Bright, cheery yellow!
That is how I remember the nondescript tea stall in the picturesque Himalayan foothills, by the side of the tall iron gates that lead to a sort of retreat.
I was looking for the place that served the most ‘divine lemon tea’.
Was this it?
Inside, it looked exactly like any other roadside stall that dot the Indian country side, the kind that specialised in dark brown, strongly brewed tea, extra sweet, doled out in small glass tumblers. Namkeen packets hung like streamers, stacked egg trays on one side, the shop counter decorated with loaves of bread and rows of big, clear plastic jars containing colourful candies and chocolate. Instant noodles and biscuits lay crammed in gaily painted yellow shelves, knick-knacks dazzled in the glow of the yellow bulb.
Tacked in front was an eye catching menu along with the legend- Haathi Chai Shop. Lemon tea was right at the top and pancakes at the bottom.
A funky logo that had a man with the widest and brightest smile staring right back at you was hard to miss.
Pottering behind the counter was a tall person who took my order for the tea. He had close cropped salt and pepper hair, a booming voice and a smile that literally lit up his face.
The resemblance to the man in the logo was uncanny, smile and all.
Well, he turned out to be the proprietor, cook, cashier, waiter, dispenser of local news, homilies and even bit of a philosopher.
There was no question of a lull in the conversation while we waited for our tea. A stooping, grey haired Tibetan woman shuffled outside the shop, rummaging inside her bag and then myopically peering all around. She barely acknowledged Chai Bhai’s hellos. He helpfully explained the reason for her rebuff. She had lost hundred rupees with which she was going to buy bread for the street dogs. We watched her retrace her route, eyes searching for that lost note, three brown street dogs respectfully following her, brushing against her hand and dress every now and then.
Time moved in a languid manner and one could sit for hours on the scratched plastic chairs by the side of the road. That’s what we did, soaking in the scenery, watching folks, sharing space with the local dogs who were remarkably well behaved waiting for morsels, pretending to be asleep. For once there were no roaring vehicles or people haunched over their mobile phones.
Meanwhile Chai Bhai expertly multitasked. He had to collect his wife from the village, take her to the doctor to collect medicines. One moment he was serving instant noodles to the boys at the next table, his monologue never missing a beat and the next minute he was energetically firing a motorcycle parked outside and roaring away in a cloud of dust.
Oh yes! He did serve us our tea.
Steaming, amber coloured lemon tea, the sweet offsetting the tartness of lemon perfectly.
The shop was left unattended, that is if you don’t count us, the eating, drinking customers who still had to pay him for the goodies. Maybe that’s how things were done in the hills, the degree of trust was greater.
Strains of Hanuman Bhajan played softly, the rays of the setting sun hitting the scattered chairs at an angle, a breeze rustled the dry leaves and a cow sniffed my elbow.
Seriously, the animal was fearless.
A few locals came and patiently stood for the man to return. Our glasses were empty when his motorcycle spluttered to a halt. A comely lady in a white suit and a pink dupatta covering her hair quietly took her place behind the counter, while the man of the hour picked up the conversation from where he left- the doctor’s consultation. Apparently he still hadn’t been there and was already running late.
Round two was like standing in the eye of the storm. He deftly tackled his waiting clients, brewed another batch of tea, cleared tables, served some more, posed for the photographs with a sunny smile. He hastily packed a jar full of lemon tea, he explained it was for the doctor who would appreciate the gesture and probably not mind his tardiness.
The conversation turned to a name Haathi Chai Shop.
Haathi translated into English meant an elephant which was a homage to Lord Ganesha, remover of all obstacles. Interestingly it was also a way he remembered his beloved elder brother.
Delivering another homily on changing times and his recent experience with some nasty customers, he apologetically locked his shop so that he could be off for that appointment. We gathered our warm teas and moved to the stone ledges that served as seats.
“Just slip the glasses through the wire mesh”, his parting words.
The sun faded and the air turned chilly. The conversations all around turned to gentle murmuring. The dogs shook off the dust and sauntered off. I felt the warmth of the tea seeping into my bones.
Mellow yellow, that’s how I felt.
Maybe that’s the magic of tea.