A Time for Tea

Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation

A Time for Tea

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 440 Illustrations: 27 b&w photos, 6 tables Published: November 2001

Author: Piya Chatterjee

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In this creative, ethnographic, and historical critique of labor practices on an Indian plantation, Piya Chatterjee provides a sophisticated examination of the production, consumption, and circulation of tea. A Time for Tea reveals how the female tea-pluckers seen in advertisements—picturesque women in mist-shrouded fields—came to symbolize the heart of colonialism in India. Chatterjee exposes how this image has distracted from terrible working conditions, low wages, and coercive labor practices enforced by the patronage system.
Allowing personal, scholarly, and artistic voices to speak in turn and in tandem, Chatterjee discusses the fetishization of women who labor under colonial, postcolonial, and now neofeudal conditions. In telling the overarching story of commodity and empire, A Time for Tea demonstrates that at the heart of these narratives of travel, conquest, and settlement are compelling stories of women workers. While exploring the global and political dimensions of local practices of gendered labor, Chatterjee also reflects on the privileges and paradoxes of her own “decolonization” as a Third World feminist anthropologist. The book concludes with an extended reflection on the cultures of hierarchy, power, and difference in the plantation’s villages. It explores the overlapping processes by which gender, caste, and ethnicity constitute the interlocked patronage system of villages and their fields of labor. The tropes of coercion, consent, and resistance are threaded through the discussion.
A Time for Tea will appeal to anthropologists and historians, South Asianists, and those interested in colonialism, postcolonialism, labor studies, and comparative or international feminism.

Designated a John Hope Franklin Center book by the John Hope Franklin Seminar Group on Race, Religion, and Globalization.


A Time for Tea says quite a bit about the endurance of women pluckers on a tea plantation in West Bengali called Sarah’s Hope Tea Estate. . . . The world drawn in A Time for Tea is the “other” world of tea, beyond ladies lounging in gauzy gowns upon velvet Victorian chaises, sipping Darjeeling, and munching cucumber sandwiches. . . . Indeed, this is not your typical coffee table tea book. . . . A Time for Tea is an argument for Fair Trade tea -- and more. . . . It ‘stirs the conscious, creates dissonance.’ And perhaps it also will produce a new perspective when you savor your next cuppa pai mu tan.” — Donis W. Ford , Tea - A Magazine

“A detailed history of the labor structure on tea plantations. . . . Interesting. . . . Her use of language, rich in metaphor and allusion. indicates a deep-rooted empathy for these women, which is almost contrary to scholarly detachment. . . . A multifaceted understanding of a complex socioeconomic system.” — Chitrita Banerji , Gastronomica

“[T]houghtfully engages with issues which have been central to postcolonial studies such as the writing of alternative histories, the (re)presentation of subaltern communities, and the relationship between knowledge-production and power.” — Monika Mehta , XCP

“Piya Chatterjee’s A Time for Tea is more than a skillful and reflective ethnography of women’s labor in the tea industry in India. Her analysis of the fieldwork she conducted on an Indian plantation is contextualized through a cultural and material history of the tea industry in India, which is intertwined with the politics and economics of empire, the impact of capitalism, and the shifting production and performance of gender, class, and consumption.” — Suzanne Franzway and Mary Margaret Fonow , Signs

"A Time for Tea provides a global perspective on this international circulation of a commodity which has been called the 'national beverage' of at least three nations. In a well-researched, densely referenced work, Piya Chatterjee offers abundant critical insights regarding the complex history of tea's cultivation and consumption, forging crucial connections between the colonial history and the postcolonial present of the tea industry. Chatterjee's investigation of tea-pluckers and tea-drinkers within a global context results in a richly detailed portrait of tea." — Julie E. Fromer , Interventions

"A highly readable ethnography. . . . This book wears its theory lightly but is deftly and often ingeniously written. . . . [A] meditative and reflective work. . . ." — Kamala Visweswaran , American Historical Review

"[A] significant contribution to feminist writings on Third World women. . . . [A] compelling exemplar of a feminist ethnography of labor relations in this postcolonial world, where globalization processes continue to deploy and extend colonial constructions of gender, race, and class for consumption in the transnational market." — Lubna Nazir Chaudhry , Gender & Society

"[A] significant contribution to the intellectually fruitful dialogue that has emerged between anthropologists and historians on the culture of labor in India, especially in the field of gender and work. . . . [S]cholars interested in issues relating to the ethnography and history of labor and gender will find much of value in this book." — Mithi Mukherjee , Labor History

"A tour de force of intimate reflection on the embodied histories and gendered fetishisms at work on a postcolonial plantation. . . . A Time for Tea holds lessons for a remarkable array of audiences, not only in its theoretically astute, well-researched argument but also in a passionate commitment to the poetics and politics of writing in solidarity with subaltern voices without presuming to speak them. . . . Wonderful. . . . Piya Chatterjee is a remarkable, visionary writer. A Time for Tea is an erudite and powerful book that should be read widely and closely." — Sharad Chari , American Ethnologist

"A truly layered, intriguing and important book - it does for tea what books like Beyond Beef and Fast Food Nation did for hamburgers." — Asian Week

"Chatterjee gives voice and power to the women on India's tea plantations through a combination of creative narration, ethnographic detail, and historical critique. Considering the increased scrutiny of the political and economic consequences of global trade, Chatterjee's A Time for Tea truly is a timely reflection on over three hundred years of tea cultivation and production for global markets." — Rupaleem Bhuyan , International Examiner

"Erudite and thoroughly researched. . . . Piya Chatterjee is an indisputably brilliant talent; her book should be received as the work of a promising and powerful thinker." — Sheleyah A. Courtney , The Australian Journal of Anthropology

“Piya Chatterjee presents an innovative ethnography of female tea plantation workers through a kaleidoscope of drama, personal narrative, labor history review, and the interrogations of her subjects. A Time for Tea addresses issues of colonial and postcolonial power structures, transnational flows, subaltern history, labor relations, and feminist ethnography. Tea does not taste the same after one has read this strikingly original book.” — Kirin Narayan, author of Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching

“This is a finely layered, theoretically astute and informed cultural and historical account of a tea plantation in India. The ethnography is not content to address localized politics and culture; its importance lies in the way in which it reveals the global and political dimensions of local practices of gendered labor.” — Inderpal Grewal, author of Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire, and the Cultures of Travel


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Piya Chatterjee is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

1. Alap 1

2. Travels of Tea, Travels of Empire 20

3. Cultivating the Garden 51

4. The Raj Baroque 84

5. Estates of a New Raj 115

6. Discipline and Labor 168

7. Village Politics 235

8. Protest 289

9. A Last Act 325

Appendix 327

Glossary 333

Notes 335

Bibliography 383

Index 411
Sales/Territorial Rights: World exc South Asia

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2674-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2679-3
Publicity material