Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Perfect Cup of Tea

Its 2am. My doorbell rings. I don’t hear it at first, as my mind and body are too busy erasing the stress of the previous day. Then the bell rings again and takes the form of temple bells in my dream. I drift off seeing the white pillars on a hill top. And yet again. This time, it is more like my morning alarm and I have to pull myself up. Weary though my mind is, my body clock tells me it’s not morning, yet. So I drag myself off bed as the doorbell rings again. I have no choice but to answer it. My heart beats fast; I’m on the verge of panic.
It’s Sonal, my maid, the woman who comes part-time to take care of my younger child and help me with the housework. She stands at the door, scarred and injured. I take a look at her, and the clock, and summarise the situation. This is not the first time that she has been beaten black and blue by her unemployed, alcoholic husband. I’m sure this won’t be the last. Her seventeen years of marriage has seen many scars, yet, for reasons unintelligible to me, she still lives with him.
She finds refuge at my place. She stays on, she will never return, she vows through my disbelief. I do all that anyone in my place would do....take her to the doctor; make her file a police complaint against her husband. (The latter gesture is more to protect myself actually, so that later he doesn’t complain that I have tortured her). Such things happen.
A week passes, she stays on. She doesn’t have a home or parents or siblings. She doesn’t think of the future. I am glad. I feel I am helping her, but secretly I am enjoying her services round the clock. I can watch some television, while she puts my daughter to sleep. I can sneak an early morning walk, leaving the kids in her care. I don’t have to square up the kitchen alone at the end of the day. I know this will not last. I buy her the medicines; take her for check-ups. Beyond that, I have no idea what to do.
Two weeks pass. I am sitting alone, browsing through some old photographs in my laptop. Sonal asks me if I miss my husband whose profession keeps him away from home most of the year. I don't pay attention; I am so used to that question by now, that I hardly acknowledge it. My loneliness goes so much deeper than any question or answer.
Suddenly I stop at a photograph of a snow covered mountain. I see myself standing outside the army quarter with my son and husband beside me. I am holding a cup of tea, savouring it with all my life.
I must have smiled for my maid looks at me bemused. Oh it had been so cold. We had been to Nathu-La Pass in Sikkim at the border of India and China. While my husband and five year old son had effortlessly climbed the last hundred yards, I was huffing and puffing and out of breath, gasping for oxygen in the thin mountain air. My saviour had been an army lieutenant who helped me sit, relax, and get my breathing back in order. As the day progressed, my family had struck a friendship with this guy and on the way back we took a detour to visit his army lodging. The fact that it was illegal, added to the appeal.
There, in the middle of no-where with snow stretching from horizon to horizon in all directions, I was surprised to see a low, tin accommodation, somewhat like an elongated kennel. So this is how our soldiers lived on the border!
We had to bend to enter. We found ourselves walking through a tunnel like room used to store things into a tiny room at the back. In the light of the single lantern we could see two bunk beds, a small stove, some utensils and books and few clothes hung here and there.
We were introduced to a young guy of about twenty and two, who was our friend’s room-mate. This young fellow offered to make us tea. So we sat on the bunk beds and asked fascinated questions while the kettle boiled and our new friend sorted the right mix of tea leaves with utmost precision. As my husband got busy with the camera, my son started feeling nauseated, so I took him out for a breath of fresh air. Our friend soaked the leaves on the hot water and with great care opened a jar of powdered milk.
Outside it was freezing, yet my son insisted I remove his jacket number 3. My army friend appeared on the doorway and pulled a chair for me to sit. He explained how the whole place gets buried in snow at times. I love the cold, and crave for the tea. My friend lights a cigarette just as my husband appears to click more photos.
The unique combination of my strange company and solitude must have hit a strange chord, just as our young friend appears with a tray of four steel, steaming mugs and a plate of biscuits.
I take care to treasure the moment, this fleeting moment in time, far away from civilization, on the top of a snow clad mountain in the border. He must have taken the same care to prepare the tea for unexpected guests, who presented a fresh touch of life and enthusiasm amidst endless days that all looked and felt the same. The first sip of the tea sealed a bond of unnamed connection with the mountains, the brave soldiers, the journey, my loved ones and me.
My maid Sonal points at the picture and animatedly breaks out into a series of questions. Snow in Mumbai is like Niagara in a desert.
I suddenly miss a good cup of tea. I realise that I have never had a single cup since that day that I cherished so much. I go to my favourite shelf in the kitchen. It’s loaded with all the labels one can dream of. Orange Pekoe, Darjeeling, the best of Earl array of local spiced flavours, lemon tea, ginger tea, cinnamon tea, a variety of herbal...and of course my favourite mint tea for the summers. Yet I have never savoured a single cup.
Sonal comes behind me asks me whether I would like some tea. I look at her as if for the first time. I see a badly bruised woman with no past, no future. I see a woman who can laugh at my memories, who can sing with devotion to my baby. I see a woman who has left her kids with distant relatives and is waiting here to make a cup of tea to serve me. I suddenly crave for that perfect cuppa. I pull out a local masala chai and ask Sonal to put the kettle to boil. Then I leave the kitchen to hunt for the perfect ingredients.
In the balcony I arrange two cane chairs. The city bustles by down below, each sound and movement carrying a different kind of loneliness. Hell, the city is lonelier than the mountains which at least connect to the sky and the snow and the life there. I place two steel mugs for Sonal and myself and load a plate with crispy pakoras.  She brings in the tea just as I snuggle on the comfortable chair, discard my reserve and loneliness, and prepare to actually talk life with another woman. As she pours the steaming tea, I know it’s going to be the best cuppa for a long, long time to come.

After all, its the context, rather than the contents that would give meaning to my tea.

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