Melody Razak, author of the new novel “MOTH,” tells us about her experiences with masala chai and what the drink means to her. MOTH is “Razak’s debut novel of family and politics in the long shadow of the partition of India hums with memorable characters and gorgeous prose” – Waterstones.
I must confess, the first time I went to India in the winter of 1999, I avoided drinking chai altogether. Too sweet, too milky, too spicy were the common excuses I used. I asked for weak black tea, no sugar and felt saintly with it.
A few years later, I was on a long train journey across the continent, and the now familiar call ‘chaichaichai’ as the chaiwallah swung his kettle through the cabin, and because I was thirsty, fidgety from sitting down for so long, and out of snacks, I finally acquiesced.
In a terracotta cup, thimble-sized, he poured with well-practised flourish a shot of hot, tooth-clenchingly sweet, strong and cardamom scented chai. I downed it and was hooked. I soon learnt that a cup of hot chai and a fresh samosa were the perfect elevenses snack. Nibble slurp and repeat.
When I returned to India to write “MOTH,” notebook in hand and pen behind ear, on my first day, I found the nearest chai stall to my guesthouse and settled down. I was in south Delhi, near the Deer Park at Hauz Khas Village. It was a wonderful feeling, watching the spices pounding to dust in the pestle and mortar, the huge vat of milk reducing, the resulting chai – notes of caramel chocolate ginger black pepper – that flooded my gullet. I listened to the chatter around me, I watched the children play nearby, I asked for another and another, left high on sugar and with a feeling of bliss.
For the next year, this was the pattern my working life would take. Each new place, the chai wallah was my first port of call. Each state or city offered a different spicy note.
That first morning chai gave me a moment to sit and write and gather my thoughts. Sometimes, I would have a wonky wooden stool, other times a raised bit of pavement or a bit of wall. If I got there early enough, in the half dark, I would watch the sun rise and the men in their shawls warm their hands by a tin can fire, the stray dogs chase each other’s tails, the cows loiter amongst the refuse.
I was often the only woman. At first it was awkward; I was stared at, but soon the chaiwallah would nod a hello and eventually, the staring would stop. If I went to the same stall often enough, the chai was pushed into my hand without my having to ask for it. Sometimes there would be malt biscuits and then the dogs would gather at my feet.
The characters in “MOTH” drink a lot of chai too. Their actions mirrored my own. My rituals bled into my work and saturated the prose with life. When Partition happens and Delhi unravels, the chai in my story also runs out. There is only dishwater tea, scant sugar, powdered milk. When Alma is in Lahore, when she misses home, it is the scent and taste of the chai that tethers her back into place, the soothing comfort of a hot drink. The chai in Lahore, in the mali’s hut, tastes just as good as the chai in Delhi. For a moment, the political and geographical borders of loathing are hazy and home is that place beside the fire.
More about MOTH:
“Melody’s debut novel, Moth, tells the heart-rending story of a Brahmin family living in 1940’s Delhi during India’s Independence and subsequent Partition. It explores the impact of disproportionate violence on the lives of the women who carry so much of the emotional labour during times of political unrest. It probes the structures of an already fractious society, examines who the ‘other’ is, and what it means to be free. It looks too at the domestic sphere, at different types of love and is ultimately a celebration of the human spirit. UK & Commonwealth rights sold at auction to Weidenfeld & Nicholson, for publication in June, and Melody was selected as one of the Observer’s ‘Ten Debut Novelists’ of 2021.”
MOTH is available at Waterstones, Foyles, Bookshop.org, and WHSmith.