It tasted like magic. In French glass taller than the rest, thicker than the rest. With a stainless spoon stuck in it so that the glass will not crack. A wad of unfiltered brewed tea leaves settled at the bottom. Extra sugar stirred gently as to not unsettle the tea leaves. My mother’s tea. This serving was reserved only for us. It was not for everyone and not for every occasion. This was her pick me up. And de-facto became ours too. After coming back from school, finishing lunch, her ritual of picking and folding clothes drying on the line outside, held by strong wooden pegs and ironing them, she would make herself a glass of tea. More than she required, for like little ants, the three of us, my two sisters and I would come crawling out of all crevices and fissures of the house. And head straight for her. And wait our turn. And one by one she would pass it around. She would get the first gulp; it was too hot for us. Being the youngest, my turn was the last. Being very young also, I could not filter the tea leaves out with my teeth and would invariably sip them too. My mother would lean over and gently remove them from my mouth. The taste of tea leaves and her gentle touch lingers.
Our small house was cool, well ventilated and surrounded by a small verandah with two trees in the front yard. During summers, after this tea was drunk, my mother would lie down on the cool mosaic floor of the living room and stretch her arm out for me. And I would sidle up to her. Her arm felt cool and I would press my face against it and she would brush me off. It was her time to relax. She would take a small pillow and place it in the crook of her arm, gently pat it and beckon me to lie down next to her. And there we would both sleep off, my small arm held on by her to keep me close to her. During winters the tea ritual shifted outdoors under the remnants of the fleeting afternoon sun; on a homemade charpoy (cot). We drank sweet tea, ate peanuts with jaggery, and moved the cot chasing the sun. And took a very small nap; me clinging on to my mother. I was the youngest and her favorite; agreeing with her, not fussy about food, always willing to run errands for her and help her around the house.
She was a part of a large family, the eldest sister to five younger siblings. With her mother always in some stage of childbearing, she literally brought them up, just as a mother would. And they all used to visit us very often. Her cooking and tea making skills were in great demand. I was always the gofer. The moment anybody would come home, I was dispatched off to the market; there was always Coca-Cola on the list. She loved it and insisted on serving it to everyone. There was always a crate in the storeroom and invariably it was always empty, for she would sneak in and polish it off! Seeing how much she loved it, we would stay clear of the 24 bottles stacked neatly in a wooden crate. The Coca-Cola Company’s delivery truck had been contracted to supply one crate a month, but it was never enough. So, my job was to count the number of guests, run to the storeroom, get as many empty bottles as the guests, get on my bike, and speed to the store to exchange them for filled ones. Come home, and give them to my elder sister, who would wash them, open them, put a paper straw, and put them on a tray and rush to serve them. The challenge always was to finish the drink before the paper straw came apart.
These were not hurried visits. No visits were hurried ones. Even the just dropped by to see how you are doing lasted a few hours. My uncles and aunts and everyone had more than enough time. There was never any rush, there was much to catch up, phones were few and few had televisions and even those who did, the entertainment was restricted to a movie on Sunday evenings and a Chitrahaar (a string of movie songs) every Wednesday for a half an hour. After the cold drinks had been served, my mother would get busy in the kitchen, put water to boil and crush cardamom pods and toss them into warm water. Her family considered Mohini Behenji’s tea the very best. Young teens were given instructions to go learn tea brewing skills from my mother. And you could never ever go back from our house without drinking tea served to you. Even in the middle of hot summer, with the hot ‘loo’ swishing and enervating everyone, tea would still be served.
The house was small and open so one could walk in and out of conversations and still be a part of them, her rejoinders to a statement made in the living room would come from the dining area, or from the kitchen, everyone was ok with my mother busying herself in the kitchen, for this story was often repeated when we went to visit others. After Coke bottles had been served and picked up, I was again sent off, to either buy hot fritters or whole wheat biscuits or warm saltines being baked in a nearby bakery. I never carried any money; everyone knew everyone and accounts were settled quickly at the end of every month. My job was to stand silently and point out the things I needed, and they would be packed and I would be home in time for them to be served with hot tea.
