In a country polarized in every possible way—from disparities in wealth and education to differing views on politics and extremism—tea is the great social equalizer. Everyone drinks tea: government officials have an army of ‘tea boys’ at their disposal, investigators work through crime scenes with cups in hand, and journalists substitute tea for a proper meal. There are entire rituals built around the drink. Arranged marriages, traditionally, feature prospective brides serving families cups of tea laid out on a trolley. And cops would never be so tactless as to ask for a straight-out bribe: they instead coyly ask for ‘chai paani’ (tea and water).
One would think, then, that tea has always been a staple of life in Pakistan. But it is a relatively recent introduction to this part of the world, a legacy of colonialism. The suggestion to start tea cultivation in India dates to 1788, according to the Imperial Gazetteer of India, the encyclopedic record of British rule. The British government put up signs showcasing the benefits of tea, the way to prepare it, and how everyone–Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs!–could drink it. In 1909, the Gazetteer proclaimed that the “townspeople of India are adopting the tea-drinking habit to an increasing extent.”
Pakistan is now officially addicted to what has become an increasingly pricey habit, given that a kilogram of loose tea costs Rs540 ($5.50). The country’s most well-known philanthropist, Abdul Sattar Edhi, claims that Pakistan’s problems could be solved “only if people give up tea and cigarettes.” But Edhi’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears. I walked into his office not long ago for an interview, only to be asked by his right-hand man if I would first like a cup of tea.