Read To Win

Six books to read while drinking your afternoon tea (or coffee)

Food for thought, quite literally.

Way back in the 1840s, Queen Victoria’s lady in waiting, Lady Anna Marie Russell, the seventh duchess of Bedford, started the fashion of tea-drinking, almost unwittingly, on a visit to the Duke of Rutland’s establishment, the Belvoir castle in rural Leicestershire. She found the long wait to supper quite tiresome, almost blues-inducing, and instructed her lady-in-waiting to bring some sandwiches and cakes up to her room around 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

Lady Anna was quite the celebrity socialite, and soon her “invention” – which she summed up as “a little something to see her through till supper time” – caught on, and by 1860, even the queen was taking tea. Tea-time could now be moved out from the bed chambers of ladies to the parlours.

The Raj, tea, and poco guilt

For those of us springing forth from the formerly colonised climes, the taking of tea ought to be an act tinged with guilt. Consider, for instance, what the anti-imperialist statesman Sir Walter Strickland had written: “Let the English who read this at home reflect that, when they sip their deleterious decoctions of tannin...they too are, in their degree, devourers of human flesh and blood. It is not the tea alone, but the impoverished blood of the slaves, devoid of its red seeds of life and vigour, that they are drinking.”

During the Raj, the East India Company’s tea trade was troubling for Indians not only because the profits were entirely repatriated to England while the labourers toiled under miserable conditions, but also because the ecological fallout of cutting dense forests to grow a strange new cash crop, tea, in several parts of India was serious and affected the ecological balance of the area.

Not only was it not indigenous to most of India, but tea was a late entrant into the Indian household, as late as the 1930s, when the Great Depression raged in the West and large quantities were “dumped” in Indian markets. But oddly, just like in England, it caught on quickly (in Namita Gokhale’s Things to Leave Behind we witness Pahaadi households learning to make tea for the first time and soon getting addicted). Now, however, much like cricket, the ritual of taking tea has been so completely re-inscribed in Indian terms, moving so far away from their provenances in the whims of the British aristocracy, that many of its devoted lovers, in the remotest corners of India, have no idea of its foreign roots at all.

Sloane or don? The (immaterial) debate continues...

Scones and tea might be all very well for Anglicised club lounges on the sub-continent – where controversies possibly still rage about whether to add milk first or tea first in one’s dainty china cup or if one should pronounce “scone” to rhyme with “sloane” or with “don”. But in most Indian homes, samosas and pakoras accompany hot, sweet cups of masala chai, unironically though, without any sense of post-colonial victory at the taking back of chai. Plenty of regional variations occur in tea-time rituals, from kahwa in Kashmir, brewed with spices and saffron, to the “double chai” of old Delhi, made entirely in milk.

If, in Ladakh, tea is taken with yak butter and salt, in Bengal, the accompanying snack of choice is reflected in the popular phrase: “cha-mishti”. That is, tea with sweetmeats, often, impossibly, the roshogolla. In much of south India, the tea is replaced at tea-time with coffee, and the cake with idlis or medu vada. But come 4:30 or 5 PM, every Indian ear strains for that medley of tinkling sounds to emerge from the kitchen, and political offices ratchet up gargantuan tea-and-snacks bills in election seasons across the land.

Reading English tea

But no tea is as satisfying as the reading of it in popular English literature. Whether the mad tea party that Alice attended with her new friends, or the murderously charged teas of Miss Marple, or all of Enid Blyton, with the deliciously detailed teas, both “high” and “low” (little did I realise those days the class angle between the more aristocratic and dainty “afternoon tea” at 4.30 PM or so, at a low table, as compared to the working-class “high tea”, which was consumed at the dining table by hungry workers or peasants after they got home from a long day of labour and included things like meat pies, smoked fish, slabs of cake and tumblers of tea). This weekend, we have assembled for you, a bookish if somewhat culinarily mixed up, tea party, to “see you through” the final nights of winter into the longer days and mellower winds of spring.

1. Chai: the Experience of Indian Tea, Rekha Sarin and Rajan Kapoor

While books on tea, ranging from politics to rituals to economics, abound, not to mention all the novels which append tea to their titles, the reason we pick out Chai: the Experience of Indian Tea is because of the sheer joy that a large, beautifully produced coffee table book evokes even when the subject is chai. That feeble joke aside, Chai tells the story of the sub-continent’s tea experience, beginning with the British, and captures local flavours and intimate nuances, through its chatty, well-informed prose and stunning photographs. Drawing from history books and folklore, anecdotes and recipe collections, Chai is both charming and educative and would be a superb addition to your collection.

2. The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, Deborah Rodriguez

It would be pretty churlish to offer only tea at tea-time, especially if your Mallu friends are visiting. Let’s settle instead for the page-turner, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, which provides a perfect alternative to a steaming tumbler of filter kaapi. While Rodriguez’s first book, the NYT bestselling memoir Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil, ran into a few unsavoury controversies, her debut work of fiction, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, an eminently readable story about five women whose stories converge in a coffee shop in Kabul, went on to become a worldwide bestseller. Think Debbie Macomber crossed with Khaled Hossaini: that’s the genre.

