The tea shop

Madhav

By MADHAV KOCHUNNI

Narration: Jaya Madhav

Younger days

Arun’s life was simple and uncomplicated. At 17 his only worry was about studies and marks in the ninety percentile. Sometimes pocket money also entered the inner core of his persistent thoughts.

Every other month his dad sent him money. The cheque came with a folded letter enclosed in a yellow envelope with colourful postage stamps from distant lands.

Grandma’s messages were longer. She scribbled letters into every blank space on the inland letter. Her letters took time to decipher. A trait, Arun found, was peculiar with doctors. Grandma’s words, sentences and meaning played the game of snakes and ladders.

Both of them started and ended their letters with the same script.

“Study well. Do not waste your time playing.”

This was the only thing his dad and grandma agreed upon. Neither of them knew he received funds from both of them!

Grandma’s generous cash infusions bridged the times when his savings account entered single digits. But it had to be accepted in person. Arun’s grandmother lived a short journey by bus. The rule was to go to grandma’s house for every study break. Four times a year and during the two main annual festivals, Vishu and Onam.

This episode is about one such journey.

Grandma’s messages were longer. She scribbled letters into every blank space on the inland letter. Her letters took time to decipher. A trait, Arun found, was peculiar with doctors. Grandma’s words, sentences and meaning played the game of snakes and ladders.

Tharavadu

Arun had just started making the trip on his own to his tharavadu. The ancestral home, built on the side of a hill in the countryside, was an hour’s journey from the nearest town of Calicut. It was more than 100 years old.

The tharavadu was ‘manned’ by his grandmother and her six sisters, all in their sprightly sixties! Two of them had tamed and retained their husbands. Three of the spouses took early retirement from this world. Arun had not seen or heard about the other two, but thought it wise not to pursue their stories.

Arun’s reluctance to visit his tharavadu only lasted till the time he reached the property. The solid brick and teak wood home, built around a nadumittam. The open courtyard was spotless. The sprawling two-story structure housed a treasure trove of objects within its interconnecting rooms and narrow wooden staircases. Three of the permanently locked rooms held stories Arun believed would never be revealed.

Some of the house’s rigid properties had seeped into the mental constitution of the women born to the house. The only one who was tempered by life’s continuous onslaught was his eldest great aunt. Although he had not tested her inclination to support him in times of danger, Arun suspected he had an ally in her.

Grandma, the next in line, had put a stop to the encroachment of weak emotions eroding the birthplace of a stoic sisterhood. Any historian of this clan would shiver hearing stories of their resilience.

Stepping into the tharavadu was like entering a time warp. On crossing the threshold, he got lost in the library of books. Within its secretive rooms were artifacts from various ages. Once he discovered, and tried on, a gas mask which he later found belonged to his grandfather when he served as a military doctor in World War II.

Some of the house’s rigid properties had seeped into the mental constitution of the women born to the house. The only one who was tempered by life’s continuous onslaught was his eldest great aunt. Although he had not tested her inclination to support him in times of danger, Arun suspected he had an ally in her.

Special trip

The day Arun left for the countryside, he had arranged with his cousins to meet for lunch and movie the following week. The date and time were fixed. For Arun, this trip was especially important. He was looking forward to meeting Chitra again! He did not know why, but the sight of her cherubic face and dimpled smile had begun to chip away at the joints of his knees.

He confided in his great aunt about his trip and watched for any reaction.

She asked, “Do you have to go? You know it’s the main Onam and it’s tradition to have the feast as a family.”

“It’s just for the day, Valiyamma. I’ll be back by evening. I can have the sadya for dinner. Besides I have already arranged everything.” The day of the feast had completely slipped Arun’s mind.

Valiyamma thought for a while. “Think of it from your grandma’s perspective. Come up with a good reason which she will be happy to hear.”

Arun reviewed the stories in his mind, crafted with practice from a young age, and realized that none would stand up in the family court.

Family court

On the morning of his travels, he looked out through the small window with thick wooden bars. The bright morning light bounced off the spotless red mosaic verandah and blinded him. He saw shadows blocking his way. When his eyes adjusted, he realized that the shadows were moving, and they were his grand aunts lining up to try to stop him from leaving!

Convincing grandma of his necessity to go to town took days to prepare. He had already cooked up a story and told his grandma of his meeting with his uncle, a doctor at the Calicut Medical College.

Dr. Pramod, Arun’s uncle, was a favourite of his and the great aunts and was given the mantle to lead the clan’s younger generation to new heights. Grandma was pleased that her grandson had some sense in him and made sure Arun had enough money for the whole trip. And then some.

When he opened the main door and stepped down on to the verandah, questions from the great aunts drowned him. But he was ready with his story.

“I am meeting Pramodmama for lunch and will spend some time with him.”

During that time, landlines existed in few households and only in significant towns and cities. The telephone was miles away from waking up the gentle folks of the countryside in the middle of the night.

