There is something typical about early mornings in most Indian households. A little before dawn sets in, the lady of the house jumps out of bed, slips her feet into her chappals and immediately rushes into the kitchen to begin her daily warming-up ritual: put the water in a kettle 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. While she may then choose to brush, wash, bathe, walk, jog or pray, the tea continues to brew slyly in the pot, losing its virgin golden colour to turn copper black and then blending with other ingredients to assume the burlywood hues of typical Indian masala-chai. She pours it into cups, ready to greet her loved ones with a good morning and a cup of tea, either in bed or at the dining table.
For some, the most magical properties of the drink appear in its perfect timing and temperature. I remember my grandmother driving the whole house crazy if she wasn't served tea on time and piping hot, along with a Hindi national daily. If this ritual failed, her bowels would revolt and she'd be quite incapable of producing a satisfactory movement. Tea was probably the only laxative she knew of in her entire life.
As little kids, tea made us furious. We'd watch in envy as the adults sat together at dawn, chatting about their plans for their day, sipping their tea and occasionally dunking Marie arrowroot biscuits into the brew. We youngsters had to make do with some distasteful health drink with hot milk, signed off with an elder's instruction: "You can have tea only once you're grown up." We'd lay out our sour grapes on the table: "It'll ruin their complexion," or "It tastes so bitter," or even virtuously proclaim "Good children don't." This, when a rebellious few of us had already made a secret promise to ourselves to adopt the forbidden drink as early as we could.
Today, my love of tea extends beyond the taste and ritual of it. It is as much about the magical stories and memories that get spun around cups of tea.
"[My friend] probably thought I was trying to battle depression with my addiction to tea. And perhaps, yes, tea did serve an emotional purpose, connected as it is to so many memories and narratives..."
Our numerous train journeys 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, literally snatching change from our hands and hopping like Spiderman from one bogie to another. I can almost 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.
The other day in office, a friend who happens to be tea-hater, picked an argument with me over my habit of downing five cups of cha a day. She was horrified! She probably thought I was trying to battle depression with my addiction to tea. And perhaps, yes, tea did serve an emotional purpose, connected as it is to so many memories and narratives.
Narratives of bonds getting stronger during preparations for competitive entrance exams in which a few of us would study the whole night, protected from exhaustion by countless tea breaks. Like the maddening rehearsal days of campus theatre in which we spent weeks learning dialogues, making props and marketing our 'play' in the city suburbs, over sips of warm cutting chai with samosas. Of those endless chat (read gossip) sessions in our college canteen.
Narratives of my drawing room in which guests are allowed to pop in at any time, day or night, for a cup of tea to ease them into venting bottled-up feelings. How about the métier of a smart deal sealed between corporate executives over high tea over days and weeks? How can I not see the priceless guffaws of granny and her friends who sit sipping sugar-free (or sugarless) tea in our colony's park on a sunny winter day, cracking juvenile jokes? Or those tears of joy that well up in a mother's eye who when returns fagged from office is greeted by her child asking, "You look tired! Want some tea?"
Green for slimming, herbal for health, white for gourmets, Oolong for burning fat, black for caffeine, lemon ginger for immunity, 'kadha' for de-congestion, chamomile-jasmine for flavours. I didn't even realise when the regular tea transformed itself from beverage to medicine to health supplement.
While I sit here on a spring day - when there is summer in the light and winter in the shade -- to write about my trysts with tea, the mountains of Munnar and Darjeeling are covered with a green carpet of tea plants basking to beauty under the sun, getting caressed by the gentle winds and glistening with dew drops every morning. One day, these tea leaves from the hills will make their way to countless homes, become a part of so many people's memories.
So while our Hon'ble Prime Minister chooses chai pe charcha as part of his foreign policy arsenal, I choose to enjoy sips in solitude with my fountain pen and paper. Yet, we both, like so many other Indians, are bound by a common elixir.