The tea shop with no neon lights

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.

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Evening Coffee House visits

Whenever I can, I visit the Indian Coffee House at Medical College for veg (beetroot and potato filled) cutlets and coffee and on hot days, their soothing refrigerated fruit salad my cousin and I found last year.

I only discovered the MC branch towards the end of my second year. Before, I would frequent the ICH near Statue, after visiting Public library or sauntering through Palayam. The place was mostly filled with middle-aged intellectuals, some working youngsters, a few college-goers, and a couple of odd families now and then. I’ve sat next to tables of wise-looking uncles who’d be engrossed in discussions of economics and politics, at other times next to long curly haired artsy people in kurtas vehemently discussing films and media. I’d wondered if some day when I grew up, I’d sit there discussing serious shit with my grown-up friends. Probably not cos they shut the place down a couple of months later for violating food quality standards or smth, or are they open again?

Every time I passed the watchman by, he’d give me a weird what-are-you-doing-here-kid look. I’d come home and inquire, “Amma, do I really look like a kid?” and she’d say “Pinnallathe, 10th standard max”. I’d sigh, secretly smug that I look so young but go on to complain gleefully about my parents’ genes (they’re both short, Amma’s even shorter than me). (I love complaining).

After the news spread about the unkempt kitchen –that’s what amma told me it was – I discovered the one at Medical College. Of course, it had always been there and I’d overlooked it, after the clothes on the corner chair in my room and my many messy tables and the newspapers that loyally arrive home everyday.

It was more convenient for me too, considering I stay at Ulloor. So now I don’t have to wait until my Public library due date to visit ICH. In S5, S6 my visits were few and far between, as dance practice engaged us on all evenings and most weekends. S7 started, bad stuff happened, princi kicked the dance team out of the dance room and Paru ate more ICH cutlets.

Visiting the ICH is a delightful thing. It’s like an hour devoted entirely to solemn sacred indulgence, so oft repeated yet always gratifying. No I’m not going overboard in describing them cutlets man, just read on. I usually go after 5, earlier if I’m craving ICH cutlets or in the mood to get out in the hot afternoon sun. It’s a 4-minute walk from my place to the bus-stop at medium pace. I walk all the way to ICH if there’s an hour to sun set (takes hardly 20 minutes), else I take the bus on a 7-rupee ticket. There’s a constant smile playing on my face on days I take the bus because it means I’ll be getting the sunset scenes complementary. Actually I always take the bus, the free stuff is pretty much star of the show 😀

I get down at MC bus-stop and cross the Chalakuzhy road. The place is overflowing with lower middle class men and women, relatives of patients staying at Medical College Hospital, all from different parts of the state, flasks and tiffins held or hanging from one hand, buying hot tea/tender coconut for the inmates or getting bites for themselves from the array of tiny chaya kadas and bakeries there.

There is a guy with his pushcart selling chaya+kadi, other street vendors seated by their platter of home-made assortments, there’s even home-made tea (I know right, must be good why else would they be permanently seated here), vada and idiyappams, idli and sambar, etc. The roadside they sit on is wet and always smelly coupled with the stench from bleaching powder carelessly sprinkled over the narrow open drain adjoining the footpath. The medical shops, general stores, all attending to customers. Throngs of people crossing the main road during STOP signals. The multitude of faces on foot, the unending lines of cars and autos and ambulances to and from the wide MC entrance arch. Vehicles parked in front of shops in no orderly way. Nothing’s different today.

The play begins. From where I stand now, the sun is a brilliant orange behind the Dental College block on the left. The world slows down here. I could stand for hours watching it, just as I could when it’s behind Palayam palli or at CET, but the memories they evoke differ. The setting sun here reminds me of all the evenings when we stayed at RMO quarters behind the Dental block (they were demolished some years back to construct the OP blocks) from when I was 6 until 10.

The veiled medical college ground seated somewhere deep behind the many hospital buildings and the bifurcated roads and all the trees. I have a single vague memory from when I was 9 or so of walking to the ground for a cricket/football game one evening with my brothers, the sun was the same brilliant orange then. The summer vacations we spent stealing mangoes and guavas from yards of empty quarters and hiding from kozhikkallans (chicken thief). Evenings spent playing cricket and football (I sucked at it) and badminton and cycling until sun went down with Achu annan, kannenan and Biju and Aju chetan and listening to the prayer calls from a mysterious mosque somewhere far away.

