…“Chai! Chai!”

“Ah! Chaiwalla is coming. Now we can have our morning tea.”

“I didn’t hear anything…”

“…they’ll serve the British sahibs in first class before they get to third class…”

“Chai! Chai!…”

“See! I told you Chaiwalla is coming!”

“Papu, don’t wake up your mummy, let her sleep till chaiwalla brings tea.”


“What do you mean ‘serve the British officers in First Class’? You think they drink tea in First Class from the chaiwalla’s earthenware cup! You two young boys haven’t seen much, hm? They close their train windows when they hear the chaiwalla shouting ‘chai-chai’ on the platform. They don’t like the noise. And they don’t need tea from chaiwalla. They have their tea served from teapots by Indian stewards in white uniforms. Starched white. It’s your first time on a big India Railway train, isn’t it? Otherwise you’d be knowing these things.”

“Yes, Bapu first time.”

“From teapots?”

“Where you two boys are from?”

“Mahabalipuram. We are going home to train as fisherman you see? But actually the British sahibs they use teapots, is it?”

“Teapots, bhai. Teapots. Bone china teapots and bone china teacups.Haha! You think I’m joking your leg, isn’t it!”


“No, no! Leave your pockets, young man. Let me buy your tea when chaiwalla comes. What province are you from, young man?


“Nawanagar. Where are you going– Bombay?”

“I’m going to Africa. My little village in Nawanagar has a terrible drought and the villagers are all going to starve, and the evil Prince Prakash has left us with no options, he has left Nawanagar. And many villagers are leaving to go elsewhere. So I am leaving as well. That is why I am going to Africa.”



“I’m sailing from Bombay.”

“Namaste… chai-chai.”

“Please, old man, you go first. Please…”

“No, no! I’m talking to this young man here. He’s going to Africa! Wawa! You go on, get your tea. We’re in no hurry. We Indians don’t need to hurry. We know we’re coming back to the world. Only the British they hurry, because they are not sure if they’re coming back. Are you in a hurry chaiwalla?”

“I’m in no hurry, Bapu. What is there to hurry for?”

“See! He’s in no hurry. And these two Mahabalipuram boys also they are in no hurry… You have steamship ticket to Africa, young man?”

“No. I’m going to find some work on a steamship so I can go there.”

“You’re a man of big dreams, isn’t it? I had big dreams when I was your age.”


“Sorry Bapu, trainmaster is blowing his whistle. British officers must be in big hurry…”

“No, no! I told you young man! Let me buy the tea.”

“Thank you.”

“Chaiwalla, how many children you have?”

“Six children, Bapu. Four sons.”

“Then you take these rupees and buy them some thali tonight, eh?”

“Namaste, Bapu. Namaste.”

“…You think I’m rich, don’t you, young man?”

“You must be.”

“Haha! You think a rich man travels third class! I’m not rich, but whatever I have, it is time for me to give it away.”

“Why is it time to give it away?”

“There… Ah!… Wawa! Let those British drink from their bone china. For me there is nothing like chaiwalla’s tea, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It’s good chai.”

“Sit, sit, old man. Sit, Bapu, you’ll spill your tea, train is moving. Sit. There is plenty of room… we chapies are both going up on the roof now.”

“Sit, young man. Sit next to me, bedtho, bedtho…”

“Papu, let those boys climb on the roof, beta…”

“Mummy can I go with them?”

“…good chai.”

“Good cup. In this cup you can taste the common earth of India. You can taste life in this cup. In bone china you can’t taste life. The life has been killed. It is for show only. Have you ever drunk from bone china cup, young man?”

“No, does it have bones in it?”

“It has the ashes of bones. They cremate dead bones. That’s how they make their bone china teacups, then paint them with royal crest. There is no soul inside them but they are always dressed nicely. Ah! That was good chai.”

“Let me take your cup, if you’re finished.”

“No young man, I always like to throw it myself. Let’s go to the window…”

“Ai! Papu! Make room so these men see from window, yah? …Namaste.”

“Namaste. Young man, let’s pass this village…. Now. Now I’ll throw my cup. There. There! It’s between that tree and that bush. It will not take long now.”

“For what?”

“For the cup to mix back into the earth. And then, from that, maybe a new bush will grow, or a tree, or a flower… Wawa! See, this is how you finish a cup of tea in India. By seeing that all is life and there is no death. You have to know how to finish a cup of tea. That is the secret. Chaiwalla’s cup is made from brown mud. So it can mix back. Bone china cup is not part of life. If you throw it out of train window, it is not going to mix into earth. It can never to mix, isn’t it? How it will mix? Cup is white. Earth is brown. Hmm? They came here to drink our tea but they don’t know how to finish. That is why they are still here.”

