Omkar’s Sweet Chai
A week after their home was bulldozed along with a few hundred other homes, twelve-year-old Omkar insisted we drink a cup of chai with his family in their new hut. His weary mother, a fourteen-year-old brother, an older sister and Omkar moved into the hut near the river of sewage that separates the backside of the slum from the more orderly main pipeline lane way. Omkar’s sweet, benevolent nature, and his wide, charismatic smile always grab our hearts when we attempt to walk by his hut. One day, as we walked by late in the day, he pulled us in with unrelenting, soft chants to sit with him and his mother and drink chai.
Chai is the elixir of India. Vendors, (called chai wallahs) of this iconic, sublime, milky potion are artists and no two chai wallahs make the same brew. Milk and water is brought to a boil with a handful of loose black tea leaves sweetened with heaping spoonfuls of sugar and left to simmer until the perfect caramel colour is achieved. The addition of spices, such as black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and star anise elevate the humble chai to a different tasty realm. When the chai is ready to be poured, the chai wallah lifts the heavy kettle full of aromatic tea, and with his arm perpendicular to his chest and his elbow pointed upward, he pours a perfect arc of the golden liquid from the spout of the kettle into the tiny cups that sit on his makeshift counter stained with the circular rings of previous pours. Grasping the full cups by the the rim with his fingers, he doles out the chai to eager (mostly male) customers who cluster in groups around his stall. Always offered with a sweet biscuit, the tea is consumed on almost every street in India.
While chai wallahs offer strangers perfect cups of tasty tea to quench their thirst, it’s the chai brewed in homes that remain special to us. We’re always thirsty. In the late afternoon the sun still pounds Mumbai with waves of heat that undulate and settle in the dust of the narrow lane ways. Our bodies feel heavy with sweat, our clothing smells of wood smoke and diesel fuel, and the heavy pollution that smudges the sky has seeped into the folds of our skin. By that time of day we’re always grateful for an invitation to drink chai and chat with families in their homes.
At Omkar’s doorway we removed our shoes, leaving them scattered in the rubble of the lane way and Omkar excitedly yanked us into the semi-darkness of his home. The family had yet to settle in to their new home as was evidenced by the piles of belongings crowding the small, airless space. His mother, dressed in a soft blue sari, surrounded by assorted heaps of cookware and clothing, looked exhausted, but welcomed us warmly and cleared a space on the floor and motioned for us to sit. She would make us tea, she said, but Omkar was already fumbling through the family’s piled possessions looking for a chai pot. He set up the kerosene burner and for fifteen long minutes, he tried to light it. He was surrounded by curious friends who were alternately laughing at his attempts to light the burner or trying to give him advice so Omkar decided on another plan. He left the hut and came back with two bricks and some small pieces of wood. He would light a fire in the hut and rest the chai pot on the bricks, he told his bewildered mother. Stoic, but sensing disaster, she prodded him to borrow a kerosene burner from a neighbour. Undeterred about serving us a perfect cup of chai, he asked his friend to fetch a burner from a neighbour, while he rummaged through small plastic bags to find some spices. He sent his sister for a bag of milk. With the borrowed burner finally lit, he set a battered tin pot on the grate and poured in a small amount of water. When it began to boil, his mother reminded him to put in a few spoonfuls of tea.
The heat inside the hut was contained in chunks of moisture from the steaming pot. The blade of the ceiling fan, yet to be hooked to electricity, remained idle. Sweat trickled down our faces and his mother offered us a cloth to mop our foreheads. Omkar, serious about his pursuit of the perfect chai for his guests, tried to shoo away his friends so he could concentrate. They moved outside, but hung in the doorway offering more advice, while Omkar poured milk from a plastic bag into the steeping tea in the pot. After finding a plastic strainer at the bottom of a large, loosely woven bag, he settled on his haunches and stirred, swirling the milk into the tea. His mother chided him to remember the cardamom. He pinched a few cardamom pods out of a thin plastic bag, laid them on the floor and smashed them with the back of the spoon to release the floral scent and dropped them into the pot. Spoonfuls of white sugar ladled from a small plastic container were added and stirred into the tea with reverence. When the milk, tea, sugar and spice came to a final boil and the bubbling, frothy mixture threatened to spill over the sides, Omkar’s mother motioned for her son to turn off the flame. Using a bunched up t-shirt wrapped around his hand, he lifted the hot pot of chai off the burner and set it on the floor while his mother rustled through more bags for glasses to drink from. She assembled the small glasses in a line on the floor and Omkar strained the beautiful, brown, silky tea into the glasses, splattering droplets that settled into little pools in the rutted cement floor. His sister returned just in time with a packet of sweet biscuits. Squatting in Omkar’s home with sweat trickling in lines down our faces, the ritual of drinking chai with friends had never been sweeter.