My waking thought is always that of tea. I walk upstairs, put the pan on the stove with one cup of water and a half cup of milk. Three cardamoms and a knob of ginger crushed in the mortar and emptied into the milk. It comes to boil in a few minutes, the milk rising up, overflowing if I am not watchful. Those minutes give me time to wake up and to think about the day ahead. When the milk comes to boil, I add one level tablespoon of black tea leaves. I keep the tea leaves in a small jar beside the stove. The tea leaves from our farm in Assam, that you send me every few months by courier. I go into a minor panic when I start running out. Nothing else tastes the same.
When we were young, I understood that the tea business was a struggle. We sold Ambootia, the Darjeeling estate and later uncle and you split the second set of estates in Assam. Mom says she was heartbroken when we lost Ambootia. It’s the place you both eloped to, the act alluded to in hushed whispers through my childhood so that we children wouldn’t think it was something that was in any way permissible. The story goes that when you heard that mom was to be married to someone else, you asked her to meet you and then you wouldn’t stop driving until you reached Ambootia. How long did it take, did you stop anywhere, what were the roads like in those days?What did grandfather say when he caught you both together? So romantic, I always thought. By the time I was old enough to have questions, grandfather had suffered a heart attack, a stroke and paralysis. He could no longer tell me the stories that I craved to hear.
I still have memories of Ambootia, and sometimes I can smell the mountain air of the Himalayas, the wild strawberries growing behind the house, the string of goats, kittens, and puppies that I would adopt each time we visited. Uncle parted ways with his share of the Assam estate. You fought to keep yours, Boisahabi. You said tea runs in my veins. When we last visited Assam three years ago, Boisahabi was well on its way to being certified organic. The bushes looked green and healthy, fertilised by only cow dung and cow urine, the soil replenished by earthworms, natural water holes collecting rainwater. No pesticides meant more birds, more frogs, more snakes. Butterflies crowded the place.
Mom and you say that you didn’t know if tea growing would still be a viable business when we were older. But now looking back your bets turned out well. You built a whole business that was based on the trading of tea that protected the farm against the ups and downs of agriculture. Except that you didn’t teach me anything about tea and later when I tried to work with you, it was too late. I was already in America, and there are few chai drinkers here. Not like India, where every street corner has a tea stall, a large kettle with hot milky tea and a knot of people clustered around. When Vedanta decided to join you, I felt that I could breathe again. The legacy would continue.
My tea changes color from a pale brown to a rich caramel. The black leaves dance in the bubbling milk. I take it off the flame and strain the tea out into a cup. When I sit, I can taste the ginger and cardamom and a faint grassiness, which I love to believe is from the cows. I am home.
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