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Chai in a mud cup

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By Sian FitzGerald

Rural India – poor, backwards, destitute… that is the image that so many people have. There is poverty, that is true, and there is lack of services, lack of education especially for girls. But there is also beauty, peace, kindness and vitality. Part of that vitality is the ritual of local chai shops.

A huge pot boils with the magic ingredients of masala chai, creamy, delicately spicy, and steaming hot. The shop on the corner where I walk is surrounded by men, seemingly all day long, and into the night. As a woman, especially a white woman, I am not brave enough to stop for a cup, as enticing as it is.

They are drinking out of what look like clay cups, and when they are done they drop the cups on the ground so that they smash. They are “mud” cups, made for one time use. After they are dropped and crushed, they flow back into the earth, nothing left behind. At first I thought how wasteful, but then I wondered about the alternative: paper, which couldn’t handle the heat of the tea, or plastic, which would not flow back into the earth so easily. Of course they could have cups that are washed, but without running water that would be terribly inconvenient.

The draw to that tea was so strong that I asked my wonderful Indian colleagues if it would be possible for me, a white woman, to have a cup of tea at the shop: there are no seats, everyone stands and chats. Of course they oblige.
How to describe the experience? The taste of the chai was pure velvet, but the pleasure was magnified by the sights, the sounds, the smells, and yes, the mud cup. Together we wondered at the magic that mud cups might bring to the taste of chai. The cups are small, and having pined for this local chai for days, I was not satisfied with only one cup. My colleagues obliged again, and bought me a second cup – 7 rupees, about 2 cents, and just as good as the first.

As a good Canadian, taught not to litter or waste, it was difficult for me to throw the cup on the ground, but I was compelled. Something drew me in – I dropped my mud cup onto the ground, and heartily crushed it with my foot. Back in Canada now, how I long for a good cup of chai in a mud cup.