India takes its tea very seriously.
The ubiquitous chai is not just a beverage but an emotional marker for Indians, doubling up as a morning kick-starter, an excuse to take an office break and a way to welcome visitors home.
So it comes as no surprise that a report about an American woman making a killing from selling Indian tea sent social media into a tizzy. The story, by Inc.com, profiled Colorado resident Brook Eddy, whose Bhakti tea has made a reported $35 million dollars since it was founded. Eddy found her life’s mission while on a visit to India in 2002 and built the company a few years after her return to the US. The article also mentioned a “special sauce” that Eddy put in her tea – organic ginger, from Peru no less.
For the uninitiated, ginger is a very common additive to tea, along with a range of spices including cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. Eddy told Inc.com, “I realised the recipe I had crafted for myself, a fiery fresh ginger chai, could be produced for cafés and retailers to bring people not only ‘India in a cup,’ but build a mission-driven company on the tenants of bhakti.”
Immediately, cries of cultural appropriation rent Twitter and the ire, in no small part, stemmed from the publication’s insistence on calling the beverage chai tea. This is just one of many Indian words that the West insists of pronouncing as a tautology, alongside “naan bread” and “pakora fritters”. Bhakti’s website, thankfully, refers to it just as “chai”.
The West’s penchant for destroying the names of Indian food was hilariously pointed out in these 2017 post by Facebook group Mughal Memes.
Some Twitter users stood in solidarity with Eddy.
Tea is doubly a prestige issue for Indians in recent years, given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often talked about his humble origins as a tea seller in Gujarat.
The Indianisms don’t end with the product.
The brand name – bhakti means devotion, typically to a deity – and packaging, intentionally or otherwise, cash in on India’s international identity as a spiritual destination. The logo features a floral pattern against a colourful background, remniscient of a rangoli. Their products include chai concentrates and ready-to-drink cold milk tea, as well as what are called artisanal mixes. As part of her promotional strategy for the brand, Eddy bought a “tuk tuk” – called a rickshaw in India – which she rode across the country. Eddy donates a part of her profits to charitable organisations and has also launched a platform called Gita Giving where others can contribute as well.
Cultural appropriation is defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”. This becomes trickier if these cultural influences are used for a product that is aimed at making a profit. But the line between appropriation, appreciation and influence, especially in a globalised world, is very narrow and can get frequently blurred, making it difficult to tell them apart.
Bhakti’s Eddy, for example, has acknowledged the Indian roots of her product and there is no way to ascertain her respect or lack thereof towards the country. But the fact that she has fused an array of disparate Indian traditions – tea, rangolis, Bhakti and Gita, to name a few – into a profit-making entity has caused much discomfort.
This is not the first time that a row has erupted over the West’s adaptation of Indian culture to sell products. The biggest example of this is the wild popularity of yoga in the West, which has prompted heated debates over whether it amounts to appropriation. But that trend cuts both ways: India has profited from the global popularity of yoga and leaders like Narendra Modi have been enthusiastic proponents of the practice on international platforms.
Earlier this month, musician Pharell Williams faced backlash over his Holi-inspired collection of sneakers for Adidas.
Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend song video, featuring Beyonce and shot in India, was also slammed along similar lines.
A similar storm has also been brewing about the West’s favourite new superfood– turmeric – and its uber-capitalist variant, turmeric latte. Many Indians know this drink better as haldi dood, a catch-all home remedy that many spent their childhood years trying desperately to avoid. But as a 2017 article in Food52 pointed out, what many consider Indian exports to the West don’t have a pan-Indian identity at all – their popularity is limited to pockets of the country, often the North, but are somehow considered representative of the country at large.
The Food52 article conjectures why this happens: “Consider the fact that the landscape for current-day Indian media resembles that of American media. It is headquartered in Mumbai and New Delhi, and thus sequestered from India at large. With this silo comes a media that speaks to its audience of urbanites and renders this northern experience dominant.”
In a similar vein, chai’s origins in India are also dubious. By various accounts, commercial tea cultivation was encouraged in India by the British, to rival China’s production of the plant. It evolved from there into a staple beverage (again, not in all parts of the country) and a flourishing industry. And with the rising popularity of chai in the West, things have come full circle. Could anyone have read the tea leaves on this?