Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tea Stall

Urmilla was sitting under the huge tree on the side walk. Her tea stall was beside the parking lot in front of the Secretariat and Estate Office building in Sector 17, the commercial and administrative  center of Chandigarh. It was a big parking lot 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 was wearing a red and green cotton sari with a red blouse. 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.
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 racks which the nouveau –riche now adorn their living rooms with.
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 amarbel, 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 idly squatting near her stove. The winter was going away and there were not many customers for her tea in the afternoon. 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.

Mahesh, her husband, used to wash cars in a locality in the sector where they lived. 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 lived in a small two room rented house and their three children went to school. Mahesh 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 but 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.

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. 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 and he hadn’t turned up.

It had been close to three months now since he had begun frequenting her ramshackle tea stall. He had come every working 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, a white shirt and grey trousers on all days. Every day he walked over to her stall and asked for tea without 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.

Around two months ago, her two girls were punching and hitting each other and she had slapped both of them. He had intervened, protecting the girls and requesting her to stop. The girls took to him that day on-wards. They looked forward to his 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 a train accident and since then had been trying to get the house in her name  transferred to an orphanage. That was the reason for his daily visits to the estate office.

Urmilla and the visitor developed a strange affinity towards each other. He started writing down her accounts and coaxed her to recover her money from the customers. She introduced him to a man who could fast-track the transfer of his house. Her business became organised. The flow of money helped her to continue the children’s education. But beyond all this they started depending upon each other for emotional succour.

She waited for him each morning. She even started dressing better and discarded her white and pale clothes. He also came out for tea eagerly. He started looking well, and took care of his appearance. They were like foil to each other, providing support and strength. People looked at them and wondered what made the two stick together. They were so different.

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.  Her heart skipped a beat. 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.