Tea Bags, Progress, and Character in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Philip Jeyaretnam, some of whose best work appears in his use of details that resonate in multiple ways, does a wonderful job capturing Abraham's character and quandry, his life in the present and the way his past continually impinges upon it, with just such a particular. In the midst of thinking about the past, Abraham is recalled to the present by the water he had set to boil for tea, and, as he tells the reader, "I pour some of the hot water over a tea bag placed in a cup." At this point he recalls that his son, whose modern ways he mistrusts, had introduced him to tea bags: "Victor introduced me to tea bags. I wonder now how I ever had the patience to deal with loose tea leaves." Characteristically, however, as soon as he admits that the very convenience of this new way of brewing tea has made things much easier for him, he begins to worry about that fact and worry that fact, in the manner of the English Victorian sages, Carlyle and Ruskin, who frequently generated social critiques from apparently trivial facts of everyday life:

Yet even though I am grateful for their convenience, I am saddened by the thought that this incessant striving for the easiest way to do things, though no doubt the engine of progress for society, must inevitably weaken us, make us less and less capable as individuals, and moreover that this convenience goes hand in hand with the decline of the family. Which is cause and which effect? Do teabags, by reducing dependence on wife or mother, hasten the family's break-up, or is it merely that the break-up of the family has unleashed a demand for an easier way to make tea?

Of course, poor Abraham's little attempt at tracing the societal implications of teabags appears more comic than convincing -- probably because he begins by looking for a direct causal link rather than a polemical symbol.

Even raising the issue of the breakup of the family triggers painful thoughts for this man who has failed his responsibilities as husband and brother. Having mentioned the breakup of modern families, therefore, begins an association of ideas, a train of thought that leads to his recalling something Rose, the object of his puppy love, had once said: "Rose's words come to mind. She even urged me to take action of some sort or other, but didn't I always do everything possible for my sister? Didn't I?" [60] Well, no, the reader concludes after following this near-stream-of-consciousness inner monologue that leads from the past to teabags to his son to worrying about the modern family to recognizing implicitly that it was not tea bags or changing modern conditions or any major external societal factors that destroyed his marriage and did so little to prevent his desperate sister's suicide.

Contrasting past and present to the detriment of contemporary life plays a role in many postcolonial texts, where it accompanies a critique of the way modern, usually Western or colonial, ways destroy a coherent culture. For example, in Wole Soyinka's autobiography Aké the novel laureate bitterly contrasts modern fast food and popular music to traditional ways in a passage that jars with the tone of the rest of that lyric and often comical work, and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, like Yvonne Vera's Nehanda, make change a fundamental issue in their works. Although in other passages in Abraham's Promise, the protagonist, who at times represents the old colonial order and attitudes, similarly points to cultural losses, here the novelist seems to place major responsibility on him and not on broader forces.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Philip Jeyaretnam