Gra – Tea – tude!
The dark chocolate covered wafer was delicious. The wafers were crisp and the dark chocolate was a smooth, perfectly balanced bittersweet. As I broke off a piece of the special edition dark chocolate Kit Kat and popped it in my mouth, I was transported… to a hilltop, a starlit evening, a cool gentle breeze wafting through pine trees subtly perfuming our path as we, a group of friends walked downhill munching on the same treat.
I’d gone back about five or six years to my Dharamshala trip. A chance dinner with friends had led to us meeting a vivacious, bubbly and pretty lady named Anamika Singh. As the meal progressed, we realized that Anamika was the creator of a fabulous artisanal tea – Anandini, which had been a favourite for some time!
The next day we were off to work on a common assignment and over a six-hour drive (which became a 10 hour one!), we all became kindred spirits. We bonded over intriguing conversations, laughter and endless cups of chai along the highway – Anamika wasn’t just India’s first lady Tea Sommelier, she was also seriously addicted to the beverage and a really good cup made her say “Oh lovely!” with a childlike enthusiasm only she could have!
The assignment over, we drove back to our respective cities and stayed in touch. A couple of months later, we found ourselves driving to Dharamshala with Anamika. Here, she opened up a whole new world for us.
I’d read about Dharamshala during the years I studied tourism. Tea estates and pine forests, Buddhist monks inhabiting gorgeous monasteries and the joy of enjoying a hot bowl of thukpa in the cold mountain air. It all sounded so romantic. Anamika brought this romance alive by helping us experience much more.
If it weren’t for her, I’d have probably never learned the right way to enjoying tea, leave alone setting foot in a real live tea estate!
“Tea is to be sipped, not drunk!”, was her first lesson.
“Never boil tea – that murders it. The water should never be more than a simmer”, was the next important thing. The way she explained things, her language made us thirsty for more tea.
As she took us around her estate, explaining every step of tea processing from the growing and tending of the delicate plants, to the plucking, drying, rolling of the leaves right till it reached us, we found ourselves respecting our tea much more. Later we were treated to a cuppa with the tea pluckers. Made their way, in a kettle over a wood fire, with no milk, lots of sugar and eaten with rusk, we enjoyed the infusion against the glorious backdrop of the Dhauladhar mountain range. Never have I enjoyed a cup of tea so much, and never have I seen clouds so white and a sky so pristinely blue.
Over the next few days, we discovered an ethereal world.
We visited a beautiful Buddhist monastery, where Tibetan monks were hard at work making metal sculptures, colourful and intricate Thangka paintings and meditating.
We spent an afternoon at the Kangra fort enjoying a lip-smacking Dham meal, eating till we couldn’t walk anymore.
Trudging up small hill paths and down, we made a small pilgrimage to the Buddhist temple beside His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s residence in nearby McLeodganj and later, gorged on steaming momos, fresh bread topped with peanut butter and had our first taste of authentic Tibetan cuisine at a small homely café run by one of Anamika’s friends.
Thanks to her, we were able to see India’s most picturesque and high-altitude cricket stadium.
One morning, Anamika took us on a breathtakingly beautiful and equally nervous drive to a mountaintop, where to our utter delight, we were treated to huge pancakes topped with mountain honey and bananas. She told us about the piles of balanced stones that dotted the whole landscape explaining that they were prayer stones. In all humility, together, we silently prayed over a small stone and balanced it atop one of the piles.
Needless to say, through all of this, a good cup or pot of soothing hot tea was never far.
On our last evening, we were on yet another excursion and as the sun gently set, Anamika suggested, we walk down to Dharamshala. It was on that starlit evening, when a cool gentle breeze wafted through pine trees and subtly perfumed our path, that we found a shop selling chocolates and biscuits. It was here that I found the dark chocolate Kit Kat for the very first time and brought some. As we walked slowly enjoying the peace and stillness all around, we munched on the bars and delighted in their taste.
Today, as that familiar taste took me down memory lane, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude to the friend who introduced us to Anamika. And I felt a flood of gratitude towards Anamika herself.
We haven’t been able to keep in constant touch over the years. “On & off” best describes our communication, but every time we meet has been like that first drive, we took together. There is no end to laughter, great meaningful conversation and the best possible tea. Without her, I’d have continued to perform “tea sacrilege” (as she puts it) and never been able to learn how to appreciate tea or experience a tea parlour. Nor would I have been able to get such deep philosophical insights on various aspects of life.
I’ve never been able to tell her what’s been on my mind and perhaps I will never be able to tell her personally, but without her, I would never have been able to gather the endearing bunch of memories I did.
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