There may be many a slip between the cup and the lip. But do you know that the drinking cup is etymologically a close cousin of the skull? I did but that knowledge is tucked away in a distant enough corner of the brain that it doesn't color the way I look at my tea cup.
I am an avid tea drinker. I like "real" tea - the slightly acrid and soothing liquor made with tea leaves, both black and green. I drink the former with milk and the latter without. Not for me the new age concoctions contaminated with orange, lemon, pomegranate, elderberry, wild flowers and other unnecessary flavors although I do occasionally enjoy jasmine, ginger, chamomile, mint, Indian chai masala or a few strands of saffron in my brew. But mostly, I like to partake of the undiluted version of the beverage. There is no special tea ceremony in our home. The kettle is put to boil whenever the craving strikes for a hot refreshing cuppa.
I grew up around copious tea drinkers. Tea was served all year round at breakfast, at afternoon teatime and when guests came. Though not particularly tempted as a child to drink the beverage of the adults, I was nevertheless fascinated by the paraphernelia of the tea tray. My mother owned three sets of tea service made of fine English bone china. They were part of her bridal trousseau - gifts from her father. One was an elegant and sedate cream color set with green and gold edging. Another, a dainty design of pink roses on pristine white. The third, my childhood favorite, consisted of a very round teapot surrounded by globular tea cups of impossibly thin and exquisitely translucent beige china festooned with tiny red, deep blue and gold birds, flowers and berries. Although I did not start drinking tea regularly until I entered college, the sight of the steaming amber-gold liquid being poured from one of the gorgeous teapots into a waiting cup was an aesthetic experience even my childish eyes could appreciate.
Perhaps it says something about my austere mother's indifference to material possessions that those beautiful pieces, an anomaly in our otherwise un-ostentatious Bengali kitchen, were not stowed away in a cupboard for special occasions but put to daily use by the family as well as guests who regularly dropped by for a cup of tea. It is therefore not surprising that most of the tea cups and pots from the collection were gone by the time I began drinking tea in my late teen years. Isolated pieces of the beautiful china remained - a few cups and saucers, a mate-less creamer from one set and an unmatched sugar bowl from another. The teapots were all gone - chipped, cracked or broken due to years of use and careless handling. We then drank tea from non-descript ceramic cups and tea pots. No one bothered to go out and shop for good china. When I earned my first pay check, I bought my mother a set of eight cups and saucers (no teapot, creamer or sugar bowl) made of locally produced bone china. They were not half as elegant as my mother's old collection but she accepted the replacements with whole hearted enthusiasm.
As a person who loves tea and tea sets, I do own some nice tea cups and mugs. But sadly, my kitchen pantry is currently devoid of a good china / clay teapot. I have owned a few ceramic and clay ones since I set up independent house keeping after marriage. They were all traditionally attractive, affordable and eminently serviceable fat bellied pots. They are now gone and I currently own a few glass, stainless steel and pewter ones. My "formal" dinner set did not come with a teapot. By the time I went back and searched in a catalog of Mikasa's line of accessories, the design had been discontinued. I never got around to buying a suitable tea pot to go with the set. Perhaps this nostalgic blather will act as an impetus to begin a new search.
My sudden outpourings about tea, teapots and cups was set in motion by an excellent article, Fragments of Bone and Clay by Aditya Dev Sood, a new writer at 3 Quarks Daily. Among other observations about the culture of tea drinking, Aditya goes into deep musings over bone china and the the drinking cup.
The form of a teacup awaits and anticipates its human users with intimacy, affording a second finger leverage, varieties of opposition for the thumb, and of course, that slippery kiss. But it has still more intimate links with the human body: the word ‘cup’ has Indo-European roots, being linked to cupola, as in dome, as well as the Latin cephalus and the Sanskrit kapala, both cognate words for skull. The kapalika-s, of course, are members of that now nearly extinct sect of Saivism, who carry around a human skull, from which they both eat and drink. I believe it is a false calumny that their skull belongs to someone they have killed, but rather that their purpose is, like Hamlet, to be in proximity and awareness of death, the better to feel their own quickness and capacity for live action. How much does it matter whether one’s cup be found whole in nature or be crafted by human hands? Whether it be a human relic or a fine puree of mammalian bones? The important thing is that a cup can serve as a means for dialogue, for silent communion, for mutuality and shared sustenance.
For more on the kapala - cup connection see here.