A man walks into the only tea shop that doesn’t sport animated neon signs in this part of town. He hands over a thermos flask to the owner at the counter stirring the large vessel of boiling milk. He doesn’t utter a word but walks straight in and alights on the cranky red stool against the tea-stained wall.
It’s a line of adjacent shops on this side of the main road – on the other side you have the hospital buildings – the scanning center, casualty, the subsidized medicine store BPL cardholders queue up at.
On this side, the neon lightboards are turned on at least an hour before darkness sets in with dusk – English Medicines in red cursive letters, Hot tea & Biryani in a thick blue font, Vegetarian Restaurant in another. Many announce Tourist Homes – funny they’d call the residents tourists considering none would voluntarily be here.
The signs vie for your attention like a new breed of daily Instagram feed. They would probably have been irrelevant in another part of town but here, in the din surrounding the government hospital, with a hundred people scampering around any time of day and night, it sells.
Attempting to charm when every shop offers the exact same set of items – buckets and mugs, coarse threaded towels and thorth, jugs and steel plates, essential crockery – spoons, knives for families that came away from home in emergency, magazines to lighten your mood, and of course neon lights because every shop has it on this side.
Except this one.
Amidst the cacophony outside, this tea shop slows time down. Maybe because it lacks the urgency of those flashing lights.
The owner takes the flask and fills it with tea, looking for signs of objection from his customer before proceeding – he sees and nods in approval. The man knows his customers well. The ones that want to engage in a bit of chitchat, complain about hospital facilities (or lack thereof), others that want to know if there’s black tea available, some offhandedly commenting on the propensity to rain.
But some just sit on one of his cranky plastic stools, quiet. They’re the ones he wishes God would bless. Though technically he doesn’t believe in God.
He lives with his wife in a one bedroomed apartment in a lane near Medical college junction, big enough for the two of them to keep their few possessions and their TV. Business is good, especially during monsoons when all the dengue kicks up.
Before this, he and his wife sold tea with vadas in a road near the temple at Guruvayur. Business was podipooram there. He woke up at 4 and was at his shop by 4.30 after an ice cold bath and a glass of black tea his wife prepared. Men and women from all walks with their little kids, occasionally older fathers and mothers with their newly wed children and in-laws would arrive in Venad Express in the wee hours, stop for a quick tea at his counter before checking into hotels nearby.
You could see the sleepy-eyed family, kids rubbing their eyes, some threatening to fall off their chairs (there were very few in his shop) before his tea jolted them back to wakefulness. They’d want to know when the queues at the temple were shorter and on what trains they could leave by evening. As day proceeded, his shop would get crowded with people thronging at its steps.
Back then his shop was neater. Life lent his sturdy Communist spine a 12degree bend but he never acceded to his wife’s suggestion of selling Guruvayur appan souvenirs like every other shop nearby – car fixities, chain lockets, rings, pictures for the pooja room, miniatures for the study table, some Guruvayur pappadams.
It was big business – all of it – he could be heard saying often. The sheer number of sweaty weddings with couples and their tiny cohort of relatives that stood in queues, devotees lining up from 5 am until 12, all that money clinking in purses and pockets to make way into the temple chests.
It also made his living.
His wife’s idea would definitely make some extra cash, but he was a non-conformist and didn’t conform. What’s a tea shop got to do with the deity that feeds on all this money? Sell some knickknacks eda, it’s not against our leaders’ ethics, his wife-appointed Communist maaman assured him. Neither is stashing money away in lockers and hitting their wives, he had retorted.
He was not one of them and he was proud of it.
So he had never sold any trinkets at Guruvayur, and when his wife’s arthritis drove them to Trivandrum, he had no neon light adorning the entrance to his shop.
It was practically useless, there were tall yellow lamps at the wide junction that lit up all 7 roads and the vehicles entering. And who keeps boards for Tea? People poured in anyway. This was a reference hospital and people came in without anyone’s invitation. Away from home, the poor needed hot tea for families, for patients in bed, for those in recovery and those awaiting surgery.
He could make small talk – it was part of his job, more so part of his curious mind, but it was the quiet customers he really liked having. Who trusted him to do his work and handed over their apprehensions along with their flasks, at least for the few moments it took him to fill them. It’s a solemn entrustment, for someone else to take charge.
He liked reading too much into things.
His shop was an entry ticket away from the commotion, from blinking neon lights and hurrying hordes. From the suffocation that built up when they had spent a few days at this place and longed to pack up their few belongings, the mat and the newly bought buckets and mugs but mostly the mended patient, and leave.
Of course he couldn’t help them with their son’s raging fever, the mother’s acute pneumonia or the longing for heading back home. But for a few moments, life was back to normal – the two glasses of tea everyday, the only permanent bits in an unpredictable life. It’s why they longed to move out of hospitals onto this side – they could talk about vadas and cricket here and nobody would judge.
Soon enough they’d leave with a word of thanks to the doctor, another word to the person in white and white that nursed them, injecting every dose of prescribed medicine into their vein asking with a smile if it hurt too much.
The guy on the other side in the tea shop who filled their flasks with hot chaya and gave a reassuring nod every morning and evening remains forgotten. The stranger who asked you about your mother’s illness and your hometown. You’ll remember the taste of his tea on the first evening back home and casually mention him as a token. And then you’re allowed to forget all about the shop with no neon lights.