By Sydney, NSLI-Y India, Summer 2014
If there was one constant during my six week Indian sojourn, it was chai.
The heat, though relentless at times, stole away on cloudy nights, and eventually dissolved in the monsoon showers. The bugs made themselves known only when screen-less windows were left open, or the lights illuminated. The cows liked to hang out on provincial roads, and were rarely seen in the city, much like the road-roaming elephants that exist in my dreams. The chai, however, was everywhere.
After arriving in Pune, I had the wonderful privilege to get a glimpse of the city I would be calling home for the next six weeks. We were exploring the busy streets when I spotted a small cafe with a rather large audience. When we came to a slowing stop to observe, I couldn’t quite believe that the crowd of people were doing the right thing. It was a hot and thick afternoon, the sun mercilessly inflicting its intense heat without any objection from a single cloud, and these people were lined up to get hot chai. I could barely see the man behind the rickety wooden counter through all the steam escaping the teapot that whistled mockingly at the stove. All I could think about at that point was an ice-cold water, not a steaming cup of tea.
Part of me wanted to decline the offer of the steaming brownish liquid for three reasons:
1) It was hot (outside);
2) The paranoid traveler within me didn’t want to disobey my father’s instructions to not try anything from the street “no matter how good it looks;” and
3) I didn’t even like tea. But a bigger part of me argued to shrug off the concerns, because why else was I traveling if not to try and learn new things?
I weighed my options, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk just yet. However, as I savored and sipped on the image in my mind, slightly regretful, I was greeted with the same liquid in a small china receptacle upon reaching home. After a few seconds of staring at the Chai rippling inside the small china cup, I took a sip. It was a pleasure and a surprise to find that even under the bright sun, in the thick heat of the afternoon, the hot chai was inexplicably comforting.
However it was certainly not something you would get handed in exchange for $4.75 at your local Starbucks. Yes, it had the taste of all the familiar flavors–milk, black tea, sugar. But it also carried the taste of spices, and colored powder, and Bollywood, and saris, and raga rock, and yoga, and that same indefinite something that drew me to India in the first place. I finished my chai in two sips and a gulp, an action that I have noticed brings joy to those who served it to you.
From that moment on I have been hooked. And thanks to the gods of India (and my host family), chai wasn’t hard to find.
There was chai in sidewalk stalls, in bookstore cafes, in malls, in airports, and an unending amount in every home I visited.
Some places served better chai than others, though I was always pleased to obtain any chai at all. My favorite chai, however, was the homemade kind, mostly because they always came with something more (I don’t mean crackers or a Good Day butter cookie).
Whenever I entered a home, I was immediately, with consistency, offered piping hot chai. I often felt the offer to be a burden on my generous host, but a neighbor explained to me that it is normal for Indians to go extra lengths to please their guests because in their culture, all guests are Vishnu in disguise.
I saw this belief manifested in every other way I was treated by the people I met, but not in the way I was served chai. The tea never once made me feel like a deity. It always made me feel like family.