Chugging chai

The chugging slowed and stopped with a last screech. The suited mustache on the opposite bench stood up to step off the carriage, so I took his seat by the window. The distressed leather was warm from his body, but the air outside chilled the metal window pane, stiffened the black hairs on my arm before I could secure my pashmina over my head and around my shoulders. I wasn’t going to leave the spot. The surest way to travel alone is to stare out through the window until your station arrives.

I wasn’t sure what station we were at and I didn’t bother to look, much less ask. And there was the nine year old shirtless boy, selling ginger chai and biskut along the cold damp platform. It was chilly and early enough for a saucer full, maybe two. I poked my head out, a few centimeters, my drowsy sleep deprived lids folding up, eyes on the chai boy. The chai boy? Chotu? I would buy his chai and ask him his name. Not that it mattered, we may never meet again.

The sleeping man on the bench opposite mine stirs and shifts, his right arm hanging out of the window as if in a sling. I panicked for a second. Will he shift again before the train starts to move? Am I supposed to wake him up now? I look around. Just he and I in this compartment. How do I wake him? I shuffle my dupatta nervously and squirm in my seat. My journey was going smoothly until then. I can’t let this man sleep like this. How can he stand the cold morning winds cutting his bare skin? How is he so soundly asleep? When I start to recall, he’d been asleep the entire time, ever since I got on board. Four hours exactly. I clear my throat, nervously. Not helpful. I drag my shoe on the floor board. Nothing. Is he dead? No, I see his chest rise and fall. His beard is a brilliant black, thick and unkempt. His arms slightly muscular, and I could tell his eyes were large and slightly bulging from the expanse of his eye lids. A sharp nose, even a bow shaped upper lip..and then I saw his clothes. Dirt on what could be a white shirt and worn out jeans. He was dressed the part, exhausted. I began to feel sorry for him. And then.

Akka, did you want some tea? Good tea, warm warm tea. Only 10 rupees one saucer. Akka, will you take?”

I awoke, my co passenger didn’t. The chai boy was here.

“What is your name?”

“Ha?”

He didn’t understand the question.

“What is your name?”

He grins.

“Spiderman, akka.”

I smile back.

“Ey Mr.Spiderman. Will you ask this aiya if he wants some chai too?”

He nods, smile unfaltering. Spiderman taps his fingernail on the side of the train carriage.

Aiya! Will you have tea?”

Nothing.

“Is he asleep, akka?”

“Yes.”

Spiderman taps him on the arm, finally, waking him up with these words.

“Oh aiya. It is not safe to ride a train like this. Your arm will get ripped off…haha!”

The sleeping stranger was awake now. He looked at the boy, annoyed and then at me. He has stunning eyes, masked by a scary frown. His features softened when he saw me, so I adjusted the pashmina and looked away. He stood up and exited the compartment.

“Two cups chai.”

Spiderman obliged, slightly amused by his morning so far. He gave me two saucers and skipped off to the next carriage. When the sleeping stranger returned from the rest room, looking like he’d washed his face, I handed him the saucer in my right hand.

“How much do I owe you?”

His voice was cracking to wake, like sunlight through the clouds.

“Nothing.”

Why couldn’t I look at him. My eyes couldn’t handle the weight of his? It wouldn’t have hurt to look at him when he spoke to me. Would it have? He should have gone back to sleep. I should have never bought him the tea. I could look at him when he wasn’t aware.

“Thank you.”

Quiet. The train picked up and started on it’s way again, both saucers of chai were emptied and nothing more was spoken.

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