Arun knew there was no way for the great aunts to corroborate his story. By the time Pramodmama visited the countryside he would have to prepare him with white lies! If a little bit of persuasion was required he could always ask to meet his uncle’s girlfriend. Arun was sure that Pramodmama thought he had his romance well under wraps!

Comfort zone

The path to the bus stop descended with two flights of steep steps, a 10-minute balancing act through paddy fields brimming with coloured waters, and ended with a two-furlong walk along the highway. If the heat did not get one, the rains would, but Arun did not mind these minor irritants. He hid the umbrella his grandma gave him in the gatehouse.

The tea shop was an integral part of any village in Kerala. Better known as chaippidika, there is always one next to the bus stop and serves as a meeting place like a library. One person was reading the Mathrubhumi Malayalam newspaper. Four or five others, on wooden benches strewn around on the mud floor, were making comments even before listening to the whole story. Everyone who passed by added his two bits swaying the listeners’ perspectives. Politics and death got the most attention and were discussed to the bone till the sun stopped shedding any more light.

Chai, chai!

Arun ducked under the roof of the tea shop and ordered tea. Shankaran added water to the aluminium saucepan caked with smoke outside and crusted with tea leaves inside, and plonked it on the kerosene stove. Tea leaves, added to the water and milk concoction, made the tea thicker than usual; the leaves remained in the pan throughout the day. He then took a kuppi glass, and poured the boiling tea from as high as the arms would stretch brewing a froth that put to shame the head of any pint of beer!

When the rain began to pound, Arun stepped into the safe confines of the tea-stall. Water dripped through the cracks of the roof thatched with coconut palm leaves tempered by the elements. The mists from the rain added to the general ambience and formed a cloud, protecting the glass cabinet with savouries.

Bus journey

The bus rushed in, spraying water all around, and stopped about 20 meters away from the designated stop. As usual. Rain shutters, pulled down to keep the rain, also prevented a view of empty seats. One had to run to get in through the back door before it took off.

The standard practice was to let women in through the front door and men through the back. There was always a kili, who doubled as cleaner and usher, guarding each doorway. The driver, most of the time, waited for their whistle. One to stop and two to go! If the whistles were absent, the kili in the back shouted: “stop” or “right”. It was relayed to the driver by the kili in the front.

They would scamper up only after the bus took off. The kilis would run by the bus’s side, holding on to one of the window rails and swing into the bus shutting the door behind them. When there were no seats, they would travel all the way standing on the steps.

Wrecking ball

Inside the bus, Arun handed over the exact change to the conductor who gave him a ticket. If there were any remaining change, the conductor would say he would give it at the end of the journey; it was usually forgotten.

Arun sat towards the front of the bus keeping one eye on the driver. The driver wore a khaki shirt. A checkered lungi, draped around his waist, was flapping in the wind. His left hand caressed the shift gear while the right swung the wheel. Only when there was a hard turning did the left hand move to help the right!

The speeds at which these buses barrelled through the narrow roadways imitated a wrecking ball. Nothing stood upright in its wake. When these buses overtook other vehicles, it triggered minor heartaches or ulcers for the faint at heart. But with practice, one could even doze off.

When Arun woke up, the bus had stopped. The sound of rain was absent. Arun raised the bellows-shaped shutter made of green vinyl weighted by a metal plate; he wiped the rainwater underneath from dripping further.

Train of thoughts

Railway gates in the countryside closed much before the arrival of any train. The wait was longer when a freight or goods train was passing. The striped, white and red, heavy creaking metal gates had just closed. It needed oiling and a lot of elbow grease to move it in and out of traffic.

Rainwaters had washed everything and gave nature a crispness. The thick green leaves glistened when they caught the sun peeping between dark clouds. Closer to earth, small granite pieces cushioned the rails firmly embedded between wooden slats.

A man wearing khaki shirt and shorts walked towards the bus through the mists of rain and time. Red and green flags were rolled up and tucked under his left armpit. He stepped away from the middle of the tracks to a wooden shed closer to the gate. Inside the shed were giant levers which, like the metal gates, needed more elbow grease. The man pulled a set of gears as tall as him. Arun could hear the tracks changing to bypass the oncoming train.

Soon Arun became aware of the slow rumblings of a freight train.

“Takataka takadum, takataka takadum. Takataka takadum, takataka takadum…”

After an eternity, the goods train passed in front of the bus and entered the second set of tracks. There it would remain to let the passenger train arriving from the opposite direction stop, pick up passengers, and leave with their baggage, thoughts, and stories.

Arun counted 38 covered bogies on the goods train. They were either rusted or painted in that colour. At the end of the train, two cylindrical bogies had ‘Indian Oil’ in giant letters painted on the side along with the company logo. The guard’s caboose, which looked like a small metal shack with no doors, completed the train. Although the interior was dark, Arun could make out enough space for a chair, a desk, and a bunk bed.

