Walking in the sweltering mid-morning sun on our way to the Sita-Ram temple, we were lured into a chai stand by a pair of smiling brown eyes beaming out from under a simple tarp-covered stall. As we sat down on the low bench, the chai wallah attempted to touch our feet, a gesture of profound reverence usually reserved for holy swamis or Brahmins, members of the highest social caste. Considering ourselves casteless and on equal footing, we quickly slid our feet out of the way. Once again, we felt humbled by the custom of treating the guest as God.
Jai Ram was a vendor of chai, paan, cigarettes and miscellaneous snacks. As we found prevalent in Chitrakoot, he made his chai with fresh ginger, peeling it first then smashing it with an iron weight on his wooden platform held up with bricks. Ginger acts as a diaphoretic, causing perspiration, thus cooling the body down. After simmering the ginger with the milk, water, tea and sugar, he smashed up two green cardamom pods and added them to the mixture.
As the chai bubbled, Jai Ram gazed intently into the pot, as though empowering it with prayer. His every movement was deliberate and graceful, each hand gesture like a secret chai wallah mudra, or ritual gesture. As we watched him slowly pour the milk or twirl the pot or spoon in the sugar, it was as if we sat before a temple priest making offerings to the deity.
In proper tea fashion not typical of chai stalls, Jai Ram strained our chai into a metal teapot, then poured it into our glasses atop a decorative platter. As he served us, he bowed his head and again tried to touch our feet. Again we pulled our feet back and bowed.
We sipped our chai slowly to enjoy Jai Ram’s company and take respite from the heat. Our conversation was sparse, after only a few weeks of Hindi lessons, but so much was said in the silence. Jenny gave Jai Ram a gift of one of the Ganesh cards she had painted. He smiled, held the painting to his forehead and placed it on his altar next to images of Sita, Rama and Hanuman.