If there is one certainty about roads in India, it is that – no matter where you are or what the hour- if you want a cup of tea, you’ll find a chai ka dukaan (the tea shop) within a few kilometres. The tea shop is an integral part of the Indian national highways, state highways, minor roads, even rough tracks. From the desolate unsealed roads of Spiti high up in the Himalayas, to the sinuous route to Munnar, a cup of tea is within easy reach.
When I travel, I like to drink tea, or rather, I need to drink tea; sometimes, I even survive just on tea. Though a former caffeine addict, I’d prefer tea over coffee during a journey. My travels and errands are intricately linked with the tea. A hot cup of well-brewed tea can truly be reviving in a way that a chilled aerated drink cannot. Even while driving through Rajasthan in the blazing desert summer, a khullad(an earthenware cup) of chai(tea) in the shade of a tea tapri can refresh the mind and rejuvenate the body.
Hot tea has plenty of avatars across India. It can vary from a steaming hot cup of amber laced with fragrant spices like cardamom and ginger in Gujarat, to a glass of pale greenish liquid with yak’s butter floating on top in a monastery in Ladakh. It can be served in a chipped white cup on the railway platform, a little clay pot, the khullad across Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, or the standard ‘cutting’ glass which is the norm in Mumbai and some parts of South India. It might be attained by a delicate muslin cloth or flamboyantly poured from glass to glass to give it a fine froth. Tea shops can vary from fly-invester hovels to a hut surrounded by snow-capped mountains and with a river gurgling merrily behind it.
I don’t think I can remember a single errand or journey- and there have been many- where I haven’t stopped for a cup of tea. This beverage that epitomises India and is appreciated from Kargil to Kanyakumari often breaks the monotony of long hours on the road and has often led to some very interesting moments. It has started delightful conversations and has also caused digestive consternation. Chai has recharged me in the mountains of Auli and reassured me in the tea plantations of Kerala. It has been brewed for me by a former bandit and a simple shepherd. It has chased away the demons in my head and made a frontier man my friend.
A cup of hot tea has been an integral part of every Indian’s journey. And it would continue too. That’s something for sure!