There is something indescribable about the goodness of 'garma-garam' chai. My mother’s kitchen made me realise that tea is not just a mere beverage.
Every time someone says chai, the first thing I visualise is my mother’s kitchen stove with a stainless-steel pan with tea leaves floating in the boiling water. This utensil served many cups of chai to dear ones, strangers, acquaintances, and everyone in between and beyond. All these years it taught me that a lot happens over chai in our homes; and that we should always be hospitable enough to utter the word, “chai?” irrespective of who is at our doorstep.
In most Indian households there is something typical about early mornings. A little before dawn sets in, the lady of the house jumps out of bed, and immediately rushes into the kitchen to begin her daily warming-up ritual: put the water in a stainless-steel pan to boil, sprinkle in some black tea, pour milk, add sugar (and perhaps some ginger or cardamom for extra flavour) and let the dance of cha-cha-chai begin.
She may then choose to brush, wash & bathe while the tea continues to brew slyly in the pot, losing its virgin golden colour to turn copper black, blending with other ingredients of masala-chai. Chai is poured into cups, ready to greet the family members with a good, either at the dining table or in bed.
Bed tea is not a ritual, it’s a habit now, and without it I can hardly open my eyelids. For this we are dependent on maa because no one else makes 'subah ki chai' better.
As a child, like many other children, I too wasn’t allowed to drink tea. I remember being served distasteful hot milk, with an instruction: “You can have tea only once you’re grown up.” I was told “drinking tea might ruin my complexion”.
I observed how afternoons turned into evenings over chai. To make the guests stay a little longer, we have been saying this one particular thing, which we still say, “Let’s have another cup, shall we?” And almost no one refuses the kind offer. Butter-toast, rusks, pakoras, aloo bhujiya, and sometimes samosas are served alongside. Each time the 'garam chai ki pyali' spun into a happy occasion.
While growing up I have seen how memories and bonds nurture and strengthen over cups of chai, not only at home but during college years and now at the workplace.
'Chai pe charcha' is all about literally discussing everything starting from heavy matters like sensex, politics, gold rates, jobs, and marriages to lighter conversations including film reviews, song albums, writers and poets. Sometimes the 'charcha' happens on chai itself as a topic — how to prepare a perfect cup of tea.
My relatives would get into chai-chef talks where they discussed the correct shade of the tea, the right amount of boiling time, and sometimes, even about the different pouring techniques. Someone would then utter the word adrak and the discussion would change it’s direction towards the aroma of a perfect cup of mascha-chai. The flavours of elaichi and other masalas are talked about until the super-charged sweet kadak adrak wali chai is served for them to savour.
We have unknowingly lived some of our best moments at chai-tapris, isn’t it? The world may have moved on to fancier teas like peppermint, matcha tea, chamomile tea and the modified version of chai as chai latte, but their popularity has been short-lived.
The truth remains that there is nothing better than the humble cup of masala-chai, prepared by the tapri chai-wallah who knows your taste and customises it accordingly, and with love.
My love of tea extends beyond the taste and ritual of it. It extends to the mountains of Darjeeling and Munnar that are covered with the beautiful tea gardens glistening with dew drops, basking to beauty under the sun and getting caressed by the gentle winds every morning. These tea leaves from the hills will make their way to many homes one day, and become a part of so many people’s life and their daily cup.
The memories have brewed like tea leaves over the years with time. Chai-breaks have saved innumerable students from stressing over exams and have calmed the maddening rehearsal sessions for theatre artists. These breaks meant venting out the bottled emotions over sips of warm cutting chai with samosas to the college students.
Chai has been a great part of train journeys that invariably began with a tea vendor on the railway platform shouting in one particular musical note, “Chai, garam chai!” He’d serve the chai in a piping hot kulhar (clay cup); the man was always in such a hurry that he would often run parallel to a moving train, the tea vendor literally snatched change from our hand and hopped from one compartment to another like a pro chai-wallah. I can still smell the aroma coming from that clay pot. It was a constant companion to the friendly gossip, conversations with strangers and offerings of snacks that were such a staple of train journeys.
Chai is more than just a cup of tea – it’s a world of memories, stolen moments, friends and family.