Chai, tea and qahwa.5
knicq posted in Knicqisms on August 7th, 2012
Tea has its advantages. If not for tea, for instance, hundreds of thousands of people would be growing something more meaningful and less profitable – perhaps onions and potatoes, and we all know that the world needs more of oblivion and avarice, not less. Also, the trouble with onions and potatoes is that you can’t be making catchy jingles about them, nor can you dip them into hot water to make horrible potions which you can sip for extended periods of time, multiple times a day. For sheer meaninglessness, the sort which liberates trolls and necessitates furniture, tea has but few parallels. If not for tea, indeed, cupboards would have been redundant, and can you imagine what life would have been without such a repository in our early lives?
Take away tea, and you do away with the institution of tea-boy. You will agree that ‘coffee boy’ simply does not have the same ring to it; if anything, it has a rather strong racist feel to it. ‘Water boy’, on the other hand, is forever disgraced thanks to Adam Sandler. I have nothing against the man, at least not after I have seen Spanglish; but that is about all the views I can share on him and his movies while maintaining the sanctity of Ramadan.
Imagine a world without tea, and you are bombarded with notions like test matches without tea-breaks, ergo a world without the necessary excitement which comes with trying to figure out if a declaration will come first or will tea? It would be a world that would have to make do without the eager anticipation which accompanies every ball bowled in the few overs leading up to and following tea.
Who can imagine a world without tea cosies and tea-trolleys? The sub-continent can ill-afford a world without tea-trolleys – the match-making would simply be incomplete without it. It’s after all a ceremony which involves the shy and homely girl reeling in a loaded tea-trolley, parking it strategically in front of the prospective in-laws, lifting the tea cosy just as the mother explains that the art-work and embroidery on the tea cosy are but a mere fraction of what the highly-skilled daughter can do when equipped with the knitting paraphernalia, and making and serving tea to the guests just as the bashful ‘boy’ steals glances to his heart’s content. Take away the tea-trolley and the tea cosy, and the whole scene comes crumbling down.
Yet, I am beginning to find it harder and harder to allow tea to continue to reside in that soft corner which a desi heart reserves for addictive non-alcoholic beverages. This from a man whose day is turned upside down by a lopsided headache if he does not get his cuppa chai within two hours of lifting that head off the pillow. Ask me for reasons, and the most articulate explanation I can offer is a shrug. All I know is, I do look forward to a cup of tea, but once it arrives, I keep it waiting indefinitely, and then often struggle to finish more than half the cup. Have the Red and the Yellow labels lost flavor? Or has Rainbow milk (that essential ingredient of desi chai in the Middle East)? Or is it just that people no longer know how to brew a good cup of tea? A more plausible explanation will perhaps center around my own preferences rather than changes in the actual beverage. The trouble is I can barely discern a change in my preferences, it is just that I seem to have gone off tea. To an obsessive compulsive person like me, such a development can be very worrying. One never knows what kind of a tic a major change like this will bring about. Who wants to wake up one fine morning with a sudden urge to poke one’s own eye? Or worse, poke another person’s eye. Or bite the back of his thumb? Or lick the bridge of one’s own nose? All because one fails to get excited about a cup of steaming hot chai ?
My search for answers, my determination to spare my poor system the effects of another embarrassing tic, and my ambition to forever contribute to the sum total of world knowledge compel me to look deeper into my relationship with tea. For many of my formative years, a cup of chai constituted sinful indulgence, because as most desi children were told those days, chai was not for children. Effectively, this elevated chai to the level of forbidden fruit. A dizzying sense of achievement, the dizzying often being more than just metaphorical, ensued a single sip won from an elder. Being offered a whole cup of any beverage which included trace amounts of tea invariably got you bragging rights in our household. The trouble with that, of course, was that such bragging rights always came at a price. One only got served chai if one had had another one of those splitting headaches which dotted one’s childhood (and years beyond) with the regularity of a full moon, sometimes even throwing in a bonus half-moon appearance too; either that or one was force-fed the dreaded ‘qahwa’, which was tea sans milk but with myriad spices thrown in. You got that if you woke up vomiting in the middle of the night when it was too late for your mother to take you to the hospital, because your father was on stand-by duty and was not going to be home until his unit returned the next day, and because your mother did not drive, and because your mother could get the ‘qahwa’ ready, you washed and changed into new clothes and the floor cleaned all at the same time. You got that cup of qahwa, plenty of cajoling, and a kiss on your forehead, and it just made you better. You knew you would be eating porridge for another two days, and the dreaded khichri too, but you did not mind – your mother made you qahwa, and gave you a kiss, and prayed to Allah, and Allah made you better.
Come to think of it, that is perhaps tea’s greatest advantage. It can be made into qahwa at three in the morning by your mother, and it helps you get better. The very thought of it helps you get better.