Editor’s Pick: The Chaiwalla

As Anwar the chaiwalla gazed out over the bazaar, over the tops of wooden carts full of fresh okra, spinach, cauliflower, and tomatoes, he saw a blinding white light coming towards him. Behind this light, the shadow of two beings, one shorter than the other, followed. As the images came closer, Anwar distinguished the light to be a sweating block of ice in a wheelbarrow carted by the Sahib and a young boy. A smile sprung to Anwar’s lips. Judge Moin Ali was on his way to drink tea. Anwar jumped from the wooden crate he was perched atop, straightening his legs from their crouched parakeet position, to make his famous chai.

The morning pot had barely been drunk, but Anwar decided to brew a fresh pot believing that the chai served to the Sahib should come from a separate brew than the chai his morning customers drank. On this particular morning his customers included an inebriated paanwala he was indebted to (for Anwar craved after the triangular betel leaves with tooth-staining tobacco the paanwala sold); a flat hipped, jhadoo-wali woman who used her long reed broom to sweep litter from Anwar’s cart; and finally, Anwar himself, whose dependence on masala chai rose him to the day’s activities or, more truthfully, his inactivities. He hoped there would be a fourth morning drinker, a new customer from the day before. But as the young man with a buttoned collar neared Anwar’s chai stand this morning, it became apparent he was bypassing it for the shimmering chai stand painted red, twenty meters from Anwar’s place of business. It was not entirely unsurprising, the man had scoffed at Anwar’s battered cups the day before. Yet, what bothered Anwar more than the customer’s snooty behavior, was how the married or not-so-married overweight man and hefty woman (he never saw a ring on her finger or vermillion in the part of her hair) who owned the red chai stand, gloated, laughed, and pointed in Anwar’s direction.

After the owners were done ridiculing Anwar, he had continued to stare at the new customer from his perched position on top of the barrel. He watched the customer take his first sip of tea from a white cup and then wrinkle his nose in disgust. The customer looked up and locked eyes with Anwar from across the road, and for a moment, Anwar thought the man would rise to come drink his chai. Then the owner, the overweight man, came by the table and gave the customer a karachi biscuit to dip in his tea. The customer sat back down, and smiled feebly at the owner. Anwar shifted his gaze to the ground. The man would never return to Anwar’s rickety chai cart, not when a more sophisticated venue existed– a place where the chai was served in a matching pearly white cup and saucers set.

As Anwar heated the afternoon’s copper pot of chai on a portable kerosene-lit stove, he squinted in the mango cart’s direction and after making out the outline of a golden pyramid of mangos, he breathed deeply as if he could indeed smell the sweetness of the fruit this far away. He had spotted the wooden cart on his morning’s walk from his shack to his chai cart. The fruits, piled one on top of the other, were a ripe purple-yellow that indicated their delectability. Anwar imagined the fruit’s fuzzy pulp touching his lips and his mouth salivated with the sweet nectar he would taste once he chewed the mango’s pit. Months had pass since he last tasted the delicate fruit. There was once a period during his childhood when mangoes were in surplus. It was before the age of nine, when his fair-skinned mother with a round belly protruding in gentle folds under her sari’s blouse had not yet died from consumption. She insisted mangoes be stocked in their household, and always seemed to have a plate of the cut fruit available whenever Anwar returned from school. Decades had passed since that time. Anwar had few memories remaining of childhood days that didn’t involve begging for food.

He needed only a few rupees to satisfy his hunger.

Anwar glimpsed into his pot, watching for the first signs of boiling, so he could add the bay leaf to his premade brew of cardamom, cloves, black pepper, and ginger root. He prepared the masala blend earlier in the week, grounding all of the necessary spices, pouring out the correct proportions of each ingredient, and finally placing the multicolor mixture in a jar he could take from each time he brewed a new pot. He lifted his eyes from the mixture for a quick peek and saw the Sahib and the boy standing in front of a corn stand where the yellow vegetables were loosely wrapped in their light green husks. The boy was gnawing on a roasted cob Anwar assumed was coated in a lime-salt, red chili masala and a twinge of envy crept up from the pits of Anwar’s stomach. He diverted his eyes to the spot where he placed the wooden chairs and his makeshift table (a barrel turned from its rounded side to stand on its base). Then scanned beyond that spot and saw a mother bouncing her baby to make the child laugh. The joyful sight distracted Anwar of some of his hunger. Until, the mother, finding Anwar’s direct stare, stopped her motions. Using her black dupatta, she put it over her hair, to shield both her head and the baby now pressed closely to her bosom. She called out to a man a few meters from where she stood who was giving money to the paanwala. He immediately returned to her and touched the threads of her black dupatta draping around her shoulders. The mother cocked her head in the direction of Anwar’s cart. The man then fortressed both woman and child, wrapping his arms around her shoulders, and took them away from Anwar.

