A Tale Of Two Teas In Thembang

Will my special brew hold its own in this ancient Arunachal village?
My Monpa host busy weaving.
My Monpa host busy weaving.

My face twists into a grimace at the sight of the beige-coloured, sweet milky liquid offered to me as tea. In 15 seconds, I travel back in time to 1994, where my mum is coaxing me to drink chai-wala doodh (tea-flavoured milk) to replenish nutrients good for healthy bones as I loathed plain milk.

Snap! And back to the future.

My eyes are fixated on the feisty blue dragon on the bright yellow ceramic teacup. It reminds me of Pelling (in Sikkim) where I consistently got wonderful tea in similarly vibrant cups. Meanwhile, my mind is desperately scheming to figure out an escape from the insipid-looking brew in my hands. As a good guest, I must keep an obligatory smile to conceal my critique, but deep in my heart I sincerely wish I could tell the truth.

My mind is desperately scheming to figure out an escape from the insipid-looking brew in my hands.

What is the big deal? It's just tea, right?

Tea is no joke to me. In fact, I suffer from chronic tepidophobia. It goes without saying that I also have the annoying habit of instructing people as they prepare tea. But, I am unable to muster up the courage to confront my motherly host who is doing her best to make my stay comfortable in the biting cold season of Thembang.

A few days ago, neither had I heard the name of this village nor knew where it was. A friend with whom I was on a biking trip in this region informed me about it. Today, I am comfortably sitting in the traditional kitchen with a Monpa family, devouring food grown in their farm.

View from the Fortress.
View from the Fortress.

Thembang is a fortified village resting at an elevation of 2,300 metres in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. It is deemed to be the oldest village in this region and its people are a class apart.

The legend has it that the sovereigns of Thembang for many generations had collected tax from Assam. From the scattered tales that reach my ears, I gather that Jhar-trangpo-dhar, a great-grandson of the Emperor of Tibet was sent to run the kingdom in Thembang after his father (who was also the king here) passed away. On a customary visit to collect tax from Darrang district in Assam, Jhar-trangpo-dhar was turned away by the local king with the condition that he'd give tax equal to the number of people Jhar-trangpo-dhar could lift.

Jhar-trangpo-dhar was not an ordinary man and lifted 18 people at once. Awed by the display of his strength, the king of Darrang honoured Jhar-trangpo-dhar with the title of Bapu. The people of Thembang carry forward the legacy of the title.

It is 4pm, and the sun has decided to set early. Even after five layers of clothing that can endure subzero temperatures my hands have turned white with the cold. I seize this opportunity to put my point across without sounding callous.

As much as I am confident about my tea, it makes me jittery. What if she doesn't like it?

"Aunty, would you like to have some tea? I will make a kadak chai for us," I say to my host mother who is immersed in weaving a multicoloured carpet.

"Hoga," she replies—it's the most versatile word in the Arunachal dictionary. It is equal to can-can in Singapore (where I live now) which translates to everything affirmative.

I rejoice over the first win.

The traditional Monpa kitchen.
The traditional Monpa kitchen.

I pour three cups of water into the battered aluminium pot on the gas stove—sadly, I didn't get to use the hearth.

"Aunty, do you have some ginger?" I ask—deliberately, to inform her about my favourite ingredient.

"Hoga. Look in the first drawer," she says.

I peel and smash a chunk of ginger before adding it to the water and leave it for a while for its flavour to infuse. I take a moment to look out of the window; my host mother is sitting by her weaving loom against the backdrop of soaring mountains and the dilapidated fortress.

Ruins of the timeless Dzong.
Ruins of the timeless Dzong.

The origin of this ancient fortress is not precisely known, but given the resemblance to the architecture of the Dzongs found in Bhutan and Tibet, it is believed to be constructed before 1100 CE. There is a small settlement inside the ruins; my host mother calls it a basti and innocently mentions that its inhabitants eat pork.

Local girls returning home.
Local girls returning home.

It is also the time when young girls return home with loads of firewood on their backs. I quickly grab my camera to capture the scene.

A faint knock on the door wakes me up. "Didi, chai," says the same young girl. I feel a lurch of dread...

The sound of boiling water draws my attention back to the perfect tea that I'm making. I put in the requisite amount of tea, sugar and a little milk, and I boil it until it reaches the perfect ochre colour.

As much as I am confident about my tea, it makes me jittery. What if she doesn't like it? Perhaps she likes it sweeter and less strong. Keeping all such reservations aside, I offer her my special tea. She pauses her weaving to take the first sip; I am anxiously waiting to read the reaction on her face.

"Ah! Nice. I like strong tea and it is not too sweet; I get itching with too much sugar," she said with a newfound affability.

And I take a sigh of relief.

We spend the next few hours talking about her children who are scattered across the country on their endeavours. I steal a minute to walk around the courtyard where the young girl who helps the host mother in her chores is raking leaves. She is extremely shy and has a funny haircut.

It is 6.30pm, the night has fallen, and dinner is called. I am still getting used to eating dinner this early. I lift my hand to take the first morsel from my generous plate of rajma chawal but am startled by a stream of straw-coloured liquid that dribbles down the mezzanine floor. I look up, but I can't wrap my head around what I am gazing at.

"It is one of the cats from the village. This is a new one. I think it has discovered the food here. It comes regularly these days," says the host mother, unfazed by the cat peeing insouciantly in the kitchen.

Had it been few inches to the left, it would have gone straight into my food. The thought was repulsive, but I continued eating for my unconditional love for rajma-chawal.

Thanks to the regular power cuts, I can find nothing else to do in this darkness and am forced to retire to bed as early as 7.30pm!

A faint knock on the door wakes me up. I can feel the chill in the morning air.

"Didi, chai," says the same young girl.

I feel a lurch of dread... what kind of tea am I getting today? She hands over the cup and runs away giggling. With groggy eyes and mixed emotions , I lift the lid, see the fine ochre colour and smile.

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