But this was not our tea. It was served in cups; my mother knew this and would never serve a cup for me. She knew it would go waste. She would pour me a small serving of tea in our glass. My father knowing how much she loved her tea in a glass had bought her beautiful French glasses. And knowing how slippery soapy hands could get, made sure to buy a replacement set every time he went abroad. The tea and gossip and other very simple conversations would go into the evenings and more often than not would become dinners were my father to come home early. If our exams were around the corner, my mother would gently and graciously nudge and budge the guests to leave before my father got home because then our whole schedule would go for a toss. But very often on weekends, our house was full of guests, tea, and food.
As we grew older, one glass became four glasses; it defined us and our life. Tea was our medium, it coursed in our veins, it was the connecting tissue to our mother, a restorative, a faith healer; an anecdote to any and all problems of life. Tea kept us together and afloat after my mother passed on. After bidding her goodbye, the first thing we did was to drink tea, served in glasses, and with one poured out for her as well. And each drank a gulp from it.
From my childhood to now, my love for tea has withstood all competition; from infusions, from filter coffee and from various other beverages. It also held my hand through the many changes my life went through; it comforted me in my loneliness when I toke up a position in Mumbai, commuting every week from Chennai to work. My irrational commuting job took me to an on-campus, lake facing, beautiful fourth-floor apartment inside the Bhavan’s campus. In the beginning, without any refrigerator to store milk, I used to go down to the tea stall right outside the institute gate for an early morning cup, albeit served in a glass. Here I was introduced to a sweet sticky masala chai and reminded me of my childhood. Soon enough I knew the tea seller, Bhaiya Ji well and he would wait for me with a clean glass and freshly brewed masala chai.
He was from Bihar and had family, wife, daughters, and sons back home and had come to Mumbai for work, somehow learned to brew tea, got a small tea stall, cooked, lived and slept in the tiny area and sorted his life out. My connection with him was almost immediate. He narrated stories of his village to me and in return, I would inform him of the world and we would discuss politics and other general issues. Over the course of my first year here, I used to drink an early morning glass of tea every day, at his stall right by the roadside much to the amusement of my students. Even if I was passing by in the daytime, he would call me and give me a half a glass of tea and refuse to accept any money for it. He became my tea friend; inquired about my family in Chennai and informed me about his children and wife back home. He was a man content in his existence and making a decent life for himself and his family. I would take back an occasional gift of ‘murukkus’ for him from Chennai, much to his delight.
Life as they say is unpredictable and all of a sudden demonetization hit everyone. It severely affected him but in his stoic way he told me ‘hum ko to aadat hi ho gaye hai en saab baation ki- we are used to the adversity of life’. Somehow, he managed to keep his head above water and managed to survive the sudden disappearance of cash with immense hardship. It was tough for him because his clientele was auto drivers, security guards, construction workers all with limited access to cash and some professors like me. The students of the institute shifted to the tea stall inside the campus as they brought in Paytm. Bhaiyaji was confused and not able to understand the concept of digital cash, he scaled down.
Soon another misfortune hit him; the Institute embarked on a long-delayed infrastructural development project and the little stalls outside were given some time to relocate; the small shop selling bread, eggs and cigarettes, the tea stall and the stree-wala were all asked to vacate. I don’t know where the other two went but Bhaiyya ji managed to find a place right opposite, in an under construction building and restarted his tea stall. He was visibly upset and told me that he is going to ask his son to come and help out and return to his village for a while. I found the tea stall inconvenient and stopped visiting and saw less and less of him. My children were writing their final exams and so my trips to Chennai were longer and I did not check up on him often.
One early morning, I returned from Chennai and found myself completely out of milk and sugar and tea; I had been busy and had neglected to go grocery shopping. I went looking for my old friend and found the new tea stall shut down with no sign of the tea, the tea seller or his son. The shack was deserted and some tea stains on an old countertop was all that was left.
I made do with a glass of hot water that day.