Butter Chai

Monday, 10 August, 2015

Before I moved to Melbourne, I wanted to go on a crazy backpacking trip to some exotic, remote place in my own home country of India. After unending consultations with friends, travel blogs, and Lonely Planet I zeroed in on Spiti, a valley on the Indian side of the Himalayan Ranges. As a city-bred girl, villages in India were as foreign to me as they might be to a stranger from a different country. All my life I had taken Google Image searches for face value and decided that rural India needed major reforms. Outside of the cities was a barren, patriarchal wasteland, and I pitied the women who lived there.

When I actually went to Spiti for a holiday, however, I was not prepared for what hit me. Other than the sheer magnificence of the valley, the women! Strong isn’t quite the word, but confident comes close. The women in Spiti Valley are nothing like I imagined them to be. They are fit, efficient, and do perform many of the jobs, such as pulling rickshaws and carrying heavy loads, which are typically considered to be for men only.

One day a very friendly woman working in our hostel took us on a tour of the secret beauty spots of Spiti, which only the locals know of, and the next day invited us to her home for lunch. I woke up early the morning of our appointment and, deciding to get a gift for my host, walked to the market nearby. Flowers were a safe and easy bet, I thought, but when I walked into the florist’s I found that very woman from the hostel sitting at the counter!

“Whoa! You manage two jobs?” I asked her, selecting a bunch of flowers.

“No, I can’t manage two jobs with a newborn” she said, looking at the baby sleeping peacefully in the cradle beside her. “This is my husband’s shop; I’m managing it for him this morning.”

“Oh my god! You have a baby? And you’re filling in for your husband now? Won’t it be too much work for you to have us over for lunch? And how come I’ve never seen your baby in the hostel? Who looks after him then?”

“Ha-ha! I’m here because we’re having you over for lunch; my husband is at home cooking for you guys. He is a much better chef than I am and makes some amazing dumplings and soup…you’re in for a treat! When I’m at the hostel, he gets the baby along with him to the shop because we have help here and there’s someone to keep an eye on the baby constantly. It’s not the same case in the hostel – you’ve seen how busy it gets.”

The baby began to stir and she excused herself to go feed him. I stood there, trying to process all that she had told me, and that this was actually happening in a remote village, practically cut-off from the rest of the world, with education that stops the moment you learn how to count and no access to Internet. I paid for the flowers and walked out with a head full of thoughts. I’d read a lot of blogs and articles by travellers about the amount of sexism in India but this didn’t cohere with those at all.

When we arrived at their home our host welcomed us warmly; the lady had a good laugh at the flowers she recognised in my hand while I stood there looking sheepish) and her husband served some amazing ‘butter chai’, the taste of which I haven’t forgotten to date. As we sat around a stone table the pair served us food, and competed with each other in telling us the most amazing stories of the valley. The husband was very happy to share his recipes with us, and when we asked him where he learnt to cook so well he answered, “From my mum. I was always interested in cooking. We had a vegetable patch in our backyard, and my favourite pastime was to try out new flavour combinations with a different vegetable each week. Thankfully my wife is cooperative too. She does what she likes to do and I do what I like to do, and that’s how we are happy”.

Two years later I am sitting in a tram in Melbourne, reading the latest edition of Farrago, when I come across an article about the sexism that a traveller from Australia encountered in India. I decide to go home and make myself a cup of butter chai.