On a Sunday afternoon three weeks after I arrived in Bangalore, I found myself sitting in a tea house, feeling that, for the first time since I landed in India, I did not want to order masala chai. The tea house was the one in Cunningham Road, the same tea house I went to yesterday and the day before, all day last week and three times the week before that. It was a fairly quiet place and centrally located, a convenient place to do interviews for my research.
I know the masala chai served there by heart. It comes in a tall tin pot and small round cup with sugar cubes on the side, smelling more of cardamom pods than the ginger and cinnamon that also flavor the tea. The people I met always smile when I tell them how much I love masala chai, whether it’s the tea house version or the street side kind served in chai wallah stalls. How the powdered mix I’ve tasted elsewhere pales in comparison to the Indian tradition of brewing the tea in milk and spices, and how I could never get enough of it. As it turned out, there is such thing as having too much of a good thing.
I was daydreaming of a plain cup of English Breakfast on my way there, the closest thing to the Sariwangi I could find outside of Indonesia. I was also daydreaming of a leisurely Sunday, where I could spent hours at the used bookshop a couple of blocks away, the way I would spend Sundays at home going to a bookstore. As exciting as my research in India had been, the time had come when I yearned for a taste of home while I travel. If I could not have my bookshop Sunday ritual right then, well, at least I could get myself the tea that reminds me of home.
I signaled for the waiter to come, but the family a few tables away caught his attention first. A man and a woman were already studying the extensive tea list when I came in, while another woman was putting a baby in a stroller. The woman with the baby was wearing a printed cotton saree, while the other woman and man were wearing silk. I assumed that she was the aayah, the term for housemaid and nanny in India.
The father ordered first. He wanted the smoky Lapsang Souchong from China. His wife wanted to try Rooibos from South Africa. I wondered which tea the aayah would order out of all the possibilities in the menu. Would it be fruit tea, green tea, or perhaps like me, an English Breakfast?
“Masala chai,” she said in a soft voice.
As the waiter walked past me, I found myself staring at the aayah. At the red bindi on her forehead, at the few strands of white hair on her bun, at the smile lines around her mouth, at the plastic bangles that jingled as she rocked the stroller forward and backward to put the baby to sleep. Out of all the tea in the menu, why would she pick the tea she most likely makes and drinks every day?
The husband and wife started chatting in English. I could hear them talking about a new play in the theatre on the other side of the city. The aayah started humming a lullaby in Kannada, the local dialect in Bangalore, while staring on a blank spot above a poster on the wall that says, “Women are like tea bags, they don’t know how strong they are until they get into hot water”. Her gaze softened as her hum grew louder. I saw the beginning of a smile forming on the corner of her mouth, and I could tell she was no longer in the tea house.
The aayah was daydreaming.
She was daydreaming of another Sunday, one where she was either taking a stroll at Cubbon Park, shopping at MG Road, watching the new movie starring the Tamil Nadu superstar Rajinikanth, or perhaps staying at home and sharing a meal with her own family. Like me, she wanted a Sunday of her own. I knew when mine will come; I would be wrapping up my research in two weeks and fly back home. It was only two more Sundays until I could spend a Sunday going from bookstore to bookstore again, stopping in a café on my way home for a cup of tea as I start reading a new book. But what about her? When would she get the Sunday she was daydreaming about?
From what I know, a live-in aayah in Bangalore is not any different from a housemaid in Indonesia. They live with their employer seven days a week and only get to go home a couple of times in a year. They spend their Sundays the way they spend their Mondays to Saturdays: doing what their employers need them to do. Her current Sunday was her routine, her every Sunday. She was dreaming for an exceptional Sunday, while my current Sunday was an exception from my routine. We were two women sharing the same daydream in a tea house once upon a Sunday, but that was all we shared.
The waiter came to my table, blocking the aayah from my sight. “What would you like, Ma’am? The usual pot of masala chai?”
Thoughts rushed in at once. Bangalore, home, Sundays, routines, daydreams, and tea. Black and plain, milk and spiced. For me, masala chai is a symbol of adventure and English Breakfast is a reminder of home. Perhaps, for her, masala chai too is a reminder of home. A drink that she serves for the family she works for is the same one she enjoys with her family and friends, on any given day of the week. A source of comfort, an anchor in her universe.
I found myself nodding.
I unearthed this story from my files, written last year for Hanny and Clara‘s dream of a print magazine that eventually found a life online first, Secret Sunday. The photos are from 2010, when I was still horrible at taking photos, but they are from that very Sunday I wrote about, so the sentiment is perfect! – Maesy