new issue
- by razia s khan
total read - 3172

(Author’s Note: The story originates from a story told by the author’s grandmother about the British enticing the people of their colony in Bengal by offering free tea to the local residents. The British had discovered that the areas in the northeastern parts of India were conducive to tea plantation and though the best tea was shipped away to Britain, it was economically prudent to have a flourishing local market.)


The chimes of bells wafted over the narrow winding lanes of Aga Sadeque Road, slinking into houses soporific in the mid-afternoon heat. The notes snaked their way to the dark recesses of homes, gliding into ears of drowsy residents fanning themselves into fitful slumber. 

The chimes were different from the jingle of the chanachur man’s brisk stride as he passed by each evening with his basket of savories hanging from a strap round his neck. The basket swayed rhythmically to the beat of his wide anklet of tiny bells. Little containers of crisp fried rice, steamed chickpeas bursting out of their skins, roasted peanuts and mouthwatering condiments, jostled gaily in the basket. The sound was different from the jangle of rickshaw bells as the driver indiscriminately thumbed the metallic orb attached to the handle, reveling in his power while alerting pedestrians to his total lack of control of the vehicle. 

The chimes ebbed and flowed, audible one moment, lost the next, an aural seduction that finally lured the young girl to the window. Married just four months, Halima at sixteen was a new bride in the Mir household. Free for the first time from the protective cocoon of her parents’ house, she was happy in her new life. Her days were spent acclimating to her new family, her nights to the discovery of physical pleasures in her husband’s bed. 

Each morning after a quick bath at the family well, she rushed to the kitchen to help in the breakfast preparation. Most days it waschapatis and bhaji, made of whatever vegetable was in season. Other days, especially holidays, there was thick succulent parathaor deep fried puri so round and puffy that they looked like little brown globes. No matter how early Halima woke, her mother-in-law was always in the kitchen before her. After two months Halima was content to give a helping hand before the men trooped in for the first meal of the day. After breakfast, the routine household chores took over till the arrival of ‘bazaar’ signaled another session in the kitchen. 

Halima was a lucky woman. Her mother had told her so. A few weeks before the wedding her mother had said to her, “We’ve found you an excellent husband. The Mirs are a well-to-do, respectable family.”  Halima had been playing with cowry shells. Throwing them on the dull red cement floor and picking them up with the single one she threw in the air.

“Listen when I talk to you!” The sharpness in her mother’s voice made Halima stop and the unattended cowries clattered onto the floor. “You’ll be the eldest daughter-in-law.” Her mother looked deep into the clear eyes of her teen-aged daughter and continued in a milder voice, “You will be respected and… have responsibilities.” In the silence birds could be heard squawking in the backyard. Halima’s attention strayed. Tuni Mooni! The two sparrows that had been enticed to eat khud straight from Halima’s hands. She wondered if they’d fly off at not seeing her. 

“I pray that you do not shame us.” Her mother looked sad and Halima had a sudden urge to give her a hug. But Tuni-Mooni’s chirping had reached a crescendo and Halima jumped up and ran to see what was happening.

Her mother’s words seemed a thing of the past now as Halima sat in front of the window looking out. This was her favorite pastime in the afternoon when the men returned to their work and Halima’s mother-in-law retired to her room to take a long nap. Halima was on her own.

Her room had a window overlooking Aga Sadeque Road, a dirt road about twelve feet wide lined with houses where the windows faced the road. 

The large wooden window folded in half vertically and when shut completely blocked out the light. There was, however, a wooden frame with slats that enabled the residents to adjust the ribboned view of the road. Helping her to settle into the customs in their house, Halima’s husband had mentioned the windows. “We always have the slats pointing downwards; otherwise there’s no privacy in this room.” He had paused, and then added, “Ma is very particular about this.”

As the days passed Halima did notice that whenever her mother-in-law came to her room, her eyes invariably went to the slats even as she talked to Halima. The first couple of weeks Halima stayed away from the window. Gradually, the quiet of the afternoon seduced her to it and she noticed that when the slats pointed downwards she could see the legs of people passing by her window. 

