Reading The Illuminated, I was struck by the part where the author, former Lounge editor Anindita Ghose, writes about a character carrying a tin of loose leaf Darjeeling from Shyam Lal & Sons when she travels. It made me long suddenly for a regular store that I could frequent, an actual store with rows and rows of tea to choose from, where a friendly tea seller would sell me a tea that would delight or surprise.
This relationship is something online stores simply cannot replicate because of the great virtual divide. And after a year and some of meeting people virtually, the joy of conversations that take place in the same shared space is unmatched.
This week, I gave in to that feeling and decided to brave a trip out of the house to buy some tea. I turned to my friend, Deep, for recommendations. Like a true Kolkatan, he knew just where I should go. So, mid-morning one weekday, I flagged an autorickshaw and headed to Bengaluru’s Frazer Town. I found Standard Tea (established 1965) on Mosque Road.
It was a small store and I may have missed it if I was not looking for it. The two walls of the store held a nice selection of teas. Behind the counter, smaller jars held the more premium silver needles and oolongs. No garden names were given; they were simply described as Darjeeling or Muscatel or Assam Tippy or CTC or BOP—neither overwhelming in information nor confusing. These are blended teas and I learnt that the muscatel, for instance, which is only made in summer, is bought in sufficient quantities and stored carefully so that it can be included to make the Darjeeling blend through the year. I ask Syed Abdul Azeem, a member of the second generation of the family running Standard and its three branches in the city, if people still come to buy tea, whether everything has gone online. He speaks with optimism and excitement about how customers have stayed loyal through the pandemic. He speaks of plans to expand the store, to include more blends, even the trendier blue tea.
It’s gratifying to hear this because not all cities have managed to retain the old tea shops. These places are pretty special, a bridge between the tea producers and the tea drinker.
As for me, I did get what I wanted, a conversation at a tea shop! I learnt that Tek Bahadur, who manned the store, was from the North-East. We spoke about how long he had lived in Bengaluru, and the tea he himself liked—a BOP grade, well-suited for milk tea. When I finally selected and bought an Assam whole leaf blend with long coppery leaves that were well rolled, he enquired politely if I knew how to brew it before proceeding to tell me to bring the water to boiling and allow the leaves to steep for four minutes.
TEA SHOP TAKES
Standard Tea in Bengaluru, Dhrubas in Kolkata, Mittal Tea Stores and Aap Ki Pasand in Delhi.
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Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.