Tibetan Butter Tea and Pink Gin
On November 30, 2004, the Himalayan moon setting over Darjeeling town and the snowy peaks of the Kanchenjunga range, my Tibetan grandmother died. According to the Western calendar, she was four months short of her 100th birthday but in the Tibetan way of calculating you’re one year old at birth, so she made it to 100. At home in Tokyo, I’d dreamed about her all night and was devastated but not surprised when my relatives called early in the morning to tell me she was gone.
I left that day for India. Usually I passed the long hours in flight by reading but, unable to concentrate, I watched TV. A cooking show was on, which seemed fitting since food had meant so much to my grandmother. Her story and the story of the era in which she lived can be understood through the food that she desired, prepared, and consumed; that even surfaced in dreams. At the heart of Tibetan life from birth to death—and rebirth—food was an important part of what defined her as a good daughter, wife, and mother. In many of the tales she told, it made an appearance in one way or another, from Tibetan butter tea and tsampa roasted barley to British scones and finger sandwiches to Anglo-Indian mulligatawny soup and masala chicken curry. This eclecticism reflected her world, a sphere that included East and West, old Tibet and British India; where she could take tea with the 13th Dalai Lama at his summer palace in Lhasa as well as enjoy a pink gin before gliding out onto the dance floor at Firpo’s, a Calcutta Raj-era hotspot.
Darjeeling is celebrated for its tea gardens and spectacular views of 28,000-foot Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. The town spreads along and down a ridge almost one and a half miles above sea level, close to the Indo-Tibet border; steep lanes wind between old villas and shops and, in the surrounding hills, orchids and rhododendrons flourish. During the days of the Raj, or British Crown rule of the Indian subcontinent, Darjeeling became known as the Queen of the Hill Stations. It was a remote settlement of a few scattered villages when the British took over in the mid-1800s. By establishing a sanitorium, introducing the tea industry, building schools, and constructing a railway line, they created a thriving town that provided a refreshing escape from the heat of the plains, with a vibrant population of Europeans, Anglo-Indians, Tibetans, Nepalis, Sikkimese, Bhutanese, and Bengalis.
My Tibetan ancestors first came to the area in the 18th century, when it belonged to the Kingdom of Sikkim. Sometime in the 1890s, my great-grandparents fell in love and married. They had three children, all boys; my great-grandfather prayed to the Buddha for a girl and his prayers were answered. My grandmother told me:
“I was born on the 23rd of March, nineteen hundred and five, in the evening. My father, Ajo, used to say that in my previous life I was a princess. In our Tibetan belief, because of my previous good life, I’d taken another good life. And Ajo always felt very blessed because just before I arrived he dreamt that a big cup full of butter tea was being served to him and he started drinking and I was born.”
Known for his political and diplomatic skills, my great-grandfather, S.W. Laden La, was deeply involved in the affairs of British India, Tibet, and Darjeeling. The British appointed him liaison officer when the 13th Dalai Lama fled his country in 1910 and took refuge in Darjeeling, and my great-grandfather would play a key role in establishing relations between British India and Tibet. He also became Chief of Police, served on the managing committees of many monasteries, and took an active part in Darjeeling politics, advocating for the rights of the local people. After his wife died in 1911, he looked to his young daughter, my grandmother, to help him entertain the official visitors who streamed to his door.
“As I was growing up, the senior officer and his ADC junior officer, or the governor’s sons and daughters, wanted to come to our house, so Ajo would receive them with tea. He always told me: ‘They’ve arrived at the drawing room, get tea and all that ready properly.’ Since I was the only daughter, he depended a lot on me. Mind you, I was a little girl, but from that time I got the natural training. Not taught by anybody—self-learned! I controlled all the house servants and saw that they prepared the silver tea service with starched napkins. The bearer wore a white jacket with buttons of brass, and a black Gurkha hat. On the Wedgwood china, they gave scones and butterfly cakes, tomato finger sandwiches, bhuja spiced lentil and nuts, and of course Darjeeling tea, the Champagne of the East...”