Taking of a Toast and Tea

There’s a roadside tea stall (cha er dokan) near my house. There are two more identical tea stalls right beside it. And yet more, many, many more strewn carelessly, almost strategically, all around Calcutta. Kolkata, rather. They usually open early in the morning, around 6 am, or even before that. Big yellow taxis, newspaper-wallas on bicycles and cha er dokans. Familiar, comforting sights that Kolkata mornings greet you with.


Tea is a lot of things for a lot of people.

It’s a cheap and instant source of energy for taxi and truck drivers whose days start at ungodly hours. It’s a lazy Bengali’s object of late afternoon indulgence “ei, ek cup cha de toh!”. It’s a perfunctory offering to guests who come over at any odd hour at your place. Good tea-making skills are a positive way of impressing a prospective mother in law. It’s a source of inspiration for writers and poets who can mull over a cup for hours at end for the next great inspiration.

But more than anything else, a cup of tea is a wonderful conversation starter. That’s why tea-stalls are so popular outside college campuses and workplaces. It goes beyond a pot bubbling with a super sweet, milky, hot beverage. It’s an adda spot. What is adda, you ask? Well, according to Wikipedia:

“…is a form of intellectual exchange among members, who were originally of the same socio-economic strata, but the process has democratized in modern times. It is most popular among the youths belonging to the so-called “middle-class intelligentsia”. Although many Kolkatans boast of the city being the birthplace of adda culture, Satyajit Ray (in his film Agantuk) traces back the origin of the tradition to regular intellectual dialogues prevalent in Ancient Greece at the time of Socrates or Plato. Adda is a prominent leisurely activity in India and Bangladesh.”

But to me, it is the very essence of being a Bengali. Be it banal commentaries on the insignificant to cannot-be-missed-gossip to heated debates on the existing socio-economic and political state of Bengal and beyond, adda is all-important to us argumentative, intellectual folk. We swear by it. After all, we have a mind of our own. And an opinion on everything, of course. And usually, a tea-stall becomes the hotbed of artistic outbursts and matchless creativity. From Tagore to Ghatak, Madhuri Dixit to Mayakovsky, science, art and aesthetics, everything is touched upon. Oh, and politics. And Corruption. Nostalgia and recollections are other favourite topics, but usually among older people. It is at the very core of communication and has survived social networking. With style.


I often like going to tea-stalls for a solitary cup of tea. And a biscuit or two from those glass jars filled with crumbling, sweet goodness. So, the other day I happened to eavesdrop on a group of old gentlemen gathered for their evening adda session.

They sat remembering before-times with affection. “It was so good, back in the day…” they concluded unanimously, in a way old people usually remember the past as being continuously better than the present [loud tea-sipping noises ensued].

Everything was cheaper. Everyone was better- better behaved, better looking, better everything. Things were simpler. People were less greedy. “You could walk down the road covered in gold from head to toe and still feel safe!” [heads nodding in agreement] “This neighbourhood you see? It was blissful! Quiet! Almost like paradise, so clean it was!” [mutters and sighs and grunts of approval] “Aj kal toh shobbai bidesh chole jacche…ei toh shedin amar nati America chole gelo…” (These days, everyone’s going abroad…just the other day my grandson left for America!) [a moment of silence, some order another cup of tea] “Ekhane theke hobe tai ba ki? Ja din kal poreche…” (What’s the point staying here anyway?) Then one of them broke into a fit of cough. The vagaries of old age.

I usually like smoking while having my tea. I sat, fidgeting with a packet of cigarettes. To light or not to light. Offending the fragile sensibilities of a  group of grandfatherly men is something that I did not really want. They are not approving of young ladies smoking. A young man smoking is fine though. I don’t mind. I am fond of old people, having lost my grandparents when I was too young to really know what their absence meant. So I finished my tea, smiled at the old man sitting next to me and offered him a matchbox for him to light his smoke. Then I left.


“Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”


The entire city skyline is spread out, right beyond the small  22nd story balcony. A few cigarette butts stubbed out, lying carelessly on the cold marble floor. An abandoned glass of stale rum and coke. A flower pot perched precariously on the wrought iron grill, nursing a dead money plant. A snapshot of urban decay. In black and white. A sudden gust of wind brings in a wave of mild December chill into my clumsy living room, if it can be so called. The yellow lamp flickers. Once, twice. The quivering light drawing patterns on the books piled high on the study table.

I feel irritated. Getting up from my beige armchair, I reluctantly go out into the balcony, hugging my thin frame gingerly. “Some day you’ll be blown away by the wind…”, my sagacious mother would reflect, as she eyed me from behind the newspaper. Well, my mother is nowhere near me. She’s in a different place, a different room. A different life altogether. I should call her sometime, like I said I would. I miss her annoying displays of affection. The way she fought with our cats, telling them how she knows that their only agenda is getting more food. Calling them names. Complaining to me. I miss her hurried way of talking. Her completely random ideas and elaborate plans, always, always made with me. And I, never, never having time for any of them. And I don’t remember why or how the love between us got so stilted.

I miss having cats around. That strange, detached way of loving, marked by moments of sheer tenderness and uncompromising affection. Love without pretensions. I miss that.

A long, deliberate drag from my Goldflake Kings. Only 3 more left in the packet, and an entire blasted night ahead of me. Leaning against the railings, I lightly touch the shrivelled leaves of the plant. “It’ll always bring you good luck”, she had said. The small paan-shop downstairs is still open I see. The old man about to pack up. 11:30 pm. Not a good time to venture out I guess. The busy street below is dotted with flashes of moving lights. Cars, like insects, crawling with this sense of purpose. Making their way in parallel lines. Opposite directions. Like an orchestrated urban symphony. Someone’s been trying to call me incessantly on my Skype. The ringing continues from inside the room. Nagging, pleading me to pick up. I try hard to tune it out. The sounds of the street are infinitely more comforting in their indifference. In their absolute lack of correlation with me. The sound within, is not.

Time tends to pass excruciatingly slowly when you are alone. It tends to pass even slower when you are aware of your loneliness. A change in place, a change in the faces you are accustomed to seeing every day, does not always have the desired effect, as I am seeing. I look at the cardboard boxes lying beside the chair in one corner of that small splice of space, the excuse of a balcony. They are unpacked- a tangible testimony to my apparent lack of enthusiasm in settling in. Much like the almost empty cupboard of my studio apartment. My apartment. Which claims a unique identity despite the alarming lack of difference from the hundred other, similar, cramped little spaces that surround it. Concrete monstrosities up and down the streets. A thousand windows, some with the lights on. A voyeurs paradise.

Migratory instincts are intrinsic perhaps in all of us. Much like migratory birds, always in search of a better place. Nomads, vagabonds, pariahs. Always on the move, like the cars below on the concrete boulevard checkered with equidistant streetlights. Like the troop of homeless people who have always been there, always will be there, asserting their claim on the footpaths, just like the rest of us. In search of a home, just like the rest of us. Us and them. Step by step. Progressively marching towards that bizarre el dorado. Hypnotized, drawing closer like fireflies towards the bigcitylights.

In search of a home.

The clock strikes 12. There are fireworks in the sky. It’s 2014, and the start of a new year. A happy, new, year.