What I miss when I miss chai

I miss chai.

It’s a ridiculous thing to be missing now, you might say. And you will be right. But for someone whose rhythms of life are dictated by it, normalcy is chai. I miss it a lot.

Not tea, mind you. Not tea, the posh, dipped in hot water variety. You can have it all you want. It’s a soulless, vapid, foul thing, tainting chai’s name worldwide, and I want nothing to do with it. What I miss is the proper Indian version - boiled with milk, ginger, cardamom or other spices, had with a biscuit or two, downed with conversation and snark. The ones which always, always remind you that though life may be tough, the breaks can be delicious.

And if you are wondering if I’m one of those annoying, insufferable chai tragics, make no mistake, I absolutely am.

There are two shops in the lane where I live, and both serve the lovely, fragrant, Irani chai I’m so fond of. One is a sit down, get-a-biscuit-too version, which I visit in the early mornings with a book. The other is the very Puneri, very rude, take-it-and-walk stand, which I love even more.

These days, every time I walk past their downed shutters, I feel a pang, and wish they were open. 

But my favourite, the one I take all my friends to, is not one of these two.

It’s further ahead, past the Aga Khan bridge and the Kalyani Nagar crossing, past the Mercedes showroom, and the cooperative bank building. It’s barely a shop - just benches and a table, but at 5 am everyday, you can see groups of people congregating for that heavenly little cutting chai they serve. I have never had better chai, and believe me, I have had it everywhere, from Delhi to Varanasi to Madras to Lucknow to even Ahmedabad (their Wagh Bakri blend is what first hooked me on to the stuff). Once I observed an older lady getting off a car with a notepad, and writing down how the chai was being made. No one batted an eyelid, she seemed a regular. Noticing me watching, she told me that that she had tried to do this multiple times, but never could get that taste right.

Both she and I agreed then that she probably never would, and solemnly drank up.

I remember this one monsoon morning when a couple of my best friends had moved into my flat for a short while, having been driven out of theirs. I woke up very early, as I’m used to, and found Ashwin up. We started talking. We talked for a long time, about products, marketing, life and cricket. First we talked at home, and then got on my motorcycle and zoomed around Pune’s streets. We downed 5 cups of chai at (at least) 3 different tapris, including the one I described above, my favourite. We talked and talked and talked. I don’t remember any part of our conversation, but I remember the chill in the air, how the morning felt, and all that flavour.

Well, almost, but isn’t that enough?

In Madras, the tea is not as good, but I know where to get a decent cup. Our office had tea made for us inside too, but that misses the point. You have to go outside, have a couple of bajjis lathed in oil that are definitely not good for you, and talk. It is a communal activity - an excuse to get together at 5 pm and enjoy the balmy (okay, hot) evening. 

There are so many stories I have like this, and I could go on, but I won’t. Except maybe that Delhi’s best little kullad is from the man opposite the Hanuman temple on Connaught Place. Go there and have it, if you can. In the winter, preferably. After a Sunday morning trip to the Daryaganj Book Market, even better.

I’ll leave you with this video I love. It’s a creative for Society Tea, made by the agency Black Swan Life. It illustrates everything that I feel and love about chai as our country’s national drink. I don’t think it’s ever been made official. But who cares? 

If that’s not true, nothing is.

Written in Pune in June 2020, during lockdown extensions.