Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tea Stall


Urmilla was sitting under the huge tree on the side walk. It was beside the parking lot in front of the Secretariat and Estate Office building in Sector 17, the commercial hub of Chandigarh. It was a big parking lot across the tree lined roads and the footfall was numerous. People from all walks of life came with files and documents to get some or the other work done. It kept her busy all day.
She made tea on the footpath and served it fresh to those who couldn’t either afford the grub served at the tea stall inside the building or they didn’t like the vending machine tea. She sold cigarettes too though she really didn’t like doing it. But then she didn’t like vending tea either. A jerry–can cut off from the top, served as her water reservoir. A kerosene pump stove, a few blackened aluminium pots, old aluminium cans for sugar and tea leaves with a broken plastic spoon in each and some wheat flour biscuits in a plastic jar- that’s what she ran her tea-shop with. Not to forget the cutting-chai glasses and stands which the nouveau –riche now adorn their living rooms with.
She was wearing a red and green cotton sari with a red blouse, a bindi on her forehead. Red glass bangles tinkled on her wrists with every movement. Silver anklets adorned her ankles. She had toe- rings on her toes, her heels were cracked and the soles blackened with ash and dust. Her eyes were fixed on the gates of the building across the road.
She was squatting near her stove and sitting idle. The biting cold was over in this small, modern city and there were not many customers for tea in the afternoon. Her makeshift stall was bang opposite the office building and she could clearly see people entering and exiting. She sat there, waiting for him. She was sure she had not missed him; he surely had not come today. A gloom was creeping on her like the amarbel on the nearby tree; slowly, silently, it was taking over her thoughts. It was a morose day, overcast with glum looking gray clouds which just hung like a wet blanket. As if nature was grieving with her. “Or was it that it was grieving FOR me?” She asked herself.
She was silently praying again to save her from this second loss. She knew she would not be able to cope up with this grief again. She had just started to pick up the threads of her torn life again.  
 Raju the young tout crossed the road from the secretariat and asked for a cigarette. “No, you won’t have any from now onwards. Pay up your outstanding amount and then ask for new merchandise,” Urmilla said. He started pleading, “I will pay up all your money tomorrow didi. I have two customers lined up tomorrow.” She gave in and gave him the stick. He picked up a matchbox and ran away shouting, “Write this in the hisaab too.” She shook her head, muttering “scoundrel” to herself. That was always her problem; she was too soft on her customers, as Mahesh used to say.
Mahesh, her husband, used to wash cars in a locality in the sector. He had a network of boys whom he helped getting employment. They all worked together as a team. He made good money out of the network as he charged a percentage of earnings from the boys. He was their agent.
They were comfortable in life; a one room shanty to live in and their three children went to school. The two girls were naughty but their boy was a smart one. He had managed to buy a second hand motorcycle and zipped around town in the morning from one row of houses to the other, supervising his team of car cleaners. He wanted Urmilla to stop selling tea now. The new city had lived up to their expectations, they were far better off than when they were at Shahpur; their native village in Bihar. Urmilla didn’t agree, she wanted to retain her shop, she hoped that some day she might get a chance to set up a tea shop inside the secretariat. She kept hearing of how money exchanged hands during auctions of stalls inside the building and she was saving for it.
One October day tragedy struck. Mahesh and his friend were killed in road accident. He was driving his bike and they were coming back from Mansa Devi temple after a darshan. Urmila’s world turned upside down. She was struck first with the emptiness in her life and then the stark realities.
The realities took over at a startling pace. The team of car cleaners simply vanished, taking all the earnings with them. There never was a formal agreement in place. She had to take care of the three children and for their sake keep herself alive.
The roadside tea stall was her only chance, her salvation.

Now five months later, things were better. Her life was in balance again. The children went to school. They had three square meals. All due to the tea stall. She was grateful for her instinct in retaining the stall, when Mahesh had wanted her to dispose it off.
