As the clock struck four in the twilight hours every morning, as the slumbering postcolonial Indian city of Kolkata slowly woke up to face another day, Shibnath Sammadar or SS would get busy opening his 150-year-old tea-shanty.
Located diagonally opposite the main gate of Scottish Church College, on the north-eastern wall corner of the Hedua Talab lake, at the intersection of Urquhart Square (today’s Shashi Bhusan Sarkar lane) and Beadon Street (renamed now as Abhedananda Road), the tea stall was opened by SS’s grandpappy in the year 1870.
Business success was, however, never the Sammadar family’s cup of tea. Even after three generations of running the stall, they were unable to make a concrete structure, and the shop always remained an illegal roadside tin and bamboo tea-shanty.
Though in plain sight, the shop was a rickety and ramshackle suit-stained street-stall like a million more in the city, however, in reality, it was a big part of the region’s history. The shop had served tea perhaps to every notable person born and brought up in this part of North Calcutta’s historical vicinity.
SS claimed that right from the famous Indian Nationalist and freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose, to the renowned self-made movie star Mithun Chakraborty, all had drunk tea from this tea-shanty.
Well, it was certainly true, as both of these eminent men along with scores of many other legendary Calcuttans had studied at the Scottish, and the tea stall being bang opposite to the college had to have served them tea.
Some other notable alumni of the college worth mentioning include the world-renowned philosopher and yogi Swami Vivekananda, Indian film director Mrinal Sen, stage actor and theatre founder Shishir Kumar Bhaduri, and politician TV personality and quiz master Derek O’Brien. The list is, however, nearly infinite and would run into pages if one starts mentioning.
Now in the year 1990, long gone were the days of the Bengal Renaissance, the boom of physical culture and meditating, the era of plays and theatres, or the Indian Freedom Movement and the boiling passion of the revolting Bengalis. Now it was a different generation hooked on to mobile phones and highspeed internet connectivity.
Irrespective of all the changes, the tea stall managed to survive in this part of the city’s geography. Now at the age of seventy-five after inheriting, seeing, and witnessing a lifetime of history, SS had become a notable storyteller for the new generation in the vicinity.
“Ki dadu, itihasher pata aaj ki bolchey (Hey grandpa, what is the pages of history saying today),” asked a punky college kid with spikes on his head and reflective golden shades to SS, while taking a sip of red tea with lime and sugar, sitting on a wobbly stool along with few of his smart-alec friends at the tea shanty.
“Lompoter dol tora ki bujhbi itihash, tora shob bhushi maal (Hoodlums, what do you understand of history, all of you are empty vessels),” chided back the old man while adding massive amounts of sugar to a suit-stained antique kettle of simmering milk tea. It had become a habit of the students to pull the old man’s legs and instigate agitative reactions from him.
Of all the things that SS was known for, his biggest identity was Mr Know-it-all. First of all, the man really had some knowledge. Though he had never been to school, spending a lifetime in front of the college had its effects. He simply knew everything, and what he did not know, he would find out, however, his only bad quality was he could not admit not-knowing something, and always accepted a challenge no matter how irrational it may be.
His knowledge came from professors and students, from the two Bengali and two English newspapers that he bought for his customers daily. He was ever attentive and inquisitive to ask in detail about the news from his customers who read from the papers while sipping on their bhars or disposable and crooked earthen cups of tea.
Bengali’s or rather Calcuttans could not live without their tea. It was a habit inherited from the Britishers who were crazy about the brew and were the ones to introduce cultivation of the plant in India’s North-Eastern regions of Assam and Darjeeling. In fact, it was here in the Indian Botanical Garden of Calcutta, where for the first time the tea-plant from China was brought and successfully nurtured to be cultivated in the Himalayan regions.
Today India is the 2nd largest tea exporter in the world, supplying 12.6% of the total worldwide consumption. Long gone were the Britishers from the country, however, along with the many things that they left behind, the habit of drinking tea was perhaps their greatest gift to the people of Calcutta and the Bengalis, and this ensured the survival of the Sammadar family.
Well, the tea served at the SS tea-shanty was basically of three kinds. First, there was black tea, then the tangy red lime tea and thirdly the Bengali’s favourite regular milk tea. Customers would further customise these; like one would ask for a black without sugar, while another would request a red with more lime in it. The permutation combinations were many, and SS uniquely remembered the specific kind that each of his regular customers liked.
Apart from these three, there was a fourth very unique one-of-a-kind tea served at the stall, and it was called the Sammadar Special Masala Tea. There was no customisation allowed to it. It was a subtly sweet milk tea with a secret masala recipe. The likes of which one could not find anywhere else in the city. Many tea makers from the city and beyond and even some world-renowned tea-coffee chain store had approached SS to sell them his recipe, but the old man would not part with it.
SS claimed that the secret recipe was developed by his grandpappy when the shop was opened in 1870. It was handed down to him as the only treasure of the family. He claimed that the masala was a powder made of thirty-two secret ingredients. On tasting, the brew a person could perhaps identify, honey, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, tulsi, clove, and a few other things, however, no one had ever correctly recognised all the thirty-two elements. Many other shops had tried to replicate the taste, but till date, not one had succeeded.
The oldtimer had managed to give his son Hiren a good education, and the lad was doing well in life, happily working at an event management company, and living with his wife and two kids in Delhi. His dream was however to be an independent entrepreneur and wanted to initiate a startup someday and etch his own history. He was a loving son and begged his father many times to give up the shop and come and live with him in the capital city. SS, however, would not leave his beloved tea stall and darling Kolkata city.
