We've all heard the story about the devout man whose faith in God was so strong that when his village was flooded, he turned down a raft, a boat and a helicopter by saying, "God will say me." When he drowned and went to heaven, he wailed, "God, I had dedicated my whole life to You, and yet, in my hour of need, why did You not save me?" God smiled sadly and said, "My dear child, I tried to save you three times, but you turned me away each time."
Just remember this tale when you get to the end of this little narrative of mine.
I you had ever spent a night in my parents' homes in Bangalore or Kolkata, and if you had ever slept in the bedrooms near the kitchen, then chances are, you would have been woken up in the morning by a rather terrible clanging and clashing. Not even a pillow over one's head was enough to drown out the quite-deafening sounds of the pestle and mortar being made to work by my father, a couple of hours after sunup. Every morning, without fail, my father would crush a combination of herbs, spices and ginger to brew with a spoonful of tea leaves for his early morning cuppa. This trusty concoction, he claimed, was his health tonic, and in my twenties, I got hooked on it too.
Tea. My father's absolute favouritest beverage in the world. And I don't use the term 'favouritest' lightly. Any time was tea time for my father and he could happily have ten or twelve cups of the brew throughout the day. Even though my silent, introvert of a father didn't say much when friends and family were over, he looked forward to them coming with great delight and an air of anticipation. We'd tease him saying that it was because he was guaranteed another cup of tea on their arrival.
My mother would often get exasperated with my father's frequent demands for "aar ek cup" through the day; not that her irritation bothered him...if it was tea he wanted, it was tea he would get. My father credited tea with many things. He claimed that tea was the reason behind his fair complexion and that drinking tea in the summertime kept the body cool. My mother would snort in disbelief, but maybe the man had something? After all, he was incredibly fair and also the most even-tempered man that I've ever known in my life; uncomplaining, humble and never, ever given to fits of rage. My mother? Well, beautiful, wheatish and passionate about everything and everyone in her life. Also, not a tea lover. So...
I love my aadaa-chaa, elaichi-chaa and flavoured teas as much as I love my cafe latte and hazelnut-flavoured cappuccino. But often I would ask for a cup of tea in my parents' home whenever I went to visit, just so that my father could have another cup. I wonder if he knew that?
I made my father his last ever cup of tea while he was still in the hospital; in the ICU. I had said my goodbyes for the day and visiting hours were almost over. A friend of my father-in-law's was with Baba while I waited in the lobby. He came down and said that my father was calling me. With just a few minutes to spare before the guards came around asking visitors to leave, I ran upstairs as fast as I could. My father was sitting propped up in bed, a flask of hot water, an empty cup and a tea bag kept on a tray in front of him. I asked him if he was feeling alright and whether he needed anything. He shook his head and just asked me to make him a cup of tea. Relieved and happy, I not only made him his tea, but I fed it to him as well, spoon by spoon; the security guard even gave me ten extra minutes to do so. Baba relished each and every drop and let out a sigh of contentment after we were done.
That night he was put on the ventilator. Three days later, he died.
I swore off tea forever. I couldn't even look at a cup without feeling the twin emotions of absolute anguish and irrational rage.
Well-meaning family and friends tried to get me to change my mind. I was stubborn in my refusal. My mother, however, understood.
The fourth day after a parent dies, according to Bengali-Hindu customs, a married daughter as well as her children, perform a puja for the departed parent in the daughter's marital home.
In accordance with these traditions, I woke up, had a bath, shampooed my hair, wore a new sari and fasted until the puja. Certain things are supposed to be given to the departed soul for his journey to the after-life...such as rice, fruits, vegetables and other things, like a bit of bhoomi (earth), an umbrella, some loose change, and five items that the person was fond of eating, amongst other things. Of course it may vary from one household to the next.
I saw all these items placed in front of my father's garlanded photograph. Yes, there was a packet of tea leaves there as well.
After the puja, whilst I was mingling with my family and friends who had gathered round me in my time of grief, I was given something to eat and drink. Famished, I wolfed down the food on my plate and drained the contents of my cup within minutes.
It was only after everyone was gone, while I was sitting with my sons, playing back the mornings' events in my mind that I realised what had been in the cup...tea!
I burst into tears. Not tears of grief at my father's memory or tears of remorse for a broken promise, but tears of awe and wonder.
It was my dad.
It was my dad's doing. He made me have that cup of tea. It had to be. No other explanation will do. How could he bear his beloved daughter giving up something that he loved so much? And that too, for him?
When I told my mother what happened, tears streamed down her face and she softly said, "He's fine. Your Baba is fine."
I am sure he is. And I am sure he is having "aar ek cup" while watching over us from wherever he is now.
It's three months today, Baba, since you've left. And even though I know you're fine, I'm not. But with you watching over me, I kow I will be. Eventually.
Raising a cup of tea, brimful with my tears, to you.