Friday, 16 January 2015


What holds India together? No, it is not Bollywood. Or cows. Or Masala.

It is the divine drink- Chai. Chaaya. Tea. Teh.

It starts in the morning, when Indian households slowly open their eyes to  a new day. According to the hierarchy of the family, one of the female members steps in to begin the ritual. If it is just a husband and wife, the wife. If it is father mother, and daughter, it is mostly the mother with the daughter making forays in when mother is unwell. With Parents, son, daughter-in-law, it is the daughter-in-law. The complicated matrix of tea making duties according to age, location, and hierarchy is available as pdf on request.

Once the wife/ mother/ daughter-in-law steps in and twists her hair into a loose bun, the process has officially begun. All families have a loyal tea pot- for God knows kettle made tea is blasphemy- with a wobbly handle that has been in use for years. A look inside the pot will reveal long tales of the past, where its mistress has let it burn in acts of rebellion or in the midst of the other main ritual- soap opera watching.  Carefully measured goat, cow, buffalo, or genetically modified radioactive milk makes its way in followed by a proportionate amount of water. The ratio of Milk: Water is critical here; tea is no joking matter after all! You don’t want your tea to be too milky, because that says that you are an entitled brat that indulges in milk when people don’t even have water to drink.  And you also don’t want it to be watery because that just means you are a spineless baby that can’t take strong tea.   So it has to be just right. Once in, the tea maker gives the tea pot some privacy to get its business done and meanwhile, revs up the household- The hair bun tied tighter, she pushes her husband off the bed, drags her groggy kids into the bathroom and plants them under the shower, and then checks on the pet she said the house did not need because she will be the only one looking after it.  The timing is so precise, that the Swiss will grudgingly tip their hats, if they wear any, to the tea maker. This is stage two of the ritual. Once little bubbles form, it is time for the most critical step- Tea leaves.

The tea leaves are of prime importance.  Half a tea spoon for every cup if you are a sissy and a spoonful if you are committed to tea and everything it stands for. You want to know a person? Find out how he likes his tea. Strong and sweet? Weak and sugary? Aromatic and spicy? A person’s choice of brew is very revealing of who they are.  This is proven science and the reason why tea is central to all matchmaking missions in India. Starting from when the matchmaking aunty walks into your home with her mental file of suitable ‘Nice Boys’. She sits down with the Concerned Mother of unmarried 23 year old and consoles that it is not too late, ‘It’s the new age! There might be some boy who likes old women!’. In return the temporarily placated mother offers her a cup of tea as a sign of gratitude. Then over cups of tea nice boys are laid out (metaphorically of course) as the aunty rattles out Age, profession, salary, and family history upto Adam. After half a dozen cups of tea the conspirators land upon the perfect  Nice Boy to whisk away the Aging Spinster at home.  Matchmaking aunty then repeats process in the Nice Boy’s house, over tea of course. Then Nice Boy and co. head to Aging Spinster’s house with Matchmaking Aunty in tow. 

The scene is set, the Aging Spinster is dressed in red and the Concerned Mother utters a prayer and begins to brew the tea that will make or break her daughter’s life. Not too weak because you don’t want them to dominate you for the rest of your lives, not too strong because we are not aggressive like Sharma’s family.  Concerned Mother drops in some crushed cardamoms for the delightful aroma that will twirl around the Nice Boy and make him like the Aging Spinster. She lets it simmer till the perfect tea coloured tea is ready. It is then poured into the delicate little cups brought out just for this occasion, arranged carefully with sugar on the side so no diabetic grandmas of the Nice Boy die. Aging Spinster nervously carries the tray that determines her future and offers it demurely to her prospective in-laws. She looks down as her mother in law gauges her height, weight , and skin-tone. The only time she looks up is to meet the very uncomfortable Nice Boy’s glance and then she looks down again with a shy smile or a disgusted sigh.  Matchmaking aunty talks on behalf of everyone in the room and the match is made! And what carries forward this dated and excruciatingly awkward ceremony? Our beloved chai of course!

The famous ' one-meter tea'
Do you see how important it is now? Tea is so important that we even have a time in the evening- usually 5 pm- where the entire family sits together and sips on tea with Marie biscuits and the staple ‘Rusk’.  No conversation is necessary; you can lose yourself and your worries to the small cup in your hand.  If you do want to talk though, you can choose from a wide array of topics –cricket, politics, and the latest black sheep of the family.  Not just homes, even Government offices run on tea. It’s a known fact that government employees take up their jobs for the endless stream of free tea delivered by Chottu The Office Boy (Thanks to every Bollywood movie ever made).  Earthquake, Tsunami, or a Zombie take-over- nothing interferes with the office tea breaks.  And God forbid if Chottu ever takes a day off! *collective shudder*

Really,nothing ever gets in the way of tea, not even the times when it is physically hazardous to drink it. Take the great Indian trains.  Your face is in sweaty aunty’s armpit and there is a pervert trying to grope you from behind, but do you let that stop you? No. As the agile Chai-waala contorts his way through this human sea, you unglue your face from Sweaty Aunty’s armpit,  frantically wave so he notices you and then you dislocate your shoulder while locating your purse. But you buy that damn tea.

The love affair with tea is more profound in the rural areas. Take my native state Kerala. The locus of the village here is the Chaaya Kada (tea shop)- A shed with wooden benches and a woven mat as the roof. In the corner stands the most important man of the village- the Chai maker. Out of reverence for his holy-trade the locals attach the title of Chetta (elder brother) with his name. The chaya kada sees a variety of people throughout the day, but the loyal customers (as informed by Malayalam movies) are-The avid newspaper reader, who is singlehandedly responsible for the political knowledge of the entire village, the local communist party worker who rages against the bourgeoisie over endless cups of black tea , the old man who should have died yesterday, and, often, a failed poet who inflicts his soulful poetry on his tea-companions.

The Chai-maker Chettan is also the Page 3 of the village. His hands maybe busy brewing tea, but his eyes and ears are everywhere. Want to know the scandalous affairs, the elopement stories, the  history of gulf-returnees, and who just died? Visit the tea shop for gossip begins and ends in this tiny stall. Who needs TMZ when have the dedicated services of our beloved chai chettans!

This love affair with tea is an unending saga that cannot be captured in a single post. Maybe I will regale you with it another day. Over a steaming cup of tea, what do you say?

1 comment:

  1. Nasreen I really enjoyed reading this. Quite a funny truth. Well done