Chai…chai garam, it is India’s lifeline

chai-teaMy 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 every day. Till he comes and pours the tea in my cup, I can’t bring my brain to operate to its fullest capacity. Once I see him, I feel at peace and energised. 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.
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 hain’ (perhaps there is marriage in the mind, that is why my mother has called you for tea).
Chai 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 chugging along the country’s vast terrains and entering into a station where the cries of ‘chai, chai garam’ almost embraces 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 who’s sleeping with whom in Bollywood and who’s giving whom a rough time.
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 (vegetable fritters). And if you love your share of ‘spice’ in your life then nothing is more welcoming than a cup of ‘adrak chai.’ With ginger and pudina (mint) added to your tea, you can be as efficient as the Chinese machine.
Chai has different avatars (forms) in different parts of India even though there’s a thread that runs through it. The English might give their ‘bed tea’ a miss but the Punjabis do not. Every time I stay at my Punjabi friend’s house, her domestic help wakes me in the morning up 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 is. 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 (informal meetings) 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 become a part of urban landscape. From ‘make-ups’ with nervous giggles, job interviews, business deals to 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 karak chai, adrak chai or overboiled sweet chai. It’s now time for peach tea, apple tea, green tea. Exotic is mainstream now. With new money showing its ugly face at every nook and corner of the street, the chai has to keep pace too. And make way for not that ordinary garam chai that comes in a kullad.
There’s less masculinity about tea. I feel, there’s 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, unlike coffee. Trapped in a bone china cup that arrives on your table even as the blaring music of Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ shows a slice of globalisation penetrating India, it’s a little bit on your face. Maybe it has got to with the fact that now in urban India coffee has suddenly become a lifestyle statement. Every now and then friends, colleagues and acquaintances say, “Let’s meet over coffee.’ 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 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 (discussion over tea)?