By Bhoot Jolokia
India is a country of billions. A billion people teeming around every day, it’s a country which has an affinity for ruckus, an affinity for noise, and a relationship with dirt and grime. You will often find scores of people huddled around for intimate conversations or gossips in dilapidated teashops. These tea shops of varying shapes and conditions are akin to weeds, they sprout in inane places, from untended corners to busy chaurahas. They are a primal call to the countrymen to halt, sit, and idle away. They are the oddity in the ludicrously swift day to day life. Every town, be it big or small, has tea shops. Tea is the most loved concoction in the country. You will find people sipping it at all times of the day. The mundane concerns of health or diet pales in front of a cup of tea with a biscuit; nothing will deter people from a cup of tea. The tealeaves and the biscuits will change depending on the class but the aura persists. There are cookies for the rich and cheap rusks for the poor, whilst the middle class bites its good day but the tea remains constant although the brand might change.
Shrilal Shukla in his novel Raag Darbari highlights the significance of these little teashops. The same tea leaves being boiled again and again for returning customers. The cup of tea with a cigarette or a biscuit become a perfunctory ritual, often leading to bonds of friendship between customers and the chaiwallah, such is the bond over a hot cup of tea.
A curious facet that I have noticed in every tea shop is the presence of a container of sweets, normally the yellow ladoos. If there is a universal connection between teashops across the length and breadth of this huge country, it is that first there will be the tea and second there will be this inconspicuous container of ladoos. The ladoos always seem aged, as aged and withered as my grandfather looks, the only difference being that the latter whacks me with his worn stick. The dusty container of ladoos seems like a remnant of an ancient past, a stout warrior which has withstood the ravages of time and carried on its duty unfailingly year after year. I have never seen anyone consume these laddoos. People will sip their tea, they will have a bite of the biscuits or cigarette, but no one eats from the ladoo container as far as I can recall. They seem to be paying mute homage to the aged rotund yellow warriors, for silently carrying the pressure of the pile of filth and for harboring diseases. Maybe these ladoos are revered and respected; maybe they are ignored and forgotten. If these yellow balls of diabetes had a mind of their own they would have been the perfect spectators of humans. They would have been able to record the multitude of humans that frequent these small tea shops, their lives, their struggles, and their success. The dirty container is like a forgotten jewel in the shop, its value long since eroded but none has been able to displace its place on the shelf. The chaiwalla too religiously puts the container up every morning, despite knowing that they never sell or perhaps it is a ritual for him or her too, a silent companion of sorts, which shall never cease to exist.
Yesterday, I was sipping tea at the tea shop in my quaint little town. There were the usual customers there and me, sipping the bitter tea and idling away our time. I was observing the shopkeeper as he was starting to gather and sort his things before closing the shop, and he had diligently picked up the dirty container of yellow ladoos, which had never been touched in years, to the top shelf, and I could not contain myself. I wanted to be the anomaly in this sacred ritual; I called out to him and asked him to give me a ladoo. He looked at me bewildered, almost if I had asked him the keys of his rickety moped bike. He gathered himself and offered me one. It took some time to open the container, years of inactivity, dirt, grime, and what not had given it a mind of its own. After some careful yanking, the lid was cranked open and he offered me one ladoo. I felt like I was the first person to have been offered this yellow remnant of time. I took it and sniffed it; the smell of bug spray unnerved me. I felt it in my palm, it was soft and squishy. To quell your concerns, I did not eat it, I threw it, and a dog promptly devoured it. Perhaps the dog was oblivious to the great history that the ladoo had preserved; it seemed quite nonchalant about it and went about its way lolling its tongue. The tea shop owner too closed his shop and rode away delicately on his rickety moped. I wonder if life would have been fun as a yellow laddoo idling away its time in a quaint tea shop.