Most of Paru’s legs were bare. Her knees shone in the sunlight as she bent them and rested her buttocks on a hard sack at the doorstep of her hut. “We need to call for a meeting with all the women,” she said to Tai, who was making a sincere attempt to familiarize me and my partner with Paru’s village. Pretending to be oblivious to the presence of us newcomers, Paru continued about all the things that ‘needed to be done’. Every once in a mid-sentence she’d steal a quick glance and then look away, like a shore regaining its composure after an unexpected wave. Finally, before their conversation could take more a more irrevocable turn, Tai shoved us forward for introductions.
“They will be here two days a week, this whole year and you can share all your problems with them,” Tai concluded. Paru’s eyes lit up like she recognized us from some distant frame in her memory. Soon, we realized that her familiarity stemmed from the fact that quite a few like us had come and gone. From strangers, we started to symbolize all the things our predecessors stood for – not a bad starting point at all. Her smirk curled upwards into a shy smile and she started clearing up the space at her doorstep for us to sit. In that moment of our first direct conversation, she could’ve asked us anything. She asked us for chaha, to be comprehended as chai.
Before our hesitation took voice, Tai spoke for us, “Of course, we’ll have chaha.” And so I had my first cup of spicy-sweet, black chai, laden with lemongrass and masala. The lemongrass that grows there, locally called gavati chaha, is what makes the tea there so soothing and special, with all its healing properties. Many more cups followed as we trotted from home to home. Almost always Tai won the race to respond when tea was offered and soon I thought we’d have so much chai in our bloodstream that if one were to cut across a vein, chai would flow out instead of blood.
We then walked across to Gauri’s house and this time, before Tai could intervene, I was quick to deny the tea offer. I had always been taught to consume judiciously when visiting as a guest. I gloated inside as my city bred politeness won. Gauri looked upset that I declined her offer but fortunately, she didn’t push it. As we sat down on the mat she pulled out for us, crossing our legs and behaving in restrained ways that we had learned were appropriate and polite, I couldn’t help but notice how Gauri was so similar and yet, different from us. She didn’t cross her legs, but stretched them out and sat in a posture that looked enviably comfortable. She didn’t care about the fact that we were almost strangers and told us how she and the other women got together and stopped alcoholism in that village through a rather violent rebellion, with a proud gleam in her eyes – a tale to save for another day.
Tai held a firm frown as we walked out of Gauri’s house towards the other side of the village. “You should never say no to the tea or food offered to you here,” she finally said. Like typical urban dwellers with hardened citified values, we tried to explain how we’d look like greedy hogs if we accepted everything we were offered. Besides, we’d had too much chai for one day. However, eager to know her rationale behind this advice, I questioned, “Why?”
“Because, they are adivasis…”
When we still didn’t understand what was implied, Tai went on, “If you don’t take what they offer, they assume that you’re denying it owing to their tribal identity. They believe that you aren’t eating what they eat, because it is beneath your dignity.”
Centuries of discrimination came flooding down on me in one instant and as I swallowed that deluge, it left a lingering taste of chaha in my mouth, now bittersweet. That is when I learnt the true healing and soothing powers of an extra cuppa gavati chaha.