Chai

You need milk for tea. Some people prefer cow's milk, some people prefer water buffalo's. If you've run out, you can make nimbu chai with lemon instead, but people say that's the way the poor people drink it, though this isn't true. You should have the milk delivered twice a day, boiled and waiting. Even the poor have milk for their chai if they have nothing else.

First you boil the water, a cupful for each person plus extra in the afternoons in case anyone drops by. Atithi is the word for guest in Sanskrit, but it's also a little joke since etymologically it means "no date." You never know when a guest will arrive and you're always supposed to be ready and delighted. Afternoons, especially at Virendra-ji and Sushila-ji's, there are many atithis.

When the water starts to boil, you add the milk, 1/3 cup milk for every cup of water, more if you're feeling generous. No one will ever complain over too much milk.

Atithi. You can hear them down the hall, towards the front of the house, laughing softly, politely. You're relieved that you can be here, in the kitchen where it's quiet, away from the surface talk. Your feminist friends in America would say "relegated to the kitchen," but that's not how this feels. You volunteered to make the chai because you wanted to, and Sushila-ji looked over at you trying not
to appear relieved. Today is a lazy day for her and she'd rather sit in the sunny verandeh with her brother-in-law, talking.

You have to remember to hold the sandasi carefully as you pour the milk into the pot of boiling water. No handles on the pots -- they don't have them generally, in India -- just the steel sandasi clamping and unclamping its jaws, and you're not used to this. You're clumsy. As you tilt the pot, your wrist twists wrong, the jaws of the sandasi skitter. A clatter and some embarrassed confusion. You can hear the talking stop suddenly off in the verandeh. Santu appears at the doorway and you whisper a plea, if he'll run over to the neighbor's and see if they have an extra pau of milk. A quarter kilo, you repeat. Clean up the mess before a stray cat wiggles in through the bars on the open window. Add a little extra water to the pot since it will have to boil longer.

Santu is smiling conspiratorially as he comes back in swinging the stainless steel canister of milk. It's warm in your palm and he tells you a breathless story about monkeys and fast motorcycles as you add it to the boiling water. It's a boy story and he's excited, jumping around the kitchen, while you sit on the floor, peeling and slicing the stub of fresh ginger at your feet. Not everyone adds fresh ginger to their chai, but that's Sushila-ji's way. Cardamon and ginger, sometimes a bay leaf. She has shown me hundreds of times, but no matter how many times I try, mine never tastes as thick and sweet. Even plain milk boiling on the stove smells fragrant as chai when she's watching over it. It's the first thing you smell when you walk into the house.

Swish in the tea leaves, twirl the milky water around until it's brown enough, then a fistful of sugar, granules flecked big and dingy like cuts of quartz. Santu is already back outside playing. You have to add the sugar at the end so it won't burn.

The trick with the sandasi again, this time you won't spill it. Anu has come in and lined up stainless steel teacups in a row on the floor and waits as you pour, holding the pot with the sandasi in one hand, the green plastic tea strainer in the other. The brown, milky sweet chai sluices down through the strainer into the cup below. You both watch and smell. She smiles and tries not to notice your awkwardness with the sandasi, instead says something reassuring about the chai. At the last cup, a mound of tea leaves, softened slices of ginger, mashed cardamon pods tumble into the net, while the last of the chai drizzles down. Anu sets three teacups onto a steel tray, along with a bowl of namkeen she has already set out, picks the tray up off the floor and carries it down the hall into the verandeh.

Rashmi made the chai, you hear her explain, and you don't know whether this is praise or an apology. Everything Anu says always sounds sweet, even when she means something else.

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