My best friend in my office is probably the shy young canteen boy who gives me a cup of tea exactly at 11 in the morning. Till he comes and pours the tea in my cup, I can’t bring my brain operate to its fullest capacity. Once I see him, I feel at peace. Well, I am not alone in my obsession with tea. There are many across India who can’t think of starting their day without a cup of tea. Or many cups of tea.
(During a recent visit to Wagh Bakri Tea Lounge, Ahmedabad, I fell in love with this beautiful tea kettle)
For many many years, lots of things in India happened over tea. But there was no glamour attached to it. It was a part of life but not a lifestyle statement. Many from my generation grew up with the song ‘Sayad meri shaadi ka khayal..Isi liye mummy ne meri tumhe chai me bulaya’
Chai or tea can be easily called India’s lifeline. From railway platforms to swanky living rooms of India’s rich and neo-rich, chai is omnipresent. To understand tea, you have to understand the emotions that come with it in that little cup.
One of the most endearing memories of growing up in India is the train (in which you are travelling) chugging along and entering into a station and then comes the cries of ‘chai, chai garam’ almost embracing one with a deep sense of love and affection. Nothing comes close to sharing a cup of tea with your friends. And let us be honest, chai always tastes better with a bit of harmless gossip. Some years back, when I used to visit my friend in Mumbai (she always came to receive me at the station even though the train used to arrive at 4.30 in the morning), we used to sit together cozily in her living room with two cups of tea in our hands and discuss in utter seriousness about lives of Bollywood stars, cricketers and politicians. .
Chai is more/less like India. There are many layers to discover. So, when you want to save a little money, you go for the cutting chai. Where else in the world you will get this unique ‘cutting chai’? (for those who are uninitiated, cutting chai is a glass of tea that’s divided into two).
What’s more romantic than watching the lashing rains with a cup of garam chai and a plate of pakoda. And if you love your share of ‘spice’ in life then nothing is more welcoming than a cup of ‘kadak adrak chai.’ With ginger and pudina added to your tea, you can be as efficient as the Chinese machine.
Chai has different avatars in different parts of India even though there’s a thread that runs through it. The English might give their ‘bed tea’ a miss today but the Punjabis do not. Every time I stay at my Punjabi friend’s house, her domestic help wakes me up in the morning with a cup of bed tea. Needless to say, the tea comes with an overdose of milk and sugar. In Gujarat where even dal comes with a generous sprinkling of sugar, the less it’s said about the sugary chai, the better it’s. Chai here in Gujarat is much savoured with khari biscuit, maska bun, khakhra and ganthia. In India’s intellectual city Kolkata (no other city can boast of this tag), people can spend hours and hours at addas and over cups of tea argue endlessly over Mamta Banerjee and Dibaker Banerjee.
But there’s a new competition to our humble chai now. Swanky coffee shops with wifi connection have now become a part of urban landscape. Suddenly you can see that a lot is happening over coffee. From ‘make-ups’ with nervous giggles, job interviews, business deals to teary break ups— lot is actually happening in the sanitised air-conditioned coffee shops. Suddenly cappuccino, cafe latte have become part of urban dictionary. Sipping frothy coffee with a smiley carefully done has become a sign of ‘being cool.’ Smartphones and a cup of cappuccino is the sure shot way to show off your cool quotient. Now where does the humble chai actually figure in? Well, the chai has got a makeover.
Urban India has now moved beyond those kadak chai, adrak chai or overboiled sweet milky tea. It’s now time for peach tea, apple tea, green tea. Exotic has become the mainstream now. With new money showing its ugly face from every nook and corner of the street, the chai has to keep pace too. And look beyond that ordinary garam chai served in a kullad.
However, even it its new avatar, there’s less masculinity about tea. I feel, there’s a tenderness about tea. Tea is like a love story taking its own time to evolve. It’s not in a hurry to prove itself to the world. The coffee is a tad different. Trapped in a bone china cup that arrives on your table even as the blaring music of Justin Biber’s ‘Baby’ shows a slice of globalisation penetrating India. It’s a little bit on your face. May be it has got to with the fact that now in urban India coffee has suddenly become a uber cool lifestyle statement. Every now and then friends, colleagues and acquaintances say, “Let’s meet over coffee.’ May be a time will soon come when people will say, ‘Let us make love over coffee.’
Do I see any threat to our good old chai? No, not really. To have chai is politically correct now. We have a ‘chaiwalla’ prime minister in India now (Mani Shankar Aiyer, you can eat your own words). And yes, hopefully we will have lots to discuss over a cup of tea. You know, chai pe charcha.