Anwar dropped his eyes, keeping them steady on the pot, waited now for the chai to turn a deep dirt brown so he could add milk. The markings of Anwar’s despicable poverty – how his cart stood on two bicycle wheels, one wooden wagon wheel, and a cinderblock and how the fabric Anwar used to roof his cart, was covered with smoke marks, bird droppings, and dirty gutter water – sent many people running. Usually, to the red chai stand where the conniving owners were waiting.

The Sahib never visited the red painted stand. Every morning on his way to court proceedings, he stopped by Anwar’s cart. In a loud, boisterous voice, he often praised Anwar’s chai, letting it be known widely that the quality of Anwar’s chai was “fit for the royals”. Softly, to Anwar, he would say that the sweet and spicy chai gave a subtle, but welcoming burn at the back of his throat. He promoted loudly that the chai lifted his spirits each time he sipped it. These compliments filled Anwar with pride, particularly on the days when the quantities of chai he made were too much, and the demand never enough to drain his copper pot of its last drip.

Anwar looked up again and saw that the pair were only a few carts away. The loveliness of the Sahib, his regal jaw, sturdy build, and soft eyes, was distinguishable from this distance. Anwar had not encountered many lovely things in his adult life. Although, sometimes, lovely things came to him in dreams, often in the form of Nutan Samarath, an actress with a syrupy laugh, whom Anwar had quite a fondness for. He had only heard her laugh once, sneaking into a theater through the backdoor, not because he wanted to see Nutan’s movie, but because he was running from an angry fruit vendor who caught him stealing mangoes, and Anwar needed to escape into the theater’s black oblivion. The Sahib, not possessing a laugh as sweet, was just as beautiful.

Anwar then noticed the Sahib’s boy, and thought the day’s muggy air confused him. The young boy, limping in the manner of a crippled old man, could not possibly be the Sahib’s son. The figure’s ankle was rotated, so it functioned as the foot’s sole. The closer the pair came, the clearer it was to Anwar that the young boy bore a resemblance to the Sahib – thin lips, a wide forehead, and curly coal hair. Anwar felt horrified. How could the Sahib have a gimp as a son?

He averted his eyes from the sight of the awkward pair inching their way to his cart by bending over the copper pot. As soon as Anwar deemed the chai perfect, he heard shuffling behind him. He glimpsed over his shoulder and caught the Sahib and his son resting their wheelbarrow to the ground. The ice block also shifted downwards; and with the weight of the ice on the front of the wheelbarrow, dust stirred around them. Anwar poured in the milk, and felt thankful for the dust cloud that momentarily obstructed his view of the pair, allowing him the time to plaster on a smile before the air made them visible again.

“Anwar, a cup of chai, please,” the Sahib said as the two of them sat themselves at the barrel table. “My son, Irfan, and I must hurry before the ice melts leaving not one ounce for my begum, my wife, to use to cool her mango lassi. She is a fan of cold sweet milk.”

Anwar nodded and while the Sahib patted Irfan’s back, he found himself gazing at the top of the Sahib’s head. On weekdays, the Judge came to Anwar’s chai stand dressed in his proper judge attire, with a gray skull cap on top his head. Today he wore a white topi, underneath which sat a field of thin, coal black hair, of which only curly wisps off the sides were visible. Anwar found himself wanting to gently tuck the loose strands under the topi so the Sahib would be viewed in perfection. He felt the warmth of a blush at the thought and lowered his eyelashes, spotting the monstrosity that was Irfan’s foot.

Confusion set in and Anwar wondered how a father could let his son wear chappals when the lack of a sandal’s covering meant the grotesque foot was in full view. Anwar’s own father would never have allowed it, often insisting that as a child Anwar wear long sleeve shirts even on the most humid of days, because he did not want Anwar’s purple splotches viewable. Irfan’s deformity resembled a cracked walnut, the big toe’s joint swollen, like a giant’s knuckle. The foot was unable to snugly fit into the chappals strap. The boy most likely had never worn normal shoes. Anwar wondered if a cobbler could even make shoes that covered up the foot’s deteriorating pigment. He felt shame for the Sahib that such ugliness existed in his bloodline.

Not wanting his unease to be detected, Anwar asked Irfan in too caressing of a voice, “How many cups of chai, for you, my beta?” The boy gawked at Anwar in silence. The expression on his face, covered by specks of the corn’s red chili and lime masala, did nothing to calm Anwar’s discomfort. Irfan wiped the food remnants from his face with the backs of his twiggy arms, and grinned at his father in a manner Anwar could only think of as sly. The Sahib laughed. A forced laugh, Anwar thought. He watched the father pat his son’s back once again. “My eldest could outdrink us all,” the Sahib proudly proclaimed. “However, he is a growing ten-year-old boy, a full cup of chai might upset his stomach. Limit him to half.”

