Cuppa Tea : life’s elixir

I remember when we were in Johnson & Johnson, a management conference was planned at Kathmandu. Per corporate safety and business continuity guidelines, no more than 3 senior managers could travel in one flight. So the Board of Management was split into 4 different flights. Our Finance Head and I were together. We reached the Kathmandu hotel in the morning around 10 am. First formal program was to begin with dinner. So both of us promptly planned a sight seeing outing. We hired a car and took off planning to return by 630/7 pm, in time to freshen up for dinner.

Those were the days before mobiles and so when we were gone, we were gone. After Basantpur and lots of local sightseeing we took off to Nagarkot which bosts of 270 degree views of the Himalayan range. We returned to the hotel around 6 pm and found a posse of people desperately waiting for us. “Where have you been? The MD is looking for you. Entire Board is in the business center, except you two. 10 times they have asked.” Etc.

We rushed to the Business Center and into the full blown wrath of the MD. “Where have you been? How can you just take off? we are desperately searching for you. This is so immature. We wanted a management comm meeting” Etc. We protested ” but sir the first formal function was at night. There was no meeting planned” After which we got the LEARNING OF A LIFETIME. The pearls of wisdom from the MD’s mouth which you should remember forever ” Any time is meeting time; and anytime is tea time”.

So true. And so prophetic. Anytime is tea time.

Being an HR person through 34 long years, I have grown up on the enormous no of cups of tea. Whether working alone in corporate cubicles or in meeting rooms, or when one graduated to the recesses of cabins, the one and only constant companion who stood by you in the entire corporate journey was the ubiquitous cup of tea. The “tea trails” went through many a convoluted route : Whether as a junior you managed to wrangle a cup from the canteen boy or the sheer exuberance you felt when when Siemens put up a vending machine and you could have tea at will ! hallelujah!! Thereafter managing a cup of “german tea” as black tea with fresh lemon slice was called in Siemens ( though one had to have a very good equation with Shetty the 5th floor peon). And then the arrival into a cabin where you could legitimately call for a cup whenever you had visitors. Johnson & Johnson ( though American) had a really old school British touch where tea was served in a tray by a waiter dressed in a bow tie!!! All of which got reflected in a cartoon I preserved for a long time : It showed a guy sipping his cuppa and the accompanying blurb read : “sometimes I think I come here just for a cup of tea”. Tea was undoubtedly an integral part of the corporate journey and corporate experience.

When I started travelling abroad for company work, the taken for granted cup of tea suddenly took on very different dimensions. Western Europe was still ok: you could hold your head high and ask for tea in UK ( but of course), France and even in Netherland and surrounding areas. But reach Italy and you got a disdainful look when you asked for tea. Even that cold treatment was fine compared to the sheer horror on the face of your host in US of A when you said “no, not coffee, would prefer tea”. Obviously the faith was that full bloodied males drank coffee and not tea. Many were confused as to how to handle this ridiculous request. In US, this is second only to the crime of asking for milk and sugar in your coffee.

Compared to all this ridicule, I always found that asking for tea was easier in Asia and Far East. The challenge in Singapore and Korea and China took a different turn however. They would shoot a barrage of questions: Oolong? Black? Green? African Red? White? First Flush? Herbal? Lemon? Chrysanthemum (for God’s sake). For someone who only knew of BOP and Dust (and also knew Darjeeling tea is only for the Gods), it took a while to go through these dark forests and find out that only Earl Grey and English Breakfast are teas which we Indians can recognize as tea. And since entire Asia ( except our dear Pakistan and Malaysia) and Far East drink tea without milk, you soon graduated to drinking your tea without milk. As a fringe benefit, first time since you were born, you discovered the real taste of tea.

I grew up in a middle class family: and though there was enough for all: we were never into a lap of luxury. One indulgence which my parents allowed themselves was buying good quality teas. While in Maharashtra, Green Lipton was standard fare. As we started getting posted out of Maharashtra, and we gained in knowledge and tea sophistication, Lopchu and Ranglee Rangliot made their appearance in our larder. When my father got posted to Eastern India and traveled for work upwards of Calcutta, the more premium teas from specific tea estates came in. As small children our biggest trip was waking up early and joining my parents for their ritualistic first cuppa. Made in tea pots, covered with a tea-cosy, following the traditional “one spoon per cup and one for the pot” formula, brewed to perfection, by pouring boiled water over leaves in the pot, far away from the flame, and kept precisely for 2 mins. Those were the days my friend. So tea is very much a part of my growing up.

Finally, as head of HR, having consumed so many thousands of cups in my 34 years’ career, I will confess today : I was always suspicious of people who did not drink tea. Within HR where I had complete sway, I confess, I rejected candidates if they said they don’t drink tea. Tea is the universal binder. Conversation opener, relationship strengthen-er, builder of rapport and the best icebreaker you can have : with a worker or with an MD! It’s magic works at all levels and how a person drinks tea tells you a lot about the person. And remember, any time is tea time. My father put it best in his rustic Marathi : Baine kunku ani purusha ne chaha kadhi nahi mhanta naye” ( A woman should never refuse kumkum (the vermilion on her forehead) and similarly a man should never refuse a cup of tea).

Bring it on. Hot and black elixir of life.
Golden tea, my one true love : vikas

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