tea, elaichi tea, organic tea, herbal tea, oolong tea, chamomile tea or god forbid do I prefer normal tea? The good old tea planters of Assam and Darjeeling can be forgiven for shuddering in their boots!
A late dear departed senior had his own way of tackling the changing tastes of tea. He remained loyal to his special brand of the afternoon 'drink'. He would warmly invite visitors to imbibe the tea placed before them and place his own cup on the wooden tray that slid out of his table on his side hidden from view. Then with a grin and a straight face, he would pour out a red liquid into the cup, raise it to his lips and gulp it down. This was repeated a few times while the visitor's own cup was generously filled and refilled despite protestations. A reddish-golden glow on the face of the host signalled the end of the meeting and years later I realised that Red Label was more than a tea brand!
However, you can't always have your cup and drink it too. The Government has managed to cut into the tee-time of many a weekend, aspiring and wannabe bureaucrat golfer who can no longer be seen or heard shouting "chai lao" by force of habit in between holes on the hallowed greens. But that's another story. Suffice to say that presently you can't drink your tea and have your tee also!
Views expressed are personal