A thermos of chai. Seemingly simple yet a symbol of tradition, love and memories of a beautiful childhood. Growing up, we were the family that would often carry a thermos of chai on long road trips and family outings. If we were driving more than 45 minutes away, a thermos of chai would likely accompany us. Alongside would be sandwiches or wraps of aloo bhujjia (spicy potato) in homemade chappatis or kabobs and chutney in a paratha.
My memories of long family drives include a large pink plaid blanket that was a fixture in our minivan. We would spread it on a patch of grass where we’d proceed to unwrap our goodies, cut up fruit, and of course, the thermos of chai.
It would get pulled out when all the food was done and we were otherwise stuffed. Before I was old enough to drink it, I have vivid memories of my dad sprawled out on that pink plaid blanket with his faded blue jeans, bright blue sky overhead, at a picnic ground adjacent to the beach; next to him a big mug of piping hot chai still fresh from the thermos. Those were happy memories. Simple memories of a time not too long ago; before we got married, had kids and moved on with our lives.
That thermos of chai still carries with it warm, soothing memories. In my circle of friends it has become my own constant. If we go apple picking with friends, it will be there, if we go for a day trip to the beach, it will come along. Any time friends or family embark on a special, promising to be memorable trip, the thermos of chai is sure to be nearby.
We had family visit us from Pakistan when I was about twelve years old. We drove from Montreal to Ottawa, the nation’s capital, about an hour and a half away to show them the parliament building. While I don’t remember much about the main attractions, what I do remember is pulling out our large pink, faded blanket, napkins, plates and cutlery and a gigormous pot of chicken biryani and cucumber raita to go with. Strangers biking by stopped and commented on the divine smell wafting through the air.
My mom, being the woman she was, offered them a plate. When they left, we pulled out the thermos of chai and accompanying cookies, cakes and rusks (desi biscotti) for dunking. Simple actions etched that day into the scrapbook of my childhood memories. While I sometimes joke about eating biryani on parliament hill while sitting on a picnic blanket, I cannot forget the warmth and comfort of that day, nor of that cup of chai.
Today I have a similar place in my heart for a warm cup of chai. It symbolizes warmth, love, and sweet memories. We grew up dunking cookies into our parent’s cups of chai; as a special treat, I sometimes let my kids do the same. It warms my heart when I hear them playing with their toy kitchen, preparing the table for afternoon chai.
For me, chai is not just a beverage. It is a warm mug filled with memories. As I wrap my fingers around a warm cup first thing on a cool autumn morning, I am reminded of many similar mornings growing up when my mom would make me a tall mug of chai to go with breakfast, on my way out the door to university.
I am reminded of all the important family decisions that have been made over the years over a cup of chai. Our family grouped around the table with a small plate of cookies, or ‘vai’ as my dad termed it. Chai/vai was a must. I learnt from a young age to never serve just chai to a guest. With chai, there must be vai. This varied from pakoray (gram flour dumplings) on a rainy day to cake, cookies or finger sandwiches. Those conversations always seemed warmer, more intimate, accompanied by the golden, silky warm cup of chai.
Many of our traditions and values emanate from our families. From food and dress, how we speak, to our cultural references. These all help shape our identity. In my case, they act as a link to my South Asian heritage.
I have struggled to embrace that identity for the past seven and a half years. Perhaps it’s because I lost my mother, perhaps it’s because I was newly married and young when it all happened but as the memories of my childhood wash over me and fill my body with warmth, so does that slightly sweetened, milky smooth, warm beverage as it works its way through my body.
I strive to share the warmth and comfort of my childhood with my own family. Today, I did that by filling my thermos with chai and sharing some memories.