“You can’t drink tea, because it will darken your complexion,” my mother’s mantra since I was born. Growing up in New Delhi, I was surrounded by tea. Whether you lived in slums, flats, or bungalows you started your day with a cup of tea.
My mother was unaware that my maternal grandparents were serving me tea since my childhood. I used to spend my summer-break at their home, where every evening at 4:30 my aunt prepared tea and fried papads. My mother still doesn’t know. According to her, I took my first sip of tea at 16. That was because at 16, I was living in a working-women’s hostel. There tea was served four times a day with unlimited refills. My mother has herself to blame for that.
After my two year stint at the working women’s hostel in New Delhi, for five years I lived in Kolhapur as an undergrad. Kolhapur is a small city famous for its spiciest food and sweetest tea. I used to drink around ten cups of tea daily. I am unsure about my reasons of obsessive tea drinking. I think I dank so much tea because it was the cheapest drink, or probably because I had freedom to drink it. I was not worried about getting dark. At that time, I used to gallivant in the hot sun; I was as dark as I possibly could be. I only worried about getting diabetes. I made sure to drink tea without sugar. Those were the days before emails and mobiles. If my friends wanted to find me, they would ask around, “Has anyone seen the girl—who doesn’t take sugar.”
I moved to Mumbai for work after I graduated. My love affair with tea continued. In Mumbai, tea is everywhere. I didn’t have to go to a tea-stall or a restaurant. There are sellers on the bicycle selling tea. There I learned a new practice to drink tea. Just ask for ‘cutting chai (tea).’ Now, two people can share a glass of tea in separate glasses for the cost of one glass of tea! I had a boss who used to say that people who share tea become friends, but people who share a cigarette never form a bond. I never shared tea; I shared cigarettes. I think smokers were friendlier.
First time I had a kitchen in my rental apartment was during my stay in New Delhi. I learned to prepare Indian tea. I would put a pot of water to boil, as soon as I woke up. I would take care of my morning business until the water was way past its boiling point. I liked my tea dark, almost black, so I would add few spoons of Assam black tea. And I would let it boil and boil. When the water was black, I would add a big splash of milk. And I would boil it again. When the color was dark-muddy-brown, I would strain it. There was so much boiling, that, for one cup of tea I started with four cups of water. I began every morning with a cup of tea and a newspaper. I repeated the same process as soon as I returned home from work. At that time, I thought tea has only one color—black.
I enjoyed drinking tea. In New Delhi, I had my favorite roadside tea-stalls. Tea-sellers would recognize me and make special-tea for me. I know my tea was special because I wanted it without sugar and the tea-seller had to boil fresh water for that. I was so frequent at some tea-stalls that I knew about their family history, names, names of their children’s schools, and everything. I wonder if the tea-stalls outside India Habitat Centre, Meghdoot theatre, and the one behind my last office are still there.
When I had a cook, I taught her to make a perfect cup of tea for me. My office peon had a separate, big cup for my tea. My boyfriend (now my husband) and my first activity together was a cigarette with a glass of tea. Way to my happiness was one good cup of Indian tea with cardamom.
After my move to America, I realized that there are no roadside tea-stalls here. My first apartment had an old fashion electric coil cooking range. Somehow, it never made the perfect tea. The Indian grocery store near me didn’t carry Assam tea. Gradually, I adjusted to the electric stove and I learned to drink Lipton tea. I tried to hold on to my tea drinking, but everyone around me drank coffee. Every television advertisement was about the morning coffee. My classmates, coworkers, friends, and boyfriend talked about the perfect coffee. I smelled coffee everywhere. I tried to convert. I bought a coffeemaker. I did my best to enjoy Folgers, instant, Starbucks, and everything else. I tried to find my taste. I drank coffee black, black with sugar, and with milk and sugar. I tried espresso, French roast, latte, mocha, and black-white. But I just didn’t like coffee. Those were hard few years for me. It is not that I didn’t drink tea during my conversion phase, but nothing tasted same as the tea in India.
After four years of trying-to-love-coffee experiment, I accepted that I am a tea person. I stared to fiend my perfect tea. I drank teas from coffee shops. I tried to like chai-latte, but I just couldn’t. By fluke, I discover about tea brewing. So instead of boiling Indian black tea, I started soaking tea bags. I was interested in the non-boiling process. I started exploring. My first non-Indian tea was ginger Yogi tea bags from Safeway. Bit-by-bit I started understanding and appreciating different teas. I invested in tea accessories: tea canisters, strainers, boiling kettles, and brewing kettles. I had a wide selection of loose teas. My favorite was Davidson’s Silver Pearls.
Three years ago, due to medial reasons I was told not to drink caffeine. I assured my doctor that I only drank tea. I learned that tea has caffeine. And decaffeinated tea also has caffeine. I don’t drink soda. So what was I to do? I was informed that my only option was herbal tea. My world collapsed. I couldn’t imagine a happy life without a decent cup of tea.
I stared to explore herbal teas. I find that rooibos tea is closest in taste and color to my idea of tea. I discovered varieties of rooibos tea. There is rooibos masala chai, plain rooibos, rooibos spices, rooibos mint, and rooibos vanilla. I am sure there are more. But right now, these are satisfying my need.
Today, my biggest challenge is finding herbal teas in restaurants, cinemas, theaters, and shopping areas. Every place offers either chamomile or mint tea. Some places have fruit based herbal teas. None of those tastes like real tea to me. I improvised. I bought an 8-hour hot thermos. I carry my thermos filled with hot water, and rooibos tea bags everywhere I go. I smuggle them in a tote-bag when I go for films. Sometimes I am bold and I just carry my travel mug to the restaurants. I notice that sometimes some people sideeye me. Once a co-worker told me that I am fancy. I rather be called fancy than to live without tea.