Tea tales and travails…(Part I)

It was International tea day yesterday and there was a slew of chai posts yesterday on FB. Which prompted today’s post.

Which Indian (in his right mind) has ever refused a nice steaming cuppa of chai? Of course, growing up, chai was a strict no-no for us kids. You drank milk everyday (and we did it sans any bournvita or horlicks, plain milk without sugar). Tea was reserved for those sick days when milk was deemed indigestible, and we were given bread toast or a marie biscuit to go with it. Now considering I fell sick at every turn of the season, I had my fair amount of chai. I remember once going with my friend A’s family for a vacation to Ratnagiri one summer, and having to drink tea with them – and not liking it so much, as I wasn’t sick, you see, and that was my only association with tea, back then.

So the real chai journey started sometime after I graduated. Somewhere around that time, mom thought it was okay if I had an occasional cup of tea in the evenings. And I quickly progressed to another cup in the mornings (for which I was regularly admonished). What brought it on (the admonishment I mean) was I discovered that the plain water chai (the one in which you boil water, add sugar and tea, and finally milk) was not to my liking but the thick milk tea, where you boiled tea and sugar in a mix of milk and water. Or sometimes just plain milk. Now this needed more sweetening and far more chai patti. And soon, copious amount of chai patti was being used up, and mom was becoming alarmed! Mom has even been known to ask the Scientist to get me off this chai habit, which the dutiful son-in-law promised and duly fulfilled as well. But that story is for another time.

Mumbai rains were never complete without ginger-cardamom spiced chai, and kanda bhaji. You had to make or have this combo atleast once every monsoon. Or you called it a foul, in Pu La’s language. I never knew what it was to have chai in the college canteen, bunking lectures and whiling away time. I didn’t do chai then, and I most definitely didn’t do bunking. (I was the first bench, studious, merit-list aspirant). The horror!

But it all changed during MBA days. Maybe I realised (too late) that no one really achieved anything by scoring good marks. Maybe it was the evening classes, or lousy professors (remember Potdar and Lad!) who prompted it or the long place-com (placement committee) hours, but those were the days, we bonded, discussed and strategised over chai. We spilled our dreams, hopes, ambitions in that canteen on the ground floor. And that was the place the guys got to ogle at the degree college’s gals, tea being only an excuse!

Tea in office was the vending machine affair. And since the coffee was much better, one hardly touched those solitary tea bags. Initially the office canteen did not have a chai walla. He made an appearance only after a few years. And boy, he was in demand! Our group was his most loyal customer base, and he would ask to wait as he brewed a special, fresh batch just for us (instead dispensing the reheated one).

And now since I (and a whole bunch of us) was in between projects, chai times became so very special. You had such amazing conversations and discussions over endless cups of chai. Since I had moved departments by then, chai became the 4’o clock connection to meet up with old friends, over gossip and gupshup, to get the khabar of previous and devious bosses!

And then somewhere along the line, some tapris cropped up outside the office building. That was another reason to take longer chai breaks (from work or no-work), stretch your legs, get out of the air conditioned zone, and catch the sunset, and then trawl back to your cubicles.

Which is what I sorely missed when I moved to Hong Kong and Taipei. There were none of  those get-togethers over tea. You made your tea, and had it alone, in your cubicle. The picture is rather forlorn, I know. After the rocking times I had shared back home.

Of course, this also stemmed from the fact that Indian tea (with its dubious chemicals) was banned from entering Taiwan. It disappeared from the shelves of the solitary Indian store, and never made an reappearance again. So then started my search for that special blend, that would impart the same robustness to my daily brew. Lipton, Tetley, Stassen, Burmese tea, Ceylon tea, black tea, red tea, all were tried in turns and discarded promptly. You would get the most awful panchat chaha from these, none of the kadak chai that Tata Gold, Taj Mahal or Society offered. While Masala chai is routinely offered at most Indian joints here in Taipei, it is far from the masala chai back home. This is a really watered down (pun intended) version.

These have been trying tea times of course. I had to switch to coffee to tide me over, and then given up that as well. My quest for tea continues (and I picked up another chai sample just last week). But I was in for some good luck. After buying basanti, on the way home, we stopped at an Indian place, in one of the lanes across National Taiwan University. The food was strictly ok, the decor absolutely shady and garish. It was closing time, and there were few patrons left. When the owner decided to chat us up a bit. And as we settled the bill, came up with two best cups of chai I had in months! The Scientist was in no mood for it, so I dutifully finished both cups, savouring each sip.

Later the Scientist exclaimed that the owner was trying to line maaro and that was the reason he offered us chai. Which of course I vehemently denied, and to this day maintain! We haven’t been to that place since.

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Keep calm and drink chai, the cup seems to say!

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