88. Indian Clay Cups

Indian Clay Cups: The ordinary is rendered exotic by India, every day. These disposable clay drinking cups deliver thousands of gallons of sticky sweet chai and fruit lassi shakes to the thirsty Indians who queue at street carts. They look like tiny flower pots, and they could be, but here’s how it works: Small shops in every city employ potters to turn, cure and low-fire these little unglazed cups from local clay. They’re then sold to street tea vendors – chai wallahs – who dish out single servings of hot tea for 2 Rupees each (about a nickel). More impressive are the vendors who make their own cups, spun in fired in a makeshift kiln on the small sidewalk space behind their cart. The chai wallah’s customers stand, socialize, gulp and then smash the cup into a nearby can or, more often, the street gutter. The cups and fragments that aren’t collected disintegrate under foot and monsoon rains, returning them to the earth. No chemicals, just water, soil, labor. The elegance and dignity of a tea break, the abrupt destruction of the vessel, the slow deterioration into nothing, everyone – rich and poor – participates in this ritual, sometimes three or four times a day.

As it happens, the clay cups have a very loyal following, despite their humble beginnings. The cups were originally made for exclusive use by members of a very low caste, thought to be so dirty that they could only drink from cheap cups that could be easily destroyed after use. In modern times, just as devotees of vinyl records claim that their LPs sound better than CDs, clay cup fans maintain that chai tastes better when sipped hot from rough earthenware. I’ve drunk Indian chai from paper, plastic, glass and clay and not surprisingly, the clay tops them all for the distinctiveness of experience. It changes the taste of the tea, both because you’re actually drinking trace amounts of dissolved clay and because you’re participating in a cultural tradition that’s not to be found elsewhere. It’s the everyday magic of India, it’s why I came back here and it’s probably why I’m going to come home with a suitcase full of precious garbage, like all of my used clay cups.


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