In India, a cup of tea is predictable. In a country spanning 27 states, 56 languages, a billion people, and every climate imaginable, the cup of tea is a constant.
Pure cow’s milk imbues the liquid with a golden hue and a rich caramel flavor. An abundance of sugar makes it candy-sweet. A dash of masala, cinnamon, or cumin gives it a tinge of spice. Chai is liquid sunshine, served up in clay cups by chai-wallas in their makeshift street stalls with thatched roofs.
My parents would come home at tea-time. Neighbors and relatives would drop by, often unannounced, to take tea with us.
I was raised in the ritual of tea. My days kicked off with toast, jam, eggs, and a steaming mug of chai. After school, I’d be greeted by another cup, accompanied by Britannia tea-biscuits. And I would be with family.
Chai is the catalyst that brought my family together every evening. My parents would come home at tea-time. Neighbors and relatives would drop by, often unannounced, to take tea with us. There would be gossip, games, and a seamless transition into the mellow evening, lubricated by several pots of chai.
The evening tea, a quaint colonial artifact, remains a cornerstone of the Indian family. An irony I’m thankful for. It helped forge my lifelong bond with the drink. A bond that was about to be tested.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” my hero said to the Replicator, and out poured an alien, dark liquid bearing no resemblance to the chai I knew and adored.
Barely two seasons since my first encounter with Picard’s crew at Farpoint, I knew that this was the man I wanted to be.
It was 1997 and I was 14. Star Trek: The Next Generation had been airing on Rupert Murdoch’s Star India Network since ‘95, a year after its original run ended in the US. We always got our shows late. It was my first introduction to Star Trek and to Jean-Luc Picard. Barely two seasons since my first encounter with Picard’s crew at Farpoint, I knew that this was the man I wanted to be.
It’s difficult for a teenager to practice compassion while dealing with perpetual hormone-generated aggression. Compassion was a sign of weakness in the constant war for psychological and physical dominance that played out in the classroom and the schoolyard.
Jean-Luc Picard was the antithesis.
He taught me that power was meaningless without compassion. With all the firepower of Starfleet’s flagship at his fingertips, his decisions were instead driven by compassion and wisdom. It was compassion that drove his arguments for the rights of his android Lieutenant Commander in the “Measure of a Man.” It was compassion that stayed him from wiping out the Borg, a race that had once enslaved his body and mind, in “I, Borg.”
Picard made kindness and integrity cool. I wanted to emulate everything this man did.
I had no idea what Earl Grey was or how I could find some.
Thus, I was beyond excited when I learned, in Season 2’s Contagion, that Picard’s drink of choice is the humble tea. Here was the first tangible connection between me and the man I wanted to be.
The problem being that I had no idea what Earl Grey was or how I could find some.
I hit up my new best friend, the internet, for the lowdown on Earl Grey. Over a dial-up connection, a pre-Wikipedia site informed me that the leaves of my beloved chai were usually sourced from Darjeeling, a small town nestled in the Eastern Himalayas. But Darjeeling tea was just one brew among thousands. Earl Grey, named after Earl Charles Grey, who once received it as a diplomatic gift, was one of the most popular. Its defining trait is a unique citrus flavor derived from bergamot oil produced in the Mediterranean. Cool, got it.
I visited every grocery store in my neighborhood looking for Earl Grey. In vain. I recruited my parents on this quest, and they helped broaden the search perimeter. The Earl remained elusive. It was impossible to find anything but Darjeeling and its close cousins unless you ordered room service at a posh hotel.
Earl Grey went from being a curiosity to an aspiration. It became a symbol of the goals I wanted to achieve, but did not know how to.
After about a month, we gave up the search. I kept drinking Darjeeling, occasionally without milk and sugar.
Through the course of TNG, Picard ordered Earl Grey over and over again. “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” Noun, descriptor, descriptor. The cadence never varied. And each time the phrase sparked a pang within me. The pang of a wish unfulfilled, a goal unmet.
The cup of Earl Grey went from being a curiosity to an aspiration. It became a symbol of the goals I wanted to achieve, but did not know how to.
Then Picard showed me the way, as he always does.