What happens when you throw a Gen Z coffee addict into a Gujarati society? This blog post...
If you’ve ever been a guest at anyone’s house in any part of the country, (or any Indian’s place of residence anywhere, really), I am 100% sure of the one thing that you have been offered (read: politely accepted) – cha, chai, tea, chiya, chaya, cheeya. For more well-written history on Chai in India, check this out!
Growing up, I had the privilege of being able to get my caffeine fix through various kinds of coffee, of which my favourite still remains the hot, whipped and sweet cup of coffee I make daily, even before the pandemic-induced publicity of the now-famed Dalgona version. I found solace in holding this cup during the all-nighters meant for studying to keep up with the unhealthy standards of education we are expected to maintain since our adolescence, (this is not a rant condemning the system, I promise!) or with my group of fellows and friends on a Sunday morning here, in Bhuj.
I always wondered what it was, with chai and Indian society, especially while making multiple cups for my parents during hot summer days in Delhi. It must be something more than just caffeine, right? I think I unknowingly understood the emotion behind this offering as an action, even if I could not put it into words or might not be able to, still.
The first epiphany or AHA! moment occurred when Sohini and I forayed out into Nizammudin Basti in Delhi, to try our hand at knowing the ‘unit economics’ of vendors. The idea was to understand the unit costs, profits, or the wage that someone would earn, say, in a day. Because I still struggle with approaching both new and familiar people, to ask questions, or to start conversations, my brain rationalised the beginning of this rather tedious conversation which could possibly include the costs of sugar, tea leaves, milk, etc. with a cup of tea. The sweetness of chai became my go-to, in trying to begin this interaction, and I was much more easily able to convey my intentions for asking questions and conduct the ‘interview’. The uncle was incredibly happy to make this for us, and even answer questions to the best of his ability, from the kilos of milk he used every day to the fluctuations in sales over the period of a day.
And then in October, I joined SETU Abhiyan, a new organization, met new people to work with and had much to understand. Firstly, there was a language to learn, public policies to know, and simply an ecosystem to become a part of.
Between all the overwhelming introductions, and not being able to completely comprehend Gujarati, I found myself accepting multiple cups of chai.
(If you got a dollar for every time you read ‘cup of chai’ in this post, would we collectively be able to put Bezos out of business? The answer is no, for many years to come.)
Chai is not just a drink, for us Indians. It is love, it is instant family, it is acceptance (imagine a community member saying: yes, you. I will allow you to bother me for a few minutes. But drink this chai first), and most of all, it is culture.
My hesitation, or rather unease with drinking endless cups of chai (I mean, one cup every hour is NOT normal for even dedicated chai drinkers. Right? Right?) on the field was noticed by Jayanti Bhai. He has over two decades of experience, from taking on a fellowship-like program in rural Kutch in 2000 to helping Gujarat build itself back up after the earthquake in 2001. After yet another stop for tea, he said from the rider seat of the bike “Aap chai naashte ko mana nahi kar sakte hai. Sabko bura lagega!” – you cannot say no to tea and snacks, everyone would feel bad!
Although, I’m still not sure if it was him looking out for me and helping me fit into Gujarati culture, or if he was instead giving me advice on surviving in the field. So the next day when Masi, who cleans and takes care of the SETU Abhiyan office in Bhimasar, offered in Kutchi (which varies quite a bit from Gujarati and does not share any words with Hindi or Urdu) to take me to her house and make me chai, I happily locked my room and followed her, barely being able to grasp exactly what she was saying.
Turns out, it was the best morning I have had in a while. Her house was a part of the Rabari settlement, part of the rebuilding and relief efforts by Sahara India. While sitting in her kitchen as she made tea for me and pointed to her grandson’s framed photo on the wall, a strong wave of nostalgia overcame. It felt like the day my father had taught me to make chai in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, as he instructed a confused version of me, “Aur abh bas andaaze se chai ki patti daalni hai!” – and now, just put the tea leaves in, by an estimate/guess!
Turns out, the ‘andaza‘ needed to put the right amount of tea leaves while making chai took me a little time to get right, but has become a recipe now always appreciated by family and visitors. I had been a part of this culture, I had grown up in it. Now I could look at it from a different lens and understand why we are taught to ask our guests if they would like to drink something, by giving them a choice between water and (mostly) chai.
So, is this ‘andaza‘ or estimate that I have had to learn through trial and error eventually quite like familiarity, a slowly acquired sense of being able to navigate new situations and people? It is not lost on me, that the taste of chai still feels unfamiliar and strange.
But I can surely say that over the last two months, the warmth and happiness that a steaming paper cup of chai brings has become as familiar as my solace in coffee.
(Also, please enjoy a picture of the tea shop that I visit every day from work. It has become pivotal in my quest to find the most interesting ways Indian society prevails in our day-to-day lives!)