Chai and samosas are the quintessential Indian drink and appetizer. You don’t have to have grown up in India to see how pervasive those two are. Those chai lattes are plastered all over the menus of cafes from big chains like Starb*cks to your local mom and pop store that is being gentrified as we speak. And when was the last time you went to an Indian restaurant and did not see, and perhaps order, the samosas on the menu?
For those who are just coming out of their caves or for some reason haven’t seen the influence of a billion Indians, chai is basically milk based black tea brewed with spices and sugar. For an average Indian (more common in northern states of India) chai is a drink savored in small quantities through the day. You welcome people to your house with water, chai and perhaps samosas. Its the drink of choice on a wet day, cold night, hot afternoon, mornings, afternoons, evenings and basically any other time you would want to drink something.
But how did this country, which barely knew what tea was until 200 years back, become the second biggest producer of tea? Well the answer lies in immigration.
East India Company started trading in the Indian subcontinent in the early seventeenth century. This seemingly benign corporate interest brought with it a stream of British immigrants, who ended up bringing their imperialistic aspirations with them. Along with these imperialistic designs British also brought with them their love for tea. Capitalism sowed the first seeds of Assam black tea in the early 1830’s. Soon India was to become the biggest tea producer in the world overshadowing China, who only recently was able to reclaim the top spot. With excess supply and then seemingly boundless growing capacity the British had a different problem at hand in India: Demand.
In order to meet the growing supply British decided to open new markets for sale and thus introducing tea to the masses in India. Free samples were handed on the streets and an ever increasing number of Indians were getting hooked. However the cost of black tea kept it just a little out of reach of the masses. While the cost had gone down drastically it was not enough to break into the main stream. But then India did, what it does best.
India took a distinctly immigrant drink, and transmogrified it into something uniquely Indian.
To lower the cost and simplify the preparation, a milk heavy, slightly watered down version of tea was introduced. Centuries old Ayurvedic spice mixes were added to the black tea to meet the Indian sensibilities. British tea bowed in India giving way to the chai and since then India has not looked back. In less than 50 years Indians had become the second largest tea drinkers in the world.
Chai’s unique heritage and legacy is symbolic of Indian culture. To claim that Indian culture is distinctly Indian is false. India had seen colonialism from Greco-romans and Persians as early as 5th century BC followed by people from all over Central Asia. Scythians, Afghans, Iranians, Mongolians, Uzbekistanis, Turks, people from all over the world came to India and brought with them their own cultures. In addition to this Indians colonized a large part of Asia including places like Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia and thus mixing their cultures into the fold. This is perhaps why 92% of Indians draw their ancestry from non-indian sources.
This rich history paved the way for the culturally most diverse country on Earth. India saw the rise of more than 2000 languages, nearly a third of all the languages ever spoken by humanity.
This cultural diversity extended to almost every sphere of Indian life. From languages, to religions to food. A variety of foods that we take for granted are in reality a gastronomic spawn of cultural intermingling. For example the samosas and naan made their way to India through Persia, and almost all lentils that make up your dal or sambar also call West Asia home. Cultural evolution is not a concept endemic to India. Almost no country or human has been left untouched by cultural exchange.
Humanity itself has been shaped and molded by this exchange, and our unique identities are just a by product of immigration and cultural cross contamination. Cultural diversity is not very different from ecological biodiversity. It is not just a coincidence but the very basis of our existence and an indispensable tool for our mental evolution.
Colonialism was the biggest driver of immigration until recently. Colonial rulers brought with them a hoard of citizens who wanted to or had to settle down in the new countries. Power allowed them to enforce their culture upon countries like India. But at the same time this also allowed Indians to resettle in other countries bringing with them the Indian culture, replete with all its quirks and complexities. Colonialism was fueled by a lot of forces like economics, sheer lust for power, evangelism, or adventure. Whatever be the reason behind it, immigration has always led to cross pollination of ideas that have left an indelible impact on many a fertile mind.
However today’s political situation has turned this situation on its head. Imperialism needs fewer people in the colonized countries as economic imperialism has become more efficient. The same economic system, which relied on globalization to reach new markets, has also opened the doors for immigration and cross border mobility. This amalgamation is not limited to the erstwhile economic centers like New York, San Francisco, London etc. but has become more mainstream. A fair part of this immigration brings with it the fear of cultural colonialism. Thanks to its long association with colonialism people find it harder to think of immigration without thinking that some kind of colonialism is lurking behind the scenes. These fears are still grounded mostly in economics, power or religion, which were some of the biggest drivers of colonialism.
However we also have another fear: a fear of change itself. Culture is almost always evolving, but change is one of those things that is sometimes hard to deal with. New ideas, economics, power and religion all play into cultural change but immigration is one of those variables in this equation that stands out to a lot of people. The cultural changes are not always the way we want them but the reality remains that change is going to happen one way or the other.
We can sit in our room and pretend we live in an airtight container of self righteous culture and ideologies. One of the biggest problems is that our ideas have power over us. Our tendency to worship power tends to blind us to the other ideas that are trying to sprout around us. This power we associate with our ideas makes us want to preserve them from change of any kind. This makes people build airtight glass container around them that allow them to observe the world outside, while they hold on to their beliefs in isolation. This has given way to a lot of voices from things like ‘Immigrants, not Americans, must adapt’ to pure fear mongering. However, if we want to house ourselves in an airtight container it would also mean that we shun our acts to influence the rest of the world outside of our container. Selecting certain realities implicitly means rejecting others.
This would all be good except our airtight glass container ain’t really airtight and is susceptible to fracture. Remember what they say about glass houses, right? Globalization hasn’t left anyone or anything untouched and nor can we expect to live in a world that allows us to isolate ourselves. Building terministic screens that empower our vision of reality is only going to get harder as communication evolves in the age of ideatic and human mobility. Similarly ideas can neither be preached nor enforced but rather have to be absorbed through cultural osmosis.
The second biggest problem is nationalism. Nationalism allows us to deflect attention away from the inherent nepotism that it engenders. Tagore candidly denounced this “Cult of the Nation” talk, when the Swadeshi movement was taking roots in India during the early twentieth century.
The ideal of the social man is unselfishness, but the ideal of the Nation, like that of the professional man, is selfishness. This is why selfishness in the individual is condemned, while in the nation it is extolled, which leads to hopeless moral blindness, confusing the religion of the people with the religion of the nation — Rabindranath Tagore
Nationalism is becoming more and more like a corporation with the citizens being share holders. This allows us to distance ourselves from the decisions of our nation and their consequences. It also provides us with an acceptable social structure that allows us to promote selfishness at a level that would be considered immoral otherwise. We get a free pass to ignore the basic tenets of humanity by flashing a patriotic flag. We want to provide equal rights to people of our nation, or our religion, or our color but condone the denial of the same to the others? Do unto others as you want done to you unless it pertains to the subject of immigration or immigrants. Requiring other people to give up their identity is neither humane nor a way to integrate a person into our society. Sub par socio-economic liberties also fall in the same category of neither humane nor effective. These fair and equal liberties should not be limited to citizens but should be afforded to every one. Discriminating against individuals or groups either immigrants or otherwise is never an effective strategy.
We should support each other through this cultural evolution and provide fair opportunities to everyone who is part of our society. Let’s enjoy our cultural and ideological diversity. Its a great sign that we and our creativity are thriving. And lets keep those chai and samosas coming.