16 January 2023

A tea-maker story seldom told


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous articl

Most offices serve tea or else have ‘teatimes’. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. Different rules in different places. Different cultures too. For some it’s a pick-me-up while still at work while others see teatime as a no-work segment of the working day. Perhaps some offices have specified teatimes but my guess is that most do not. So it could be a few minutes or half an hour

Now teatime is not just a moment for a cup of tea. It could be plain tea, milk-tea or kahata. It could be coffee, with or without milk, with sugar, less sugar and sugarless. It could also be just one thing and nothing else. The same for everyone.  

In some places there are machines. In others there’s an electric kettle, tea bags or tea leaves, maybe coffee, instant or otherwise, sugar and milk. A make-it-yourself arrangement. As you like, when you like. And then there are places where you can purchase you preferred beverage. Sometimes the institution subsidises the morning and afternoon cup of tea and so whoever has been contracted to operate the canteen or cafeteria makes it and goes from one division to the other delivering it.

In relatively small offices there’s a tea-maker. Or two. It’s a very special employee category and one that is taken for granted. And they do it for years. Sometimes decades. People quit jobs. They return a few years later to say hello to friends still working in the same place, and encounter such people.

Tea. Sometimes in one or two large jars. Usually two. Two options. Milk tea and plain tea. And people would come with their personal mugs. The tea maker would pour either milk tea or plain tea, knowing the preferences of each person pushing a mug towards him. Or her.

Sometimes it is delivered. Sometimes you’ve got to go to the tea-making area.

Day after day. Year after year. For decades, as I said. Typically, the same tea maker serving a staff with greater turnover degrees than in this nondescript profession. And those who came later, typically, are unaware that the tea maker has done this for decades, serving people long before they were even born.

Just a tea maker. ‘Inconsequential’ is the unsaid, unthought word. Some of them are iconic. So iconic that they are part of the institution’s architecture. That’s the problem. Architectural elements, furniture — these things are not flesh and blood. No heart, no backstories, no past, present or future considered worthy of inquiry.

The bosses are known. Respected. Feared, sometimes. The immediate supervisors are known. Respected. Sometimes feared. Colleagues are known. They are partied with. Their homes are visited. Even their children’s names are known sometimes. You know where so and so worked before, the schools attended, the best work, the life stories, the anecdotes that give insight to personality, that reveal character flaws. Things like that. Little things like that.  

Who knows the tea maker’s story? Who knows the tea maker’s address? Who knows the joys and sorrows, the exasperations, the understanding that people come and go, that they acknowledge or acknowledge not the outcome of efforts into which all knowledge of the task is stirred with discipline, commitment and even love, the headaches of a Monday that will not leave until Friday, the sad Wednesday that no one noticed, the months of loan-defaults and tragedies that will not warrant commiseration simply because they are not announced?

Tea. Just another beverage. Isn’t it? Or is it? It’s in the hands of the tea maker. The maker of a different kind of morning, the improver of tedious afternoons, giver of sip that opens the valves that releases mind-ink, sweetener of conversations, enhancer of the bearability of down-days, wetter of heart-tongues, soaker of the dry lips of drought-ridden seasons, blender of the flavours extracted from life's lesser known poetry.

Do you know the name? Have you read the stories? Has your gaze encountered that gaze of silent knowing? Did it make you stop and wonder about scrutinies that went unscrutinised, and secrets that will never be told? 


Other articles in this series:

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road