I first realized there was change afoot in India about ten years ago. I was travelling on a train through one of those classic scenes of India – in the carriage, staring out the window, listening to Indian music, watching the fields and the towns and the villages pass by. There were more tractors in the fields than previously, and they were newer, but the rural roads still contained a mixture of bullock carts, bicycles, motor bikes and people walking.
I’d ordered some chai, that wonderful, milky mix of tea leaves, sugar and spices. In the absence of a station where a chai wallah would bring the chai to the window of the carriages in clay cups, I was making do with the Indian Railways version – sweet, milky tea served up in crockery cups.
But this was not to be. What I was served was hot water and a tea bag, with powdered milk, separate sugar and a styrofoam cup. I was shattered. What had happened to the chai, to the chai wallahs, to the taste and to the drinking of chai on corners, stations and trains?
These concerns were exacerbated over the years as I drank chai on street corners, but in plastic or Styrofoam cups – occasionally glasses. The taste of chai in clay cups was becoming a fractured remnant of my memories, my earlier times in India, and what was increasingly feeling like another time completely. Changes were, and continue to be, afoot. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But last week I rediscovered the chai of my memories – a chai wallah serving the wonderful potion up in clay cups. I was so pleased not only to drink the chai, but to stand and watch the chai wallah’s alchemy as he worked his magic over the steaming pot – mixing and boiling, boiling and mixing. Everything seemed back to normal, whatever ‘normal’ is…
Published also at localslowtravel.com