Illustrated by Rohit Bhasi
My mother always had a stringent no chai rule in the house. She always maintained that young children, and especially girls, should restrain from having too much chai. It has nicotine, it’s bad for the digestive system, and if you let it simmer for long, it produces the worst acid in the body. While growing up, we were allowed milk, Rooh-afza and the occasional Frooti but chai was the son of the devil. I did not encounter any significant problem in adhering to the no chai rule. I didn’t give it much thought and went about adolescence and young adulthood doing my own things like reading, hanging out with friends and dreaming of the future.
After I finished school, I wanted to read more books and study them in detail. My mother approved of my aspirations and gave me her blessings to leave my hometown and get enrolled in Delhi University for an Honors in Literature, of course, as long as I was a good girl and stuck to milk, Rooh-afza and Frooti. I was 18 when I left home, innocent, young and never having tasted chai. Hoping that college would be everything I had dreamed it to be.
Six months into my first year, a guy I had a crush on, asked me if I would like to go for a cup of coffee. He was tall, muscular and had little mind of his own which made him perfect for an 18-year-old starry-eyed novice. I thought long and hard about his offer. I realized I was warned enough about chai, but there were no instructions on how to approach coffee. Since no information was available, I thought it was okay to go ahead and have that cup of coffee.
We met, he was handsome, I was young. We hit it off, and lots more cups of coffee followed. After dating for two years, I realized the limitations of muscular and handsome. Little did I know that first boyfriends are only the trial run and one should give them up in time. Whoever invented high school sweethearts, was probably drinking copious amounts of chai, empty stomach. After a very dramatic and sad breakup, we said our goodbyes, and he left to try his luck in the film industry. But damn him, I was hooked on coffee.
After my graduation, I was still not done with my fascination with literature and all that it had to offer. I retook my mothers’ blessings and enrolled in masters. After assuring her that I was still not having any chai and sticking to our rules of milk, rooh-afza and Frooti. I realized since there were still no instructions about coffee, I was good to go. Time went by as I was trying to keep pace with all that living an adult life entailed. In my second year of masters, I met my second man. A literature enthusiast himself, he knew what mattered. He was adorable, soft-spoken and talked like he had read about a lot of things that I hadn’t. I liked him instantly. He asked if I would like to go for some chai.
My world came crashing down, I was nervous and panic-stricken. With a small voice, I told him, I have never had chai. He looked bewildered. It was not the answer he had expected. I told him; I never gave it much thought. He was not convinced. He sang praises after praises of chai. Like it was the elixir keeping adults on their toes. It was not something we chose, but it chose us. He wanted me to come along with him and have special chai made by his very hands. We ended up going to his place. It was small and charming with a little window looking out into the neighbourhood. I looked at his books, as he went into the kitchen to make the hot beverage I was cautioned against. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen with a small tray on which sat two innocent-looking cups and a small bowl of sugar. He mixed the required amount of sweetness in it and passed me the cup. I stared at the steaming vortex of liquid poison in my hand. Unsure and petrified, I took a sip. When I looked up from the cup, I saw his smiling kind face prodding me on with its beautiful warmth. I drank the whole thing. We talked through the night, as I consumed more and more chai. By dawn, I was in love or under the heavy influence of chai.
As I reached home, a pang of slight guilt crept up on me. A small nudging in my head, whispering in my ear that chai was the drink of loose women and the acid reflux will hit me soon, giving me exactly what I deserve. However, that guilt was quickly overpowered by the amazing man I was with. In a few months, we moved in together, and each morning started with a hot steaming cup of chai. I was delirious with happiness, looking up different mugs online, secretly ordering tea leaves off shady websites. Every day, I strayed more and more away from the young girl who feared her mother and the drink of the devil. Mothers had no power here, it was the young kitchen of two youthful lovers.
As years passed, my drinking habits were exposed. Every time I visited my mother and home, I could not overcome the urge to drink chai. My head felt heavy, I was irritated and finally, one morning when I was 25, I went into the family kitchen and made myself one simmered sweet cup of chai. I was not prepared for what followed. My mother and I had a big showdown. I had flouted her teachings; I was weak and disobedient. She was still my mother, but I was not the daughter she had hoped to raise. Disheartened and broken, I packed my bags, stored some chai in a flask for the road, picked up my baggage and left my house and mother. Back in Delhi, with the man who introduced me to chai, life felt on track again. Six years had passed since the golden liquid had first touched my lips. Six years of books, exchanging recipes of hot beverages and living an enviable life filled with love and support. Sadly, like all good things, it seemed like those days also had to come to an end. It was like curtains down on a famous play or an excellent manuscript, not being able to find a publisher. He was the first man who made chai for me, but it was time to go our separate ways. He had taught me so much that ginger gives a zing to tea. There is honey and lemon for times when you don’t want to add milk or a bit of jaggery in winters works wonders for a creamy sweetness.
It was hard, the most challenging thing I had to do. Not knowing, where to turn or who to talk to, my ravished heart remembered my mother. I went back home, struggling and trembling. My feet not being able to find the right way back into the house I had forsaken. Nonetheless, my mother took me in. I was suffering from anxiety and depression. I was taken to a doctor, and he was promptly informed that I have a terrible habit of drinking strong chai that has been left to simmer. Sometimes, even on an empty stomach. The doctor furrowed his brows, looked disappointed, scratched off something from the prescription and added new medicines. For a month, I stayed home, getting only one small cup of chai in the evenings and much information on other non-threatening, warm beverages. By now, I was a PhD student, a woman entering my thirties, and Delhi was calling me back. I packed my bags once again, swearing to my mother, I will be a good girl and stick to milk, rooh-afza and frooti. I was done with chai. Coffee would never betray me like this. I resolved to give myself time to heal. The thesis needed my attention, and that’s what I did while a year passed.
One late evening, I was sitting with some friends in a small roundabout in a market, right across from a tea stall. As the smell of strongly brewed tea wafted through the air, I maintained my control. I looked across and saw a man smiling at me. His eyes twinkled as he sipped chai from a small cup. His face glowed as the sun dipped in the evening sky. I smiled back at him, and he approached my friends and me. Shy and silent, he mumbled if I would like to have some chai. It was not a difficult choice to make the second time around. I knew what I had to do. The tea stall from across the small roundabout in a humble Delhi market, was where I met the third and last man I was destined to drink chai with for the rest of my life.
My mother is still not very thrilled with the unfolding of events and she still maintains her strict standards when it comes to chai . However, I have hope that with time she will eventually understand that a large part of growing up is finding that one hot beverage that is just perfect for you.
Sevali is a research scholar who has a penchant for the dramatic, dances to Punjabi songs and can never say no to potatoes or chai.