In the beginning that was enough to command all her attention. She saw loose cotton pajamas, and a few bare hairy legs which made her close her eyes. The majority of the legs, however, were wrapped in lungis furling and unfurling as they passed. What a variety there were! Checks of all colors and sizes. Small checks and large ones, filled ones and double-lined ones. Most had a white base, but there were other colors: blues and browns, greens and yellows. But no red lungis. Red was her favorite color and she kept her eyes focused on the furling and unfurling lungis just to catch a glimpse of a bright red one. When a rickshaw passed she saw the bottom half of wheels with the driver’s feet rotating round and round, repeating an incomplete circle. There were afternoons which offered Halima a visual feast, from horse-drawn tongas squeezing through, to a grey moving wall lumbering past with the ropelike tail switching this way and that, warding off the swarm of flies attracted to it. One day a snake charmer passed, the undulating notes of his bamboo flute coiling and uncoiling around him. Another day the bioscope-man went by with his box on wheels of exotic pictures waiting to be viewed through a peephole. As he pushed his cart he chanted, “Come and see! Come and See! The Taj of Agra, the minaret of Kutub, the Palace of Air. Come and see! Come and See! Come and see the whole world. One paisa, only one paisa!” 

On such days Halima’s eyes sparkled and her muscles rippled with excitement as she tilted the slats for a better view. She sat entranced to think such places existed and only for the price of one paisa.

That’s how her mother-in-law found her one day, eyes glued to the world outside, oblivious to the sounds inside.

The older woman gently adjusted the slats and said, “It works both ways, you know. When we look out they look in.” 

The following day before going for her midday nap she brought Halima a piece of white cotton, a pair of hoops and yellow-and-green skeins of embroidery thread. “Your mother said you’re very good with a needle and thread,” Halima’s mother-in-law smiled.

Halima lowered her eyes and nodded, her face glowing at the compliment.

“Well, would you like to do this embroidery? We can frame it and put it on the wall in your room when you’re done. Would you like that?”

Halima accepted the objects and nodded again. The piece of cotton had an outline of a parrot with a large envelope in its beak penciled on it. On the envelope, in uneven letters, were the words: “Forget Me Not.” Every afternoon after that, she sat with the embroidery running her needle in and out of the material, taking small and even stitches. When her mother had first shown her the basic stitches, she’d said, “Stitches are like women’s steps. Small and neat, careful but steady, keeping within its space, not crossing boundaries.” That’s what Halima tried to do, take small stitches, keep within the boundary. But when she stopped and looked at her work, she noticed that some stitches had crossed the penciled outline. The colors, too, were limiting: yellow and green. Just a bit of red would have made such a difference to the beak.

Now, at the sound of the bells Halima raised the slats a little and was soon rewarded with the sight of an open pushcart coming into view. The man pushing the cart maneuvered it into a little alcove formed by two adjacent buildings just opposite Halima’s window. There was a mobile gas cooker on the cart and on top of that a large aluminum kettle. Little clay bowls and other kitchen paraphernalia surrounded the kettle. Halima folded her embroidery, put it aside and gave in to the novel sight. 

A horde of children pressed around the cart. A few of the younger boys were naked except for a black thread around their waist to ward off the evil eye. One boy had a little bell attached to the string to echo his movements, a mother’s vain attempt to keep track of her boy. The children laughed as they jostled each other to get a better view of what the man was doing. 

An uncanny feeling of herself being watched made Halima look up. The man was staring right at her! He was a big man, dark and sinewy with a thick drooping moustache. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a smile lurked on his lips.

The slats dropped with a snap. Heart pounding, Halima moved away from the window. She waited a minute or two, but all was quiet. The house slept. 

Halima arranged her ghumta so that it covered not only her head but most of her face, and tiptoed back to the window. Cautiously she slanted the slats to their original position, pointing downwards. A fraction at a time, she angled the slats till the cart was once more visible. Even more slowly she worked the slats so that his body opened up to her: the red-and-white safari shirt, the mat of black chest hair swirling up where the top button had come undone, the thick sinewy neck – Halima stopped. She brought her hand up to check that her ghumta still covered her face and only her dark, kohl outlined eyes showed. 

The large aluminum kettle was on the stove and she could see his hands moving little clay cups without handles and shuffling items about on the cart. The kettle was soon spitting out vapor. The man put a long-handled ladle into it and made a motion of touching the brim of the clay cup, then reached up and poured from up high, so that the mud-colored liquid cascaded down in a smooth swirl, forming a thin layer of delicate foam. A jaunty smile touched the lips as he sneaked a look at Halima’s window, and then looked away. So when had the slats moved up! She lowered her eyes but let the slats be. The man’s eyes roamed the little group of scantily clad children and a number of brown scrawny hands shot up. Obviously this was not new to them. The man’s eyes picked up those of a thin boy of eleven or twelve, and he gave the cup to the boy and pointed in her direction.

