Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chai around India, Part One


First sketches of Mumbai. Blue sky unseen. I know it’s blue because the sky is invariably so. Whether you sleep or are alive or dead, whether you look or don't look, maybe you don't even have eyes, maybe you can't even read this, the sky just is. It just is. Left or right, right or wrong, it’s just blue. Yet this morning, Indian skies tells me that the sky has always been a shade of gray or slate swaying in degree beneath the clouds. Of another blue, tarps and tarps stretch over boxes and boxes with open doors and windows inviting in the very black. These seem to me like the playhouses my friends and I hoisted up in our backyards, of cardboard and rotten wood and stolen 2x4s. No signs of life. There is more to conviction than what lies in sight. I know there are people, people like you and me, sleeping, dreaming, living, being, inside. The plane skids safely down though a skin of water washes over the field of tarmac. This is not one mile from the blue houses of tarp near the runway. Maybe they don't dream, only ask for quiet.


India day two. Hotel chai. Dispensed from a biggish cylinder of metal. Lab experiment? Already mildly sweetened and creamed. Fresh ginger? Seems so. I can taste the bits. Why do they offer packets of sugar?


Another day. Another morning. Sure could use some sleep or drugs. Caffeine would be nice. Streets are washed clean again. Streets swept of urine and whatever else. There’s a constant stench. If you opened your eyes or ears or other things in your city no matter how large not matter how small, you'd smell it the same. Some hide it better than others. But constant is the same. People often misuse the word constant. Sometimes they mean consistent, or every so often, or repeatedly, or continuously even, but rarely constant. But this is constant. It’s the smells I remember most. Rarely elsewhere do I either recall talk of the smells and you can’t smell through a guidebook. You can't smell through a TV either. The breath and perspiration of people being recycled by people. A rotting air of mangrove lingers across the view.

Cab windows partly down. I watch the private slushing through the forsaken streets. The other cabbies and the road tenant armies of tuk tuks have gone to rest. Their pitter-patter now no more than the soft drizzling of rain. Passing over the flyover reveals below a shanty town in the tremendous shadow of the bridge. A horde of bumblebee-colored cabs hunch together waiting out the last of night and rain. If they sleep here, in this city, properly called Bombay and not that political fiasco they have labeled as Mumbai, that must mean that the streets of NY also rest. And so we must all eventually.


The light is out. So are clouds. The city is a softbox. No rain yet. Textures of people and walls and puddles are reflections of reflections. We wander past people buying twigs for teeth cleaning, this the vendor mimes to our curious stares. I am reminded of how the Native Americans who use creosote to do the same. Whose idea was it? Anyhow, it’s better than disposable toothbrushes.

Men in suits. Men in work clothes. Brown, blue, black. Young and old. Motorcycles. They go by us in no hurry. They don’t seem to care about what we’re doing. Don’t seem to care who we are. I’m standing in the middle of it all trying to assign a color and bit depth to the vertical bed of lichen or moss glowing brightly mineral, growing on a side of fallen brick against a nearly fallen wall in an alley. These are old places. Perhaps the Raj once called it theirs. Old and slow so that slower life can take root even if its in the city. Em is waiting for the condensation to evaporate from her ultra-wide lens. We have no idea where we are either, but this does not bother us. We’re delusional in our safety, or Indians, even of the city breed, are the most hospitable in ways they aren’t aware.

A few streets down and a few turns later, an intersection arises from the strange hush of the morning maze. The six way hub is a pulse of the city and it is alive and awake and confusing. To my left are high-rise apartments. Water spouts pour out a glacial valley-sized cataract of rain water. I think of all the pigeons nesting on the roof and their runoff. To our right, a vendor has pots of various sizes and heights boiling on rickety stoves. A few men in sit and stand nearby, sipping from their clear plastic cups and tall glasses. They stare back at us staring.

“I’m hungry and thirsty,” Em says.

“Didn’t you just have something?”

“I dunno. What was it?”

“I dunno. Can’t remember.”

“Exactly. I think that’s chai. You want some chai?”

“I’m not sure how the chai is settling with me. Should wait a few more days. Anyhow, it doesn’t look clean.”

“Let’s go.”

Asking of sorts. Not really. She’s likely low on blood-sugar. Seriously. She is a Type 1. The men have not moved, not an eye. We cross the empty street on this side of the chaotic intersection and when we’re standing up against the counter, they give us a smile and say, “Chai?” I’m still thinking. At least they asked. A cabbie on break or getting ready for an early start decides to help the chai man behind the counter. One flimsy shot cup is filled. That’s Em’s. She takes it, doesn’t wait for formalities, tips it up--part way. It’s steaming. Almost too hot to hold with bare hands. She blows over it. Her impatience gets the better of her and she throws it all to the back of her throat. “It’s goooooooooood,” she croons.

