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The Grand Kerala Tea Ceremony

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

My sister and her family, all US citizens, are currently on their first tour of Europe, walking around the streets of London, and getting the feel of a world very distinct from theirs back in Wisconsin. It is a trifle hard to imagine that someone who has been in the USA for 24 years hasn’t hopped over the Atlantic even once, but the truth is when life has a steady hand on the tiller, you blindly go the way it steers you, and at some point, after crossing many miles, you pause and ask, “Where have I arrived?” More often than not, realizing that you have been walking on a treadmill, and have reached nowhere, you step off it and take a journey in search of your soul.

It's then we take detours and go to places that offer a completely different view of not just the chromatic world, but of life itself. It is nothing short of a sacred safari in which we reset out timers and recalibrate our compasses to foray into new realms of existence.

“What’s different there?” I asked her, as my sister sent me pictures taken in various parts of London first, and then a few other European cities.

‘A lot. The royalty, the history and culture, the Victorian tradition, the unique ambience none of which we get to see back in Milwaukee,’ she tittered excitedly.

For someone who hasn’t been to the US but has heard a lot about from the time a cousin went there many decades ago and gave me a glimpse of it, her answer was a surprise. I have always thought that the US had everything from A to Z. From Apple to Zuckerberg. My naiveté, of course, to believe if it is not there in America, it is nowhere else. They have sold themselves so well to the world that we now look no further than gaining a foothold in the land of opportunity to anchor our opulent dreams.

My sister topped us up with her experiences and pictures, some of which were slightly familiar to me from my two visits to Europe. There is a quintessential character to Europe that permeates the continent, no matter which city you are in. The town squares and streets festooned with eateries and coffee shops, the cobbled paths that you wander through like gypsies, the street artists who should have been performing on stages but now subsist on the bills we drop and the strains of music that spreads on us like a soothing emollient – an accordionist here, a violinist there, a pianist in the arcade, bustling tourists collecting memories and mementoes - these are the vignettes of Europe. And to my sister, it was all new.

The Baroque and Gothic architecture and the grand sculptures strewn across are, of course, things that will make our jaws drop to the ground and under, but what probably endears us and also endures in our memory are the small moments.

“We loved walking around in the busy town squares until late night on a full moon day. We shopped for knick-knacks, indulged in small pleasures of eating from small joints that we found during our strolls,” my sister wrote. And the next day, she spoke about the English Tea Party wherein they dug into ‘multi-course cute little stuff’ along with a tea of their choice - sandwichs, pre-desserts with scones, butter and jam, and other dessert pastries.

Not having been to the regal side of the globe that boasts of inherent grace and etiquette in everything it does, the English Tea Party is not an experience that I could imagine in my head, but I am not alien to its joys entirely. I have had my own kind of tea parties with the world’s most elaborately brewed tea and ‘multi-course cute little stuff’ on the side to chomp on - Parippu vada, Pazham Pori, Bajji, Ulli Vada.

If I were to count the most memorable moments in my life, the ones I have spent with my dad in Kerala, having ‘naadan chaya’ (local tea), sarbat or juice from road side stalls, along with a snack or two dunked in spicy red chutney that can launch a rocket into space will top the list. It was a ritual for us, a given when we stepped out of home when I visited them annually.

Appa made sure that he accompanied me on my outings even after I had been married for several years and could make town trips on my own. An inexplicable camaraderie, which was missing in the first 30 odd years of my life, but became the cornerstone of our relationship in the later period, made us the revel in the short indulgences.

“Appa, what do you want? Juice, nannari sarbat or chaya?” I would ask, playing the parent, and lifting my brows in a quick query.

“Anything,’ he would say, being a man with no pickiness or preferences. For him, anything goes. All he wanted were those few hours of enjoyment that came with the time he spent chatting and joking with me even as I shop-hopped to pick up sundry things, and sometimes made him participate wherever he could opine. He would patiently wait for me to finish, making me ever so guilty, but one could not exhort him to leave me and go, even if it meant having a late lunch at home.

“Appa, go home if you are bored and hungry. I will finish my stuff and come,” I would say.

“I am not hungry. You take your time. I love this loitering,” he would confirm, offering to take a bag or two from me.

Those days are etched in my memory as the most modest yet priceless occasions in my life. He had no reason to accompany me on my jaunts, but he did, for a reason. The small moments. To us both, they were super colossal.

It was in September 2016 that I had the last of such moments somewhere near a town called Malayatoor in Kerala. Not that there haven’t been other small moments after that which I could extol for their uniqueness, but if I were to index them, none would ever equal the grandeur of having a naadan chaaya with Appa. And the last one was an unparalleled, knock-out experience.

As part of my desire to write Appa’s life story, which for some reason I didn’t want to call biography, because his spartan ways and simple life didn’t warrant that weighty a moniker that people with bigger track records in life usually adopted, I undertook a journey to his native place in September 2016. He took me around his old school, almost bringing to life old images with his vivid descriptions. Teachers from the past and the stories that made them iconic tumbled out of his memory. He marveled how nothing much had changed, including the classrooms (although I was certain a lot must have, given the huge time lapse), getting animated now and then reminiscing the past.