Halima turned pink under her ghumta, sure now that he had seen her behind the wooden slats. Her heart skipped a couple of beats as she imagined the boy coming with some message from the stranger. She pulled her chair away from the window and directed her attention to the parrot’s yellow beak. Sure enough, soon she heard the paddle of soft feet coming closer. They stopped but she didn’t look up. 

“Ehm! Ehm!” an imitation of adult throat clearing – perhaps a couple of notes higher. “May I come in?”

“Yes, come in.”

When the boy entered, Halima saw that it was Ahsan, Bilquis’s nine-year-old son. Bilquis often stopped by to chat with Halima’s mother-in-law and sometimes she had him in tow. 

“Bhabi, the chai bhaiya said to give this to you.” He stood cradling the clay cup between his small hands. 

“What is it?” Halima said in a flat tone. The stitches needed her full attention.

“It’s a drink… sherbet.”


“It’s called chai.”


“He’s giving it to everyone.” Ahsan looked at her, a little puzzled at her attitude.

“But what is it?”

“He called it chai.” 

Halima still made no move to relieve him of the bowl.

“It’s really good. It’s something new they’re trying out.” As the bearer of the exotic drink Ahsan felt bound to defend the concoction.

“How much?” Halima finally ventured in a low voice. 

Ahsan’s face cleared, “It’s free, bhabi! It’s free!”

As if that clinched matters, he parked the cup, sloshing a few drops on her dresser, and hurried out of the room, back to the cart.

Halima didn’t move till the last tinkle of the bell died down. Then she pushed the slats down and sat frowning at the cup of chai. A thin skin, a shade darker than the liquid, was beginning to form on top. A distinctive aroma swirled up lazily. Milky, with the touch of something else, neither flower nor fruit. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to differentiate the smells but just couldn’t place them. 

The shuffle of Shahina’s slippers brought Halima back to the present but before she could act, Shahina had drawn the curtain on the door aside and pushed her head in. Halima looked up and raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. 

Shahina was a widow in her forties who lived with her brother’s family and lacking the privilege of the rich, made up for it with her physical mobility. Her black burqa-clad figure weaving its way in and out of houses was a familiar sight in the neighborhood. When she visited the Mir house she was happy to give out bits of ‘local news’ and gossip in exchange for tokens of sweets or pan. Everything was grist for the mill, from what the Matabbar’s wife had cooked for lunch that day to the hot topic of who the mullah was planning on marrying next; all doors revealed their secrets to her and in her generosity she was happy to share her knowledge. 

Shahina now burst in with, “You’ll never believe what’s happening.” 

Her eyes lighted on the clay bowl with its stagnant liquid and some of her exuberance left her.

“Aha! You got one too.” 

She waited, then said, “Well, what do you think?”

“What do I think of what?” Halima held her work at some distance and examined the effect of the yellow beak on the green parrot.

“The chai!”

She followed the direction of Shahina’s eyes and frowned. 

“You mean you haven’t tasted it yet?” Shahina was incredulous. “Take a sip.” She coaxed, “It has a funny taste, but it’s free.” 

Halima looked at the cup, but still hesitated. 

“They’re sending these cups of drinks to each and every house!” Shahina continued conversationally. 

Halima looked up, “To all the houses?”

“Yes. And it’s all free!”

“You mean we don’t have to pay at all?” Halima hesitated. Nothing like this had ever happened before. 

“What am I telling you?” Shahina’s voice rose with excitement. “They’re giving it to whoever wants it, old and young, boy or girl….”

“But why?” 

“I don’t know.” Shahina paused, and gave the question some consideration. Then she shrugged. “Who cares? As long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

“So how does it taste?”

“Unusual. Try it.”

“I don’t know.” Halima hesitated. 

“Aunt is fast asleep. I heard her snores as I came in.” She gave Halima a questioning look. Halima still hesitated and Shahina understood that she didn’t want to try it in front of her. 

“Don’t mind me,” she said and pulled out a piri which was half hidden under the bed. 

“Allah,” she continued with a long sigh and fiddled with her sari till she had untangled one corner. She undid the knot and looked at the scraps of betel nut peeping from within the folds. She grimaced and in the act of putting one into her mouth, stopped. “You don’t happen to have a wisp of a paan leaf, do you? Even a withered corner would do. I seem to have finished whatever I had.” She gave a big smile, displaying teeth stained red with paan juice. 