Abba, can I have a sugar cube?” Irfan asked, uttering his first words in Anwar’s presence, the young voice of a boy whose vocal cords were still melodic did not match the horrible disfigurement that was the boy’s foot.

“Of course!” said the Sahib.

Anwar placed a strainer over the top of a tin cup so that it would catch the particles of his tea mixture, and then used a ladle to scoop the chai into the cup. He had no matching saucer, but felt no disgrace handing the half-filled tin cup to Irfan. After all, he was a child, and a lame child at that. On the other hand, as Anwar handed the Sahib his cup, he wished he had a nice pearly white tea set. Anwar peeped across the way to the red chai stand. He hoped the woman and man were too preoccupied with their customers to notice who drank at his own chai cart. Anwar, of course, had built a blockade in his mind against insults relating to his poorly constructed chai cart, but the presence of Irfan threatened his mind’s defense. He became afraid of what the pair would whisper to their customers if they saw he was serving chai to a gimp.

Anwar examined his own two feet in rubber sandals, and noticed beauty in his symmetrically shaped feet. They allowed him to walk upright. To run. He maneuvered any which way he pleased. No one in a crowd of pedestrians would dare give his feet a second glance. Irfan, had no such luck. The woman and man at the red stand would see the child and tell their customers in low tones that the lame were atoning for sins from a previous life. Black magic had touched the boy. Evil now enshrouded Anwar’s chai cart. He would lose the few customers he had in life.

He considered the block of glistening ice in the wheelbarrow. “Sahib, you must hurry. The block is becoming a puddle – one I would swim in, had the begum sahib not desired ice.” Anwar thought his statement clever, caring in fact, for the Sahib would not make his wife wait, just to let his disfigured son finish drinking his chai. Anwar steadied his gaze on the Sahib. He needed to act calmly, to not convey his true intentions for encouraging them to leave.

The Sahib gave an approving nod, and said in an even keel, “Beta, the chaiwalla is correct. We have lingered too long.” The Sahib believed Anwar.  He felt a sense of relief.

“I am done, Abba”, Irfan said, turning the empty cup upside down and then showing the inside of the cup to the Sahib.

A pang of guilt hit Anwar as Irfan spoke with a child’s innocent voice–a hint of melody even creeping in as Irfan uttered “Abba” in reference to his father. A welt grew in Anwar’s throat. He opened his mouth to dispose of it, to tell the father and son to stay longer, to drink a second cup of chai in enjoyment. Anwar even thought of offering to lug the ice block the rest of the way to the Sahib’s house. He could attach the wheelbarrow to his bicycle and drag it along.

The chaiwalla would have done this all too, if it hadn’t been for his competitors. The woman and man were strolling back to their own stand, each holding in their arms a dozen mangoes. They glanced at Anwar’s cart, and the poor chaiwalla saw them laughing scornfully in his direction. He could not hear them, but saw the outlines of their mouths move, and imagined what they said. “Look, at that kutta, that dog, he has no respect for himself,” said the man. “He serves lames. What rubbish,” howled the woman, still with no red vermillion in her hair. Anwar felt his eyes well-up at these imagined words, but it was not until the man, portly with arms full of mangoes up to his chin, stuck a finger in Anwar’s direction, did his hands ball into fists.

The little dignity Anwar possessed slipped from him. Anger towards the Sahib for alternating their routine emerged. Yes, the Sahib prayed to Allah and believed in one life, but surely the Sahib, a Muslim, comprehended his son’s bad karma. He should not have shown up a lame’s father – a man who wore a plain, white kurta that ended just above the knees, like so many other men currently on the streets with them wore – like Anwar’s own father wore the day he threw him out of the house (months after he took another wife and an announcement was made that they were having a baby). “Do not infect my child with your cursed splotches. Go from here.” Those terse words, the last from his father, Anwar remembered.

Anwar was furious that the Sahib had not shown up as the respectable Judge who prosecuted criminals, instead he paraded his disabled son around Anwar’s cart, causing the chaiwalla’s business to dwindle. Anwar’s eyes narrowed in on the jovial father and son sitting at his make-shift table.

Sahib, you cannot bring Irfan to my chai cart again.” He said with a confidence unfamiliar to him. He may have been a poor man, not as worldly as the Judge, still Anwar was a man, and men had pride.

“Have we done something to upset you?” The Sahib asked, his thick black eyebrows drawn in confusion and concern. The boy looked up from his cup, but Anwar avoided him, not wanting to see on Irfan’s face the eyes that were so reminiscent of the Sahib’s. Anwar scrutinized the patch of dried skin, slightly lighter in color, on the Sahib’s forehead instead. The flaw on the otherwise beautiful face furthered Anwar’s resolve to get rid of the boy. He felt his jaw firm into place, ready to sputter out his next sentence.

