The great sulaimani debate: Bitter or sweet?


By Suresh Pattali

Published: Thu 3 Jun 2021, 7:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 4 Jun 2021, 12:45 PM

I didn’t give a damn about the political rectitude of a random thought that crossed my mind last weekend and blurted it out to wifey when she was smarting from an hour-long constitutional:

“I miss your new buddy next door. Haven’t seen her for a while.”

Wifey laughed out loud, as if she just watched a Chaplin for the first time in her life. Tickled to tears by my seemingly innocuous remark, she picked up the hose to clear an inch of dust and soot on our station wagon that was exposed to the summer sun. She was still beaming a brilliant smile when the water she sprayed sprang a rainbow through the morning rays.

“The Manojs are busy mollycoddling their son-in-law who has come down from the US, so editor saheb must wait to see his wife’s woman buddy. By the way, Malu and I still catch up for a short walk.” Wifey’s acquired sense of humour rekindled my wish.

The Manojs are effervescent, congenial and caring. A rare breed in this dog-eat-dog world. Camaraderie seems to be embedded in their DNA. They brought in stories about every new tenant in the community, while people unabashedly adored their well-groomed garden.

And just when I was sliding into a siesta that afternoon, Malu’s squeaks at the door resonated through the floor upstairs, loud enough to wake me up.

“Here’s some payasam (dessert).” Malu said, one foot out the door, as though in a hurry to leave.

“Come on in, Malu. Have a seat,” Wifey and I chorused, opening the floodgates to an animated conversation.

“Make some tea for the guest,” I kept reminding wifey who seemed to have tossed the fundamentals of hospitality to the winds.

“Milk got over. Are you game for some sulaimani?” Living in the middle of a desert where the concept of a grocer is a stone-age dream, wifey’s no-holds-barred repartee made sense but was a blast from the past for me. I froze in the couch as a polar storm swept through my cognitive zone, exposing memories buried in shallow graves.

The sulaimani which we drank in the seventies was a bitter potion spiked with shame. It wasn’t the same ambrosial drink eulogised to the skies in Indo-Arab literature. It smacked of poverty, servitude and haplessness of a people who existed in the continuum between freedom at midnight and NRI riches.

The milk tea was a luxury and wasn’t meant for the poor. While landlords reared a herd of cattle and sold milk to tea shops and restaurants, the middle class would keep a lone animal to meet their domestic wants. The poor happily brewed patriarchy with only the breadwinner allowed the luxury of milk tea before he headed to hard labour at sea or land at the crack of dawn.

In middle class families, women would hoard milk to make a quick buck. Keeping aside milk for morning and afternoon tea, they would sell the rest of it through the back door. It was thievery in the name of empowering themselves. In case there were some unexpected guests, womenfolk would gather behind the kitchen door to troubleshoot.

“What to do? I sold the last ounce of milk to Rudrayani because her son-in-law has come visiting. Poor lady, no?” The women would then scramble one of the kids to get readymade tea from a seaside shop or to get some milk from a cattle-rearing family next door, where the big fat lady would want to know the name of the guest, purpose of visit etc. The assignment would mostly fall on my head.

There was a third option in case the first two didn’t work out. The egg tea, which was as good as the milky one in hue and taste, was easy to make. Beaten egg was added to black tea brewed to the shade of amber and served steaming hot to ward off the egg smell. It’s something which Amma tried out often instead of sending her kids to teashops, where people would force them to share family secrets.

Milk wasn’t the only reason why tea was a forbidden drink for the poor. I remember the shopping list Amma tucked into my shirt pocket every third day. Tea powder was never bought in packets. Our economic status never let the tea order cross the 5-10 paise (2-5 fils) limit, which lasted a maximum of two days.

Honestly, the genesis of sulaimani lies in the poverty that stalked a generation of Malayalis in the seventies. While volumes have been written about it, sulaimani only meant black tea before it was rediscovered and romanticised by people in the Malabar region, who found its resemblance to the herbal drink called kahwah consumed by Arabs.

The sight of bedraggled destitutes warming up with a glass of steaming sulaimani, when it rained cats and dogs during the monsoon days and jobs were swept away by heaving seas and roaring floods, still haunts me. I belonged to that bygone generation where sulaimani was the indisputable drink of the downtrodden. Agonisingly sweet!

“Editor saheb, please wake up, Malu has left.”

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