The cabbie waits for me. We eye one another and we both know that I can no longer resist. He fidgets with the Babel tower of cups and one drops into the wet and germ ridden sidewalk. He bends down to snatch it up and as if I hadn’t noticed he uses it to reinforce another cup to which my chai is poured. I think he smiles, a crooked old man smile. I squint back but thank him nonetheless. And somehow we both know that there are no innocents beyond the age of three.

Eff it. Down the hatch.

Oh. My. God. This shit is GOOD. Seriously good.

“How much?”

“Ten rupees.”

Done and done.

Wait. Did the cabbie take my money or the chai wallah?


Bombay hopscotch. There's no sport more dangerous than crossing the street in India. We’re dodging sleeping dogs, cows, chickens, puddles, rickshaws and buses, and people and more people. It’s dry, or, drier now. I face Em. “Have you seen any tourists?”

“No,” she says straightly. “Just us.” Her mind is fixated on the next composition.

“And …?”

Down another street in another direction men stand around a cart on the side of the sidewalk boiling water. Empty clear-blue jugs of water. Like sky. But from where? We become part of the circle. The chatter doesn’t fade. On the sidewalk men from the store (what kind, I have no clue) notice us and doesn’t seem to care.

Perfect timing. The water in the pot is rolling, boiling. The man dips a cloth wrapping the contents of a fist-sized ball of chai. It looks to have been in use for years and without a break. Once I knew of a hamburger hole-in-the-wall where the secret ingredient was the grill of twenty years that had never been exposed to that dirty practice known as cleaning.

The man is concentrating. He speaks to none because this street ritual must attain exacting temperature and his preformations must become real. Use your formulas and measuring cups and deally-dabs in your fancy aluminum-brushed kitchen, but out here, in home turf, we use instinct and righteous judgment and experience. Amid the chatter they look askance at the chai man as if to say What’s taking so long? Is it ready yet? I need my cardamom and caffeine.

Em is already yapping it up with a few. I realize they don’t speak the same language, at least verbal. Just gestures and smiles and everything makes perfect sense more perfect than poorly choiced words. Someone beside me points, “Coffee?”

“Ah. Nah. We just had some … chai?” I point back down the street and mime nursing a scotch on the rocks, slowly tipping, sipping. “Thank you, though.”

“No no no. Coffee.” He tilts and bobs his head in that way that confounds a simple yes and no.

“Uh. No thank you. Chai. We just had it.”

“No. Coffee,” he points again, as if his crooked fingers could make the coffee or chai any clearer.

The chai man removes the rag of brown. He skims grind or leaves from the surface of the bubbling waters. Long metal ladle sinks to the bottom and comes back up to divvy between the three and then five or so glasses. Efficient if a bit messy. When the drink lines are nearly as tall as the glasses, he reaches down with one hand and fetches up the glasses with one finger in each glass like spokes of a chai wheel. What amazingly sticky fingers. Again, efficient, but incredibly messy. Each man finds renewed focus. They each take their turn. They drink their chai. The one beside me has his now and pushes it into my face.

“Coffee,” he says again and follows up with a come hither of his brows.

I smile as sincerely as I can and politely wave it off but thank him profusely. I watch him savor. All the while, I think: sticky fingers, sticky fingers.


I’m standing on the median waiting to wave down a rickshaw but they don’t seem to venture into this neighborhood. I spot only taxies. Em is across the street taking portraits of construction workers in their hard yellow hats. There were three of them at first but now are fifty, but there is still just one of her. She’s laughing and won’t stop and I have no idea as to why. In the pictures they look serious as if they want to stone her but if you saw it they were just trying to look good and serious for the camera.

I lean back and look upward. Sketchy low clouds. A short time before we had found the coffee or chai stand on the street, we were caught in the midst of a downpour. One by one, people joined our little nook beneath the wandering arm of a mangrove and the green eaves of a closed storefront. Pink, blue, yellow umbrellas sprouted for those that found no surer cover. The rain came. It fell hard. For a time, it was the only thing heard, blocking out the thrum-thrumbing of traffic.

There on the side of the road, a skinny young driver in shorts deliberates with an older, more rotund one. The veteran seems to have won. A vacant face says that he has seen his share of cuts and jabs back in the day. Mumbai mafia. He walks calmly into the eaves with us. As the monsoon blesses and curses at will and at random, the apprentice polishes the taxi with a stained rag as the heavens above Bombay continuously sheds curtains and waves.

Story by HVH