It's 2003, you are 16, and you are in your maths tuition. You’ve claimed your place in the middle of the side-bench and resumed whatever nonsense it is that keeps you laughing like a maniac through those years, and which cement your reputation as an obnoxious, loud troublemaker. You are having the time of your life when in walks a girl who stuns you, and the entire room, into silence.
You are smitten. Your friends notice, they tease you.
You don't know that a year later, you'll hold her hand as you walk through a Pondicherry evening.
But for now, you are just quiet.
The blackboard has trigonometry on it, which you are good at. What you aren’t good at is differential equations. You hate those. But those come later.
Your red bicycle is outside; you'll have bhel puri on the way home, to watch World's Most Amazing Videos on AXN at 8.
Dinner is mom's delicious fish curry with dosas, and you tease your little sister for a bit before your old man whacks you.
You are reading Michael Crichton’s Timeline, a weird time-travel book which you love because you are a bit of a nerd and there’s a lot of shit in it that sounds like science.
There’s a match tomorrow and you make a mental note not to go to your slower delivery early in your over. It tends to get hit. But if you get it right on the 4th or 5th delivery, you are in with a good chance of hitting the stumps.
The book sags, and as you nod off, you think of her.
It’s a ridiculous thing to be missing now, you might say. And you will be right. But for someone whose rhythms of life are dictated by it, normalcy is chai. I miss it a lot.
Not tea, mind you. Not tea, the posh, dipped in hot water variety. You can have it all you want. It’s a soulless, vapid, foul thing, tainting chai’s name worldwide, and I want nothing to do with it. What I miss is the proper Indian version - boiled with milk, ginger, cardamom or other spices, had with a biscuit or two, downed with conversation and snark. The ones which always, always remind you that though life may be tough, the breaks can be delicious.
And if you are wondering if I’m one of those annoying, insufferable chai tragics, make no mistake, I absolutely am.
There are two shops in the lane where I live, and both serve the lovely, fragrant, Irani chai I’m so fond of. One is a sit down, get-a-biscuit-too version, which I visit in the early mornings with a book. The other is the very Puneri, very rude, take-it-and-walk stand, which I love even more.
These days, every time I walk past their downed shutters, I feel a pang, and wish they were open.
But my favourite, the one I take all my friends to, is not one of these two.
It’s further ahead, past the Aga Khan bridge and the Kalyani Nagar crossing, past the Mercedes showroom, and the cooperative bank building. It’s barely a shop - just benches and a table, but at 5 am everyday, you can see groups of people congregating for that heavenly little cutting chai they serve. I have never had better chai, and believe me, I have had it everywhere, from Delhi to Varanasi to Madras to Lucknow to even Ahmedabad (their Wagh Bakri blend is what first hooked me on to the stuff). Once I observed an older lady getting off a car with a notepad, and writing down how the chai was being made. No one batted an eyelid, she seemed a regular. Noticing me watching, she told me that that she had tried to do this multiple times, but never could get that taste right.
Both she and I agreed then that she probably never would, and solemnly drank up.
I remember this one monsoon morning when a couple of my best friends had moved into my flat for a short while, having been driven out of theirs. I woke up very early, as I’m used to, and found Ashwin up. We started talking. We talked for a long time, about products, marketing, life and cricket. First we talked at home, and then got on my motorcycle and zoomed around Pune’s streets. We downed 5 cups of chai at (at least) 3 different tapris, including the one I described above, my favourite. We talked and talked and talked. I don’t remember any part of our conversation, but I remember the chill in the air, how the morning felt, and all that flavour.
Well, almost, but isn’t that enough?
In Madras, the tea is not as good, but I know where to get a decent cup. Our office had tea made for us inside too, but that misses the point. You have to go outside, have a couple of bajjis lathed in oil that are definitely not good for you, and talk. It is a communal activity - an excuse to get together at 5 pm and enjoy the balmy (okay, hot) evening.
There are so many stories I have like this, and I could go on, but I won’t. Except maybe that Delhi’s best little kullad is from the man opposite the Hanuman temple on Connaught Place. Go there and have it, if you can. In the winter, preferably. After a Sunday morning trip to the Daryaganj Book Market, even better.
I’ll leave you with this video I love. It’s a creative for Society Tea, made by the agency Black Swan Life. It illustrates everything that I feel and love about chai as our country’s national drink. I don’t think it’s ever been made official. But who cares?
If that’s not true, nothing is.
Written in Pune in June 2020, during lockdown extensions.
The new flat isn’t done yet. Especially my room. I have to get some furniture, more bookshelves, but obviously that isn’t happening anytime soon. There are books strewn around the house, TV shows paused in-between, work is an effort to get to, and every look at the news makes me anxious. It is a very strange time.
