Incapable of making a good cup of tea, Barbara Gupta asks her colleague Meena Patel to teach her how to make Chai, not the pre-sweetened Starbucks kind that she loves so much, but the real thing, like the Chai that was served to her when buying overpriced textiles while vacationing in Coldcutta, I mean Calcutta, I mean Kolkata.
Even though my parents emigrated here from India I am culturally white. In my experience American whites generally feel ambivalent about tea. Unless of course you are a white woman over the age of forty with insomnia or regret or infertility or constipation or anxiety or bloat. Then you love tea. Tea with names like “Sleep Standing in Line at the Post Office Because Nobody Works at the Post Office Anymore but What Do You Expect When You Pay Only 42 Cents a Letter Tea” or “Feeling Fat?—Visit Kolkata and Become Very, Very Sick and Lose Twenty Pounds in One Week Tea.”
I came of age in the seventies in Vermont. My sister and I did our best to pass as Italian. Other Indian families we would see around town would look, well, so Indian, and so recently arrived from tropical climes—the mothers wearing sandals in the middle of winter under their saris. My sister and I refused to wear saris and instead wore jeans and Timberland Boots. Now if you are blonde, jeans and Timberlands are redundant and wearing this kind of outfit has the effect of jack-hammering the blondness in, thus canceling the blondness out. But if you are Indian, jeans and Timberlands are unexpected, thus totally hot. This is the secret to sexiness. Dress against your race. An Indian woman wearing J. Crew’s matchstick corduroys and a grosgrain ribbon belt? Rockin! A blonde woman wearing J. Crew’s Jackie cardigan and a brooch—a priss. You get my point.
A typical dinner at our house in 1973 was lamb chops (my father insisted on calling it mutton) with frozen spinach and frozen baked stuffed potatoes. Occasionally my father, longing for the old days would make a curry. But it was so curryish and the smell lingered for days. “Would you like some curry?” he would ask us. “Acha, would you like us to wear sandals in the middle of winter in the New England slush?” my mother would say while serving us Stouffer’s Baked Lasagna.
The tea. My parents drank it. Lipton and Red Rose. But it held no appeal for my sisters and me. We were drank Countrytime lemonade and Ovaltine and Tab.
But then I turned forty. It was a time of turning inward and backward and reclaiming an Indian name—Tootie—yes, Tootie, just like from the Facts of Life only spelled Tutti—the Indian way. The next thing I knew I was touring Kolkata where I drank Chai for the first time. Real chai. It was an awakening.
When I came home, I said to my colleague Meena Patel, “It’s time I learned how to make proper Indian tea.”
“Put a teabag in some water,” she said.
“No, real Indian tea. Chai.”
“You’ll need a mortar and a pestle.”
“A pes-tle?” I corrected her.
“The t is silent,” she told me, while flinging her sari scarfie thing over her shoulder.
“Tea is the universal drink,” I said. “Of all people. Indians. Italians. Mexicans.”
“No,” said Meena. “Not Italians and Mexicans.”
I was silent for a moment. Feeling my people’s pain. The trying to pretend you’re Italian rather than Indian so you don’t know the proper pronunciation of pestle pain.
I bought a pestle and brought it in to work. Into the pestle Meena instructed me to throw eight peppercorns, a pinch of ground ginger, some nutmeg, a sliver of cinnamon stick, and the seeds from five cardamom pods. I crushed the sacred ingredients into the mortar with my pestle. Finally after forty years I felt my Indian-ness. The way my arm moved. The way I pulverized the spices into a powder. Why hadn’t I eaten my father’s offering? His shrimp curry? I began to cry. Meena did that head-bobbing thing—the you are a fucking idiot head bobbing thing. I bobbed my head, too, and wept into the pestle. We were not Mexican, this was not Like Water for Chocolate, I had no idea if Indian tears had magical properties like Mexican tears, but I had always dreamed of riding a horse across the desert, naked, and having rose petals shower down upon me while I whipped up a chicken mole in the kitchen and then feeding that tear-infused chicken mole to my family and the miracle of the dish needing no additional salt.
We drank the Chai. I thought briefly about reading my fortune in the peppercorn specks in the bottom of my teacup but I am no gypsy so I went back to my desk.