A few years back the old man had sadly lost his wife and now was all alone managing the tea-shanty. As his son was never interested in selling tea and had always been busy initially with his studies, and later in perusing a career, the old man had not taught him the secret recipe. Now he knew that after his time there was no one to run his beloved tea stall, and the secret 150-year-old famous tea recipe would seize to be. This thought was his constant source of silent agony.
Then, in the winter month of December in 1990, Hiren came to Kolkata for a few days on a holiday with his wife and kids. This time he was determined to convince his father to give up the stall and come to live with him permanently in Delhi. He even thought that seeing and experiencing the love of the grandkids, his father might agree, however, the old man was stubborn and would not abandon his stall for whatever reason it may be.
During the vacation, Hiren helped out his father at the tea stall. He had not done it in many years. When he was in school, sometimes he used to help his dad on the weekends. The old man was really happy to see his son help out, and as the day progressed, he realised that his son was good at making tea and running the stall, however, he had chosen another career path, and this was perhaps not his cup of tea.
At night, back at his home, a small room in the Goabagan slum, while playing with the grandkids SS realised that there was more to life than making tea. Perhaps it was time to give up his stall, the secret recipe, and live the remainder of his days with his son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids in Delhi.
Before going to sleep he discussed his dilemma with his son openly. On one hand, he said that he wanted to go and live with him in Delhi and on the other hand he could not see the death of his secret Masala tea family recipe. That night both father and son could not sleep properly, both kept on thinking about any possible remedy.
The next morning as faint rays of sunlight entered the room through the broken windowsill, Hiren sprang up from his bed and shook his father awake from sleep. “Dad I challenge you, there is at least one person in Kolkata who can crack your recipe,” declared an excited son to his father who was still dazed and sleepy.
“No way son, no one on Earth can crack the recipe,” muttered SS in half-sleep. “What if I challenge you, that there is someone in this city, who will be able to break the secret of your recipe. Then will you give up the shop and come and live with me in Delhi,” challenged Hiren to his father, who was now more attentive.
“Well son, the day someone is able to name all the thirty-two ingredients to my secret masala tea recipe, I will happily give up the stall and come to live with you in the city of Djins,” declared SS with a broad smile and a toothless grin.
It was a Sunday, a day of rest for SS and the tea stall. The family decided to visit the zoo for a picnic. After roaming and eating their afternoon lunch, when SS lied down under a banyan tree to rest for a bit, while his daughter-in-law and grandkids were looking at the nearby bird cages, Hiren came up to his father and shared an idea that was brewing within him.
“Dad as you are always up for a challenge, I suggest we organise a one-day contest for people to come at our tea stall, drink a cup of tea, and write the names of the thirty-two ingredients that he or she might think to be in the secret masala recipe. To make things a bit fare you can keep fifty ingredients in small cups, which the contestants may smell and see to make their selection,” shared Hiren with his father with much enthusiasm.
“We should charge an entry fee of rupees one-hundred also, in this way we could earn some money too,” added SS with much glee. “That’s not a bad idea dad, however, if someone guesses the recipe correctly you have to promise to give up the tea stall and the recipe to that person,” added Hiren with a bit of anxiety.
“Ha! No one on earth can guess it. I accept the challenge, let us plan this thing,” laughed the old man and started discussing and planning the event with his son, sitting under the shade of the old banyan tree in the zoo, while his grandkids and daughter-in-law roamed close by admiring nature and animal beauty.
Over the course of the next week, the contest was planned and heavily promoted by word of mouth, through social media and printed handbills. Hiren’s PR experience made all the difference. Then on Sunday, the 23rd of December in 1990, the day of the event there was an overwhelming crowd to participate in the contest and win. There were teashop owners, tea aficionados, common folks, and even big businessmen, all wanting to get their hands on the secret recipe. That day the old man realised how famous was the SS Masala Tea.
Contestants lined up to form a massive queue, which snaked all around the Hedua talab lake. They were more than happy to pay the one-hundred-rupee contest fee, on paying which they drank their cup of tea and got a printed and signed form to fill in their application or guess the recipe. Once they submitted the form, SS would quickly look at it to find out if the person had guessed the composition correctly.
It was a massive event the likes of which hardly had anyone in the area previously seen. The punky college kid with spikes on his head and reflective golden shades, along with his smart-alec friends helped in making and serving tea and managing the event under the guidance of Hiren, whose professional evet management skill came in handy.
At 5 o’clock in the evening when the thousandth form was submitted and handed over to SS, he could not believe what he was seeing. Unable to say anything he remained mum for the next few minutes. Then gaining back his composure with a frail and shaky voice he spoke up “We have a winner who has correctly guessed the recipe.”
At the bottom of the form was written the name Hiren Sammaddar, which the old man could not believe. Tears rolled down his eyes as he realised what had happened. He always thought that his son did not know much about making tea and hardly had any interest in the secret recipe.
All those years, during his childhood, when Hiren worked at the shop, he had always tried to guess the recipe, and later, when he went to work in Delhi, he secretly kept on trying to crack it as a hobby. During this visit working at the tea stall with his father, he had finally figured out all the elements in it. Then came this brilliant idea to him, through which he could earn the recipe and the respect to have it from his father and mould his father’s mind to give it up for a life of rest with the grandkids.
Today Hiren has come back from Delhi and settled in Kolkata permanently. With the money earned through the contest and his personal savings he has opened two stores of SS Masala Tea in the city and is planning to roll out the third one in a posch vicinity. He has become the entrepreneur that he had always wanted to be, and the Sammadar Special Masala Tea continues to survive in the Kolkata city.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.