I grew up in the U.S., outside of Boston. When my parents could afford it, we spent summers in their childhood home, Srinagar, in northern India. At my grandparents’ house, drinks flew from the kitchen all day like a well-choreographed dance.
It started with bed tea in the morning. My grandparents sat up in bed, sleepy and rumpled, drinking milky tea in their pyjamas.
Breakfast followed. We sat cross-legged on the floor and this time a tea pot with a side of milk appeared. An aunt quickly poured and added sugar to one cup after the other until everyone was served.
On bad mornings, my grandmother would insist that all her grandkids drink warm milk. As an American used to processed food, fresh milk disgusted me. It had a taste! There was scum on top! I pinched my nose and engaged in histrionics while my cousins gulped theirs down. My aunts and uncles deserve praise for not slapping me silly.
At lunch, there was water. My grandmother had water boiling in large pots every day in the kitchen. This purified water was then poured into old whisky bottles. When I was very young, we drank room temperature water. When I was older and my grandpa bought a fridge, these bottles chilled neatly in the door.
Sometimes, a glass of lassi was presented to my grandfather on a small tray. It was made with water, yogurt and salt, cumin or mint. The lassi was delivered with some ceremony, as if it were medicinal in nature.
The varieties of drink spiked in the afternoon. If any of my mom’s aunts or female cousins stopped by, they would drink one of two kinds of tea as they gossiped. Kahwa was green tea with cinnamon, sugar, green cardamom and almonds. Sheer chai was pink tea made from green tea, baking soda and milk. The chewy milk skin I loathed was used as a garnish.
My grandmother drank her tea in a metal cup wrapped in the tail of her sari, like a boss. The rest of us used china cups with handles.
If we were lucky enough to get taken out by one of our uncles or an older cousin, we would buy a soft drink like Campa Cola, Thums Up or Gold Spot. If we went to a hotel restaurant, we would order cold coffee. Cold coffee was a creamy, sweet milkshake well worth the inevitable gastric distress that affected visiting Americans.
Of course, you had to hustle back home to be in time for the big tea party of the day. My grandmother mixed Brooke Bond red label with Lipton green label and everyone said her tea was the best. The afternoon spread was the real deal. There were biscuits and several varieties of namkeen, savoury, crunchy snacks. If someone special was visiting, there’d be sweets like gulab jamun or jalebi.
It was now time for my grandfather and uncles to start pouring whiskey, the preserve of men. Glasses clinked. Cigarette smoke filled the air. My uncles sat in low chairs with their legs stretched out in front of them. They seemed so dashing. My grandmother sent out a steady stream of kebabs that the kids would try to intercept.
The days passed almost identically, punctuated by these beverages. Waves of drinks crashing on what seemed to be an endless shore. Summer after summer, year after year until life changed. Our people, the Kashmiri Pandits, were forced out of Srinagar. One by one, my grandparents died outside of their homeland.
The world moved on and now no one has time to measure out their life in tea cups. We are global nomads in a digital age. I’m here in Lagos, for example, married to a Nigerian man. In 2017, I received my green passport and became a Nigerian, as well. I expect I will live here for the rest of my life.
It’s impossible to convey the tranquillity of my childhood experiences, the long days spent playing with beloved cousins, the wonder of being part of a big, extended family, the radiant looks on my grandparents faces when they finally spotted their American grandchildren after a few years apart.
We leave our mother’s womb and what is the first thing we do? We latch on to something and suck. We are engineered to drink from birth until the moment we close our eyes for the last time.
I can’t mourn the past but I can create new memories here in Nigeria. I can greet visitors to my home with tea that’s milky and sweet, perfumed with cardamom and spice. When I mix zobo into the lassi I’ve made for my children, I honour my past, embrace my present and create a new paradigm for the generations to come. Somehow I think my grandparents would be pleased.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Follow her on Instagram @mopals5
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