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The defining beverage of daily life

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

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What is the unique sentimentality and nostalgia that tea, and only tea, manages to attach to itself?

What is the tea in tea? Is it the milk? Is it the water? The tea leaves, the masala? Or is it love? Or is it sadness and happiness and loneliness and the all other permutations of emotions? This question, which I have never been able to answer, was put before the audience in a play I once watched.

In a fit of high school desperation to sort our lives, my friend and I once decided to grow tea if every other career option failed. We chalked out a plan that involved a cosy tea estate, an adjoining book cafe, a bunch of dogs that lazed around in the sun, our friends who were employed in all sorts of related occupations and stayed nearby, and our respective crushes who visited occasionally and repented on why they had not fallen in love with us. Essentially, tea was the saviour of our otherwise doomed life.

One day, a concerned adult rightly pointed out to us that owning and running a tea estate, however small and cosy, wouldn’t be cakewalk. The business, we were told, is highly competitive, to the extent that people have been murdered in the process. The idea of a tea estate was reluctantly dropped by common consent.

Tea, however, lingered on to remain one of the most defining things in our lives and also one of the many things over which our friendships grew. During high school, it was necessary to spend an evening in our favourite rooftop tea cafe when it had been a long time since we had hung out. It was necessary to order a pot of masala chai (with free biscuits with it) among other eats. It was also an unstated requirement to take a whiff before you drank and to express your delight before you put the gossip to rest for a while and listened to the amazing soundtrack playing in the background. When we visited each other for apparent group studies, it was unacceptable to leave before tea time. All of this remains the same after years, identical steps followed when we are all gathered together. I don’t know why.

What is this unique sentimentality and nostalgia that tea, and only tea, manages to attach to itself? How come it is that for years now we have been tagging each other in chai-related memes, gifting each other tea and tea mugs and T-shirts and related items, never tiring of them?

I now live in a big city away from home. Somehow the only respite from the sudden loneliness that grips me must be provided by a cup of tea that I make for myself. At other times, the tiredness of back-to-back classes, the wait for a local train running late, the undeniable relief of having friends around you, or the feel of the evening sea breeze can only be coupled with tea: two rupees in the canteen, 10 rupees at the station and 25 rupees at the Parsi Cafe with the chequered table cloth.

Back home, it is my mother who makes the evening tea. Sometimes it is my nine-year-old sister: she has mastered the art and takes pride in showing it off. It is almost a ritual to have an old song playing while the rest of us water the plants, clear the dining table and lay down individual choices of rusks and biscuits. It is yet another ritual to spend as much time as we can to finish a single cup of chai and sing along or talk — as if that’s the only evening we have.

People say things about tea: that too much of it is unhealthy and that it makes you dark-skinned. The dosa-wala uncle under my building tells me it could be disastrous for women. Whatever it may be, tea is not just a beverage for many others like me. It is that which binds us together, much like biryani for non-vegetarians. It allows conversations to flow unhindered, and the very act of raising our cups to our lips, the steam obscuring our view and the slurps, form no less than a symphony.

I make very disappointing tea. But now when I visit you, you know what to offer.

jubinamalik@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 11:59:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-defining-beverage-of-daily-life/article20915261.ece

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