I’ve been coming and standing in the same spot watching the same sun remembering the same stuff here for so long but the novelty never wears off. I always wondered how nice it must be to go there every day. Probably not for the ones that do though, I’m sure they don’t stand out here on the smelly road watching the sun on the other side, reminiscing stuff. (At night, with the orange streetlamps and all, the MCH is way sexier than CET, that too is subjective I’m sure). (OK amma enne kollanda). (Aarum enne kollanda).

Just to clarify things here, when I say MCH, I’m referring to its whereabouts and the places and people without referring to the Medical College hospital itself. This is a convo I had with amma back in first year (she works at SATH inside MCH).

“Amma, there’s SO many medical shops at Medical College and Ulloor alle. Appo aarku marunnu venengilum ingot varande, it’s so easy for us since we live here”. “That’s because it’s Medical College”. “I’m also talking about Medical College only”. “I’m talking about the hospital, paru”. “Ethu hospital, oh, OH. OOOOOH”.

That’s the day I remembered (soon to forget tho) there’s a hospital in there. I mean I always knew it’s a hospital, it’s just been in the background all of my life so I never really thought about it. Ok so it’s not just a place with students and goodlooking pg chetans and friendly chechis and some strict and some fun professors and tonnes and tonnes of people. I keep forgetting it from time to time, though.

I know there’s a lot of suffering you have to overlook to see the beauty here, and maybe only when you own the memories I do too. Then I think of the front blocks where my brothers had been admitted more recently, a little bit of guilt sets in and the odour catches up with me.

Walking to ICH from here takes around one minute. It’s a tiny footpath, dotted on its sides with old men and women selling cigarettes, paan masala, lottery tickets, toothpicks, mirrors and combs. Everyone’s walking past briskly or pausing in front of shops to read signs or making their way in, and more crowds take their place on the footpath as pedestrians dissolve into shops.

The time spent in ICH itself is pretty uneventful. I almost always order Veg cutlets with coffee/tea. If my parents are home, I get them packed too after tasting the beetroot sauce (they’re often too soggy or too watery or bitter). But almost every time, the taste differs. The ICH at Shangumugham always gave cutlets that tasted the same, perhaps cos they were consumed after being crusted with the salty breeze from the beach, or cos I was too young to notice. Even they shut down after a while. Once in a twenty batches or so, that old taste from the beachside ICH is delivered. I can’t describe the taste, but my father says it’s all potatoes and beetroots topped with more beetroot sauce and doesn’t do much good for the tummy. The last bit isn’t true, but rest of his description is spot on.

Well he suggested the famous ICH mutton omelette as good for the tummy once when I was a kid and that was the day I thought I was going to die of a stomach explosion (I got gastritis and get it every time I smell mutton from afar ever since). So no thankyou. Beetroot cutlets with beetroot sauce please.

Otherwise filled with relatives of people from the hospital and the working class, if you visit during 11-1, you may catch some pg’s with stethoscopes hanging around their necks walk into the partitioned doctors’ tables section. A few uncles/aunties always give me weird looks (here it’s are-you-here-all-by-yourself). I re-read the wall-hung menu board every single time I’m here, just the Malayali me complacently making sure nothing’s new. They keep updating the prices, that’s one thing they do. And the person at the counter NEVER asks me for change. Do you know how rare that is in today’s world?

The slow stroll back home is only the second best part of ICH visits. There are less people crossing my path now, wider roads. The medical college blocks to the left, some I’ve never visited, others I identify from having often curiously observed from home during nights. The orange sphere can be spotted where the buildings part, and to the right side, in the spaces between the proximate apartments, I catch glimpses of distant houses and coconut trees and mobile towers rising up from the bottom green patch against the blue skies. Somewhere there, my distant future awaits and I’m smiling again. It’s also (for some really weird reason) where my past resides. I’ve no clue why, I think somewhere along I associated distant past and distant future with literal distances 😐

The PT Chacko Nagar roads have been in a pathetic condition for too long, all opened up and left on their own. I walk a bit more, watching my future lying so far away, where I’m working in a bustling metropolis, all by myself and shit. JK, more often the image is me sleeping on the floor of a living room with hard copies of draft articles strewn all over.

I reach Ulloor, cross and reach Akkulam Road. It’s a downhill slope now on, the sun directly infront moving down the horizon, beckoning me back. From here, the journey is effortless, I just have to follow the straight (and make way for Biharis now and again) and usually takes longer than 900 seconds since the frame is reluctant to let go of the evening.

 

PS: Written after last visiting ICH yday evening