“Calcutta is like no other city in India. Give a third-world look to London, spray it with the permissive air of Paris, lend it the temperament of Latin America, people it with Bengalis – Calcutta would be that city.”
– Bishwanath Ghosh, Longing Belonging: An Outsider at Home in Calcutta (2014), page 26
This morning I got to sleep in a bit. It was so nice. After a rather harrowing 14-kilometer bike ride from Salt Lake to South City last night, one where my bike chain came off only three times throughout the course of the ride, I felt like a cup of hot chai would help to kick off this lazy Saturday morning. I woke, as I usually do these days, to the honking and skwaking of of the busses outside, the auto-rickshaw wallahs yelling out their destinations along with “kothai?” to pedestrians pedester-ing by. Some horns are louder than others. Some are shrill, some double-beep, some lay on the horn like it’s the end of a Mahler symphony and try to break the glass of the apartments near by. Everyone tells me that I’ll get used to it, and dare I say that I am afraid that I am, indeed, slowly getting used to it, for there is no escaping it. In other words, perhaps, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. It’s not so bad, really. Sometimes I try and think of it as a soundtrack to my time here. Or perhaps I’m slowly going deaf, who knows?
I threw back my handy-dandy mosquito net, one that saves me now from many-a-bite in the night, and, actually, headed straight for the bathroom – another not-so-uncommon start to sunny days here in India. One of my new roommates was in there washing his clothes by hand, but he was gracious enough to let me use the toilet for a minute, as he probably judged by the expression on my worried face that I needed the facilities a bit more immediately in that moment, perhaps, than he did.
Following that escapade, I decided to put something else in my belly and I grabbed my blue, durable BPA-free polypropylene REI Campware Cup and decided to take it downstairs to the chai wallah outside and have him put 10 rupees worth of chai into it. I wondered, briefly, what look he might give me when I hand him such a drinking device, but I certainly didn’t let that stop me.
“Heading out?” my roommate asked me as I opened the door with sandals on, empty cup in hand.
“I’m just heading downstairs to grab a cup of chai,” I said. “You want one?”
“No man, I’m good. You taking that cup?” He gestured with his chin to mean the blue contraption in my hand.
“Yeah, I thought I’d see what kind of look the chai wallah gives me when I hand him this thing.”
He chuckled. I walked downstairs, opened the two maroon colored gates that keep outsiders out, and took another five steps to reach the chai wallah’s ever-open tea stall. It was surrounded by people, as it usually is – people coming and going, people not doing anything or going anywhere, and people chatting, arguing, and discussing, Bengalis so love to often do. I approached the chai wallah. He was in the middle of pouring two very small cups of tea for other thirsty morning-goers. He had them set on a small metal tray, on which tea had spilled out onto the bottom of. He reached into the large pot of steaming, boiling chai with his long metal chai-scooper (surely that must be a technical term for it), placed it above a kind of mesh filter, then slowly, but not too slowly, poured it evenly into the two cups waiting patiently below. His actions were practiced and meticulous, fast but not hurried.
“Morning, dada,” I said. “Bhalo acho?”
He tilted his head to the side with a slight grin. I handed him a ten-rupee note, followed by my blue, handled campware cup. “Here goes nothing,” I thought. He took the note, touched it to his forehead, put it away in a little stash of other ten-rupee notes under the newspaper-covered counter, grabbed my cup without a blink, filled it up halfway with gorum gorum (hot hot) chai, and respectfully handed it back to me, steaming. I smiled and I think I began to drool a little bit, too.
“Thank you, dada,” I said, trying not to drool any more. He tilted his head again, raising his right hand in a kind of polite wave goodbye/”see-you-next-time”.
Upon returning triumphantly to my honk-filled room, I looked at my liquid-trophy and smiled. “Campware Cup, meet Indian chai. Indian chai, Campware Cup. I suspect the two of you should get along quite nicely.” It’s a silly thing, really, but to bring these two parts of my life, my greater world, together, creates a slight warming or calming feeling in my gut, in my mind, and on my face. Upon returning home next year to Seattle, for example, never will I ever again have the opportunity of filling such a cup with such a tasty drink. Sure, other delightful camping drinks are available, sure, but such a unique combination at this moment, in this context, pleases me immensely.
Having such quick access to simple things, like chai, is such a pleasure. I’ve been telling my new, very awesome roommates over the last week that I’m really not used to living in such a dense, metropolitan area, one where access to so many things so easily has ever been, well, so easy. The fact that I can wake up in the morning, want chai, grab an REI campware cup, head downstairs, pay ten rupees, and be back under the fan in my room all within about two minute’s time, is unbelievable to me; and I love it.
REI campware cup, get used to your new friend, gorum gorum chai.
“I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
– Jhumpa Lahiri, The Third and Final Continent, from Interpreter of Maladies (1999), page 198