The Tea Stall

The wind howled eerily and the leaves of trees rustled vigorously outside. It sounded as though it was raining, but it wasn’t. The only window of the room lost against the strength of the wind as it crashed open, sending a jolt to the young boy who was sleeping on the hard, cold gravel flooring. Dust, sand and scraps of white paint from the ceiling above littered around him. He looked over to his younger sister who was shivering, hands cupped between her thighs. He pushed his woollen blanket towards her and tucked her in, then hugged her tightly thereafter, embracing in each other’s warmth for another fifteen minutes. “Thank you Fawad bhai[1],” his sister whispered in a mumble as she yawned back to sleep. The young boy slowly loosened his embrace and stood up to make his way to the window sill.

The burnt façade of the mosque stood directly in front of him. Beneath the thick layer of ash lay a pile of debris to the utter ignorance of city dwellers. Perhaps they were scared. The screams of the partition riots still lingered on ten years after, with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims at the neck of each other, in their effortless and ignorant pursuit of religious dominance. If Fawad’s parents were alive, they may have been fending for their lives in Lahore, probably safer, but the train towards Lahore on one of the nights in 1947 was attacked with swords and daggers, and 2-year-old Fawad and his newborn sister found themselves alone fighting for their lives at a corner of Attari station, while their parents became two of the thousands of bodies murdered on the blood-filled train that arrived in Lahore the following fateful morning. In the mid of their heart-wrenching cries came a God-sent saviour — in a time where men were thirsty for blood in the name of religion, a Sikh man safely carried two Muslim children into hiding. Ten years on, with the resettlement of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim refugees between India and what is now called Pakistan, the two countries fought within and between themselves in hopes for survival. Fawad and his little sister Ayesha found refuge at the back of the Sikh man’s tea stall in Amritsar, which became his source of daily bread and butter.

The delectable blend of fresh ginger mixed with cloves, cardamom and fennel seeped into the room, inviting a sweet and spicy aroma into the otherwise stale smell of cement and rusty furniture. Fawad took a deep breath as he closed his eyes and smiled. He opened them gradually, paid a salam towards the mosque and moved away from the window.

Assalamualaikkum Fawad,” the Sikh man greeted as Fawad walked into the main front of the shop. “Walaikkumsalam and Sat Sri Akal, Singh saab[2],” Fawad reciprocated, greeting his boss in his faith. “Sat Sri Akal, always on time, mera mehnati ladka, my hardworking boy,” Singh saab ruffled Fawad’s hair as the words sang themselves out of his mouth, like a prayer that struck a chord in the young boy’s heart each time he heard it. Those three words were an affirmation of his dedication, the willingness to press on, the motivation to find joy in dark pits of sadness. And then he returned a dimpled grin, at which the man could barely hold a stare for five minutes as though any longer will erupt a dark volcano of sorrow within him. But then he looked up and smiled, “Your parents would have been proud of you. Now take the chai[3] out to Mehta’s shop first.” Singh saab gestured Fawad over to the rusty tea cup holders — six glasses of piping hot orange-brown liquid emitting ripples of smoke, the thin film of cream revealing a soft shine beneath the ceiling light. He sniffed it, and let out a huge exhale. The smell of coal burning paled against the aromatic mixture of spice and sugar, Singh saab’s most loved masala chai in Amritsar. “Don’t leave without having your cup,” Singh saab reminded Fawad as he stirred a hot pot of chai with a long wooden spoon.

And off he went, giving each store owner their morning dose of chai, with whom he stayed on to learn the latest news of the newly developing country, plagued with rising Hindu fundamentalism. Some Amritsaris had been blinded by its ideology, and everyone knew a riot may soon erupt on the streets within the next few months. “Beta[4],” Mehta said as he grabbed Fawad’s arm. “Promise me when you grow up, you will not join the political party.” Everyone around him laughed. Fawad stood still. “But Mehta cha cha[5], if I don’t join, I cannot be the voice for the minority in my country.” The men kept quiet for a brief second and then nodded in agreement. “Shabaash! Well done! They applauded Fawad, the 12-year-old with a mind of an adult.

As he collected the last empty glass from Mehta’s store, Fawad felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see a man twice his height, clad in a long black kurta with a khaki shawl covering his neck. His thin black hair parted in the middle, and fell, unkempt, on his shoulders. “Tell Singh saab I want six glasses of chai to be delivered to this address for the next two days at 4pm sharp.” The man pushed a white crumpled piece of paper into Fawad’s empty hand and left without letting Fawad thank him. Since it was not uncommon to clinch such deals on the streets, he returned and informed Singh saab of the man, and the next day, he left the stall with his tea rack ten minutes before four.

