T is for Tea


            Tea is a drink with jam and bread, at least in the lyrical, visually stunning musical (the film version) of 1965, The Sound of Music. The lyrics and music by the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein were immensely popular the world over and stayed on top of the charts then, to be re-created since. The song and the film exemplify some of the dilemmas that confront us in our thinking about children. The child protagonists of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, for instance, calls the von Trapp children as beloved for their "peppermint-breath," meaning their impeccable sweetness and likeability. They were themselves smart, sensitive, indeed, precocious, but doomed to a different fate than the von Trapps, because they are Third World children, it is suggested. That the von Trapp children were both motherless, then suddenly in the embrace of Nazism makes almost no impact on the viewer, carried away in the sway of lyricism and visual beauty. The film was torn apart by many critics for being cutesy, sentimental, and confused. 


            It is difficult to resist the film, however, and similar representations of children where they can be irresistibly cute and innocent. There are problems of the adult world and there are problems of children. The plot of the musical consists of a widowered father with seven children who hires an ex-novice nun as a governess. She is singularly talented as a teacher and brings music and love back in their lives. Meanwhile, the Nazi occupation of Austria makes the family flee to neutral Switzerland. In the film, the dark sides of Captain von Trapp, of Maria and her teaching methods, of the children's waywardness, of the Third Reich's occupation of Austria—are all glossed over with, one could say, songs and platitudes. At the same time, the musical in both its stage and film version is a powerful one and does justice to all the crafts it showcases: acting, musical and lyrical composition, costumes, stage setting, and fluent editing. The 1965 film won scores of awards and ran for hundreds of weeks in theatres internationally.  


            In our Summer Camp this very June, the roze Sound of Music song, "doe a deer, a female deer" was one of the songs I chose to teach our young choir, the fourth or fifth time in my teaching career. 


Tea is also a synecdoche for colonialism. It was the East India Company that first internationalized the trade in tea and through the hard economics and soft power of England made tea drinking an Indian habit. It was not an easy sell—a bitter brew that had to be served piping hot, mixed with sticky milk and sugar that attracted flies in marketplaces. Archival records tell us of cynical consumers comparing the healthiness of milk and fruit juices with the foreign, nonsensical tea. Today, as we know, it is the quintessentially Indian drink that no one bothers to deconstruct. Indian children, like British children, routinely play at making and serving tea.  


But tea also stands for choice. Ironically, the measure of sophistication of an Indian person can be measured partly by how much choice they exercise, or know about exercising. In tea-drinking, for instance, the more elite the person the better they will know that there are kinds and styles of tea and tea-making. They will have heard of Tibetan tea with its yak butter. They will know Chamomile and Green Tea. They will have heard of the brands Earl Grey and Lady Grey. They might still prefer "masala tea" or "railway tea"—"Punjabi tea" as the Bengalis call it—but they will know that it is only one kind of tea, albeit the most commonplace in tea-drinking North India. The masses will swear by this tea, denying the possibility of choice. In a school, if the moral of this class-bound tale could be stretched far enough, we have to be always deconstructive, and make children critical of anything that seems "the norm." 


            It may sound far-fetched to connect tea-drinking to teaching techniques, but that's what one can do with many adult practices. An excellent instruction for teachers being guided in how to make their classes effective is to "Always give a contrary example." When expecting a reply to a question, give students a choice of many replies. When agreeing on a fact, present the scenario of an opposite, equally plausible fact. 


            T is very much for trees. A bit like The Sound of Music is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, published just a year earlier. Loved by some, it is reviled by others and dissected for its negative messages, seen by many as quasi-Christian and quasi-gendered. An apple  tree is the prototype of the all-sacrificing mother as it gives, first its shade and branches, then its apples, then its limbs and trunk, finally its whole self and even its stump, to a child who grows from childhood to old age (always addressed as "Boy") taking more and more from the tree without a word of thanks. Again, it's one of the poems I have read to a class 2 full of eager listeners and in my non-critical mode I only thought that it was rather sad. I also thought of all the beautiful, wonderful trees around us in India and how I must find and encourage the writing of more children's poems about our own trees. 


            So here's an agenda to end with, for those of us working with children. Watch, reflect on, and make musical or other Theatre, comparable in qualiy to The Sound of Music but more critical. Draw, envision, research, and plant trees—and most of all, keep up a critical view of the world. 






Nita Kumar

Hon. Director, NIRMAN

N 1/70 Nagwa, Varanasi, India

Brown Family Professor Emerita of S Asian History

Claremont McKenna College, CA 91711

Read my blog! https://nitakumar.wordpress.com/


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