Michael Black: Chaiwalla (essay)

My Southern Legitimacy Statement is as follows: I’m a proud Arkansan even with it hurts to be, and I’ve found hill people and southern charm around the world. Biscuits aren’t always fluffy, but you know when you’ve eaten one.

To add to that statement, and in defense of the subject of this piece, I want to iterate that the south is alive in India. The piece is about a tea salesman in Mumbai, but he has somehow captured the spirit of the southern-American. You know what I’m talking about: the blue collar worker secretly in love with nature but outwardly defense of hard work.

Chaiwalla

Flakes of rust peppered his bicycle like the lingering streaks of henna in his hair. The warm gust of air from the passing bus choked his lungs, and combined with the blazing Bombay sun to momentarily cook his brown skin. Behind the bus, a glut of cars and motorcycles whizzed past, they too stuck behind the behemoth on the constricted roads. The exhaust from this cacophony raised the morning air temperature, so that Arjun’s shirt began to stick to the skin on his sinewy back. Still, when there was a break in traffic, the winding breeze of the Arabian Sea snaked through the alleyways of the city, and ran through his hair like the touch of a lover.

Two bags of paper cups bounced on the side of his back tire. They were stacked in neat sleeves, though the rims of the cups were crumpled on one side. Probably from when a scooter inched too close last week and tossed the bags onto the rough road. The plastic bags were coated in a film of dust and grime, a natural result of exposure to the air of the city. His white shirt and pants would bear a similar color, if he weren’t so diligent in keeping them clean. Indeed, while his business tools were coated with disgust, his appearance was careful and clean. The chappals he wore weren’t tearing or separating at the soles, like those of his friends. His hair was a deep black, with hints of bright orange where the henna had not yet faded. It was combed back and oiled, and fell over the top of his head in a neat part.

Each morning, and on late weekend nights, Arjun rode his bike from his home in Mahim to his street corner in Bandra. It was a religious ride; he rose with the sun, and in his slow pedaling down Mahim bay, saw traffic grow like the waking breath of a giant.

Before he arrived at the corner, he was careful to steer his bike down two quiet residential roads. Lining these lazy, traffic-free avenues were high-rise apartments. The ever-moist Bombay air encouraged mold growth, and it streaked the sides of the buildings like hanging moss. Palm fronds arched down towards the ground, while the banyan and neem trees sheltered the street in a deep shade. It was a jungle, an entanglement of life.

Arjun cleared his throat.

“Chaaaaaaai,” he let out a long and nasal yell, breaking the peace of the morning. He walked his bike slowly down the lane, scanning for any takers. The front tire squeaked with each revolution. He would fix that later in the day, with some of the same oil he used for his hair.

“One second brother,” a security guard came from around a silver gate. His shirt was unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest, and the forest of hair leapt out of his blue uniform. His unkempt hair and dry eyes revealed just how alert he had been seconds ago. Leaning back on a green plastic chair, he was in deep sleep when Arjun let forth his yell. He knew, though, Arjun’s wife made the best chai around, and woke with a startle.

Arjun balanced the bike on the back support, and untied one of the tins filled with his livelihood. He stuck his finger into the bag of cups and reamed out space as he pinched the first cup. The chai steamed heavily in the morning air, despite the heat, and brought a smile to the guard’s lips. Normally the two would have a brief conversation about politics, about gossip, or about the damn weather. But none of these things had changed in a while, so they kept quiet this time. The guard slipped Arjun a ten rupee note, and was returned five. They nodded, and Arjun continued his walk and yelling.

On the other side of Bandra, I awoke to a different kind of salesman. This man yelled some word my ears hadn’t learned yet, and I was never quick enough to run outside and see what he was pedaling. On this morning, I woke early and waited on my balcony to see the fuss. His voice came around the corner, yelling on cue. I leaned over the metal railings, my bare feet slipping slightly over the dusty ground. He was trudging behind a large cart of sand bags. Sincerely disappointed, I proceeded with the morning routine.

Just my luck. I thought, Of course my guy sells bags of sand.