Fawad arrived at a small house at the end of a long narrow alley of dirt. As secluded as the alley was, this house was far deep in, completely detached from the bustling streets of Amritsar. There was a mumble of conversations going on but as Fawad knocked on the door, it became quiet. The same man whom he met on the street opened the door. He exchanged the glasses with money, and told Fawad to return in two hours for the empty glasses. And then he shut the door. Fawad returned to the tea stall, and while watching the clock intently, he served Singh saab’s frequent customers. When it was time, he darted towards the house with his tea rack. The door was locked when he arrived, and he could no longer hear anyone. The empty glasses were kept neatly at one corner outside the house.

Disappointed that he could not find out about the other occupants of the house, Fawad planned to stay on during his next visit. He crept under a window to listen to their conversations after the man closed the door. There were many different male voices, some high pitched, some coarse, and in the mid of those was the voice of the man he could put a face to.

“We can enter from this side of the street and then turn into here,” said one.

Theek hain, okay, but at that time, it will not be as crowded on this end,” said another.

And finally he heard the voice he recognised, “Bas! Enough! We just need to drive them away to Pakistan. And if they insist on staying, we kill. I have no patience to see their infidel faces in my country!”

The man punched the table so loud that Fawad got a shock, and fell backwards, toppling a pile of wooden planks behind him. “Kaun hai? Who is there?” A different voice spoke and Fawad, terrified to his guts, tried to get on his feet to run but he was too slow. One man in a dark red kurta came out just in time and dragged Fawad into the house. He tied him up. It was the same man from the street.

“Leave me!” Fawad cried. But the man ignored his wailing and tapped his mouth. He pulled Fawad’s hair from the back and made him look directly into his bloodshot eyes. “Secretly listening to other people’s conversations is bad manners bacha,” he whispered. Fawad kicked relentlessly as tears trickled down his cheeks, sobbing continuously behind his gagged mouth. “He’s Singh saab’s faithful servant,” one of them said. “Muselman hai yeh. He’s a Muslim.” And in less than 30 seconds, the man swung the tea rack against Fawad’s head, knocking him down together with the chair he was tied to. Blood oozed out of his temple as he drifted off to a dark dreamless sleep.

It must have been more than five hours before Fawad began to fidget. He slowly opened his eyes and tried to register where he was. He was still there in the dilapidated house, lying on the dirt floor but this time he was untied. The house was dark and empty. Cupping his injured temple, Fawad stood up and limped out of the house, down the dark moonlit alley and back to Singh saab’s stall. But on his way down, he spotted a hue of orange that tainted the dark sky from afar, and as he drew closer, he saw the streets of Amritsar in devastation — vehicles exploded in flames, storefronts destroyed, men with bloodied clothes lay helplessly on the pavements, women screaming in agony for their lost children, the roads littered with dead bodies, bamboo sticks, posters of the Hindu fundamentalist movement, torn images of Hindu gods and Quranic verses, and tattered reams of blood-stained turbans, and in the middle of these lay unfathomable pools of blood and grief. Fawad ran past the debris towards the tea stall, only to find it another victim of the chaos. He stepped onto shards of broken glass, pushed away the battered wooden chairs and tables and walked further into the stall. He called out for his sister and his boss. “Ayesha! Singh saab!” But it was quiet, apart from the faint chant of angry rioters from afar. He walked to the back of the stall and tripped over what was an arm — the arm of his sister.

Aghast, he fell on his knees, pulled her to his chest and cradled her in his arms, calling out her name but she was quiet, and cold. A line of blood was still fresh around her neck. Next to her was Singh saab with a deep wound on his chest. Fawad cried even louder. He lurched forward and fell on the two of them, hugging them tightly and screaming for them to wake up as though heaven would crack open and pour their souls back into their bodies. But they never came back. And then, the angry voices grew closer to the stall. “Muselman zinda hai! The Muslim is alive!” And then the shot fired.

A bloodbath in the name of religion often consumes the naïve and innocent souls that find themselves entrenched in the tenacious web of hatred and insanity, with their hopes and dreams crushed before they could come forth in leading the new country.  Every drop of blood produced several angst prides. Will the thirst for blood ever be conquered by the preciosity of human life?

[1] brother

[2] sir

[3] tea

[4] son, boy etc (also same for ‘bacha’)

[5] in relation, it refers to a father’s younger brother, but colloquially used to call any man as ‘uncle’


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