“Here is your medium dirty chai tea latte, Sylvia,” the friendly barista squawks while a red-headed woman with yoga pants tucked into shearling boots scurries up to the counter. The intensity of the announcement reserved for early mornings only at highly caffeinated establishments makes Sanjana bristle involuntarily. The words chai tea latte hangs in the air penetrating her post-alarm-pre-coffee haze. You would never hear Americans say pomme apple pie, so why couldn’t they learn to say chai, just chai, like Indians do, Sanjana sneers to herself as the chai and yoga pants lady lowers her mask for a taste test. If chai was borrowed from South Asia, shouldn’t people call it what South Asians call it? As she asked herself the rhetorical question, the barista shrills again, as if responding to it.
“And here is your small latte with double shot and almond milk, uhh, Saaan-jay, err Saan-jay-ana?” Sanjana can feel her face heat up as it had many times when people stumbled over her name while reading it out. She pulls her mask up reflexively to hide and walks up to the counter. The barista reaches out, paper cup in hand, leaning her face framed by black hair with a blue strip that hides her right eye, “Did I get that right; is that how you say your name?
Sanjana, not feeling particularly charitable before her coffee and after the offensive chai tea latte, isn’t in the mood to educate. “No.” With that terse reply, she storms off coffee in hand, before she could feel bad about it. She knew the barista likely meant no harm; she certainly didn’t expect anyone who had never heard her name to get it right during the first attempt. She had endured teachers butchering it during roll call, managers bumbling through it in team meetings, and clients decimating it at important presentations. “Can I just call you S,” she had been asked on many occasions like her Indian name was an imposition on the white tongue? Sanjana had perfected the art of smiling through the discomfort in many rooms where no one looked like her.
But something felt sharper about the jab today. Maybe it was hearing the thrice-redundant “chai tea latte”, and smelling the perfume-y sweetness of the beverage like she had every day growing up. Chai was made twice a day at her house without fail. Her mother and father would engage in the artistry of permeating cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger into boiling water, whisking in milk until it turns the color of sand, with none of the sense of urgency exhibited at an American coffee shop. They drank the chai at a temperature that Sanjana only associated with second-degree burns. She had tried her hand at making chai a few times, but her mother had made it clear Sanjana had no natural knack for it. Having never drunk chai, she couldn’t appreciate the nuance of the extra cardamom pod or spill of sugar in the roiling pot. Of course, at ten, Sanjana had already grown accustomed to disappointing her mother in many other ways including showing no inclination for the kitchen where her mother spent so much of her time.
Sanjana gets into her car and locks her cell phone into its arm on her dashboard when it pings. Appa OK flashes on her screen. Never one for effusive texts, her father. Sanjana smiled for the first time that morning, thinking about him. What he lacked in phone communication, he made up in other bewildering if slightly endearing ways. Sanjana giggles as she creeps out of the parking lot, thinking about the long email he had sent a week ago summarizing dating profiles for prospective men he had found her on an Indian matrimonial website. He had once organized a call with her to interview her on what she was looking for in a husband. Sanjana had been equal parts mortified and amused. “Dad, I don’t know, ok! You and amma didn’t want me to date until like a year ago and now you want me to tell you exactly what I am looking for in a man?!” Truth is she had been dating surreptitiously for at least seven years and she still had no idea.
For the longest time, she had been convinced she was open to anyone and anything that didn’t resemble her parent’s relationship. Their marriage had been arranged like so many in those days in India. Her father, a lanky, shy man with a penchant for patterned shirts his mother picked out for him went to see her mother, a twenty-year-old whose soft features shone more than her demure saree. They stole away for thirty minutes to talk to each other. “We talked about our economics textbooks,” her mother had told her while Sanjana shook her head in disbelief. A few months later, after her mother finished her master’s degree, they stood next to each other in a ceremony Sanjana could imagine was as uncomfortable as the photos from that day. Her mother’s face, embellished in emeralds and rubies that paled against her beauty, looked positively crestfallen at the thought that she would need to spend her life with the stranger next to her.
But even as traditional as their wedding had been, their relationship wasn’t always so. For as long as Sanjana could remember, her father always made the morning cup of chai which he brought to his wife in bed. Her friend, Anjali, her first middle school friend to come over for a sleepover, had observed this scene over their morning cereal and remarked, “Wow, is your dad serving your mom in bed? I can’t believe it.” Sanjana didn’t know if Anjali found her mother’s behavior more unbelievable or her father’s. Sanjana knew this was a non-traditional scene in an Indian household but as a fourteen-year-old, she saw a marriage that worked because her coolheaded if timid father softened her fiery and devastatingly beautiful mother; the milk to her spice.