It started raining mid-afternoon. The skies went dark, and the air felt cooler, lighter. I lay on the bed listening to raindrops pattering on the air conditioning unit and fell asleep.
When I got up, the evening still felt empty enough to try to fill up with something. So I dragged a chair out to the balcony, put my feet up on the large pot with the dead plant, and started Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, an account of his overland journey to China in the 1980s. I didn’t particularly take to his writing the last time I read him, and this seems as good a time as any to give people a second chance.
The rain fell, slowly then quickly, then becoming one of those comforting, calming drizzles.
My first-floor balcony has no view. It’s blocked by thick, heavy boughs of what we call the golden shower tree, the Indian laburnum. I know it from university, it is the tree under which I learnt to dream. The rain makes its yellow flowers look prettier. The tree’s branches fall lustily over the railing, obscuring the three money-plants that travelled with me from Madras.
A conversation drifted in from below, it grew darker, and the watchman went by, switching on the apartment’s corridor and stairway lights. I couldn’t hear any traffic, and this is unnerving to me. I’m used to the noise and the bustle of restless, modern India, and I have realised, several times during my trips abroad, that nowhere else can be home.
In the book, Theroux was talking about the greyness of suburban Paris and the ugliness of most of modern Belgium; he was looking through the windows of a train.
I understood what he was saying, but I couldn’t see, couldn't place the scenes. I was thinking about something else.
On train journeys in India, I wait and look for a scene that’s very important to me. Now that I think about it, it’s laughable, but I always look for the railway crossing in a small town, or a the sight of the station-master’s musty cabin over a lonely platform. Behind this is usually the railway quarters, recognisable by the compulsory rows of bougainvillea and jacaranda and gulmohar and champa, and of course, laburnum.
I lived in quarters like these once, when my maternal grandfather worked in a sugar-mill, and the house we had looked exactly like this. Later, my uncle, his son, lived in Perambur in Madras, where the Integral Coach Factory is. When I was visiting, I would try to find some time to drive over to the road where the quarters were, and there that familiar scene would be, all the trees and flowers I knew but could not name, a few Anglo-Indian aunties sitting under them.
Something about these scenes of domesticity, of stability, have always remained important to me.
I read on, and when night fell, I came in. I left the chair there. Maybe it’ll rain again in the morning.
Written March 2020, in Pune, during the first lockdown.
I've been writing and publishing essays on startup marketing for a few years now, only lately assembling it all in a newsletter.
Every time I’m ready to publish one of these, I look for pictures to put it up with. As most marketers know, there is a (rather lazy) template for such accompanying photographs: laptops (preferably MacBooks), tables with stationary artfully strewn around, a few good-looking people pointing and gesturing, whiteboards with intelligent-sounding nonsense on them, and so on. I usually choose one with the least distractions, and don’t think about it beyond that.
Sometimes during such banal searches, a picture suddenly comes up that stuns me. I stop and stare; I know this is special, I download it if I can. But it saddens me for a minute, this travesty: this is not the place this picture should be. Someone made this photograph, a piece of art evidently of some aesthetic value, and this is where it ends up, on a random stock photo site on the internet, for strangers like me to peddle ideas with.
That’s how it is with all art, you may argue. Who decides what has value, and what doesn’t, you may ask. And you will be right. There’s so much stuff out there in the world now, and there obviously isn’t that much time in our lives.
Or is there?
With the amount of pictures, and memes, and gifs we make and share, aren’t photographs, in whichever way we engage with them, the predominant idiom of our age? The smartphone’s democratisation of creation, access, and distribution means that it is easy to see, rather than hear or read, in these times of short attention spans.
Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented. It does not have film’s durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured. A photograph shows what was, and is no more.
In a world where the future is uncertain and the past is subject to an incessant wrangling over its meaning, it is in the photograph that a generation is trying to hold on to whatever is visible to them. That is why Instagram is so important now, that's why it probably will remain important for a while.
Near the end of Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 movie Troy, Brad Pitt’s Achilles has something to say to Rose Byrne’s Briseis. It’s probably my favourite movie dialogue of all time, and I come back to it often:
I’ll tell you a secret. Something they don't teach you in your temple. The Gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again
In the moments that we are able to capture, share, and go back to, we have paused the past, defeated it for a second, even. Who we are in that photograph is who we will always be.
I was rendered useless by a fever most of last weekend.
Most friends told me to read a book and relax, or watch a movie and distract myself, but I am smarter than that. I remember a fever a few years ago in Madras when I decided to read the World War Two book Flags of my Fathers. I was beyond 150 pages before it dawned on me that this was a bad idea: I now had pictures of battlefields and soldiers and big blasts in my head, and I wasn’t able to get rid of them. That night was filled with nightmares and visions of soldiers, wars, and blood. I swore to myself that night, delirious and sick, that this would be the last time I went near a book with even a hint of a fever.
