Somewhere on the walls of a famed beverage institution that opened in Paris in 1854, visitors will see a little sign that explains the store’s tea selection policy: “Hédiard only buys from the greatest experts in the topmost estates, those who share our ardor for the infinite possibilities of the leaf. Some appear unadorned, others blended into exquisite flavor profiles that, once tasted, never leave the memory.”
I’ve sipped countless cups in that elegant Salon de Thé in a city filled with tea parlors. At Hédiard’s I’ve enjoyed conversations with many fascinating people while flitting through a myriad of flavors of tea. But those moments have vaporized from my memory.
The tea I remember drinking, however, is that consoling beverage of all human connections. It’s chai, the beverage that transforms the look and the meaning of tea—from being just an elitism-infused potable brewed from loose tea leaves into a drink of deliverance that strips bare one’s soul, warms the heart, illumines neurons, forges bonds and mints relationships. The chai that I speak of, the Indian avatar of the British tea, is a blend of black tea, spices, and milk.
The word “chai” is thought to have originated from the Mandarin chá, the Chinese word for tea and it means the same in several languages including Hindi, Urdu, Czech, Turkish, Russian and Farsi. India adopted tea widely under imperial rule. In the early 1820s, when the British East India Company worried about the Chinese monopoly on tea, it began large-scale production of tea in the hills of Assam. The industry rapidly expanded over vast tracts of land making Assam the leading tea producing region in the world while supporting the enormous consumption of tea in Great Britain. India didn’t consume much black tea until an aggressive promotional campaign by the British-owned Indian Tea Association in the early 20th century that, faced with a surplus of low-grade tea, encouraged factories, mines, and textile mills to provide tea breaks for their workers. The tea drinking habit also bolstered the lives of many independent chai-wallahs throughout the growing Indian railway system.
For me, tea has become a comfort drink with many different flavors through the course of my life. There’s the chai I sipped at a friend’s home when she lost her mother. Over tea, my friend told me how hours before her mother passed away, she finished writing out checks for utilities, cleaned up all her paperwork; then she simply lay on her bed and stopped breathing. Then there is the chai, aromatic with fresh lemongrass, that I drank in Ahmednagar as I listened to Bapuji, a wealthy jeweler in town who left his business to commit time to Snehalaya, an organization to reform the lives of women and children who have suffered from trafficking and sexual abuse.
Of course there’s the chai served by my friend Chetana. It’s one tinctured by the memories of our children’s play dates from 1993 to 2008, from the time both our girls were three years of age until both our sons departed for college. Then I must tell you about the chai that Vinayagam, my father’s manservant, served me in the weeks after my mother passed away, punchy with ginger, ponderous with sorrow. There’s the chai my sister-in-law Gai asks me to make for her at different times in the day when she visits me just because she likes the way I make it. There’s the chai my friend Shanthi demands from me with warnings about how to and how not to brew the “Alghazaleem” tea bought from a local Persian store. For her I must pour, while it’s golden brown and not even a wee bit dark, into a Persian glass of mine that she loves.
How can I forget the perfect ginger chai served in a glass at the new Namma Café in India’s Chennai where I sat with my friend Meenu while we discussed the challenges of caring for our aged parents who, in their dotage, became insecure and selfish, just as we too will one day? Then I cannot say enough about the one, loaded in ginger root and cardamom, that I was served in the cozy confines of a home built with the sensibilities of the sixties; there, I sat between a couple, Mala and Pradeep Sinha, who showed me the meaning of hospitality.
Then there’s the chai that I drank out of a three-inch terracotta matka ten times a day every single day for five days at Rajasthan’s Jaipur Literature Festival while soaking in lectures, readings, debates and points of view—a chai that I will forever accuse of both expanding my intellect and testing the boundaries of my tolerance.
But the chai of chais is the yearly one that makes me shed all inhibition. It turns me into a cinnamon-spiked party animal. That is called the Bad Music Night chai. It’s the chai served on a night with an unending fare of vaudeville acts by post-menopausal women and men whose ages are synonymous with Priya Living.
On this one night of the year our friends toss self-respect, discretion and shame into the San Francisco Bay. We get on “stage,” a 100-square-foot wooden floor with inches separating performers from audience. Cups of chai float around. More regrettable performances erupt on stage. No one is judging. No one cares if judged. The insults pile up. Rudeness is much appreciated, thank you. Raunchiness is a virtue that evening. Loudness? We covet it.
When I’m crooning, badly, a breathy Tamil number titled “Hello, My Dear Wrong Number” and the man I’m singing the duet with is making eyes at me in front of my husband while the women in the audience too are breathing “Hello-o-o” with me every time, the men howl between whistles: “Kal, encore, encore!” For those moments, I’m a Tamil vamp drunk on chai, even such a one that is mostly water, colored by the stain of a Lipton teabag. But I tell you, whether perfect as the matka chai in Jaipur or anemic as the chai on Bad Music Night, a cup of chai sustains me as I step through the checkered squares of life.