Summer has gone past making way for monsoon- a season that infallibly made me gloomy- with grey clouds canopying the azure sky. Almost midway through Ashaar, it smelled of rain but there was no sign of it. Like everything attached to city life, people who walked on the streets, the stray crow that sat on the railing surrounding my balcony and now the seasons, everything had become inconsistent.
Tossing words and ideas in my mind, I sipped hot tea from my mug and continued to stare blankly at the laptop screen. Like I had done all morning. The tea was awful; too much leaf. In spite of the love I felt for that cup of piping, hot tea I was always more of a drinker. Making tea for me was an ordeal.
Weary of the blank, white page on MS Word, I casually wrote down the first thing that came into my mind: T-E-A. Having spent the last three hours in front of the computer I was struggling to put words, describe my thoughts; three words were akin to an accomplishment.
“TEA”. That was easy. So what about it? I closed my eyes and desperately attempted to conjure an idea and while my failure made a mockery of my prowess, my fingers carelessly kept on going… “cups of tea”. I felt like Jack Nicholson in “the Shining” who spends an entire winter in a desolate hotel typing only “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Cups of tea…No it didn't feel right. “cups of tea one can never forget”. That seemed better.
I often wondered how an alien concept like drinking tea had infiltrated the social fabric of our nation, so much so that we now prided ourselves as 'avid tea drinkers'. Introduced by the British, 'natives' drank tea to imitate the 'sahib'. Now there were no natives and the sahibs had been gone but the aroma of tea still brewed in the Bangladeshi household.
Whenever I think of tea, I always associate it with the company I shared it with. Kemal was one. Originally from Turkey, his father was a restaurateur extraordinaire, with their popular café dotted throughout Turkey. Kemal Pasha, however shunned the family business and responded to a higher calling. For reasons undisclosed, he moved to Bangladesh. He used to say, “A man should have a vice… …I have two - tea and football.” And while chuckling on his own remark, he would sip his Gin Tonic. He did have a good sense of humour.
Kemal, as I remember him, was a true connoisseur of tea. He liked coffee, but loved tea. He found our tea culture somewhat obscure. “We Turks” he said, “drink tea for the love of it. To fully appreciate the aroma and the taste of tea you must drink it raw…no milk, little or no sugar.” He went on “You folks prefer to sip it with a dash of milk and drink it cold. Reminds me of Brits…takes the 'tea' out of tea I would say”.
I always enjoyed his company and the cup of Turkish tea that was a staple at Kemal's house. “We love tea not for the taste and flavour but because of the emotions that is associated with it” and I went on arguing, “While you prefer to take time to brew your drink, put it on oriental Turkish glass and relish on the taste, we opt to gulp it along with a cigarette stick at the tea stall. We cherish the adda over a cup of tea - like the one we are having at the moment - tea alone means little to us but it is all the good things that we connect with it.”
Kemal would fervently shake his head and agree to disagree.
I remember this one time, Kemal and I thought of trying out new restaurants of Dhaka and went to “Café Saint-Remy”, a decent place with Van Gogh prints hanging on its walls. It came highly recommended by a mutual friend. “The masala tea” she said “totally out of this world…a must try”. We settled in the comfortable chairs, called in the waiter and asked for two masala teas. The aroma of spices had reached us even before the waiter could place the cups on our table. We were tantalised. One sip, and it was truly…So Ordinary!
We quietly finished our cup and asked for the bill. After a long wait the sad-faced waiter shoved a receipt…four hundred and sixty takas! We were speechless. Kemal gathered his courage and in his broken Bangla managed, “Bhai, this was cha pata, sugar and gorom mosholla!” Our waiter was not amused.
My earliest recollection concerning tea, which in all certainty was not my first cup, but certainly the most memorable is that of a chilly November afternoon. Back in those days, November used to be quite cold and nothing tasted better than a smoking cup of cha. While my mother - not in her best mood that day - was having her afternoon sip I kept on pestering for a cup of my own. She complied, pouring a little cha in a mug. I was not satisfied and asked for more. In a sudden fit of rage my mother got hold of a jar and filled my mug with water. And I had to finish the tea, down to the last drop. Unforgettable!
And I also remember the tea Shehreen used to make. Every morning she would fill a flask for me - fuel for my work, she used to say - that would last till she returned from the hospital. I used to spend the whole day writing and when she returned, we would enjoy some freshly made tea and I read to her what I had written all day.
But those days are gone. We live in different worlds now. Here I am, alone…reminiscing cups of tea. I picked up the half-filled mug and drank the bitter, cold tea. Tea in solitude…one more cup I will never forget.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Special thanks to the Westin Dhaka for arranging the photoshoot
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