My first taste of tea was second hand. I would stand behind the door curtain hanging between the front room and the middle room, twirling the fabric between my fingers, and peeking at visitors drinking tea. I would imagine its taste, hot and bitter. I was sure it was bitter, if not naturally, then from all the tears my mother, Aai, had shed into it over the years.
During my early childhood, tea was a source of constant strife between my parents.
Etiquette dictated that whenever a relative or a friend or even an acquaintance came over, Aai had to pump the kerosene stove, light a match, and boil a pot of water for tea. I think Aai began to resent tea because we had so many relatives who dropped in at all hours of the day and night. Even though she had made tea hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before, my father, Dada, insisted on issuing precise instructions as to how. Every day his needs varied. Sometimes, he told her to give him only half a cup; other days, he ordered it with lots of milk. I could never figure out if the instructions were issued because Aai was by nature inept or if she had become inept because he gave her too many instructions.
When special visitors like Aai’s long-lost brother visited, fancy tea cups, my parents’ wedding presents, were pulled out of the glass cupboard. This brother, my uncle, was a source of conflict as well. When Aai had been a young working woman in Mumbai, he had kicked her out of his house in the middle of the night. She had survived the catastrophe with sheer wits and charm, but somewhere deep down, a scab had formed in her heart that would never quite heal. So, on the rare occasion that my uncle came to town, Aai shed tears into the tea, as her brother sat in the front room, patronizing Dada. My father nevertheless treated him like a celebrity; my uncle after all was a scientist who had worked in the perfume industry in France and given a talk on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). My uncle drank our tea, showed us articles he had written for a magazine called Udyam, or Enterprise, and left, scarcely bothering to inquire after us.
And he never apologized for his treatment of Aai.
Was it any wonder then that one day, Aai decided to quit tea. It was the day after Independence Day. I was twelve years old, and had attended the flag-raising ceremony at school and given a speech. The next morning, Aai went into the kitchen to make tea, fainted, and crashed on to the floor. I ran and got the doctor, who pronounced that she had suffered a nervous breakdown. When the medicine man was gone, Aai vowed that she would never drink tea again because a neighbor had given her a poisoned cup on that Independence Day. Such was the nature of her illness.
Around the time that Aai decided to quit drinking tea, I discovered it. I was tired from studying for an exam one day when Dada offered me a cup. Aai protested that caffeine damaged children’s brains. But in an ultimate act of betrayal, I drank it regardless. My brother Prakash too began to ask for extra-strong tea boiled in a pot the night before an exam, even though we normally drank tea British style, with tea leaves steeped in hot water.
Soon, I could not live without tea. Perhaps there was a subconscious desire on my part to do the opposite of whatever Aai did; to become contrary to whatever she had become. She always pronounced that I would have to wear glasses because I read too many books; I retorted that books were necessary to maintain one’s sanity. She countered that novels told lies because there were no real people in them; I responded that novels contained the ultimate truth about life.
Somewhere along the way, tea became my religion. I began to drink a big pot every morning, made with Dada’s favorite brand, Brooke Bond Red Label. Years later, in California, I began to serve it to American friends who loved it so much that they too began to make the trek to Indian stores.
I have had tea served in clay cups on Indian Railways; I have had syrupy tea made with condensed milk served in a plastic bag on a bus in Thailand; I have had it in Tea Rooms in the New Zealand countryside. I have made tea on a camping stove by the side of the highway; I have made it in a bodega in Mexico with an immersion heater dipped into a water-filled Starbucks cup; I have made it in innumerable hotel rooms. I travel with a zip-lock bag of tea wherever I go. Soon, my hosts are hooked too; perhaps it is the joy they see in my face that lures them in.
Drinking so much tea is not good for you, people say. I need at least one vice, I reply, and tea is my drug of choice. Many a night I go to bed dreaming of tea. Would I have any incentive to rise, I wonder, but for that heavenly cup of tea waiting for me in the morning. I am not even kidding.
I saw a Steve Jobs film recently, titled The Lost Interview. In it, Jobs was asked why he was so attracted to counter culture. People were trying to find the gap, he said, between the humdrum life of earning a living and raising a family and the ephemeral life of the imagination. I am paraphrasing of course but his words brought tears to my eyes. For, listening to Steve Jobs, I realized that the difference between my mother and I was that she did not know how to fill that gap. But even as a young child, I saw the gap and understood the need to fill it with what little I had. Literature filled that gap. So did art and music and film and theater and gardens and birds and travel.
The hot cup of Red Label tea every morning is what has made the difference between my fate and that of my mother, I think. For, in that small cup I have seen the universe of possibilities; it has represented for me the ability to find joy in small things; it has been a tool to survive tragedy, disappointment, heartbreak, failure, rejection, and so much more. In a Somerset Maugham’s novel, a woman is served a cup of coffee before being given the news of her child’s death, as the author comments that anything is bearable with a cup of coffee. I feel the same way about tea. I only wish that I could have made Aai understand the importance of that cup of tea; I wish she could have learned to enjoy life’s small pleasures.