After all these years I remember that smell. As a young girl the aroma of sweet and spicy crept through the opening beneath my door. This is the way morning began in my house for many years.
Thirty years later, I understand why.
My parents never deviated from their ritual of making chai every morning. The dedication to this routine offered a connection that I didn’t understand as a young girl. My mother filled the steel pot full of warm water and let it boil for a few minutes until the transparent bubbles looked like they were playing connect the dot with one another at the bottom. She’d add a few spoons of sugar and a dark grainy substance of small brown particles, known as chai. To cap off this morning cocktail, she sprinkled a special Indian masala made from cinnamon, peppercorns and cardamom.
Once these blended together and made a clear froth, my mother poured milk into the pot. Blends of dark brown mixed with white to create a light mocha color. The mixture created a vanishing steam that only made its presence by its smell. She placed a mini-colander on the rim of the teacup and emptied the elixir so slowly that not a drop spilled on the perimeter of the saucer.
Growing up I never tried chai. Instead, I dumped Lucky Charms into a cereal bowl and gulped the marshmallow-sweet milk. Other days I devoured toast with a glass of orange juice. I tried to convince my parents to limit their tea drinking and just once try a traditional American breakfast. They refused.
Whether they vacationed or visited a friend’s house, the morning tea ritual never vanished. As an adult, I realized it represented a small, but significant way that my parents attempted to hold on to their Indian roots. It spoke of their mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts who may not have formally greeted them with Hello, but always offered a cup of tea. I suspect the tea reminded my father of his early mornings in India as he boarded the crowded train to go to work and caught the last vendor trickling the last bit of chai out of a popping hot thermos.
As an adult, “Chai Tea Latte” rolls off my tongue at the local coffee shop like I am calling my daughter’s name. The barista knows my order and gives me a smile as I wait by the counter for him to prepare my liquid heritage.
Only in the last few years I’ve made chai my new breakfast obsession. In the last weeks of my father’s life, I brought him tea from the hospital’s cafeteria. While we waited for my mother to arrive, I told him, “Let me go downstairs. I will get some chai for you.”
“Ok, Rudri. I will drink that tea.” We were both tired, but the reasons for his fatigue were far different from mine.
I went to the elevator, my mind on the Starbucks counter, a chance to do something normal, something that was a part of anyone’s daily routine. When I returned to the room with the drink in my hand, I’d witness my father’s tiny smile showing up in the corner of his mouth. As I remember it, he always appeared happy drinking tea.
These days, when I drink chai, I realize I’m holding on and remembering all those mornings that I shared with my parents as I watched them sip their beloved chai. At the time, they were holding on too.
For me, it has become so much more than a cup of tea.