But as with such things, the promise didn’t hold.
As I sat around the house recovering this last week, I started a book called Against a Peacock Sky, about a British anthropologist’s years in a Nepali village. More a researcher’s lived experience than travel literature in the strictest sense, it’s still a good look at rural life in a country then very unexplored. From an Indian perspective, what is familiar are the religious rituals, poojas, and certain superstitions; what’s different is the landscape. The fatal winters, the livestock which had to go south for the cold season, the travelling tourneys of traders from Tibet and the southern plains of Nepal, all of this was coloured, transformed, and lent sharpness by the vagaries of the cold.
I don’t know if it helped me recover, but it certainly didn’t give me nightmares.
As I finished it, I started thinking about this particular and peculiar couple: books and fevers. The easiest book-memory at that intersection for an Indian reader is Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, his absolutely brilliant novel of history, mystery, and myth. Published in 1995, it is still one of the better science fiction novels India has produced. I won’t give away spoilers, but If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It celebrates a kind of mysterious open-ended storytelling that is somehow, and you’ll understand this when you read it, very Indian.
Another book that comes to my mind when I think about fevers is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, a novel I absolutely adore. It is in every way a Bombay book (a genre in itself, this). The sprawling city is both the hero & the villain of the story, a story that will take you to back alleys, to the politics of Mao's China and back to the changing metropolis, which keeps trying harder to blow itself up. Visions of colour, light & dark, good & evil, haunt the characters, but they have no idea which is which, and neither, as the reader, do you. I was talking about fevers, was I not?
In 2013, the first real winter I was experiencing in years, I was in Delhi, and the bitter wind would freeze me half to death every time I stepped out. Not very surprisingly, I ran myself into a week of high fever and general misery that I only remember parts of. However, sometime around that episode, I summoned enough willpower and stupidity to go see the Taj Mahal for the first time in my adult life. I wouldn’t have told you this as I chattered my teeth away that night, but looking at that great marble mausoleum in the winter moonlight was worth it; every coughing, sneezing, wheezing second of it.
I remember thinking what a terrible, almost unimaginable potion of pain, loss, ambition, and vanity someone must have drunk to even think of creating something like that.
But then, isn’t love a kind of fever too? Perhaps the most potent kind?
My earliest, and perhaps fondest, memory of rain does not involve rain at all. It’s from Shillong, and I have this vague picture in my head of my father and I with a red plastic bucket. Hail fell around us, and even as my mother shouted from the door of our little airmen’s quarters, we collected as much as we could. It was dangerous of course, blocks of ice falling from the heavens at speed, and with our only protection being a black service-issue umbrella. There was no reason to collect that ice, we had no use for it, and all I did with it was watch it melt. It drove my mother mad. But I remember that laughter, and the cold, crisp air of the high east for what it was: pure, unadulterated joy.
In Jamnagar, in Gujarat, we were ready for school at half past 6, and would be herded into an Indian Air Force truck, rain or no rain. I would fight to find a place for my little sister to sit, and once satisfied, would resume conversation with my gang of merry men. It was only after we reached school that we would realise that it was closed. You see, there were no phones then, no local television, and news would only arrive if someone brought it to you. The driver would ask us kids to sit tight as he checked for any other children to be ferried back home. In that time, we would start up a cricket match. The western rain was no joke; I used to own gumboots for the monsoon. And so we would run in the rain, get drenched, bowl fast, fall down, splatter mud over each other. And in the 30 minutes that it took for our driver to return, a 5 over game would be done, complete with a fight, a man of the match, a sore loser, and bragging rights for the way back.
The rain in Pondicherry is unpredictable: it's cyclonic, and there is no real set season. It usually comes around my birthday, in October, and it's a lovely time to be in my town by the sea. There's a particular laziness then, the mood of a small town having coffee and reading its magazines by the window. Not much moves in the cobbled paths of the white town, the paved roads of the Tamil enclave, and the dirt streets farther out, except perhaps a sullen, wet cat trying to find a place to lay low in. The power goes out sometimes, and when the town quiets down in the evening, I can hear and see the rain falling down the sloping roof of my father's house.
I went to college in an even smaller town 200 kilometres to the south, and there was a spell of record breaking rain in my first year. We were stuck in the hostel for 4 days. Food was brought out to us in an Ashok Leyland truck requisitioned for it. I used to sit near a set of stairs where the wall had broken down, and dangle my legs over the adjacent field, flooded and full. The rain would hit my legs and I would sit there listening to music on the radio of my flip-phone. Some of those songs stayed with me, and when I listen to them even now, I’m reminded immediately of the days I spent stranded, surrounded by water, sated.
