Hey, Chai Anyone?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There was a message outside the Tea Board office in Kolkata. It said, “All time is tea time.” That’s right in India. We hear the chai vendors at all hours at the railway stations – even at the dead of the night. Lily shows the many ways tea is enjoyed. She tells us about the colonial hangover of ‘Chhota Hazri’, chai tea of Starbucks, masala chai, green tea, black tea, the Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese versions of the brew. An interesting account of tea in Different Truths.

“You can never get a cup of tea, large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ~ C S Lewis.

“There are few hours in life, more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” ~ Henry James.

Sincerely thinking, it’s not truly an addiction, for one has been known, to go hours, without drinking this magical beverage.  Yet, it is the nectar, the ambrosia that has trickled from the heavens, for admirers and followers like me.

The expectation begins long before the actual bed-tea arrives. The clanging of the saucepan or the whistle of the kettle sets the senses buzzing. A hush pervades over my still groggy head as if like John Keats said “of hemlock I had drunk!” The lull before the storm is nothing but the storm that would soon arrive in the tea cup.

Indian Milk Tea

Indian Milk Tea

The colonial hangover of the “chhota haazri”, which meant the early morning serving of a tiny tea pot, floral and pretty with a tea cosy warming it in the wintry chill, set on a nicely covered tray or silver salver. It arrived with a slim crystal vase with a single rose smiling beatifically. Two tea cups made their presence felt with a slim biscuit or two for company.

Ah, the fuel that would put a spring in one’s step till mid morning had made its way from the lush undulating tea gardens of Assam and West Bengal to the bedside table!

The panacea, for all ills, and the celebratory fluid, in moments of sheer thrills. “Yaar cha pila” (how about a cup of tea, Buddy?) is an oft repeated statement as you walk along the corridors of life. “Arre bhai ek chai ki pyaali mil jaati toh mazaa aa jaata” (what bliss it would be if I could get a cuppa tea). This fun factor that never ceases to add zing to khushi (joy) and a balm to ghami (sadness). The cooling effect on hot days and hot heads alike, because “garmiyon mein garam chai thhandak pahunchaati hai” (Hot tea on hot days cools us). Whether it is the strong chai of the truckers, on the G T road, who yell out to the tea shop server, “punj sau meel waali cha peya oye chhotu” (hey little one, get me a cup that will last 500 miles) or the exotic flavours of the Earl Grey lovers.

The ‘Chai Latte’ of the Starbucks guys, amusingly referred to as chai tea! The first time I chanced upon this tall glass of rather milky tea with a decidedly Indian zing to it, I could have jumped for joy. The damp squib, however, was the tepid to almost lukewarm temperature it was served at. Soon I got around to requesting the attendant to microwave it to a piping hot for me.

The masala chai in Indian homes, changes its colour like a chameleon according to the family it lives with! Ginger, cardamom, cinnamon – take your pick. You could even try fennel or holy basil if you are experimental. Lemon grass seems to have made a stylish appearance too.

There is no grandma worth her salt, who has not at some time or the  other advocated the medicinal benefits of a gruel made of peppercorns, black cardamoms, cloves and ginger as a perfect old wife’s tale brand of remedy for the common cold. My mother was such a slave to this addiction that she used to often tell me to bathe her in tea when she died instead of the water of the Holy Ganges. She told me heaven was a certainty then!

Next came the barrage of dedicated black tea followers, dark as hell, pantomiming a glass of rum or golden as champagne and robust as scotch.

Green tea, though, made a spectacular entry, with its host of benefits!

A simple tall glass, which keeps the hands warm in Indian winters is a favourite! Rural north Indian homes still have a huge copper or steel glass serving highly sugary and purely milky tea with only a pinch of tea leaves.

If you want a cafe or lounge experience then it would be a porcelain and bone china, tea set with fancy brand names and enough snooty value to add to the classy experience.

Po Cha

Po Cha

The Tibetan butter tea is an acquired taste as it is salty instead of sweet. The unexpected flavour puts off the uninitiated. It is made of yak butter instead of cow or goat milk. The tea comes in bricks of different shapes that come from a place called Pemagul.

The Chinese serve a post dinner version of a fragrant jasmine tea to wash down a sumptuous repast. Lemon and honey, wormed their way into the pretty cups.

The Japanese, of course knew what they were doing when they dedicated a whole ceremony to it.

Chinese Tea

Chinese Tea

I cannot resist adding the innocuous fact that though many friendships blossom over unending cups of tea as amongst students in college canteens, similarly many good relationships snap with the presentation of a disgustingly made cup of the miracle beverage.

One sip of the poison, and the nose wrinkles, the lip sniggers in disbelief and out goes the love of a lifetime. Alas! A badly made concoction can threaten relationships too.

I bow in reverence here for a minute of salutations to the tea leaf pickers. Mostly a tribal woman, standing in knee deep water, a baby tied with a worn out torn sari next to her chest, a huge cane or wicker basket tied to her back, so that she can pick out the proverbial two leaves and a bud. It’s her dedicated manual labour that brings us our daily shot of the miracle brew.

Well, I say chaps thank God it travelled all over the world so that I get my cuppa even in the coffee-soaked shores of the United States of America!

The aroma is hitting my nostrils and I must hurry before it gets cold. Remember, it simply has to be smoking hot. The southern concept of lemon iced tea will take me a while to understand. Cheers to the cup that cheers!

©Lily Swarn

Pix from Net.

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.