Sunny, an American in Kabul, runs a cozy little café with great panache, even though the atmosphere outside can be grim and menacing, and her clients often need to be coaxed to leave their mobile armouries outside. Into this café, bearing secrets and hopes and fears, enter Yazmina, Candace, Isabel and Halajan, and quickly, you will become a part of their riveting lives (in what is, in typical Western exaggeration “the most dangerous place on earth” at the time) and stay up the night to find out what happened next.

3. The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, Alexander McCall Smith

While the vivid scents and sights of Botswana come to mind instantly, along with memories of the incomparable Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, when we think of Alexander McCall Smith’s world, no one can deny that his Edinburgh is just as memorable too. Neither of his equally famous literary peers – and neighbours – Ian Rankin or JK Rowling capture the light and grace of Edinburgh quite the way McCall Smith does, in the Isabel Dalhousie novels of course, but far more in the 44 Scotland Street series.

Unencumbered by the plotting intricacies that a traditional mystery demands, the 44 Scotland Street novels offer a delicious, almost jazz-like narrative structure, the story flowing freely around a few fixed nodes – the eponymous building (fictional) on a leafy Edinburgh street (real), and the eccentric characters who live in it: the charming college student, Pat, who falls in love with her roommate, the utterly awful narcissist Bruce; the kindly but hapless gallery owner, Matthew; the bossy but wonderfully weird anthropologist, Domenica; her old friend, portrait painter Angus Lordie, owned by Cyril, only literary dog with a gold tooth; and the hands down favourite, boy-genius Bertie who is endlessly bossed by his pushy mother Irene.

By the time we come to The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, the fifth instalment of adventures, the familiar riffs on the various loves, losses and moral dilemmas of the inhabitants have proved to be definitively addictive. This book is arguably the literary equivalent of the cream tea that Edinburgh is so famous for!

4. Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski

‘The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidates who reminded them most of themselves. I had no interests. I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape. At least the others had some taste for life. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lacking. It was possible. I often felt inferior. I just wanted to get away from them. But there was no place to go.’

You either love Bukowski – or you worship him. In including his brilliant Ham on Rye as the centrepiece savoury our literary tea party acquires, instantly, both meat and an irreverent sort of reverse sophistication preferred by the rye-bread-eating-working-class-grit-admiring yuppie of today. Dubbed by Time magazine as the “Laureate of American lowlife”, Bukowski wrote his poetry and prose with the same fierce originality with which he lived his life.

In Ham on Rye, his fourth novel, through the hardscrabble adventures of his literary alter ego Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s first name was “Henry”, the Anglicised form of the original birth name Heinrich Karl) Bukowski revisits the tormented territory of his childhood and acne-ridden teenage years, the whole deal of parental abuse, acute shyness, depression giving way to rage. By turns funny and so dark it’s practically black, this powerful bildungsroman of an outcaste will speak to you with startling vigour.

5. Sex and Samosas, Jasmine Aziz

The cover of this book – a faceless bride clinging to the folds of her fuchsia-gold saree with hennaed hands – echoes loudly with the stereotyping nonsense of Indians writing in the West. But everything else about this title is stereotype-defying. Sex and Samosas is a cross between erotica and chick lit – and the result, I am pleased to report, is pretty darn satisfying.

Thirty-two year old Leena is a typical South Asian goody two shoes (degree, job, all boxes ticked, listens to mother and aunts) who lives in Ottawa (well, yes, we see you beginning those we-see-why-Leena’s-boring-jokes). While her five-year-old marriage has turned sex into a most boring activity for those rare nights when there is no good TV, mother and aunts are demanding grandchild. Fortunately for Leena, an intervention is staged by her cooler than cool best friend Mahjong who drags her to a “sex party” – basically a bachelorette where, in addition to the drunken revelries, there is also a woman selling sex toys (the author Jasmine Aziz calls herself a retired vibrator saleswoman) – and her education in desire begins.

A laugh-out-loud romp that tracks the ingénue’s sexual coming-of-age, Sex and Samosas introduces the perfect edge of raunchy to your otherwise somewhat vanilla, Victorian tea affair. (We don’t want to give away too much, but there is a vibrator called Bunty in the book and you are sure to get a whole new angle on the similarity between the samosa and the vagina.)

6. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s novels have a strong fabular element, with a dizzying quality of prose. I have always been fascinated by her books. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is as sensuous as the title suggests. On the eve of her ninth birthday, young Rose Edelstein returns from school and spends the afternoon “basking in the clicking sounds of a warming oven” and pondering homework. Later, in that “room filled with the smell of warming butter and sugar and lemon and eggs” she bites into her mother’s perfect-looking homemade lemon-chocolate cake, and is suddenly plunged into her own most unsettling gift: she can cleanly taste her mother’s feelings in that mouthful of cake.

Her happy, cheery mother is deeply distraught within the folds of the family, quietly falling apart. It ruins the cake for her. From that moment onwards, Rose’s world tilts to an alternate axis. Quickly, she’s privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden from their nine-year-olds: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgressions, her genius brother gradually separating himself from the world Rose knows and learning to disappear. One of the oddest, most exquisite books that gourmands and lovers of literary fiction alike must savour, this book will send you rooting for recipes of lemon cake, only to taste the silence of your own forgotten afternoons in its depths.

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