The shower was cold, but I didn’t mind. It was summer time, just before the start of the monsoon season. By the time I walked to the bathroom, undressed and stepped under the calcium encrusted shower-head, I was covered in a layer of sweat. By the time I dried off and went back to the AC sanctuary of my room, I was sweaty again. My towels had to be washed often for this reason. Standing naked at my dresser, I chose my outfit for the day. Given the presentation I was to give that afternoon, I chose the white collared shirt with the grey pants. Somehow that combo still looked good on my shrinking body. The nearly constant sweat and diarrhea pulled a big portion of my body away, and most of my shirts now hung awkwardly on my bony shoulders.

With a quick mist of cologne, I grabbed my helmet and walked downstairs to my red Honda motorcycle. I strapped the helmet on, checked the position of the mirrors, turned the key, clicked it into neutral, and gave the starter a quick downward kick. The engine roared to life, but I had to quickly rev it up to keep it from sputtering out. I made my way past the parked cars of the garage, and gave a smile-less nod to the guard as I merged onto the forested road. He saluted back.

Arjun had no more takers on the residential roads. This was normal. He persisted each morning because of the peaceful walk as much as the promise of business. What was the point, after all, of so much work if he couldn’t find some enjoyment? He re-tied the bags of cups and mounted the bike. With a slight hop, he was back on top and riding towards Bandra station. The front tire was still squeaking, but as he pulled back into traffic zones, the honks and rickshaw motors quickly drowned the sound out.

The dedication he showed towards his work was a dying phenomenon in his city. He was not able to afford a college education for his son, but had taught him the right kind of ethic. There was merit in keeping your head down, working hard, and earning enough to live and provide. Perhaps others better off wouldn’t understand, but Arjun felt the happiness in his bike rides, his wife’s dinners, and the sunsets he shared with his family.

He sincerely worried about the future of Bombay. The prevalence of wealth had grown in the areas around him, and with it a disrespect for mundane work. The youth he saw today were entitled, and all so taken by the promise of wealth. The magic of Bombay was in the blue of its collar. The coexistence of wealth and poverty was the life-force of the town. Just like the way the rays of the sun bounced beautifully over the waves of the ocean, and fought with the dust and smoke of the city, there was an eternal struggle with Bombay. Each little speck of life struggled to exist, and it was the struggle that made everything so beautiful. Without this, or without a respect for it, he worried for the future.

At the station, he unpacked the cups and tea to make a more permanent storefront. Here, he didn’t have to yell. The passer-by would recognize the cups, smell the wonderful spices, and stop for a quick taste. It usually didn’t take more than an hour to exhaust his ration of chai. Once it was gone, he would pack up and begin the long pedal back to Mahim.

His last customer was an accountant for the Oriental Bank of Commerce. He was stuck in lower-middle-management, and would never rise to a position of real power. He was happy, though, and the small cup of chai made him more so. His shirt was a deep maroon, his pants black, matching the backpack slung high upon his shoulders. He bought the cup without negotiation, and said nothing but thank you. As he sipped the hot liquid, he paused to gaze out at the morning rush. The station buzzed with activities like a disturbed ant hill.

“It never stops, does it?” Arjun asked quietly.
The accountant looked over the rim of the cup, and sideways at the chaiwalla.
“Why should it?” he retorted coldly, and entered the fray.

This brought a smile to Arjun’s dry lips. As he packed his bike up for the ride back to Mahim, he looked out towards the road.

I stopped my motorcycle in front of him, ordered to do so by the Mumbai traffic police. The woman officer walked to the middle of the road, whistled loudly, and motioned for the cross-traffic to have their turn.

I made eye contact with Arjun, though I didn’t know his name or his story. I only saw a man clad in white, fiddling with cups slung over the side of his bike.

He knew I was foreign, which again brought him to worry about the future of the city. How could this gora ever appreciate the pulse of Bombay?

I could see his disapproval in his eyes and narrowed mine. I loved the city too. Couldn’t I have a piece of her too, even if just a cup of steaming chai?

Another whistle ordered me to go, and I took off with a roar towards my office in Worli. As Arjun struggled home towards Mahim, I struggled to plant a flag in a place I wasn’t allowed to call home.

Another morning had started, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.