(I invited Pooja Susan Thomas, a doctoral student at IIT Gandhinagar to write a piece for my blog. When I asked Pooja to send me a bio-note she shared a brilliant news that she is into writing a non-fiction work on “ How to procrastinate your Ph.D”?
Here’s to years of rambling, discussions, criticisms and laughter over several cups of tea from the past and the experience of having chai on your own...)
From where I stand, across the road, I can see the milk froth into steam as it is poured from the bhagona to the pan. The crowd around the kitliwalla drew closer to the kerosene stove hissing away its displeasure at being overworked. The conversation grew more rapid, the words keeping tempo with that hunger for a cup of chai. Some men seemed absorbed in conversation, a rumour of a property deal, the prospect of farming land that may fetch a good price with the hint of a marriage alliance, damn that bus that does not come, perhaps because of the waterlogging that used to happen in the area, which reminds one of the fight that broke out at the Panchayat office in the evening, a love affair they say of a Patel girl with some Rabari boy.
Even as, from the corner of the eye, they watch him slit another packet of fattened milk (twenty two rupees now), pour it into the pan, add water from a much scrubbed plastic jug, then sugar, and pounded ginger. They watch the milk protest, rise, and threaten to trespass the edge of control but relentlessly, his long broad spoon churns and stirs its very insides till the colour darkens, its waters thicken, and the air is weighed down by the smell of ginger. He wipes his hands, and turns to put his mortar and pestle, still flecked with some of that root, in a basin full of water under the platform on which his stove submits to his workmanship. He washes his spoon and keeps it aside and pulls out the cloth tucked into his waist. He holds the hot pan to raise it and pour gentle amber into the pot covered with a strainer.
There is silence as he raises the pot and streams the chai, fragrant with dust, ginger and some spice, into the pan. He briskly stirs it again with his spoon, triumphantly rings the spoon against the edge of its frayed aluminium, and raises it once more till it froths, fumes and slides into the pot. The men have now stopped talking, in anticipation. The driver of the bus that will never come decides it is time to keep an eye on the proceedings; the conductor walks by slapping his thigh with the steel box of ticket chits and pushes his way to the front, right next to the stove, and asks dryly, ho gaya? He is not from here, his village is in UP, his tongue has yet to find its way around the language of his work.
In response, the man stirs his tea again, taps the spoon twice against the pan and the conversation that had begun to stir is abandoned for the cup of tea. Hands are stretched out to receive a tiny chipped cup in a saucer into which tea spills over in a gesture of plenty. Heads bend over saucers, cups held aside for the moment as the chai cools and is soon sucked up. Some shared their tea, pouring a little bit into an extra saucer. Still slurping, they turned when they hear a woman’s voice. She asked for some chai, in Hindi. They watched her curiously as she tried to pour the extra tea back into the cup. They watched her balancing her cup and recede to the back where she thought she could drink unnoticed. But even the chai walla paused his performance to turn and stare at a woman drinking tea in a stall full of men in the middle of nowhere.
The driver is finally awake. He gives his cup to the boy who is running around picking up after the men who are now satisfied. There is nothing else to wait for, he decides, and walks to the bus to coax it out of its slumber. He looks around and catches sight of the woman who had been waiting for the bus drinking tea. Jaldi, he urges, irritatedly.