Currently a PhD student in mathematics at UNSW Canberra, Shehzad Hathi has written (and recited) poetry since he first learnt how to write. Besides poetry, he writes prose, research papers, and anything else that makes sense to him, because he believes that’s what writing ultimately is—conveying how the world makes sense (or does not make any sense) to you. You can find his other work on his personal blog here, where Chai was first published.
Would you like some chai?
Great! I was just making some for myself.
Uh… what? Milk first or tea first?
How much sugar?
Spices? Yeah, spices.
Look, why don’t you take a seat,
this will take a while,
I need to boil the milk with the tea leaves for about five-ten minutes
Until the chai acquires a reddish tinge.
What’s that? It will flatten the flavour profile?
I don’t think the tea I am using has a flavour profile.
I think you are getting a bit confused,
I am not making a “proper” cup of tea
I am making chai,
You see, when the British Raj exported the idea of drinking tea to us,
No offence but this is a bit too specific
We don’t like how uptight you are being about this entire thing
We have a way of doing things
That is centuries old
Some of it written down,
Some of it passed on through oral tradition,
Through our grandmothers’ stories,
And my grandmother has already taught me how to make chai.
I stood shivering violently in the rain
The sticky wet shirt leaching away my body heat
A fog clouding my brain
I had even stopped feeling my feet
Concerned teachers asked me why I didn’t have my raincoat on
What should I have said?
That one among your ranks, an absolute moron,
Taught us kids that our country was invaded
Because we, as a people, were not hardy enough
And others look at us with our dainty raincoats and scoff
My patriotic pride wounded,
I allowed myself a raincoat
Wearing it with thumbs that were numb and wrinkled
Still shivering as I did, feeling small and inadequate
One of my teachers led me to a temple nearby
Fading red walls plastered with heavy incense
I sat against the wall and the people there offered me chai
Typically overbrewed, overwrought, bereft of any pretense
But it was adequate, tasting of safe harbour and monsoon rain
And we were enough, as we had always been.
You may have polite conversation over chai. I did too. As I sat huddled against the wall, sipping chai, a couple of well-meaning people asked my name. I mumbled it. They only caught the last part of it, my last name. It was odd enough to cause a little bit of confusion. My last name was more than my lineage, it was supposed to be an encoding of my caste, and more loosely, my father’s profession. Since they could not place my last name in the vast and convoluted pantheon of castes, they wanted to know my father’s profession. “He sells footwear,” I said. “Ah!” they went, “So he is a businessman.” I nodded. They looked at their charts and compared their databases to come up with a list of castes I could possibly belong to. Hesitantly, I chose one of those options. It became my caste and they seemed satisfied enough to move on to other things. I don’t remember now what my caste was. Actually, apart from those few moments, I have never had a caste. I did not tell them this. Revealing my father’s profession was not a problem at all, but not having a caste could only mean one of two things – either we were outcasts or my father’s religion did not have castes. As a mildly hypothermic twelve-year-old, I did not understand the complexities of this system very well (I still do not) but I knew that the communal riots were a very recent memory. The 2002 Gujarat riots claimed many lives and perhaps, also claimed my faith in religion. Sitting in that temple, even though I was grateful for the hospitality of those people, I did not want my given name to have given away my father’s religion. Was their hospitality conditional upon my caste or religion? Probably not. But for those moments, when faced with those questions, the chai did not taste sweet enough.
© Shehzad Hathi, 2021