Sanjana’s mother made the weekday afternoon cup of chai and drank it alone. While her father was at work, as a homemaker her mother had her afternoons for her quiet savor. Sanjana would come home from school to the redolence of chai still hanging low in the air, like her mother’s presence. In her awkward teenage years, she wished she could come home and find both absent. She wanted to read fashion magazines, talk to a boy she liked, and talk about him with her friends. But with her mother home, she knew she had to do her homework, after which she could go hang out with her friends, but only until it got dark. Talking to boys was out of the question. After all, the neighborhood aunties were watching. The aunties whose keen eyes and sharper ears never missed a morsel of potential gossip. Sanjana could never be the subject of that gossip, her mother had made it clear. Sanjana had once found a way to sneak off with her friend to go meet up with her crush, her stomach swirling with anticipation and anxiety over her deviance. The news had reached her mother in the time it had taken her to walk back the one mile that separated their houses. Her mother, never one to suffer in silence, had exploded on Sanjana. Had she not made it clear that Sanjana had to focus on her studies, and not get involved with any boys? Had she not made it clear that Sanjana had to be good and virtuous and never give her a reason to hang her head in shame? The weight of her mother’s edicts blanketed Sanjana long after she left home, like the dense and pungent aroma of her favorite beverage. The spice in the chai, that’s her mother.
As Sanjana sat in the morning rush of cars that were pointed toward their owner’s workplaces, she thought back to the cerulean-haired barista from that morning and felt a pang of guilt at her short response. Why had she been so triggered by the sight and smell of the chai? Shouldn’t she find the familiarity of the smell, the words, grounding? But at fifteen, having immigrated from the blustering streets of Mumbai to a quiet suburban cul-de-sac in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sanjana didn’t appreciate how her parents still clung on to their daily chai ritual like they did so many other traditions that no longer fit the context. This was a time long before they served chai at Starbucks and golden lattes became the latest health craze. Sanjana smirked to herself as she pictured how she could gag every time her mother made her drink turmeric milk growing up, a homemade elixir to get rid of colds. But back then, no other home in North Carolinian suburbia smelled like earthy spices. The white kids at her high school, who already didn’t know what to do with Sanjana with her hard-to-pronounce name, went home to the clean smells of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - the smell of freedom and fitting in. At a time when Sanjana would have traded all of her underarm hair to fit in, her parent’s unswaying and painfully ethnic routines felt more like a bear trap than a lily pad. Just like her name did.
It was no wonder Sanjana had left home the first chance she got, leaving for college and never turning back. She had been so ready to begin her exploration of the world on her own terms. She needed and wanted to make a lot of mistakes as her ultimate rebellion. She yearned to wipe away any scent of home that lingered - the edicts, the what-would-so-and-so-thinks, the no dating decree, the traditions that held her back. None of it was as hard to do as she had expected. As it turned out, no one except her parents cared about the mistakes she made and she was truly free to make as many as she wanted. “Be careful what you wish for because you will get it,” her mother had exasperatedly told her once. Sanjana had to admit her mother was right. She was free from home, but without the traditions, she begrudged her parents, she was like a kite without a string, fluttering cluelessly through the air. She had shaken off all the ethnic scents from home, but she was now lost in the whiff of others’. Sanjana feels the tears prick at her lashes as she thinks about her ex, a man with a scent so strong, that his self-assuredness dissolved any last vestiges of hers. She was ready to be everything he wanted her to be. They traveled the world together; he was a coffee drinker and she found she could be one too. The bitterness of the coffee fortified them as they went from the beaches of Nicaragua to the castles of Scotland and everywhere in between, their aura of freedom and adventure trailing them.
But when they were back home one day, on her couch sharing a morning cup, he had turned to her and said, “I am still in love with my ex and I think I am going to give it another shot with her. I am sorry, Sanjana, this has been so much fun, but I want something more. I want to settle down and start a family soon. And it seems like you are still figuring out who you are.” Sanjana had slept on her bathroom floor that night, after retching for most of it, feeling like a dingy lost at sea. Scentless and directionless, she called her mother, asking for a lifeline.
Sanjana turns off the main road into a side street that she had driven down so many times. At the end of the road, on the corner sat the house that had held so many of her teenage struggles. Parking on the driveway, Sanjana picks up her overnight bag from her back seat and walks up to the front door dressed in strings of marigolds and mango leaves for the festival. Sanjana’s stomach rumbles in anticipation for the spread her mother would be sure to cook up for the occasion. Unlocking the front door she slithers into the house, trying to be as quiet as possible. The smell of freshly made chai greets her. From where she stood, she could see her parents in the living room with their side profiles to her. Her father, still in charge of the morning cup of chai, takes it over to her mother who sits on the timeworn grey couch. Sanjana’s diplomas from college and graduate school bedazzle the wall behind her mother. Sanjana stands still, observing her mother’s echoing beauty lingering behind creases on her forehead and neck. Her father settles into the chocolate-hued grandfather chair next to his wife. Their dog, knowing the ritual as well as them, waits to find his place in her father’s lap. They sit in silence. Sanjana wonders how much of their thirty-seven-year marriage was fostered by the intimacy of this simple routine amidst the chaos of their immigrant lives raising two children. She can now see the beauty in the way her father made chai for her mother every day, a small gesture for the way she put her life on her so he could have a career, and his children could have a present mother. The piquant aroma drifts over to Sanjana, a scent familiar yet offensive, but she ignores it in favor of the sigh of her parents, healthy and together, savoring the spices of their childhood as they hold it in their hands a thousand miles away from home. Sanjana, too, was home.