Tea or Cleanliness and Godliness

Jane Abell Coon

Long ago, before the globalization of bottled water, I worried about clean drinking water. My job as a young vice consul in Bombay required travel in parts of western India that were hot and dry and where water was of very doubtful purity. So I drank tea, lots and lots of Indian tea–tea with the milk and sugar all boiled together that hopefully gave some protection from ever-threatening dysentery. Tea was also a lubricant in my efforts to understand that complicated, confusing, and contradictory country. Tea accompanied conversation in every setting —government offices, homes, political rallies, school contests, on trains, planes and at bus stops. And in the offices of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad –known to all as the TLA.

One of my responsibilities was to keep keep in touch with the labor movement and whenever I was in Ahmedabad I would drop into the TLA office to chat with Arvind, a practical, dedicated trade union officer. We had known each other for nearly three years and even adopted the Indian custom of adding brother and sister — “bhai” and “ben”– to our given names. On this particular afternoon I found Arvindbhai in his corner room on the second floor of the union’s utilitarian cement block headquarters. As usual, he wore a loose shirt of khadi, the hand-loomed fabric popularized by Gandhi; his sandals discarded somewhere under his chair. Stacks of files tied with frayed red string covered the scarred wooden table. Other piles leaned haphazardly against the walls, threatening to capsize like an overloaded ferry. While he found a chair for me, he patted one leaning tower of paper, remarking guiltily: “grievance cases.”

On previous visits, Arvindbhai had educated me on the history and politics of the TLA, the most powerful trade union in India, representing thousands of textile workers in the western state of Gujarat. Our conversations seldom drifted from the practical business at hand. On this occasion we discussed problems of “rationalization” in the textile mills. Should the TLA acquiesce to the introduction of more modern machinery which threatened the jobs of many workers? The new looms the mill owners wanted to install could displace nearly half the workers in the weaving mills. A hard-headed Arvind knew the mills must modernize to stay competitive, but unemployment in India is no joke. We discussed the pros and cons, while I balanced the inevitable, chipped cup of sweet, milky tea on my knee and nibbled on a stale biscuit.

“Janeben, would you like to see a temple?”

His unexpected question–quite unrelated to the weavers of Ahmedabad–startled me enough to nearly spill my tea. “That would be great,” I responded, hoping that this totally unexpected excursion would take us to Ahmedabad’s ancient Hindu monuments deep in the old city which I had long wanted to visit. But Arvindbhai just grinned and remarked that there was more to India than textile machinery.

We piled into a TLA jeep and headed not toward the old city but out of town, leaving Ahmedabad behind. The dusty, unpaved road cut through dry fields where scrawny cattle browsed on the stubble of last seasons wheat. I optimistically figured that somewhere out there lay the ruins of an ancient shrine. It was not to be. Near a distant mud-walled village a Hindu temple rose up on the horizon like a day-glo mirage. This was not ancient India, but all too modern India, alive with a cacophony of colors and sculpted cement imagery of the lawn-ornament genre.

Arvind parked the jeep by a side gate and shook off his sandals. I followed suit and trailed him into a large courtyard, hesitating at the steps up to the temple platform. Shouldn’t I stay outside? A non-Hindu, meat-eating foreigner? I didn’t want to offend any worshipers nor stumble into a situation embarrassing to Arvindbhai. But he politely insisted and I followed after him, barefoot. We were almost the only visitors. Arvind lit an incense stick or dropped a rupee on several altars, while I respectfully took in the religious profusion around me. Maybe this wasn’t an ancient shrine, but Arvind had showed me another piece of India and I was grateful for his confidence that I wouldn’t screw up.

Religious duties done, we sat on the front steps of the temple and Arvindbhai told me stories about Lord Swami Narayan, to whom the temple was dedicated. He was a Hindu saint, revered in Gujarat, who lived over a century ago. The temple was not old. Today it was almost empty, but thousands of pilgrims converge here on holy days and foreigners are welcome. He pointed to a shuttered building across the courtyard. “That’s the only place you can’t go. The Brahmin priests here are orthodox. They’re very strict about pollution issues.”

Arvind was apparently a well known devotee and shortly a novice appeared carrying two stainless steel tumblers of water in his right hand, a thumb well down in one and two fingers in the other.  He carefully put them down on the step a little distance from me. I sensed uncomfortably that the water, whatever its origin, could not be refused and that many eyes were watching us across the courtyard. Another novice followed with tea served in shallow metal saucers. Arvind drank some water and sipped a little tea while I searched for a tactful solution to the water problem.

“Arvindbhai, would it be bad manners if I emptied out the water and poured the tea into the tumbler to cool a bit?”

“No problem. You can drink your tea either way. It doesn’t matter,” he reassured me.

And wanting to be certain I wasn’t uncomfortable, he added:  “And, Janeben, don’t worry about your being unclean. The priests gave us stainless steel utensils so they can be heated white-hot in a fire to purify them after you’ve used them.”

Relieved, I poured out the questionable water, sipped the hot, safe tea and pondered the meaning of cleanliness and godliness, purity and pollution, in ways that hadn’t occurred to my Puritan ancestors in New England.  Arvind snapped his fingers and the novice appeared to collect the purifiable tea service. We jumped in the TLA jeep and discussed textile machinery all the way back to Ahmedabad–and another cup of tea.

Jane Coon



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