VANCOUVER: Chai is the lifeblood of India. It is served almost everywhere in tiny cups or small glasses from dawn until way past dusk in roadside make-shift cafes called dhabas, bus stands, railway stations, street corners as well as homes and markets.
The proper name for the drink popularized by Starbucks as Chai Latte is chai or masala chai. The word chai means tea and masala means spice or spices in the Hindi language. The word chai has its roots in the Chinese word “Cha”.
Tea was always part and parcel of my breakfast as far as I can remember. A steamy cup of tea has warmed my senses nearly every morning since early childhood. There is something magical, comforting and invigorating about a cup of tea, even on a hot day. One of my fondest memories revolves around getting hot masala chai at train stations in India. Chai-wallahs (tea-sellers) would rapidly enter the compartments or yell “chai garam” (hot tea) through open windows, the moment a train arrived at a station. It was always a blissful experience to hold a deliciously steaming, perfectly brewed fragrant chai and sip it carefully.
Tea is tied to my memories of growing up in India. My siblings and I have many fond memories of our father making tea for us in the mornings and waking us to study in the cold winter mornings. My father had a passion for tea and a unique ability to indulge in sublime conversations or animated discussions on diverse topics over a cup of tea.
We continue that tradition of guzzling down one cup of tea after another whenever we siblings get together and recall past anecdotes tenderly and carefully to indulge in nostalgia. He had a meager income and a big family to support. He worked hard to ensure all of us get good education to let us be where we are today. He showed us that money wasn’t everything though without it, one has nothing. He showed us tolerance, perseverance, kindness, generosity, strength, sacrifice, compromise, love, pain and forgiveness through personal examples.
It has been over 40 years since I left India, yet I have not forgotten sitting in open-air chai cafés drinking creamy, ultra sweet chai with friends. Authentic Indian chai is a far cry from the watered-down American coffeehouse version. Real chai is made with thick buffalo milk, lots of sugar, black tea, and cardamom but ginger, cloves and anise are also frequently used.
Until lately it never occurred to me that the process of making tea and drinking is just as meaningful as any form of meditation. I came across a book by Osho called “Art of Tea: Meditation to Awaken your Spirits.”
Using the ancient Zen tea ceremony, Osho demonstrates the relationship between relaxation, alertness, & meditation. This got me thinking of my father and what he did while preparing tea. I think my father’s ritual is just as good as Osho’s.
I think, unwittingly, my father pursued the following steps roughly outlined by Osho as Tea ceremony while making Punjabi style chai:
He sang spiritual songs while making tea to purify his mind to bring positive thoughts and energy to his heart and to thank the Creator for providing us the best we could hope for.
He carefully chose a flavourful blend to express his present mood or state of mind, expressed through the spices like cardamom, cinnamon, star anise or ginger that were mixed with tea.
He boiled the water with the spices and black tea to fill the environment with a sweet aroma.
Then he added sugar and milk to the concoction and stirred it with love and care before waking up his children to have tea and to study.
Finally, he would sit down in a comfortable place to be one with his tea and let all his five senses relish the freshly brewed hot cup of tea. After enjoying tea, he would go for a walk. This was his idyllic way of connecting with our hearts and to begin a brand-new day optimistically.
Memories of his tea making ritual inspired me to write a poem and I will like to share some of the verses with you –
my father’s favourite time
in the morning was 5.00 a.m.
when his frail figure moved through the dark
to start his day
as his fingers pumped
the shaft of a kerosene oil stove
to bring the orange flame to life
to make chai
Chai, a daily ritual of boiling a concoction
of anise seeds, black tea leaves, cardamoms
milk and sugar
in a small pot.
Smell of kerosene oil mixed with burnt milk
would irritate my nose and wake me up.
I never understood why waking up
had to be so traumatic.
He would drink sip by sip
all senses immersed
as one with tea and then
walk by the railway tracks to the ashram
where the roots of an ancient
banyan tree hung like a curtain
sheltering a Shiva Ling –
a symbol of creation
favourite of his guru
who died without giving a mantra
to my father
who served him without
any expectation of a payback
My father grumbled
who would guide the ship of his life
without a guru or a mantra now.
He resorted to another cup of chai
[Ashok Bhargava is the president of Writers International Network (WIN) Canada]