I believe in chai. No, not the mass-produced Starbucks garbage that chic New Yorkers enjoy drinking but the hot traditional drink from India that’s brewed every evening in my home. The chai I believe in doesn’t come in a manufactured plastic cup but it is a custom that has been passed down for several generations. My mother prepares chai every evening on an electric stove in our American kitchen. She uses American milk, American sugar and American tea bags. Despite the American products used to make it, my chai itself still resonates of India; quite possibly the only aspect of India that I will ever fully understand.
If my frequent summer trips to India have taught me anything it is this: chai is sacred. Not in the religious sense but in the Indians-must-drink-at least-two-cups-a-day-or-something-terrible-will-happen sense. Families will wake up in the morning, their maids will prepare a cup of chai for them and eventually husbands and wives and children will leave for work or school. Upon returning home in the evening, almost certainly another cup of chai will be served and drank before dinner. The porcelain cups in which chai is served will be washed and dried at least twice every day by the willing maids who have no other way to make a living for themselves. It’s possible that their husbands or brothers or sons are chai-wallah’s: street vendors who give chai-addicts their daily high. Chai is the solution to everything in India whether it is headaches, stress, insomnia or awkward social moments. As long as there is milk, sugar, and chai mix in the cupboard, Indians can solve any type of problem. Actually, that isn’t completely true; a top-notch chai brewer is also necessary if one hopes for chai to fully work its magic. Underneath the surface, chai has a much deeper significance to me. It isn’t just about the milky goodness that is the hallmark of good chai but it’s everything else that you can’t see or taste. It’s the connection to the traditions of India I feel when I’m gulping down a cup of chai late at night when a caffeine-kick is absolutely necessary. It’s my ability to adhere to an Indian custom without fear of doing something wrong. It’s a ritual I can partake in while in India without needing someone to explain it to me. When I take a sip of my chai, it is the one thing that reminds me of India: the malodorous stench that can be smelled on all the roads, the half-built houses with questionable foundations, the children running around half-naked while their parents make food outside for the world to see and the stunning technological advancements being made right next to horrifying poverty. I don’t understand why there is so much progress in the face of such great adversity but I do understand chai. I realize that chai may be the only thing that I will ever understand about India. This is why I believe, I believe in chai.
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