December 05, 2006

A Bus and Chai Story

Reposting stuff I like from my archives. This is from 2006.

Rajasthan, at the peak of summer. There are no tourists around for miles, except the two of us. For a good reason too. Tell any Indian you were in Rajasthan in May, and he is bound to exclaim, “Vhat? It’s… hot!” And when an Indian says it’s hot, believe me, it’s hot. I believed them. I just didn’t care. Some people like it hot. Rajasthani “hot” means 48 degrees Celsius, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I went because nobody being around meant I got 75% off hotel rates, at whatever hotel I wanted to be in. I can’t help it — I’m Asian. The name of this region, Marwar, came from the Sanskrit root word, “Maruwat”. “Maru” means ‘desert’, while “Maruwat” roughly translates to ‘region of death’.

By this time I had a way around the Indian public transportation system, in any city and town I chanced to be in. I also knew this far out in the desert, air-conditioned Rajasthani state buses were non-existent. Besides, proper travellers took non-airconditioned buses everywhere, didn’t they? We were proper travellers. But even the Third World has its own sub-divisions. Where we were, was moderately more difficult than some other parts of the Third World we’d been in.

As our bus ticket was written entirely in Hindi, my nascent grasp of the language had not yet developed from “attempts at letter identification” to “actually useful application of language”, so with no knowledge of my bus other than where it was going (Jodhpur) and the time it was to be expected (6.45am), I had to depend on my auto driver to take me to it. He took us to the side of an empty road which seemed to stretch into the desert as far as the eyes could see.

We stood by the side of the road for what seemed like hours. We flagged down each bus which came by — none of them were marked in English, nor had as much as an indicator of where they were going. Jodhpur? We asked, hopefully, each time. After countless cups of tea and nimki for breakfast (there was a little dhaba near where we were waiting), someone frantically screamed at us: “Jodhpur! Jodhpur!” Together with what was probably “you’re going to have to sit among those chickens if you don’t scramble up fast enough!” We got up, and got a seat each, miraculously, at the back of the bus. The only acceptable time for bus travel in Rajasthan in the summer is between 5am and 7am, and you’d better pray that you get to your destination before it starts the daily heatwave by noon. At 10am, we were well on our way, and happy about it. Perhaps complacently so.

The bus stopped by a dhaba for a break, or so I thought. I dipped out to go to the toilet (or the hole in the ground), toilet roll in hand. Toilet rolls are bound to cause stares here; they are believed to be unsanitary compared to the far superior system of water. My embrace of the country had not yet translated to a full embrace of its toilet habits, I still needed my toilet paper. On the way back to the bus I saw fit to order myself two cups of tea, special (costing more at 2 rupees instead of 1; where 1 INR=US$0.02). As the chai-wallah pushed the two cups of tea into my hands, I saw the bus which was supposed to take me to Jodhpur — and it was leaving. Leaving with my partner, my luggage, my passport and my money. I was there with my two cups of tea, and 10 rupees in my pocket, thinking for a split second that if I didn’t catch this bus I might be stuck out there on a Rajasthani highway dhaba with no mobile phone and no identification papers. I ran — I sprinted as fast as a girl with two cups of chai in her hands could sprint. My partner’s attempts to stop the bus was futile, all she could do was shout “stop! stop!” from her seat at the back of the bus. The bus was so packed that even if she managed to make her way to the driver, I might have been married to a Rajput already.

My travels have assured me of the certainty of determinism, a higher being, and my place in the world as someone whose every step is, quite literally, an act of faith, guided by the divine. Because I actually managed to catch the bus, and when I got on I was relieved I had my two cups of chai intact. Now at the front of the impossibly packed bus, I faced the arduous task of getting my chai through the bus, led by the sole vision of myself sitting by my window, looking at the desert and sipping a cup of tea. As I made my way through the bus, people made way reluctantly for me, all the while shouting to each other in Hindi and Rajasthani: look out! Mad china-woman has tea that can kill! And indeed my tea could kill — I had two of them, and they were, in line with our geographic position at that point in time, the Rajasthani kind of hot. The Rajasthani kind of hot tea which threatened to scald anyone who was in my way, and also burned my hands as I held them.

I made it to the back of the bus, two cups of chai intact, after 5 minutes of mad chai-balancing kungfu. When I got there, Z seemed capable of snapping my head off at that moment.

All I could do was smile with relief: “Chai, baby?”

Before she could strangle me, the bus jolted while avoiding a truck, and I spilled tea all over her shirt.