The Culture of Chai

Madeeha Maqbool


Madeeha begins her digital curatorial stint with a personal essay on the culture of chai that pervades several aspects of our lives in Pakistan.




First you fill the teapot with water.


I frown in concentration as I raise the pot and pour the cold tap water into a porcelain teacup and proceed to raise it to my lips. A loud slurp is essential until I receive a look from my mother. I then take another, more silent, sip. I am five years old and having an elaborate tea party with my Nani’s tea set. “What about that teapot?” I ask, pointing at a stately specimen on a silver salver on the sideboard. “We don’t use that one. It’s the set your Nana’s regiment presented him with when he retired from the Army,” my Nani replies and then removes the silver pot, milk jug and sugar pot from the salver to show me the signatures carved into the metal.


Chainak is what my Nani calls her teapots. She’s the only person in my family to use that word. Kaitli I understand is the kettle. Her sideboard is filled with tea utensils of every kind—complete porcelain sets, lone pots or milk jugs or sugar bowls whose brethren have shattered at children’s or staffs’ hands, Chinese tea bowls and of course, tea cosies. There are furry tea cosies, appliqued ones, embroidered ones, patchworked ones, formal ones and insanely kitschy ones. In the singular reversal of patriarchal roles in their household, my Nana makes breakfast tea for my Nani, served to her on a tray in the morning because she is incapable of opening her eyes without at least two cups of tea inside her. A third is drunk while she walks slowly from the bedroom to the kitchen. She makes more of the brown brew a few hours later while she listens to music or radio-plays on her old box radio. Strangely enough, I am never tempted to taste tea. Perhaps because of its ubiquity.


No, first you put sugar and coffee in a mug.


My Nana fastidiously drinks coffee. The first thing any orderly or domestic worker is probably taught in their house is the correct sugar to coffee ratio and which of the mugs is his coffee mug.

Then you add a few drops of water.


The right amount here is essential. Too much and you have a runny mixture that is of no use to anyone. Forearm strength is also essential to beat the mixture to a paste. The bitter, ochre-coloured half-liquid is a favourite amongst the family’s children. There is a story from my mother’s childhood of a too tall orderly who beat the mixture and held the mug high to prevent my Khala from eating it. She merely brought a chair, climbed up and took the mug from him. She scooped up the whole thing and my Nana kept yelling from the living room, “Where is that damn coffee?”


But the paraphernalia of drinking that I love to play with is reserved for tea. The other liquid, the one that my Nana lets us sneak cooled teaspoonfuls of, is a one-utensil operation—beaten in the same mug it is eventually consumed from.


Add boiling milk or water to taste. If there is any mixture left. If not, repeat the above process.

Measure many cups of water into a large saucepan and bring to a boil.


It is Sunday. I am now eleven years old. An aunt, my Tayi, is making pink tea, or Kashmiri chai as it is also known, for the entire family’s adults. They are all gathered in the living room while the children play outside. My Tayi’s face is a study of concentration and exhaustion as she takes ladlefuls of the mixture, pours it back into the boiling pan as she raises it higher, then lower, stirring and repeating to “get the right colour”. The extended family members, who come every Sunday for this treat (which can only be prepared by my Tayi because her hands have zaiqa, or taste) sit and sprawl in the living room propped up by gao takkiye (bolsters), laughing and whispering amongst themselves. The pinkness of the tea is finally achieved after more than half an hour of the stirring and pouring-inward of the fragrant mixture. Years later, this version of chai is a staple delicacy to cleanse palates after eating the same rice and korma at twenty weddings a season.


Add salt and/or pistachios to taste.


Pull the shawl close around your naked shoulders in December and take a nostalgic whiff of the pink liquid in the Styrofoam glass.


Let’s try again. Pour water into the kettle.


I attempt to make my first cup of tea at the age of twelve. When I pour the boiling water into the cup, I tip the kettle too far, its lid falls off and the water pours onto my hand and burns it. My Tayi puts cold dough on it. The second time I make it, I am revolted by the smell. My grandparents declare the tea too weak and watery. I am then taught to make doodh patti, a long cooked tea, where my attempts turn out to be passable. Almost everyone I know drinks tea. I am taught to never refuse it when visiting other people’s homes—“The hostess has to then worry about what to give you instead,” my mother explains, “so just accept it, try to take a sip or two, just hold the cup.”


The commercials on television tell me to drink tea, or they ignore me, assuming I already do, and sing and dance about it. Jingles and custom phrases are made up for tea. Women greet their tired husbands returning from a hard day sitting in an office in an exquisitely tailored suit with a cup of reviving tea. A tea-picking girl in a television commercial, with a wicker basket strapped to her back, smiles from a far-off verdant plantation in Sri Lanka. Not pictured: the infant strapped to her front—or maybe it’s just a sentimental figure conjured by my pseudo-Leftist guilt.


