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1942 A TEA STORY

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

1942 was a year full of despair for people in most parts of the world. The world war was now into its second year, peace was nowhere in sight and putting food on the table could not be taken for granted for whichever part of society you represented. The British Indian presidency of Calcutta is where our story and love affair with tea starts. The city was one of the key hubs for merchants and traders travelling with goods from the east back to the west.

Unfortunately, the perils of war have many facades, which impact all directly or indirectly. Taher Randerian was one such man who was feeling the ripples of this wave. A young man from Surat in the Bombay Province who migrated to Calcutta with his father Ghulam Randerian. They ran a successful trading business out of the city before the war started. However, they were aware if things didn’t change for the better quickly they might not be able to sustain the family’s basic needs until the end of the year. The domestic market was struggling, trade was almost non-existent and news was filtering through that the Japanese were getting closer from the east.

Amongst all the misery Taher managed to find a silver lining. It seemed like the trading caravans were still making their journey with goods from Burma in the east, up along the Ganges into the North West Frontier Province and across the Hindu Kush into Persia. These caravans would offload some of their stock in Calcutta for the local traders of which the Randerian’s were also clients. The journey was largely made by natives as it worked out cheaper but was fraught with danger. The young Taher managed to convince his father to let him embark on this journey with the one commodity that they knew was not part of the caravan’s inventory – TEA.

The war ensured that good quality tea was still available in Calcutta as demand from the west had slowed down. This guaranteed favourable prices to buy premium quality tea locally and get a substantial return on the sale. If everything went to plan they would be able to sustain the family for another year.  It was all agreed, 200kgs of the finest Assam tea was carefully packed and loaded with the young Taher in tow.

The initial part of the journey was relatively easy as it involved a few trains from Calcutta to Peshawar. In those days it took almost two weeks to get up to the North West. However, this is where the real journey would begin, involving trucks and even horseback in some sections to get across the Hindu Kush, into Afghanistan and finally Persia.  The entire journey took almost 8 weeks and Taher had managed to get himself and his goods across unharmed.

The busy bazaars of Persia are tough specially for a rookie, but this is where Taher came into his own. The tea that he had to offer was full of golden bright chunky tips that were full of flavour. This quality of tea was not easily available to the masses and news spread through the market of a young man from Calcutta who has tea that has that looks like gold, smells like roses and tastes full of flavour. The small quantity disappeared within hours for a handsome profit, its not easy for anyone to create such an impact in the market but it seemed like the young Taher was welcomed by one and all. The icing on the cake was that he managed to get advances on orders for his ‘Calcutta Chai’. The young man confirmed the orders and made the necessary arrangements to head back home. However, this is where luck played a major role in his life. He knew that by sea he could be back in Calcutta via Bombay in 4 weeks. The objective was to purchase stock to fulfil his orders and have the tea back in Persia before winter sets in. It would be impossible to get across the Hindu Kush unless this route was not explored.

To the delight of his family Taher was home 3 months from the day he left Calcutta. However, he had no intention of waiting around and wanted to be back on the road in a week.  The only issue he was facing now was that the caravans were not being able to get enough members together to make the journey. The dacoits had been very active during the monsoon months for either goods on their way west or money on the way back. Taher’s family refused to allow him to travel on this route but the young man had given his word to his buyers and could not let them down. He decided he would buy double the quantity of his advanced orders and take the more expensive but quicker sea route from Bombay.

This was a masterstroke as he was back in Persia with new season teas by August. The clients were so pleased by the young man’s commitment and quality of tea that they decided to buy double their ordered quantity. The news of this exceptional ‘Calcutta Chai’ spread like wild fire and everyone wanted to get their hands on it. Taher realised that his tea was actually only served by itself on special occasions, however at other times it was being blended with inferior teas to enhance the flavour. He spoke with his clients and asked them if they would be interested in getting a preblended packet tea ready to be offered to the consumer without any repacking or blending. This was acceptable to some; although others were apprehensive. Therefore, it was agreed to do a mix of both for the next shipment.

On his return to India, he developed his own brand of packet tea and started working on the blend. He knew that it was critical to get the flavour right and for the tea to be a packed in a way that would protect the tea. Finally, he needed to give his brand a name, the easiest option would probably have been ‘Calcutta Chai’ but he wanted a name that would give the brand the stature of being the best. He recalled on his first visit how the market was a buzz with the aroma of the tea which was similar to roses or Gulab in Persian. He decided to call it ‘Gulabi’ or Pink Roses, which in Persian literature symbolises beauty and that’s what he regarded tea – a symbol of beauty which should be made available to one and all.

The irony in the story is at a time when the world was at war and destruction was all around us, here was a man looking to create something of beauty that in a small way might help ease the pain with every sip. The first shipment left Calcutta in November on a vessel for Dubai via Colombo. The goods were well received and were supposed to have been distributed from the UAE into Persia. However, word had already spread along the marina about a ‘Calcutta Chai’ called Gulabi.  Unintentionally teas were being purchased by merchants from the Middle East and North Africa for their markets. The news about the demand was filtering back to Calcutta with bigger orders coming through.

However, things had taken a turn for the worse as the Japanese aircrafts were getting closer to Calcutta. In anticipation of bombings the city was under black out at night for months, this would ensure the Japanese pilots could not see their targets. But the situation was deteriorating as the bombs were getting closer and it was down to Taher again to decide, should he lie low or abandon ship.  He had managed to build a large inventory in anticipation of orders and if left to stay in Calcutta could risk losing everything. So, he decided to take all the stock across India to Bombay and ship it from there to the UAE. The journey to Bombay was relatively calm compared to any of the others Taher had undertaken, however on arrival in Bombay they heard that Japanese Air Force had bombed Calcutta the date was 20th December 1942.

Taher set up base in Bombay with not only his family, but all those who worked for him in Calcutta until the war ended in September 1945. It’s remarkable how someone at the beginning of the year had left home with the intention of feeding his family and sustaining them for another year, by the end of the year he had managed to exceed it by being able to sustain for all those who had come with him to Bombay for almost 3 years.

After the war was over Taher returned to Calcutta and rebuild what was left of their assets. His journey from a mere 200kgs had now escalated to the point at which he was the largest exporter of tea from India. In the tea trade he was considered an ocean liner, someone who would create large waves on his journey across the seas. But his waves never toppled the smaller vessels, they were carried along as part of the journey.

Taher Randerian may have played many roles for many people, to me he was a visionary, a man of integrity who valued and respected the relationships he was a part of or would enter. He ensured quality was the essence of everything that had his name against and most of all he loved Tea.

I may have never met the man but I hope I have instilled in me the same principles, after all he was my grandfather and it’s only because of him that we as a family continue our love story with Tea

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