Chai Chai : A love story

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.

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(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.

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Jaipur Literature Festival : A collage

Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is a collage of different voices, conversations, colours, moods and happiness too. This collage follows from that essentially. I was there as a participant not as a journalist. Yet on many occasions in life, I see the world through the eyes of a journalist (thought not consciously). Here goes a collage of images that have stayed with me.

Listening to Naipaul:  I skipped my lunch to listen to V S Naipaul. But I must say, I was very sad at the end of the session.. Even though he said talks of sunsets now make him sad, listening to him made me sad. Looking at him sitting on a wheel chair on the stage, I couldn’t help thinking about life, the cruelty of age and of course sunsets. The questions put to Naipaul by Farrukh Dhondy were anything but interesting. Naipaul every now and then kept on telling, “Is that enough, Farrukh?” At some point in life, life somehow steals our flamboyance, arrogance. And then you just turn around and see a setting sun on the horizon.

Of rains, chairs and bees:  Rains forced me to continue to sit at one session as I had the most prized possession in JLF — a chair. So, like a true risk-averse middle-class person of 70s India, I decided to cling to my safety net (read chair). Sometimes, safety can give you a pleasant surprise too. The session i attended was on bumble bees. It was an eye-opener for me to get a glimpse of how  this large beautiful universe operates and how much we need to be in sync with nature. Mindless development and urbanization are going to cause huge harm to us and our environment as it causes bee loss on a large scale. Eventually, it will disrupt beautiful harmony of life and nature. I felt like a student in an exciting classroom.

Mythology matters: India seems to be in a mood to revel in its wonderful world of mythology. So, the sessions by Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi were jam-packed. The best part is that you can actually connect myth to contemporary life. As Devdutt said, “Myth is subjective truth, it is transmitted from generation to generation.  Is your truth fact or fiction?  What’s the truth? Who decides what’s truth? Objective truth is singular. Subjective truth is plural. Science is about measurement. But you can never measure infinity. It’s a concept. It’s the Indian thought.”  We indians have always worshipped trees, rocks, rivers, mountains. We have happily embraced different streams of thought. We are becoming intolerant as a society now because we are now obsessed with objectivity.  I can’t agree with him more.

Bollywood rocks: There is no running away from Bollywood whether it’s cricket, politics or literature. The sessions by Bollywood personalities like Javed Akhtar (I fail to understand if so many people enjoy listening to poets like him, why poetry books are struggling to sell in India… or is it all about his B-Town connection), Naseeruddin Shah and Prasoon Joshi were all packed to the T. Talk of being star-obsessed.

Of overcoats, boots and stoles: Most of them look like clones of each other. Or to better to put in the market language, “assembly-line production.” So, you can see scores of women flaunting overcoats, boots and stoles. Not to miss over-sized rings on their fingers. Age seems to have stopped somewhere in this whirpool of clones. Liberalization has robbed India of its diversity even in wardrobes. Sad, indeed.

A journey and more: During the four days I spent there, I met a number of people who have travelled all the way from Seattle, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, London. And in India, people came from Bengaluru, Kochi and Kolkata just to listen to their favourite authors.

A chef called Vikas Khanna:  When some of my young colleagues drooled over Vikas Khanna and fought with each other to interview him, I didn’t take it seriously. A friend’s daughter kept on pestering me to share his mobile number with her (she was ecstatic when she came to know that I have his mobile number). But seeing young girls, women in their 40s and 50s literally falling over him was a sight in itself. It’s liberating to see women lusting after a chef instead (or I should say in addition to) of cricketers, film stars and singers. Vikas had a real tough time to find his way through the never-ending maze of his fans. When he said on a lighter vein, “I will take questions only from boys,” there was collective sighs and ‘oh nos’ from the fairer sex. He is one sizzling hot chef, I must say.

Basic instinct: Nothing wins like basic instinct. Novelist Hanif Kureishi deserves a standing ovation for his deadpan wit. He feels there’s too much of sex happening everywhere. He said, “We are living in generalized perversion.” So the challenge lies not in writing about pornography but in writing about happy marriages where two people are still happy to be together even after being together for years. When American writer Nicholson Baker talked about how he got his first lessons on how babies happen (like there’s male chicken and there’s a female one (if I remember correctly his mom explained it to him)),  Hanif said, “That’s why you love KFC.”  And when there was a question about how pornography is becoming mainstream in the light of Fifty Shades of Grey now being made into a movie, Hanif said with a straight face, “Yes, it will be released on Valentine’s Day.”