“I’m going to throw my cup now…”

“Good throw. Ha! You can throw much farther than me! That’s because you are much stronger. You are a strong young man. I’m old and weak.”

“But… but my cup will become part of the earth, just like your cup?”

“Wawa, young man! Wawa! You are understanding. See, in the end it makes no difference, because we all return and come back in time. So don’t hurry your life. Live your life. Don’t forget to live.”

“Shall we go and sit again?”

“Yes, my old legs are tired. Ahh! Good to sit. Next stop, we have another cup of tea, eh? That is how it is. You empty your cup, you throw it away, then you get new cup and you fill it again. I am emptying my cup now. That is why I am giving away all rupees I have left. They are no use to me where I am going. Maybe they will be of use to you, where you are going…”

“Where are you going?”

“Himalayas. I am going to prepare myself to mix back in the earth. I have this old book of Upanishads, that is the only possession I need now. And you, young man? Why you go Africa?”

“I want to open a ration store. They say dukkawallas can make lot of money in Africa.”

“You want to be rich, eh? It is good to be rich as long as you can still mix with the earth. But if you become a bone china cup, you will have nothing in common with the earth… Oh! Here come those two Mahabalipuramboys, back from the roof!”

“We’re coming to next station, Bapu!”

“Good, then I can have another cup of tea…”


“Chaiwalla’s near third class this time…”

“Chai! Chai!”

“Let me pay this time.”

“No, no! You save your money for your ration store in Africa. Take this money and buy us some tea. Then we’ll discuss the business about your steamship ticket. I want to help you with it…”

“Daddy! Daddy!”

“What is it Papu? Why you look scared?”

“Look daddy, British sahibs are coming!”

“He’s right, they’re walking this way…”

“We should have stayed on the roof, yaar? We can see better from up there.”

“It’s too late now. Anyhow, we didn’t know they would get off this stop.”

“Daddy, are they coming to see us?”

“No, Papu, they just will walk by our window. Don’t worry, just keep quiet… better we keep quiet.”

“Why must the boy keep quiet? We don’t need to keep quiet, we haven’t done…”

“Even chaiwalla is keeping quiet.”

“Shhhh!! Keep quiet. They’re coming.”

“I mean look at it! It’s immaculate. How on earth does your dhobi keep that uniform so starched white?”

“It’s all a matter of the training Toffer. I trained my dhobi to do a proper job.”

“Well, if there’s going to be another world war, which seems rather likely at this point, Sebastian will just have to bring his old dhobi along with him, what?”


“Look at how many suitcases they have!”

“They were talking about that man’s dhobi, isn’t it?”

“Namaste… chai-chai.”

“If we had stayed on the roof we could still be watching them…”

“…You think there’s going to be a war?”

“Here’s the tea.”

“Look! Chaiwalla has piping hot tea for us.”

“Ngeri! Bring some more teacups. There are only five cups and we have six people for tea. Quickly, Ngeri! Tut-tut… I tell you, you have to train these Africans to do everything these days…”

“Ahh! Good. Hmm… Good tea. Good cup, hmm? Now young man, let us discuss your journey to Africa…”

“…We’ll be flying first to London, to pick up Dilip. He’s at Eton, you know? From London we’re going on to Switzerland. Swissair. First class.”



“Bapa, you’re tea is getting cold.”

“Bapa, you’re tea…His hearing aid isn’t working, Sanjay…just point to the tea… Bapa, the tea…”

“My hearing aid is working fine, thank you!” 

“Sorry Bapa…”

“I was just remembering when I was a young boy in India, travelling on a third class train to Bombay from my village town in Nawanagar. The entire village was experiencing a terrible drought, you see? There was even a rumor that the young men were going to slay the elephant clan of Nawanagar with a British rifle they had procured from an army officer. It was too hard for me to bare and I wanted to just leave Nawanagar. I wanted to come to Africa, but I didn’t even have money for a steamship ticket…”

“…then he met this old man on the train who told him he was going to the Himalayas…”

“…then I met this old man on the train, and he told me he was going to the Himalayas. And he insisted on paying for my steamship ticket…”

“…and that’s how he was able to come here and open his first ration store in the African bush fifty two years ago and build up the business…”

“…and that’s how I was able to come here and open my first ration store in the African bush fifty two years ago and build up the…”

“Bapu. Your tea is getting cold, Bapu.”

“I know. My tea always gets cold. Then afterwards, I ask Ngeri to throw the tea out.”

“But why, Bapu?”

“Because I don’t like the taste of tea in a British bone china cup.”

Click here for Chapter Fourteen, Day Four of the Great Trek.


by Karim