America Ruined Caffeine. Can South Asia Save It?

How a pillar of community building became a drug for productivity.

GettyImages-1604348228 Caffeine
Rekha (L), from New Delhi, and Shabnam from Bombay sipping cups of tea in Varanasi during a convention (PAWAN KUMAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Ayesha Le Breton


June 26, 2024


9 min

“Khaas maukon par khaas chai,” says the forgetful butler (Johnny Lever) in Baazigar (1993). Special chai for special occasions. In the scene, guests arrive at Kajol’s house for a marriage proposal, and a tea service might just seal the deal. It usually does. Except, Babulal’s chai is special in the worst way. As we see him go through the motions of preparing tea, he first selects the wrong pot, forgets to add tea leaves, uses haldi instead of saffron, and salt instead of sugar. As the guests sip the concoction and their insides churn, they force laughter. Even the most distasteful of chais, Baazigar shows, is a ritual and no meeting can take place without it. And it’s not just chai. From Chennai to Colombo, filter coffee is a must.

It’s a far cry from the U.S. From a 24-ounce cup of joe at Dunkin’ to cans of Monster or Red Bull, caffeine is ubiquitous across America. People guzzle the substance on the go, at home, before work, at work. Recent data shows that 73% of Americans drink coffee every day, more than any other beverage, including water. Caffeine, it appears, is the glue that holds the American economy together. In the subcontinent, however, it holds communities together.

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