He took me to his ancestral house, which was locked and close to collapse, and relived his childhood - an array of anecdotes that spanned the 30’s and 40’s and involved his 12 siblings. He didn’t seem particularly perturbed at its dilapidated state and took it as a natural fall out of time, and we took pictures for posterity in the courtyard. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for the dad-daughter duo.

It was also a day when I noticed that Appa had slowed down, and the deterioration in his health became apparent to me from his slow gait and faltering steps. None of it was reflected in his spirit, though. Gung ho as ever, he took me on the excursion with the enthusiasm of a school boy. But Appa now needed a helping hand now and then, and I sensed the sand in the glass slowly emptying. It was with a shudder that I realised that I had to hurry with my book. His wisdom and witticism had to be recorded, his memories had to be documented, his life had to be made a reference guide. There was a lot left to be done and perhaps, time was in short supply.

At the end of the day-long trip, on our way back, we stopped at a wayside shack, with the Periyar in the background running in full spate, for our customary Kerala Tea Ceremony, which I didn’t imagine would be our last. As the banana fritters and dal vadas sizzled in oil behind an array of glass bottles filled with jeeraka sodas and other cool drinks in a push cart, and the tea flew a mile between the hands of the tea-maker, I asked, “Appa, I had a great time. Did you?”

“It was perfect. I enjoy these small pleasures in life and I do it only when you come.” Indeed, even the small moments were few and far between in his life, for reasons only he knew the best. He had no special friends. All his acquaintances were friends to him. He didn’t go out much, but wherever he went, he made a picnic out of it.

Appa looked tired from all the walking in the day - another sign of his slow decline - but nothing could have stopped him from claiming his share of happiness that came with the tea ceremony under a thick grey sky heralding a rain.

Small pleasures. Little things. Casual joys.

Is this what we are scrambling all over for, rummaging through the big things, I wondered as I slurped the tea rich with a taste and aroma only teashops in Kerala are capable of infusing. All it took for us to relish this simple delight of having a tea by the wayside, with a ‘multi-course cute little things’ to bite into was a willingness to see life from the broadside.

As I said grace for the blessing, the monsoon clouds that had gathered above us began to fall as if to say ‘Amen’ to my prayer. The rains know when to fall and create a setting, don’t they?

This was in September 2016. The book had to be put on hold then as I needed to spend more time with Appa to gather enough content to make it an authentic manuscript. I kept it in abeyance till my next visit which I thought would happen in January 2017. But the Universe decided that I shouldn’t wait that long and came up with a reason for me to travel home again sooner. I didn’t know there was another sinister plan brewing in the chaaya kada of fate.

Barely two weeks after my return to Dubai, Appa had a heart attack, and I rushed to be by Amma’s side, who had spent the first night of his hospitalization alone, waiting outside the ICU. Loneliness can make any crisis feel like a catastrophe, but she had hung in there with only prayer and the comfort of having me with her shortly.

It wasn’t an open and shut case; Appa had three major blocks in his arteries, and he rejected a by-pass surgery outright. As an alternative option, an angioplasty, which people said was a routine procedure that didn’t warrant much worry, was scheduled for later that week. It wasn’t fool-proof, the doctor said, as the third block was inaccessible for a stent, and that could affect the quality of his life considerably.

Sometimes, life doesn’t leave us with many happy choices. We just take what comes by and give it a happy spin.

I spent the next two days giving pep talk to Appa who seemed crestfallen when he was told that life wouldn’t be the same again for him. It sapped his vital energies.

“You will be alright soon, and we will go on our jaunts again to have chaaya by the way side. We’ll make the most of life,” I said, and it livened his sagging spirits instantly and gave a smile that bordered on cautious optimism.

Despite whatever I said to him during the day, my night passed in great anxiety, alert to every move Appa made in his hospital bed, wondering why his heart never gave us any heads up before it decided to go into disrepair. On the second night after I landed, in the middle of the night when he woke up briefly and began coughing, I asked him with dread dripping from my voice, “Appa, are you OK?”

“All perfect, kondhe (a tambram term for child),” he said as if he were walking in the Garden of Eden, and went back to sleep. I lay staring into the night, trying to fight demoniac thoughts away, and making sure I heard the soft purring of his breath.

Little did I know in that fretful instant that there were only 24 hours left in his hour glass and that there will not be another Kerala Tea Ceremony for us.

On the night of 7th October, a day after he affirmed that everything was ‘perfect’ even when he was secretly fighting his fears, my naadan chaya partner, the man who taught me that true happiness was an offspring of a contented heart, moved on, leaving me with a shattered heart and an unfulfilled dream of a book based on his life.

The scattershot of death sent shards of my broken spirit deep into the space and I am still picking the pieces strewn between the stars. One day, when I will have picked them all and pieced my heart together, I will likely write the book showcasing the life lessons and tenets he lived by for 76 years. Until then, I will have naadan chaya with a kadi (traditional snack) in the Malabari restaurants dotting Karama, and every time I do it, raise a toast in his name before the first sip.

“Cheers, Appa, to our friendship and to our grand Kerala Tea Ceremonies!”

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