Chai pe charcha: It wouldn’t be fair to say that Modi has made chai more popular. Judging by the long queues at the Pushkari chai (pic included here) stalls, our humble chai can give the Bollywood stars a run for their money. At Rs 30, the steaming chai in a kullad gave an earthy, warm feeling on a cold day. The colas will be always there but there’s something intimate about that little kullad chai. I have always maintained that Modi is a master strategist. And I would be happy if he  fails me in future. Even if that meant spending Rs 30 or more for chai.

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Of sweet Baklava and sadness : I am not a great fan of baklava. But that day in JLF, I just felt like having one. When I went to the counter to pick up the sweet (after paying Rs 40), I got a baklava which was smaller than (now unavailable) 25 paisa coin. Size can sometimes really make you sad (even though sexologists across the world now vigorously maintain that pleasure has nothing to do with size).

Tea, where would I be without you?

“Kaka… chai kaisi hai” (How is the tea)? that’s my standard question to him. And his standard answer is “Chai garam hai.” (The tea is hot). And once in three months or so, he tells me authoritatively, “Pee ko jaano. Do cup rakhta hoon.” (Just drink it, you will know. I am keeping two cups”). Kaka is the person who works in our canteen and I presume he’s my best friend (cause when I come back from my holidays, he’s the only one who asks me ‘kahan gaye the… bahut din ho gaya’ (where did you go? long time… with a smile).
Even though I never drink tea with milk at home, my day at work is incomplete without Kaka’s tea at 11 O’ clock and 4 O clock. Without Kaka’s tea, I feel like a restless new bride who goes through pangs of separation when her husband goes out of her sight. And in between 11.30-12.30, on most days I call up the canteen to send another cup of tea only through Kaka.
Tea or chai is my lifeline. For me, the world’s all well if I am having my cup of tea. When I am sad, I can never drink a cup of tea. When I had my first break-up (now when I think of him, I cringe at my then ‘juvenile’ taste in men…. I presume I have got better taste now, or is it so that they are all the same (frankly speaking, I am as confused as the UPA government) eons ago, for two days I couldn’t drink my tea. On the third day better sense prevailed over me and the tea cup made a come back in my life. I have grown up since those college days in Orissa and thankfully I lived to experience intense relationships.     Yet even now when I am sad/depressed, I just can’t bring myself to drink a cup of tea. For me, tea symbolises everything happy, relaxed and most importantly a sense of intimacy. A cup of tea for me is like a flowing river. There’s nothing small or stagnant about it. Even though it comes in a tiny cup or a kullad, for me it gives an innate sense of life and joy. It reminds me of home, JNU, of innumerable journeys in the Indian Railways. It brings back memories of my parents sharing a cup of tea early in the morning and all my sisters enjoying a cup of tea huddled together on the bed and taking pot-shots at the world. The tea needless to say always tastes nice with a bit of gossip.
Every time I think the universe is not treating me like her favourite child, I call up my soul sister in town. On most occasions, we meet at a popular coffee shop and instead of the much-in demand Cappuccino, we order Darjeeling tea. Over cups of tea and conversations, I feel a sense of tranquility. The world seems a better place to live with a brewing cup of tea in my hand. And I embrace laughter with much ease. Sitting in a coffee shop that has become a part of urban landscape in India and ordering a cup of tea also gives me a feeling that you can love tea, or hate tea but you just can’t ignore tea. Not even in a coffee shop. But I would be a happy woman if hotels across India decide not to keep those horrible teabags (I am not taking the brand name but people will understand which one I am referring to) in their rooms. My younger sister who hardly agrees with me on any issue definitely agrees with me on this. So, I presume I am making some sense on this.
Tea is like a lover who is delicate, caring and understands your moods. Tea gives a sublime joy. Tea is like a soft Jaipur rezai which gives the much needed warmth on a winter morning yet it is soft on your skin.
Coffee (well, a lot is actually now happening over coffee now)— I feel is like a boss who will always make you work towards a deadline, a teacher who will make you write your term paper even if you are not in a mood. Or a husband who will fulfill all his responsibilities without ever running his fingers through your entangled hair. I can already sense coffee-lovers aiming their guns at me. Right now, I am waiting for Kaka to come to my desk with his ‘garam’ chai.
Tea, where would I be without you?