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Things to drink

From the Pen of Naipaul —Part III
Published: 
Sunday, October 23, 2016
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1944 ad for Coca-Cola, bottled by Canning and Co.

“He cycled down the High Street. Just past the shop with the Red Rose Tea Is Good Tea sign, he looked back. Anand was still under the arcade, next to one of the thick white pillars with the lotus-shaped base; standing and staring like that other boy Mr Biswas had seen outside a low hut at dusk.”

Several times in A House for Mr Biswas does this sign appear. It is one of the more memorable images of the novel, but we ask ourselves, ‘WHY’ is Red Rose Tea GOOD tea? It is understood that in a British colony like T&T was at the time, tea was a beverage widely consumed. The tea most people knew was sold  raw by the ounce at shops across the countryside. The lowest grade was compressed tea dust, available in plugs the length of an index finger which was so compact it could be boiled several times.

In the 1890s, a Canadian brand emerged, distributed by Rust, Trowbridge and Company that was the first to sell boxes of teabags at a reasonable cost. Backed by an aggressive marketing drive that included giveaways and coupons, Red Rose Tea is Good Tea soon became a popular sight in Trinidad.

A totally different drink which features prominently in the Naipaul novels is Coca-Cola. When Ganesh Ramsumair had attained fame and fortune, he usually received people in his new palatial house with glasses of Coca-Cola served by his wife, Leela. It is given to the deputation of Swami, Partap, and the boy who visit Ganesh and ended up inspiring his political ambitions—four frosted bottles on a glass-bottomed tray, poured out into ‘prutty prutty glasses’ as Leela called them.

A large pseudo-political meeting at Ganesh’s place saw diluted Coca-Cola being doled out in enamel cups to dozens of taxi drivers, solicitor’s touts and the like. Moreover, in the Mystic Masseur, it is the drink of reconciliation. We recall the scene where Ramlogan, his fat shopkeeper father-in-law reappears without warning after a bitter quarrel. At Ganesh’s nod, Leela hands around Coca-Cola, causing Ramlogan to comment, “It have years now I selling this Coca-Cola and I never touch it before”

Coca-Cola had been on the local market almost since the beginning of the 20th century but it was imported from the United States and thus fairly expensive when compared to the dozens of brands of aerated water manufactured in the island. Every drugstore in Port-of-Spain at one point seemed to have a bottling operation as a sideline and the taste for fizz extended as far as Cedros, Siparia, and Sangre Grande.

In 1938, the large grocery operation of Canning’s acquired the rights to bottle and distribute the world’s most popular soft drink. The plant was on Queen Street. The price fell dramatically and Coca-Cola was here to stay. During the war years (1939-45) which is when the latter half of Mr Biswas is set, Coca-Cola soared in popularity since it was the preferred mixer for the thousands of Yankee soldiers who flooded Trinidad, spreading the taste for all things American.

Of course, from this is where we derive the melodic refrain “Rum and Coca-Cola,” composed by Lord Invader and taken to the world in its cover by the Andrews Sisters. It was the bait that drew Anand Biswas away from Hanuman House, overcoming his reluctance to move to Port-of-Spain. It was his uncle Owad (in real life the future Dr Rudranath Capildeo) who laid the trap:

“They have a new sweet drink in Port-of-Spain. Something called Coca-Cola. The best thing in the world. Come with me to Port-of-Spain, and I will get your father to buy you a Coca-Cola and some real ice cream. In cardboard cups. Real ice cream. Not homemade.”

The ice cream in a tub incidentally was also a product of Cannings and many of us can remember when there was nothing more heavenly than a small cup of Cannings Orange Pine or Chocolate. The transition to Coca-Cola led to one embarrassing situation for Mr Biswas.

When he sipped the Coca-Cola he said, “It is like horse pee.” Which was what some cousin had said of a drink at Hanuman House. “Anand!” Mr Biswas said, smiling at the man behind the counter. “You’ve got to stop talking like that. You are in Port-of-Spain now.”

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