You know Harry, Sagar and the others? Of course his actual name might not be Harry but it’s what they call him. I did too. Anyway, they were the ones I knew before I knew that I knew them. It was only after we met, actually, that they were able to explain and I was able to understand that we’d known each other already for a couple of years.
I don’t know, maybe such circumstances are common in Rajasthan, and it’s not a bad thing to discover at a first meeting. It’s kind of an unexpected head start. Anyway, it happened in the small desert town of Phalodi where tourists rarely tread.
If I think of the beginning it’s a bit tragic, you see, because so too often for me, at the beginning comes tea. Well, I exaggerate. The tea came in the middle of the start, and the start of the start was more the hired white Ambassador stopping. It was not due to mechanical fault but an idea that brought the vehicle to a halt: the desire to stop somewhere random, away from the tourist towns, to find the real, unadulterated Rajasthan. Phalodi was a fair choice.
Now, I know there’s more to the town than that singular dusty road leading up from the highway, with the usual assortment of desert homes, small shops and light bustle. But then, it seemed the only way to proceed. And not too far along that road was a primary school gate. It was as we were passing, and my Australian friend Lachlan was there then, that the school kids started calling out to us, making a bit of a fuss. They were excited to see foreigners. I don’t remember what words they used but it likely included ‘One pen, one pen?’, the phrase ubiquitous in Rajasthan.
One of the teachers, Madan, came to the gate to see. I can say now that his curiosity was likely not less than theirs, though he didn’t show it. He told us to wait, at the gate, while he consulted with the headmaster. He wished to invite us in for tea.
Approval came forthwith and we sat in the staff room–cum–headmaster’s office with the headmaster behind his desk and several teachers standing or sitting about the room. The conversation must’ve mentioned cricket and there may have been a song. Madan struggled with his English but basic communication found its way.
It’s a simple thing, tea, and it came in cups with saucers in much the usual way. It was only when the drinking commenced that the trouble started.
We couldn’t have anticipated the slurping. The first one or two loud, unashamed slurps might’ve been overlooked as unfortunate: in Australia slurping tea is not the done thing. But when it progressed into a kind of random chorus of slurps from across the room a smile started to work its way onto my face.
I sat there looking down, thinking of Lachlan. “Please don’t slurp, please don’t slurp!” I was thinking, knowing that if he did I would no longer be able to contain my laughter at the strangeness of things. Besides, I wanted to compose myself enough to take a loud, unashamed slurp of my own to make him laugh first.
“Don’t look at him! Don’t look at him!” I told myself; but sure enough, when I felt composed and strong I made the mistake of giving him a small glance and he was ahead of me, just then taking the boldest, most unrepentant slurp of all. It sent me into fits of uncontrollable laughter, and it spread to Lachlan. There was nothing to say, you know, when the slurping for them was a way of complimenting the tea, when they asked why we were laughing. I think we made something up about the white Ambassador but it was embarrassing.
Luckily Madan didn’t quite write us off as mad. Instead, he introduced us to his class and I saw they used slates to write on, with chalk. He took us to his home nearby where he showed pictures of traditional Rajasthani puppets and introduced us to his family. And that was that: we were soon on our way towards Jodhpur.
He’d walked with us back to the highway though, and we’d stopped for a second, farewell tea at a stall. That tea too was remarkable. It had various spices in it and stood out as the finest tea we found in the whole Indian adventure.
Months later I wrote to him and couldn’t help but mention the tastiest tea in India. I asked for the recipe; I was missing chai by then.
About a month later I came home to a letter. The envelope was large and oddly fattened at the bottom. Inside was a plastic bag with a greyish, brownish powder in it. Madan didn’t only send the recipe, but a sample of the spices used in the tastiest tea in India!
I felt slightly uneasy about getting a strange powdery substance through the post. I can only be grateful that the sniffer dogs at Sydney Airport would not appear to be trained to detect Rajasthani tea spices in the midst of mail bags. Anyway, there was nothing to do but boil the milk and try it. I read the letter, thinking his written English was surprisingly good.
It was two years before I reached India again, and in that time Madan and I had exchanged several letters. It had become essential to revisit Phalodi. Madan didn’t know what day I’d come exactly, because neither did I. So I wandered up the street on my own, wondering if I would recognise his house. It was just as well to ask: Phalodi is a small enough town.
Whoever it was led me through new alleyways until I was sure I was hopelessly lost and would never find Madan, when eventually we stopped at a small telephone shop. Madan was there.
It was just a few days, the second visit; but he introduced me to Harry, Sagar and the others. We rode motorbikes through the surrounding desert visiting various picturesque village temples of older and newer construction. There were parties, a coinciding staged drama featuring the school students, and Sagar was apologising for only being able to take one day as leave from his job. I wondered why he’d think to do that for a complete stranger.
Madan’s hair was greying; but the more interesting development was in his spoken English. It was dramatically improved. I was able to explain about the tea slurping. “How did you do that?” I asked, about his English.
“If you really wish to learn something,” he said, “the best way is to teach it.”
He’d become the school’s English teacher. He took me back there one day, where I gave the very first English class of my own, only it was cheating since his class had learnt that lesson the day before. They knew all the answers.
It was strange, meanwhile, how much Harry, Sagar and the others seemed to know about me. Madan must have said a lot, I thought. It wasn’t long before I left that it made sense, when they thought to explain, a little sheepishly, that every time I’d sent a letter they’d all sat together to read it, discuss it, definitely in Hindi, and gradually draft the English reply!
“That’s why Madan’s writing was so good,” I thought. Each Phalodi letter might’ve been signed with his name but it was a team effort. I’d been writing to all of them and through those letters it wasn’t only Madan I’d come to know, but the entirety of one little social circle in a small desert town.