Over a cup of chai
It was late September. The summer sun rose early in Guwahati. Sahid bought me a cup of chai. The little glass held a wonderful fresh aroma of new chai patha—or, tea leaves. I sipped once, not knowing that it was the beginning of a beautiful bond. It was joy. My chai that morning was a mud-colored puddle fed by monsoon gods. And I, a grown woman with the heart of an innocent child.
“You have the soul of a little kid,” Sahid would tell me, days later. “You are a bachcha.”
“I am a bachcha,” I laughed often. Sometimes when smiles curved my lips, I’d sip a cup of tea Sahid made. Often, there’s a hint of ginger in it. He crushes ginger, sometimes a cardamom or two. It goes into the boiling milk, already rich in fresh tea leaves and small blocks of sugar.
A few days later we first met that September, we went to Nongkhnum. By then, it was already October. It was the awakening of beautiful autumn in Meghalaya. Cherry trees bloomed, slowly dressing the vistas with patches of pastel pink. Icy cold rivers snaked past the subtropical canopy. Along the banks, wildflowers danced. Before our journey to Nongkhnum, we bathed in River Kynshi. She was a mellow young tributary.
The next morning in Nongkhnum, Sahid woke me up with a cup of chai. It was just like the first cup of chai he made me. It was the colour of mud. He took me to a waterfall on the other side of the river which I didn’t know existed in my first visit to Nongkhnum. On our way back, we bathed again in the river. We napped on boulders as we awaited the warmth of the sun. Back at our cottage, he made me another cup before our departure. It was mellow—mild in taste and rich in milk. I wasn’t used to the thick froth hugging the surface. “Drink it. I made it with extra love,” he told me as he left for packing.
With that chai, I left Nongkhnum. I haven’t seen her in months. Nongkhnum is a charming river island in the West Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. It is, in fact, Asia’s second-largest river island. The island calls home to about 14 households, and three cottages for tourists. In Nongkhnum, life remains slow.
Two days later, after another cup of chai Sahid made, I left Guwahati. I left India. With that cup, I left Sahid.
Also read: Conversations over breakfast series
I met him on Facebook, perhaps in 2018. Neither I nor Sahid remembers which Facebook group it exactly was. We used to briefly comment on each other’s posts. Sahid would always tell me that he’d host me and Nathan (who’s both my partner and my soulmate) if we visit Guwahati. So in that September, he did exactly as he promised. He hosted me in his charming house in Guwahati. And for Nathan, my soulmate who was born in Saudi Arabia many years ago, he wasn’t able to travel. We are still wearing the registration of his Sri Lankan citizenship.
“I had a good feeling about both of you,” Sahid told me one morning. “I love that you are a Sinhalese-Buddhist and Nathan is a Tamil-Hindu.” He’d say, chuckling.
“But my parents don’t,” I told him. “They don’t love it that we are in an interreligious, interracial and intercultural relationship.” In Sri Lanka, North and South divide into two races—Sinhalese and Tamil. The Civil War shook the island for 27 years and was declared ended in 2009 by the Sri Lankan government.
“But love is love. It doesn’t see race, religion or colour,” I’d tell Sahid over an aloo-anda curry during dinner. Chai wasn’t the only thing Sahid made for me. “I love cooking for you. I was worried that you wouldn’t eat simple things,” I’d laugh every time he says this. While I’ve written for many major international publications—both digital and print—I hail from a small village in Sri Lanka. Growing up, I’d eat rice and vegetables my father cultivated in the garden during his free time. I struggled for the most part of my life during the late teenage years and early twenties, sometimes going to bed hungry. During those days, I learnt the value of food.
Sahid is two decades older to me. I never thought I’d be friends with someone so older to me. But the thing with Sahid is that his heart is young that a twenty-something like me could easily blend with him. His soul is so beautiful you could pierce in and see the love he carries. Like for most of us, there are scars and semi-healed wounds and cuts and blood-splattered boulders in his heart, but there’s immense love which covers all of it and rises above fierce volcanoes.
[My sister Sara drew these illustrations. Sahid also loves goats. When he was little, he had had a goat momma and a baby goat as pets.]
We’ve now travelled together to many places. I’ve watched him cry over an Andhra biryani packed with a hefty red punch because his Assamese mouth could barely withstand heat–or, spices. I’ve run on the powder-sand southern beaches when he didn’t forget to take photos of my childlike self. We’ve slept inside cosy train cabins and sometimes he’d read me Sufi poems from a book we bought from the streets of Kolkata. Other times, we hop on passenger trains and I’d fall asleep in his arms. I shouted at him in Kathmandu nights and held him tight in my arms when he cried in one Pokhara night in Nepal. That night in December last year, He missed his five-year-old son who was far away from him.
On most days, he cooks me aloo-mutton biryani with love so I could devour it with joy. Other days, we gulp chai looking at marigolds creeping towards sunshine in chilly mornings. He held my sister when I shouted at her for being a drama queen. She often is, but Sahid would tell her it’s a phase and it shall pass. It did. Once, three of us slept on a mat under the night sky watching shooting stars. It was beautiful. I will never forget it.
He is my friend. But he also became my family. I have met many people in life. I’ve let go of many friends who weren’t exactly friends. I keep people at a distance. I fret that people would walk into my life and ruin my state of happiness. But with Sahid, it was effortless being closer to him. His heart is so genuine you could see in his pale brown eyes. “Are you Persian?” I had asked him many times looking at his rose-white skin and brown eyes. “My ancestors were,” he’d laugh.
When he was driving in Nagaland, the land where he was born, he’d tell me stories of the Sema Nagas and Angamis—two Naga tribes owning the mountains. He’d take me to back alleys of crowded markets so I could learn about the Bengali hilsa fish for my next article. In Decathlon, he bought Nathan a new bandana. Sahid wears bandanas. His previous was a navy blue bandana covering most of his black-grey hair. “It’s SICK! He looks like such a gangster,” Nathan would tell me on WhatsApp. I forced him to buy a bright orange one so it adds more colour.
This February, I left Sahid again. But he’s already my friend. He’s now family. In many mornings I spent with him, he’d bring me chai with some baked cake or Patanjali biscuits. His home became my home that I clean it when maid aunty doesn’t come. I dust bookshelves in the living room and water houseplants and marigolds and potted petunia that they bloom with joy. We now have dreamcatchers everywhere at home. Evening sun filters through the balcony curtains and kisses them slowly that the rose-gold beads in them shine with new life.
My sister now misses Sahid. We talk about him every evening as we have our dinner at our place in Colombo. We look at swaying coconut palms covering the vibrant evening skies and talk about Assamese lunches. We talk about the times we bathed in rivers and sat on roadside shops having thalis. In hot tropical afternoons in Sri Lanka, these are the beautiful memories keeping us sane.
Sahid is not perfect. His ego gets hurt often. But no one, not you, not me, not anyone in the world is perfect. We all have our flaws. But the beautiful thing is that we grow through our flaws, accepting them. Everyone, each one of us grows in our own way. And when you don’t forget to grow through difficult times, you bloom one day, like those little flowers tangling through the wooden shelves at home. I don’t know their names.
In that September, Sahid made me chai every evening. Now the roles are reversed. I make him chai now. I make us chai. I add little pieces of ginger I bought from the store down the lane. “Can I have a kutti (small) cup of chai?” sometimes he asks me for a cup of warmth and love. “You make nice chai,” he tells me.
“I do. I make nice chai because you taught me how to,” I don’t tell him that. He knows it.