“Who wants chai?”
This life-affirming question inevitably comes up at every Desi gathering. I don’t care what century or country you live in.
“Shaira will make it.”
I’m not sure why my mother volunteered me on this day. Usually, she would make the chai, especially when people were over. It’s serious shit, and she only trusted herself to handle serious shit. With trepidation, I nodded and took a headcount of who wanted sugar, who didn’t, and, if they did, how much they wanted.
Chai time, or as the British call it, tea-time falls into the top-three of serious shit scenarios in a Desi family. It has varying levels of energy as a practice. The morning chai is to wake up and go on out the door. No one talks to each other much. Afternoon chai is the late day pick-me-up with fluctuating amounts of chatter depending on whether it’s a weekday and who’s around to gossip with. The after-dinner chai, also, has diverse degrees of chatter and energy depending on what day it falls on and who’s in the house. The Friday, Saturday, and holiday after-dinner chai with extended family and friends are the most frenzied times because people are not in a rush to go home.
I am no master of chai. There is an art to it that I never had the patience to learn. As the tea boils, you watch it turn just the right shade of maple syrup-like brown before adding just the right amount of milk. Since there is no real measuring in our culture, you eyeball how much. You stop at the perfect shade of tan. If you’re making cardamom or ginger tea, you require a more sophisticated skill set, which I don’t possess. For me, it’s simple math. One tea bag for every cup you’re making. If you’re making a lot, you scale back depending on how strong everyone likes their tea.
It was during a Saturday after-dinner chai session where my call to duty and cultural lack of experience intersected. My mother volunteered my lackluster chai-making services when I had come home from college one weekend. I hadn’t made it for myself in months, but showing hesitation was not an option. Looking for the customary Tetley British Blend, I made an unexpected discovery: Lipton loose tea. The yellow box that’s only available in India. I paused. I picked up the box and stared at the anomaly in front of me. At this time, the only interaction I ever had with loose tea was watching someone in a Bollywood movie make chai with it. I had only used tea bags my entire life. This was my first time personally interacting with loose tea. Since it was the Saturday after-dinner chai, I had to think fast.
What the hell? How do I measure it?
Through deductive reasoning, I figured out that it is probably about a teaspoon of loose tea in any given bag. One teaspoon for every cup. After watching it boil, then adding the milk and watching the second boil, another revelation struck me. I had to separate the tea grounds from the rest of the chai. If I fuck this up, the whole family is going to have fun with the American-born kid who doesn’t know anything. Think Shaira! Of course! The same thing I always used: the strainer. I learned something new without making an ass out of myself and embarrassing my mother with my lack of cultural awareness. Minor existential crisis averted.
It’s like that for us American Born Confused Desis. We may amuse our relatives and slightly embarrass our parents with our spotty knowledge of simple aspects of our culture. But it isn’t that simple. Since our parents raised us in the United States, we just weren’t exposed to certain things. Like I will probably never know the joy my parents knew at eating raw sugar cane as they broke it off in the sugar cane field. The thrill of street vendor pani puri. Or how to say the name, Khan accurately.
But, at least now, I know how to make loose leaf tea.