Halima reached for her paandan from the top of her dresser. The casket-shaped container in brass filigree had a lid with a large horse-shaped handle attached to it. She moved the latch and raised the lid disclosing six little brass lids with tiny knobs. In the centre lay dark green paan quarters. Halima picked one up and as her fingers hovered over the paandan, Shahina let out a long “Ooooh.” She accompanied her words with an exaggerated sniff, dragging in the fragrances wafting around the paandan and said, “What a heavenly smell! What do you have in there?” Halima smiled, unable to hide a look of pride. She matched Shahina’s sniff with a dainty one of her own and smiled at the sweet aroma of fried condiments that floated in the air. Halima raised the lids one by one and took a pinch from each container. Soon there was a small pyramid of coriander seeds, cardamom, clove, asafetida and toasted coconut shreds on the paan leaf. The different browns and greens blended well together and the shredded coconut flaunted its candy pink color. Halima stopped and her eyes sparkled as she noted Shahina drooling. She gave a satisfied smile and rolled the paan into a cone. It barely held the filling and she did not bother to tuck the top in but came up to Shahina and held it out to her.

Shahina promptly popped the paan into her mouth, rolled her eyes, then closed them entirely and let out a deep sigh. She stayed like that for a full minute, lost in the gustatory sensations. Then she got up slowly and fixed her burqa top, leaving the loose flap off her face, and with the words, “Let me know what you think of the chai,” shuffled out of the room. 

Halima eyed her cup. She took a tentative sip. It was cold. She took a longer sip and a sweet herbal taste filled her mouth. She grimaced. Why would anyone want to drink that? Slowly she poured the rest down the drain. 

The following afternoon Halima had quite forgotten the episode of the previous day as she sat working on her embroidery. The parrot’s beak was done and she was ready to move on to the feet. She wondered what color they should be. She’d only seen pictures of parrots and either of the colors she had seemed debatable. As she contemplated, the clock inside the house chimed 4:00 pm. Before the last notes had died down the chaiwallah’s chimes insinuated themselves into it. 

Just like on the previous afternoon, the cart stopped in front of the house, and the man set about his task of making chai. Halima hesitated for a few seconds but was drawn to the window. She moved the slats just a fraction, so that the children’s feet and bodies came into view. The urge to see how he was making the chai pushed her to adjust the slats until the wheels of the cart, and then the chest of the man, came into view. A clay cup steaming with chai was in his hands. 

The man handed the cup to Ahsan. 

Halima turned back to her embroidery, and fiddled with the stitches. 

“Bhabi, can I come in?” 

“What is it, Ahsan?” she said softly.

“Your chai.” His voice had a lilt of pride in it as if he alone was responsible for the making of it. He set it on the table and scooted out. 

Halima approached the cup. Perhaps it tasted different when hot. As she held the cup between her curved hands she thought of the chaiwallah’s fingers touching the same places, and felt her body turning warm. It’s the heat from the cup, she told herself. She looked at the muddy liquid with the wisp of white curly smoke. She let her lungs fill in with the new aroma. It was hot, sweet and herbal. Another sip, she thought, before I pour it down the drain. She kept taking little sips until, to her surprise, it was all gone.

After the first week, Halima accepted that the chaiwallah with his cart of chai would be coming daily. She hastened with her embroidery without questioning her motives. With each passing day she became a little less timid and adjusted the slats as soon as the chaiwallah came into view. She noticed how his eyes turned to her window and the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile while one eyebrow shot up. She thought of her husband and realized suddenly that he seldom smiled. And when he did she never thought to wonder at it. There were other ways that they differed. Her husband, though fair, was thinner and less… she wondered about less as she focused on the chaiwallah’s biceps. They bulged through the half sleeve of his safari shirt as he stood poised over the cup of tea with the heavy kettle in midair. She wondered how it would feel to the touch. She closed her eyes and a stillness came over her, and when she opened her eyes the stillness was mirrored in the eyes of the chaiwallah. His left brow shot up and he gave his quirky smile. Halima’s heart thundered away but she did not lower her eyes.

Halima looked at the new design her mother-in-law had made for her. It was a rosebud starting to bloom. A bee, somewhat large in comparison to the rose, was hovering over the flower. A month had passed since that first cup of tea. Her ears were alert to the sound of the chaiwallah. Today the clock chimed 4:00, then 5:00, without any cart passing her window. She heard her mother-in-law stirring in the house and adjusting the slats, folded her embroidery and left for the kitchen. She wondered if something had happened to him.

