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Nostalgia has a Taste, and It’s a Lot Like ‘Chai’

Chai or ‘cha’ as I am more used to calling it (it is an East India thing), was never just a beverage. It was always an event one looked forward to  –  despite the fact that endless cups got repeated over the day. It was the epicentre for all of us to get together for

Chai or ‘cha’ as I am more used to calling it (it is an East India thing), was never just a beverage. It was always an event one looked forward to  –  despite the fact that endless cups got repeated over the day. It was the epicentre for all of us to get together for discussions, debates and even family interventions. Long cha sessions were the only way I could possibly discover, even before I was five years old, that there was a Maxim Gorky, a Karl Marx, a Hemingway and a Chekov (never forget Chekov!). Cha was always about ‘not-rushing’, about long leisurely conversations, it was about shawls and winters, about vegetable gardens in summer. A cup of tea accompanied you everywhere. Sometimes even my dog got a taste of a couple of drops, when Mum wasn’t looking.

Cha was also about intensely-fought-over cultural identities. For example, my paternal grandmother favoured the all-boiled-together version of the very Indian chai. My maternal grandmother, who was Bengali, considered it a complete sacrilege, and would do the English ceremony instead, where the decoction would get done first, and sugar and milk added after (and oh yes, the milk was lukewarm and poured first into the cup).

I remember the mugs and who favoured which, at my grandparent’s house. It was rather territorial. Somehow, each mug became a mnemonic for me to figure out each personality. Who wanted the largest mug, who was interested in aesthetics, who was awfully finicky and who didn’t really care. And then of course the more formal tea-service which would also make an appearance on some Sundays. Usually, if the afternoon had been spent baking, tea-cake and cha are served in the evenings. That was seriously special. And, I suspect, we used more dignified movements in having that tea.

Cha (and particularly untimely ones) was when neighbours and friends dropped in without notice. And while what to offer with the tea might have been in question for my Mom, cha had to be made. Cha was, for me and many of my friends, also an exam time thing. An ongoing feature of college life, and then later campus life. Today, when I usually have a ‘no-milk, no-sugar earl grey’ concoction, I wonder how we managed to have cups and cups of super hot, too-sugary tea at all those stalls and shops that dotted the campus.

Cha was also when you catch up in later years with a friend who’s a journalist, and he insists on a ‘bundi’ chai for old times sake. And there you are. Standing in a slight drizzle, balancing on heels, side-arming the laptop bag and gulping down small (but several) cups of hot tea! And Cha is the weekend, when you don’t make a coffee run to Starbucks or Spinelli’s but make a strong cup at home. Put on some old-time Geeta Dutt and Kishore Kumar classics, and go back in time. Time itself seems to take on a different measure, with each leisurely sip of the magical brew.
If this is nostalgia, then it sure tastes like cha.

Barsha Panda is a story-teller, brand-builder and photographer. Based in Singapore, she is the Director of Communications for Oracle, JAPAC. More about her on Twitter @barshapanda. This story was originally published on Medium: @Barsha.

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