August 15th, 2018

Chai, tea and qahwa.5

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.

A method to madness.0

Mind is a wonderful thing. It can find such interesting subjects in seemingly mundane items. Take mine, for instance, and its habit of wandering off on tangents which, on merit, can scarcely be called interesting. Brain, mine at least, defines its own yardstick for measuring merit. This can be the only explanation which does not imply an inherent inability to differentiate between meaningful and completely inane tangents. One eschews incriminating one’s own mind. Even for one given to jumping from pitfall to pitfall in blind pursuit of the heart’s agenda – and yes, I do flatter myself here – it is important to remember that the brain is a devious mass of billions of demonic neurons all abuzz with negative energy, and that this mass is inseparable from one – at least under the ideal or bordering-on-ideal circumstances. It just does not do to rub it the wrong way. Most centers of negative energy do not take well to having their inherent abilities called into question, and since vindictive traits come naturally to all villains, who wants to incriminate a villain who takes up the penthouse in one’s anatomy?

All of this, of course, brings me back to my original assertion that mind is a wonderful thing. Courtesy mine, unlike millions and millions, I am never intrigued by the random and ridiculous nature of dreams. Fact is, I wonder at people, with pity and envy in equal measure, who are constantly stumped by the apparent lack of logic and rationale in how their dreams progress. Why pity, you ask? Well, look at it this way, how dull must their lives be if their brains tick along from one point to another with any deference to rationale? Envy, you wonder? Well, at least these people only have to lament an apparent lack of rationale when they sink into slumber, unlike yours truly, who is forever catching at straws – awake or asleep. I am surprised I do not hear the echo of my brain’s evil laugh as it amuses itself seeing me all at sea, bobbing up and down in the wilderness of madness.

For what is it all, if not madness? This constant and continuous struggle to find meaning in the endless journey of my mind? It stops nowhere. It wanders off in new directions all on its own without knowing or bothering to find out if the road ahead leads to any destination at all. And then, along the way, a broken signboard catches its fancy and it just stand there, for hours at end, staring at it blankly. How does one explain it’s complete lack of interest in such signboards when it stands there contemplating them with singular focus? More importantly, how does one explain its deep interest in every passing tree, every little plant, every patch of green when it never really stops to look at them at all?

There is a method to this madness, even I can see it. My heart certainly can. The heart. Now, there is a good companion. Or is it? It lets me down every few paces when it skips a beat or gets completely engrossed in the stars and the moon and the sun. But it means well, and it sees things I do not. If only it could learn to share what it saw, we would probably be able to rein the mind in. But the heart has this habit of ruminating for years and years on what it sees, sometimes for centuries it seems, and then one fine moment, for no apparent reason, it just blurts out an astonishingly vivid description of what it had seen ages ago. At times like these, you just look at it while struggling to get various parts of your facial features to regain their closing function. At length, you succeed in pulling the jaw back up, you try and scrunch the flaring nostrils into some mode of normalcy, and you narrow your eyes into what you hope will complete a menacing look, but then you are dismayed when you hear the heart’s roaring laughter. It has seen your jaw dropping, your nostrils doing a dragon, and your eyes stretching as wide as they can, and then it has seen your comical attempt at feigning fury, and it finds you funny. Funny is good for the heart, pun intended, but bad for establishing any semblance of authority. You give in, and you follow the heart into your next disaster.

If you ask me, I think the mind and the heart are in cahoots with each other. They have the same agenda. And it is not me. Or mine. I think they just take turns amusing themselves at my expense. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that those signboards, which the mind stops every now and then to look at for no apparent reason, are normally the ones the heart decides to follow eventually. There is a method to this madness.

The Sacred Bull.0

Towards the end of my academic life, I stumbled upon this unbelievable treasure trove of a bookshop in the famous Liberty market of Lahore. Some people had taken up this sprawling basement and literally dumped tonnes and tonnes of books in the place without making any effort towards segregating books at all. As a result, what you had on your hands was what can only be called a cocktail party of books. All kinds of books were to be found mingling with all kinds of strange books, and there was no definite way of knowing where to go find a book on any given subject. What’s more, the books took the cocktail party analogy quite literally, and went around mingling all over the place as is, apparently, the etiquette in such parties.

It could have been frustrating if one had dived in to pick up a particular cover and dive back out, because finding a given book could take forever, and there was always a likelihood that the book might not be there at all; because whatever else this shop was, it was not your conventional bookshop. The people selling these books seemed to have little or no interest in their wares, and as a result the pricing was also quite arbitrary. The impression I got was that they went about with some random pricing stickers and put them on whatever book was nearest to them. As a consequence, there were gems priced lower than stones, and stones priced as stones. The best part was that nothing was priced as a gem.

If, however, one had just sauntered in to browse through some titles with no specific book or genre in mind, one could enjoy quite a game of treasure hunt. It was during one of these expeditions that I had picked up a book called ‘The Sacred Bull’ (in hardcover no less) for a total of Pkr 125, which is only slightly more than SR 5 today and was just short of SR 10 back then. In other words, it was free. Perhaps, that had something to do with the fact that I never really did get around to properly reading reading it, because economists suggest that people attach more value to things when they feel they have paid a fortune for them. Give them the most precious things for free, like water, air, love, friends and happiness, and they are likely to take them for-granted.  The suggestion does not apply entirely to me, because I think the only thing I love more than a precious book is a free book. My failure to actually finish the book might be attributed to my abject failure to read any of the gibberish that is peddled under the head of management books. Often I get the feeling that either the writers of these books have not the slightest idea how the real world works, or they think their readers have not the slightest idea how the real world works. On the rare occasions when these books do not border on the fantastic, they seem to be repackaging well-known and well-understood facts as revolutionary new findings. I find these books a spectacular waste of time, and therefore, often choose to invest my precious time in fiction. So much for the real world.

The long and short of it, nonetheless, is that I never did really read the book, but I did browse through it, and what little I read of it has stayed with me since. Stripped to basics, it drew on the example of sacred cows in India to come up with the term. In India, cows are sacred and worshiped as such, which gives them a free pass on pretty much everywhere. Should a cow be found in the middle of the road, it is not to be nudged away, instead people must make way around it, or wait for it to give way. The book’s writer went on to say that sometimes we humans treat a perceived road block much the same way, and allow a monster of our own making to hinder our progress, derail our carriage, deny our potential, the whole shebang. He called this monster, The Sacred Bull.

This blog post is me taking my sacred bull by the horns. Again.


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