–———– Abhishek Avtans ©
Early morning tea (bed tea) is habit for many of us in India and elsewhere, but do you know that it has its origin in British colonial times.
In Agatha Christie‘s short story ‘The case of the Perfect Maid’ (1942), there is an Indian judge living in English countryside of St. Mary Mead. In the story, the Indian judge is known to ask for his chōṭā hāzrī at 6 in the morning. In colonial times, chōṭā hāzrī was the described as the early breakfast of the British officers working in India.
Merriam Webster‘s dictionary defines this term chōṭā hāzrī as ‘a light meal eaten very early in the morning’. In Hindi-Urdu chōṭā (छोटा) means ‘small (adjective)’ and hāzrī is from Hindi/Urdu hāzrī = Haziri (हाज़िरी) meaning ‘presence/attendance’. Since Haziri is a feminine noun in Hind/Urdu, proper phrase would be ‘chōṭī hāzrī’. It can be presumed that this phrase could have originated among the Indian servants of British colonial officers, who had to give an early morning call to their masters.
John Beams in his ‘Memoirs Of A Bengal Civilian’ (1960) notes that an early morning meal was served between 5.30 to 6.00 in the morning , and consisted of tea, eggs (boiled or poached), toast & fruit. According to Hobson-Jobson Dictionary, chōṭā hāzrī was largely practiced in Bengal Presidency of British India. It also informs us that the Dutch Colonials in Java (now Indonesia) also practiced this custom of early breakfast with a large cup of tea served with a large piece of Cheese.
The entry on chōṭā hāzrī from Hobson Jobson is given below:
Chota Hazri has also been mentioned in literature written in Hindi and Urdu. Influential Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder (1927 – 2007) in her short novel ‘Ek ladki ki Zindagi’ (एक लड़की की ज़िन्दगी, 1996) mentions Chota Hazri in a circuit house of Sakkur (Sindh, Pakistan).
Famous Hindi novelist Shivani (1923 – 2003) in her memoir ‘Jaalak’ (जालक, 2007), mentions Chota Hazri while describing about early morning breakfast of a British couple Mr. & Mrs. Henry.
An Indian civil servant of British India, Santdas Khushiram Kriplani, has written about his life with the British bureaucracy in India in his autobiography ‘ Fifty Years with the British’ (1993). He gives description of his daily routine, starting with chōṭā hāzrī.
To sum it up, bed tea as the Indians call the chōṭā hāzrī now, has a long history to talk about.
Beames, John. Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian. London: Eland, 1984.
Brown, Patricia. Anglo-Indian Food and Customs: Tenth Anniversary Edition. Bloomington, IN: IUniverse, 2008.
Kirpalani, Santdas K. Fifty Years with the British. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1993. Print.
Leong-Salobir, Cecilia. Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire. Place of Publication Not Identified: Routledge, 2014.
Yule, Henry, and A. C. Burnell. Hobson-jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases. Richmond: Curzon, 1999
This is a lovely post to read, thank you for describing the history of this ritual! I came across the term when reading about the life of my own grandfather, who retired to England after a career in the (British) Indian Civil Service but still insisted on taking his “chota hazri” at six o’clock every morning.
One small correction though: Agatha Christie’s story was actually first published in 1942, then reissued as part of a collection in 1979.
Thanks for writing this. I came here directly from reading the Agatha Christie story you mentioned, as I didn’t understand the reference! Lovely article
Many thanks for the note. I read the phrase in the English translation of Qurratulain Hyder’s story titled ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’. It could be an extract of a longer piece, I am not sure. The story you quote ‘Ek Ladaki ki Zindagi’ could be the original one.
However, in the translation I am reading, Hyder writes, “Although these dear old people belonged to the twilight world of Koi Hai and Chhota Hazri, there were dedicated , self-effacing orientalists and scholars, too, among them.”
Now, I want to know more about what is ‘Koi Hai’. It might have interesting provenance and dissemination.
Once again, many many thanks for the note above. Infinitely grateful to you.