Bring the water to a boil. Meanwhile, put sugar and a teabag into a cup.


No, forget it. You’re a disaster at making tea, leave it to the pros. (Hallelujah!)


Side-swipe.


With social media come photographs of tea and social media accounts dedicated to their users’ quasi-addiction to tea and books/work/writing/life/culture/all things cosy. Take your pick. Tea is the drink of civilisation. Tea is truly desi. After all, ‘spilling tea’ as the newly popular term goes, is what we do all day

The boy with the round tray, taamcheeni (enamelware) teapot and the straight back, whizzes past me in the bend of the stairs. Almost colliding, he twirls gracefully out of my way and speeds down out of sight. I look up at the stairwell climbing seven more floors. Somebody up there, in one of the halls with the long tables, must now be drinking tea out of the small coarse china cups the teaboy brings with him. Many somebodies probably. The ‘staff’ in a government office, pouring in every day from all over the city, in rickshaws, vans, buses and on motorbikes, does not believe in thermoses. It would be just one more thing to carry. The tea served, from all I hear, is syrupy sweet and strong. Perhaps the same as the tea served at trucking hotels. Or no, not as strong— that tea, after all, is for long haul drivers to keep them awake on their commutes. The staff is not finicky about the strength of or amount of sugar in their tea by all accounts.


The same cannot be said about me, the afsar. Every office I go to has a different tea ritual and preference and the personal staff is trained to make it just so. One senior colleague drinks nothing but green tea. I drink it, grateful that at least it smells better than the regular tea. It tastes like vaguely flavoured water and leaves my mouth dry. This is a colleague I must see every day so I have to get used to the taste and sensation.


Please bring tea. Quickly.


Tea and cigarettes. Oral fixations? In a government office, the mouth must remain occupied at all times. Alternate between talking and sipping. I have to meet multiple people in one day—sometimes to discuss work and sometimes to avoid the phrase(s): “Madam, you keep yourself to yourself/ you haven’t been seen in a while.” Every single person orders tea as soon as I enter the room. I try to refuse but they insist. I nurse cups of tea in my hands, wondering how much I must politely drink with held breath to avoid offence.


I try to teach my personal staff to beat coffee. They fail to learn.


Starting the day right. Chai. Chai tea latte. Chai tea?! Oh, Word doesn’t autocorrect ‘chai’ anymore.

With the advent of social media. (That line sounds like the start to a ponderous report on how the internet is ruining civilisation). Well, with social media come photographs of tea and social media accounts dedicated to their users’ quasi-addiction to tea and books/work/writing/life/culture/all things cosy. Take your pick. Tea is the drink of civilisation. Tea is truly desi. After all, ‘spilling tea’ as the newly popular term goes, is what we do all day.


Gos(sip) while you glance meaningfully over the rim of your cup. Perhaps the phrase harked back to the Boston Harbour but we’ve adopted it now. It’s also one of our strongest links with the British Empire. Now, they definitely understand what tea is to the home and hearth, to comfort. The kettle on the hob is the British image of choice. A friend sends me a meme of a light brown coloured liquid, captioned: “Don’t be friends with people who make tea of this colour. They don’t truly care about you.” I laugh half-heartedly and beat some coffee every time she comes over. “At least you can make this,” she says with relief.


Every tea commercial must feature a wedding, a marriage proposal or a warm family exchange.


With every stage of my life, tea comes to stand for more isolation from the heart of culture and ritual. As channels and dramas in Pakistan multiply, the advertisements for tea seem to take up more than half the scheduled commercial breaks. The productions grow wilder, more elaborate and expand to accommodate tea-whiteners, both powder and liquid. I also hear that the gorgeous shot of the milk dissolving into tea must be shot in a foreign country (Thailand, I also hear) because the special camera equipment is not available in Pakistan. I raise my eyebrows but also acknowledge that they are a beautiful three seconds of tendrils, clouds and puffs of softness. Tea seems to be at the heart of Pakistani culture.


Coffee makes a few attempts throughout the year, with ads featuring young people who need help waking up. But here, it will never gain the same stature and I will always have my choices pooh-poohed.



All photographs courtesy of the author.


 


Madeeha Maqbool is a civil servant and a writer. Her work has appeared in The News on Sunday, The Friday Times and Libas, amongst others. She is obsessed with non-fiction and runs a popular instagram account called @maddyslibrary, where she talks about books, colonisation and women's rights.

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