There was no sign of the cart the following day or the day after that. On the fourth day she heard the tinkling and flew to the window. She left it ajar as she watched it approach. It came as before and parked opposite her house. 

“One paisa a cup. Hot chai. One paisa a cup.” He did not look up from his chai preparation. She raised the slats so that they allowed anyone interested to look in. Most people walked by without looking up. And neither did he. She saw cups of tea going forth to different houses, carried by willing hands. 

“One paisa a cup. Hot chai. One paisa a cup.” His voice sent tentacles of awareness up her skin.

“He wants one paisa a cup.” Ahsan’s squeak broke into her thoughts. 

“Oh!” Halima turned, startled at Ahsan’s silent approach and slowly moved away from the window.

“He wants one paisa a cup,” Ahsan repeated. “He didn’t give any tea to us today. He wanted one paisa.” He paused then continued, “I asked Ma for one paisa, but she said ‘No.’” 

His eyes held a silent plea and after a moment’s hesitation, Halima went up to the tin cupboard and took the single key knotted to one end of her sari and opened it. She took out a circular tin marked ‘XXX cigarette’, where Abdul put in the change at the end of the day. Halima took out two of the large copper coins. Ahsan grabbed the coins and loped away. She took the few quick steps to the window and peeped out. She saw Ahsan run up to the man and give him the money. As the man pocketed the money he raised two fingers in a little salute and though he did not look at her, she knew it was for her. In the confines of the room she blushed. 

Three weeks later only one coin remained at the bottom of the tin. Abdul hadn’t said anything and she wondered if he had noticed. It was just as well because the next day the cart did not show up. 

The price is going to go up again, Halima thought as she worked the blue thread into the body of the bee. The stitches were uneven and the wings had merged into the body. The boundaries were blurred. 

She looked towards the bedroom door as Shahina’s slippers shuffled into view. She was in the middle of a sentence before she entered the room. “I’ve spent the whole morning doing errands for Bilquis’s mother. Her daughter is visiting and I had to go to the market. She wanted tongue. So I got two, two large cow tongues. So fresh you could smell the grass on them.” She paused and sat down on her haunches to probe under the bed for the low-legged piri that was kept there. She pulled it out and moved it closer to the wall. She let herself down on it and leaned against the wall.

“You know Munshi’s bakharkhani shop? The one that was next to that bakery? He’d been saying for months that he was going to move elsewhere. Well, I guess he was serious.” Shahina’s eyes met Halima’s and she said, “My throat feels so dry. What about a little paan, eh?”

Halima had started doing her hair, pulling the comb through the strands before plaiting it. She seemed not to have heard Shahina.

“There’s a new owner and he’s opening a restaurant. They’ve already set it up with plastic chairs and tables and guess what they’re serving?” She paused for full effect and when no response came exclaimed, “CHAI!”

She looked at Halima, who gave her a quick look but said nothing.

“Who’s going to pay money to buy the warm washed-off water from some leaf, I ask you?”

Halima still said nothing as she worked out a knot with the large teeth of the comb. Shahina closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. Halima finished plaiting her hair and reached for the paandan. Shahina’s eyes flicked open and she was back on track. 

“So I said who’ll pay money to get one of those drinks. But you know what? Even as I passed by, I saw Manju, the one who lives across from the school, pick up a small kettle and head home. Now what do you think is in that kettle I asked myself. Chai, of course. And guess who’s got a job at the shop? Mizan, my sister’s son. So I went up to him and asked him what he was doing there. ‘I work here,’ he said. He looked good, too, in his blue dress. So I said ‘Where did you get that dress?’ ‘Why, the owner gave it to me; told me to wear it whenever I was on the job. Ma was awfully pleased.’”

When the paan was done, Shahina made herself comfortable, popped the paan into her mouth and lost herself to the enjoyment. She was quiet for so long that Halima thought she had fallen asleep. 

“Then as I was passing Hasina’s place her daughter beckoned me inside.” Shahina had no problem picking up where she had left off. “She asked me if I could get her two cups of the chai and gave me a five-paisa coin. And well she might. When I asked Mizan how much I should pay he said four paisa. That’s two paisa a cup. Can you believe that? You can get four bananas for that!”

Halima was silent. When Ahsan came that afternoon, she handed him two two-paisa coins.


was published in November 2018
    Flash Fiction
    Short Story
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