Suddenly, she saw her girls playing football with the makeshift dustbin and ran after them. They were still as naughty and always squabbling. Geeta, the elder one was pulling Seema’s hair. Urmilla gently separated them and took them both back to the cook-stove, dragging the cardboard box that served as the dustbin. She sat them both down and gave them a biscuit each. The day was drawing to a close. She was tired. She had been waiting the whole day... and he hadn’t turned up.
He came every day, carrying an office file. He came at 11 AM and stayed inside the secretariat all day, coming out for lunch at the rice stall and then again to have tea in the afternoon. He wore leather chappals and a white shirt and grey trousers on all days.  It had been close to three months now since he had begun frequenting her ramshackle tea stall.  Every day he walked over to her stall and asked for tea sans sugar. Initially she had tried selling him the biscuits, but he didn’t want them. He drank his tea, sat there for some time and left, never talking and always paying her the two rupees she asked for.
Around two months ago, as the two girls were punching and hitting each other again, she had slapped both of them. He had intervened, protecting the girls and requesting her to stop. She was startled and stopped hitting her daughters. The girls took to him that day onwards. They looked forward to his daily visit and he started sharing stories and jokes with them. He also started talking to her, asking about her husband and family. Then one day he told her about his wife. He had lost her in an accident and since then had been trying to get her house transferred. That was the reason for his daily visits to the estate office. She learned that he had loved his wife dearly and was devastated after her death. His sons did not take care of him. He had given up all work and just wanted to get the house transferred in the name of an orphanage that his wife had started. His life’s aim now was to save the property from the greedy claws of his sons and give it to the orphanage. “That was Uma’s last wish,” he said. She was touched by the love in his voice as he talked of his late wife.  She herself had vowed to look after her children and educate them well, as that was Mahesh’s only passion.
Urmilla and the secretariat visitor developed a strange affinity towards each other. He started writing down her accounts and coaxed her to recover her money and she introduced him to a man who could fast-track the transfer of property. She waited for him each morning. She even started dressing better and discarded her white and pale clothes. He also finished his work and came out for tea eagerly. He started looking well, and took care of his appearance.
Strangely, customers started materialising again and her business became organised. The flow of money helped her to continue the children’s education. But beyond all this she started depending upon him for emotional succour. They were like foils to each other, providing support and strength. It was a friendship beyond norms, caste and social divisions. People looked at them and wondered what made the two stick together. They were so different. She was an illiterate poor woman with no social standing and he was an educated middle class gentleman. But their life situations didn’t deter either of them. It was a simple understanding. They didn’t want anything beyond companionship.
But today their ritual had been disrupted and she was worried. He had not come and she didn’t even know where to look for him. He had never been late before. She didn’t know where he lived; she had never bothered to ask. She was not able to concentrate on her work. The anxiety was gnawing at her innards. She had a sense of foreboding. As the hours passed she thought of every frightening possibility and simultaneously shook it off. By mid-day she was praying fervently for his well being. As the evening drew to a close she decided to pack up.
“He is not going to come. Maybe his work at the estate office is over. What would he come for, then! Had she read too much into the relationship?”
As the evening dragged on and the first few stars twinkled in the sky, a car stopped near her tea stall. A fine looking young man alighted from the car and started walking towards her. She instantly recognised him as his son. Her heart skipped a beat. Why was he here?
 As he approached, her instincts took over. She scrutinised his face for some tell tale emotion, some sign. His lean face was creased and weary. He looked at her, as if assessing her. She was painfully conscious of her poverty for the first time in ages.
He asked for her by name and then said, “My father, Mr. Des Raj Sharma died of a heart attack last evening. In his will, he has stated that the mess contract in the orphanage, which will be opened at his residence, be given to you, on a permanent basis. He has also left two rooms in the house for you and your family.”
Urmilla was dumbfounded. The security and support she had been working for was now within grasp but she had again lost her anchor.