I was 10 years old when I realised just how central tea was to the socio-economic milieu of Pakistan.
It was the 60s and basic food commodities were not available as abundantly as they are today.
I had been sent by my mother to buy sugar from a ration depot. The shop owner was one Mr Ramzan Ali who was as an emaciated, grouchy man with bitterness written all over his face. There was a long line-up at the depot. I got to the back of the line and peered sideways in the shop.
Sitting behind the counter and in front of sacks of sugar and flour, Mr Ramzan Ali was sipping tea with great commitment and even greater slowness.
The rapturous expression on his normally dour face was one that is usually associated with meditation.
The long line was getting restless.
Finally, one customer had the courage to protest,
Hey, can’t you see there are so many people waiting for ration?
For a second or two Mr Ramzan continued sipping his tea. Then, with great deliberateness he put down the cup on the saucer, his face contorted, his eyes bulged out and he gave the dirtiest possible look a human can give another human and spat out,
Dekhtay nahin, chai pi raha hoon?
['Can’t you see, I am having tea?']
He then took his sweet time drinking his tea, and the business of the day resumed only once he had finished.
Now a committed tea drinker myself, I continue to witness tea craze in the streets, shops, and bazaars of country. Often, I join them.
According to an estimate, Pakistani tea-drinkers now consume over $600 million worth of tea every year. There's the regular chai (black tea mixed with milk), the doodh-patti, the Kashmiri chai and the green tea/qahva; each one with its own mood and suiting a unique occasion.
Just about to start your day? Have some tea.
Break from work? Grab another cup.
Got guests? Serve tea.
Just finished a cup? Brew some more.
We drink it so much, that a huge part of our markets is actually flooded with smuggled tea. In fact, one of every three cups of chai we have, is a smuggled one!
This photo essay is dedicated it to the memory of Ramzan Ali, the first priest of the holy house of tea, who never let worldly matters interfere in his tea drinking.