A man in a white shirt, long white trousers, and a peaked cap waved a red flag. The green flag was rolled up and tucked under his right armpit. He kept waving the flag, stepped to the other side, and waved again signalling to stop the train. A couple of kids playing near the tracks waved back. Arun wondered what he did when in need of the washroom on those long journeys.

A complicated life

Chitra had sent word with the cousins that she would be late and would join them for the movie. Arun lost his appetite and trudged through lunch automatically nodding at the non-stop gibberish.

They stood in line and bought tickets, one for Chitra as well. From the first floor window Arun saw Chitra alighting from an auto rickshaw. She was wearing a brightly coloured skirt and a yellow blouse.

When she ran up the stairs skipping every other step, his heart kept the beat!

“Hai!” Greeted Chitra. The dimples dug into her plump cheeks as she smiled. The colours of the world dulled under the radiance from her face!

“Hello. You look very chirpy today.” Arun stumbled forward to shake hands with Chitra.

“Let’s go. Let’s go.” The others broke in and pulled Chitra into the dimly lit theatre. Arun followed and by the time he sat down he was at one end of the group. Chitra always got the centre seat.

Every song in ‘Abba The Movie,’ tugged at Arun’s heartstrings. He had never felt something like this before in his life. He decided that he had to talk to her after the movie and try and arrange another meeting.

By the time the movie ended it was pouring.

They darted out of the movie hall and Arun managed to lead Chitra by the elbow to a corner under the awning. As she said a hasty goodbye and was about to depart with her cousins, he blurted out, “I love you.”

He did not know where that came from! For a moment his rational mind took over but could not explain his emotions or behaviour.

Chitra did not say anything. She looked at him with a strange expression. Then she turned, ducked under the awning, stepped into the rain, ran down the stairs, and into the waiting car.

Homeward bound

The trip back home was way longer than Arun remembered. He wondered if his heavy heart would make it through the holidays. All he could see was Chitra’s round smiling face.

He got off the bus. Some people from the morning session were there in the chaippidika; there were many new faces as well. The touch-points at home for most villagers who had no active duty were breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They spent the rest of the time here or at the library. Tea time at the chaippidika was always a busy time.

The petromax, or hurricane lantern, hung from the rafters was burning bright. The rain continued to pound on the thatched roof. Arun stepped in, bought a single cigarette for ten paise, lit it, and ordered tea. The filterless Scissors cigarette came with bits of wood embedded in it, and sometimes it flared up in the face.

The cigarette got the treatment to within half an inch, leaving enough gap to hold it between the thumb and forefinger. Arun finished the tea. He had a couple of cold parippu vadas to wash away the smell of smoke from his breath.

All bus stops dotted along the highway had a tea stall, a barber salon, a grocery store, and a restaurant. They kept open doors and windows. The chaippidika had no walls; four thin wooden pillars held the conical roof drooping to the level of a man’s waist. Every time a vehicle passed by, the dust or splashes of rain got carried in. It upset the flies window shopping on the glass cabinet holding savouries, sometimes from the previous day.

Most of these establishments had a half wall where people sat with their legs dangling out onto the street, catching the sun, the rain, and the news from a radio perched on a tall cupboard. The entrance to the chaippidika also sheltered cows and stray dogs sleeping exhausted from the elements or from doing nothing.

The chaippidika had become a comfort zone for Arun. A place to stop and ponder before and after the visit to his tharavadu. When it was time for dinner, Arun walked with the setting sun casting long shadows and pointing him home. The scantily clad kids in Arun’s path jumped into the muddy waters and gave him walking space on the narrow varambu. Two of them were holding a thorthu by the ends and trying to scoop up fish they had trapped in one corner of the paddy field.

Arun spotted the tiled roof of his white-washed tharavadu over the canopy of trees. As he walked home and as he wrote this much later in life, memories of that day mingled with the tastes of chai and parippu vada gave the trip a special meaning. He realized that that was the first time he had fallen in love!

Notes

* The two main festivals; Vishu, the Malayalam new year falls around 14 April. Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala, falls in early September.
* Sadya is the feast during Vishu and Onam.
* Tharavadu is the ancestral home.
* Nadumittam is an open courtyard.
* The chaippidika is still there and helps in bridging the generation gap.
* Kuppi glass is a clear glass tumbler
* Thorthu is a weaved bath towel.
* Parippu is lentils; vada is shaped like doughnuts but not sweet.
* Lungi is a wraparound held at the waist by a belt or simply tucked in.
* Varambu is the narrow high path between paddy fields
* Kerala, the tiny coastal state in India has a lot of history. Kerala entered the international history books when the Arabs and the Portuguese landed here as part of the spice route. It made history when it became the first 100 percent literate state in India. I was also born here.

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