Of all the things India needs to change for the better – women’s rights; civic cleanliness; sanitation; roads, road rules, driving skills – it had to choose chai – a beverage that was in perfectly good working order as it was.
When I first came to India more than a decade ago when you traveled on a train chai was served to you in small clay cups. These added a particular earthy flavour to the tea and when you were finished you threw the cup onto the railtracks if at a station, or out of the train window if you were en-route. The cup would break and time would recycle it back to it’s original organic form.: dust, earth. The chai itself would be a preparation of tea leaves brewed in milk — some chai wallahs (tea sellers) might add a few spices— liberally sweetened and always hot*. Whilst it wasn’t a brew your tooth enamel appreciated it was an essential accompaniment to any train journey.
I recently arrived at New Delhi railway station to catch the train to Kolkata with plenty of time to spare catch so I naturally thought I would have a cup of tea whilst I waited. I parted with 5 rupees and was presented with a plastic cup in which a teabag was stewing in watery milk (or was it milky water?). Although it was sweet and hot, this could not redeem it from being truly awful. How sad that the ancient voluptuous clay vessel – each one unique —has been replaced with the uniform anorexic brittleness of plastic.
It didn’t get much better on the train— a Rajdhani Express with meals and drinks included in the fare. The chai was do-it-yourself —a thermos of hot water, two tea bags, a sachet of dairy whitener and two bulging sachets of sugar. The resulting brew might have been ok it I was camping but in these circumstances my expectations had been much higher and I was not satisfied.
At 6.30 am we pulled into a station somewhere in rural West Bengal— and I spotted a chaiwallah. I indicated to him that I would like some chai. He automatically reached for a plastic cup: ‘Ji nahin’ (no!) … I wish I could say I launched into perfect Hindi about how I preferred the clay cups he also had but I just pointed. Oh it was good — and when I it was finished I dropped the cup onto the tracks – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
* There is no difficulty getting a truly hot drink in India. I ordered a hot chocolate in Flury’s in Kolkata and it was actually ‘hot’ – without me having to plead with the barista to make it ‘really, really, really hot’ only to still end up with a warm drink. Why is it that in this unbearably hot and sticky climate people get hot drinks right?