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National DRink

Chai or beer, let's raise a cheer

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ASSI LASSI: Washing machines are often used in north India to make lassi

Should tea be made India's national drink? According to the Planning Commission's Montek Singh Ahluwalia, indeed it should. Ahluwalia accorded the cup that cheers this national status during a recent visit to Assam, which along with nearby Darjeeling and the Nilgiris down south is one of the country's internationally recognised tea-growing areas.

The Planning Commission vice-chairman made his observation reportedly in response to a long-standing demand by the North Eastern Tea Association that the beverage should be given the recognition it deserves. The timing of Ahluwalia's suggestion is appropriate: next April will see the 212th birth anniversary of Maniram Dewan, the first tea planter in Assam. An appropriate birthday felicitation for the pioneer chaiwala.

But birthday wishes apart, chai could well be seen to be the preferred drink of India, cutting across all boundaries of region, class, caste and creed. Apart from anything else, this is evidenced by the propensity only too common in India to offer - and to accept - what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as 'chaipaani' in order to get any task accomplished. Indeed, it could be claimed that the chai of 'chai-paani' flows with greater exuberance and unimpeded zest than the polluted and sewage choked paani of the holy Ganga itself.

In fact, by proposing to give national recognition to tea, specifically to Assam tea, Ahluwalia may well have been resorting to some metaphorical 'chai-paani' of his own, by offering blandishments to a part of the country which, rightly or wrongly, has felt that it has long been short-changed and exploited by the Centre, creating a political climate conducive to burgeoning seeds of separatism.

Such political use of 'chai-paani' - which is expected to be extended via a central grant to bankrupt Bengal to appease the ever-militant Mamata - does indeed have uses that Anna Hazare and his crusaders know naught of. However, despite the widespread popularity of chai - with or without the accompanying paani - there are those who contest the claim that it is tea which to a capital T best suits India as its national drink.

For instance, south of the Vindhyas where - despite the presence of Nilgiri tea - kaapi is the decoction of choice, an attempt to propagate tea might be interpreted as yet another bid by the North to impose its cultural norms on the south, be it in the form of Hindi or of chai. Amma, among others, would not be amused.

On the other hand, those associated with utterly, butterly Amul - the Gujarat-based dairy cooperative that opened the floodgates of the 'White Revolution' in the country - would affirm that it is not tea, nor coffee, but milk which is Bharat Mata's chief source of nutrition and staple drink.

The popularity of milk and milk-based products is not restricted to Gujarat. In north India many would say that the thirst-quencher of choice is lassi, the robust variant of the Gujarati chhaas and the Maharashtrian taak. The growing sales figures of washing machines in this part of the country are not because people want to wash their dirty linen in public but are attributed to the fact that local entrepreneurs often use these machines not for laundry but for the making of suitably frothy lassi. Surf Excelmatic indeed.

Lassi, however, might find a strong contender in nimbu-paani, or shikanji as it is sometimes called. So popular is this lime concoction that multinational cola companies seeking to gain a throathold in the Indian market have stooped to conquer by introducing a bottled version of the drink.

Those who aver that Punjab is the land not of five rivers but of six, the sixth being beer, may turn down an empty glass of namby-pamby nimbu-paani in favour of something stronger, and prohibitionists can just grin and beer it. Or whisky it, as the case may be. The folks who gave the world the Patiala peg have ensured that more scotch is drunk in India than ever is produced in Scotland, thereby giving rise to a thriving cottage industry which produces desi clones of Johnnie Walker.

So what is India's national drink? In our drinking diversity is our unity. Let's raise a toast to that, in whatever libation you like. Jai ho!

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