“Your son scares my other customers,” Anwar said, observing the wrinkles on the Judge’s forehead becoming more pronounced. “How do you expect me to make money? How do you expect me to eat?” Anwar demanded. “Can you not understand that I have been shamed today?” Anwar dropped his eyes to Irfan’s oddly shaped foot and as he did, he felt the Sahib’s gaze following him to the ground. They both raised their heads at the same time and caught sight of one another. Anwar suddenly felt cold staring into his ghostly amber eyes and he wished he had brought with him the beige shawl that the Sahib gifted him one drizzly morning.

“Abba—” Irfan began, but the Sahib raised his palm to silence his son.

Beta, put the cup down and come to my lap.” The Sahib turned from the chaiwalla, ignoring him, and concentrated on his son’s face. “We must go home to see your ammi, your brothers and sisters. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Abba.”

“They will be jealous you drank chai with me at this vendor’s cart.”

“Yes, Abba.”

“Promise me, not to come back here on your own.”

“Yes, Abba.”

“That’s a good beta.” The Sahib gently patted his son’s back before letting him off his knee

Anwar oversaw the exchange, a gnawing guilt burning his belly again. He watched the Sahib rise from his wooden chair and place a few rupees on the barrel’s surface – more than what the chai was worth.  The Sahib then nodded at Anwar, making no effort to take notice of the chaiwalla’s face while completing the transaction, before he headed towards his icy wheelbarrow. Stunned by the Sahib’s conciliatory ways, Anwar found himself unprepared for the Sahib’s departure. A hollowness developed in his chest, and he became desperate and afraid to lose the Sahib, and blurted in his most cheerful, but tremulous voice, “I will see you tomorrow morning. Chai will be ready and warm for you, my Sahib.”

Anwar, aware of the falsetto pitch of his voice, needed to convey to the Judge that he was still welcomed. Anwar badly wanted the next day to arrive and for this mess to be over with. He wanted the Sahib to be dressed in his beautiful light grey sherwani with gold buttons, a respectable outfit for a Hyderabadi Judge as reputable as the Sahib, and for him to be drinking the morning cup of chai Anwar always served him before he his work day began.

The Sahib nodded once more in Anwar’s direction without lifting his eyes to the chaiwalla’s face. The lack of acknowledgment stabbed Anwar in his gut. He was unsure of the meaning of the Sahib’s nod and blank face. He feared the coming of the next morning if the Judge abandoned their daily ritual. Without the Sahib’s patronage, the asbestos roofed shack Anwar slept in every night would be unaffordable. The Sahib ruffled Irfan’s hair in affection, and jealousy struck Anwar in witnessing the paternal gesture. The father and son, the two beings, lifted the wheelbarrow and as they traveled away from the market, from the carts full of okra, spinach, cauliflower, and tomatoes, they became far off specks once again.

Anwar studied the spot where the wheelbarrow had stood, a puddle of melted water had emerged in its place. He walked closer to the puddle to observe it and saw his reflection; an old man with weathered liver spots and the image of a young boy with a closely shaved haircut and purplish hematomas alongside his neck was viewable. The young boy shook his head in disappointment at Anwar, as if to say Anwar, you fool, you lost a new playmate. The jahdoo-wali woman came sweeping, the reeds of her broom whacking the puddle, and the reflections disappeared.

For the rest of the day Anwar sat quietly in his perched position on the wooden barrel, as he had done before the Sahib and Irfan’s arrival. Even an oddity of new customers arriving and seeking chai from him did not stir him from his perch. Nor did it faze him as he watched these same customers move towards the other chai stand. It was only when the sky turned to its setting hues of reds and golds that Anwar returned to his asbestos roofed shack. The moment he entered, he peeled his sweat-drenched clothing off, hoping in his nakedness he would find some relief from the humidity hanging in the air. As the dark night approached, his bare skin attracted the mosquitoes. On his bare lower legs, he noticed a rash of pinpoint-sized reddish-purple spots. He wrapped a lungi around his waist to conceal the sight and lay down on his goat skin rug. His bony shoulder blades made it impossible to lay flat on his back, so he slightly rose off the ground as if levitating on his own skeleton. As he heard the mosquitoes dancing around his head, flapping their wings in merriment, he imagined them stopping on every exposed part of his body for their necessary drink of blood. Occasionally, he swatted at them. Though they would be light and fade quickly, small puncture wounds, bruises, would emerge where the insects landed on Anwar’s body. To distract himself from the insect’s incessant noise, Anwar counted his belongings in his mind. One rickety chai cart, one bicycle, two threadbare kurta pajamas, a beige shawl given by the Sahib, and a torn magazine photo of Nutan Samarth pinned to the wall opposite where he lay. The last two items of which were the closest things he knew to a kind of love.

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