I went to business school in a university by the hills and fell in love with the place irrevocably. This was the Palakkad gap of the Western Ghats, and this was mountain rain. People carried umbrellas everywhere and the roads would be filled with yellow flowers after. I never had an umbrella but I had friends, and that’s the same thing. I remember different kinds of rain-drenched days there, but what I remember most is one of the first evenings, when we walked to a welcome dinner from our faculty, and and the mist fell on us in waves, white and heavy and cold and gorgeous. All of us seemed magical, ghostlike figures. I carry that dusk around with me still: It was the first time I thought I was, you know, somewhere.
Around late January, there is a short spell of winter rain in the capital. I was told that this happens every year. It’s bone-chillingly cold already, and the rain doesn’t help. But because I couldn’t do without my early morning tea, I would take my umbrella, wear three layers of clothes, and walk to the little stall in the next street. There would be a fire going, and I would wrap my hands around the plastic cup. Breathing out my own personal mist, I’d take in the tea’s sugary, cardamom-rich warmth. My companions at that time were mostly rickshaw pullers, and they came to know me well. Once in late winter, I carried my Kindle out because I wanted to read as I had tea. They examined the device thoroughly and asked me to read out something for them. The next day, having downloaded a Hindi book, I did so. I remember how they listened, and how their eyes glistened in that light.
Rain in Madras was beautiful, and it always messed up roads, traffic, and your plans. It gave brief respite to a hot city, and even though I was there three years, I can’t seem to remember particular occasions. Except one. We were going for dinner. She had dressed up. The cab arrived at the gate, and we tried to run into it. But she'd forgotten to close the umbrella, and fought with it frantically for a few moments before she succeeded. Water dripping off our heads, we got inside, looked at each other, and burst into laughter. I’m sure she doesn’t remember this at all, but it’s enough that I do.
The thing no one tells you about chemotherapy is how it gives you no time. My wife was barely able to recover from the last dose that the next one would be upon us. She was almost always in tears when we had to go, but we would trudge down from our flat without fail, and our driver would bring the car out. His name was Muthu and that year he drove our red Polo to the cancer hospital at the opposite end of town every second Saturday.
He was a short, thin, hardy man, with rough palms that had stories to tell. He smiled easily, but the lines in his face were from more than his laughter. He had been with the family for more than half a decade, before I came into it. I knew he enjoyed talking. But all through that year, when he drove us to the hospital, he would be quiet, understanding the gravity of what my wife and the family was going through.
He knew everyone in Secunderabad. Everyone waved at him, and he would call out to them, sometimes looking back and telling us who this person was and why they were important in the area. He spoke Dakhni Hindi, of course, but it was also weighed down by his native Tamil, so it was a complex, at times confusing tongue.
I got to know him well. The local barber told me about Muthu. I got a few other details from neighbours and a few from his own mouth. There’s not a lot, but I guess there’s enough.
Muthu came to Secunderabad from Madras years ago, part of a long legacy of Tamil working class migrations that began during colonial rule, and that some might argue has never stopped. Tamil migrants worked in Australia during the world wars, fought in them, went to Malaysia and Guyana and Suriname to farm sugarcane, went to Burma and Indonesia to make money, and now go to America to run technology companies. Muthu just came some distance north, but it must have been an uprooting nevertheless. We Tamils are a fiercely proud people, and to leave home is the toughest thing for us to do. Our ooru is who we are.
He was a troublemaker by his own admission. He wasn't educated, and lamented that he should have tried harder at school. He told me how his father died a broken man because Muthu would not work or become responsible. He told me about the legendary fights he would get into, the people he had beat up. This was backed up by others I talked to. He was a fighter in his time, I was told, and feared as a local enforcer. This obviously wasn’t very respectable, and he could never hold down a job. He was also a terrific drunk, and would drink himself to oblivion almost everyday, and had to be picked up by friends or family in the morning from a ditch somewhere.
His children changed him. It must have been an effort, but he tried to straighten himself out, and worked as a driver so he could send his kids to school. His daughter made him proud, she was a college graduate and worked in an office. He worried about her future a lot, but not as much as he worried about his son, a happy-go-lucky young man who took after his old man’s worst tendencies. Muthu did slip up once in a while himself, once memorably when he was in our employ. He got himself drunk one night and turned up late the next day, bloodshot and dirty, whereupon he was asked to go home.
That was the last time, he swore, and it was. He never did anything like that again. I will never forget how he was there for us, no questions asked, when we needed all the support we could get.
Muthu passed away last month. He had had a heart attack. I went to his house, comforted his son, paid my condolences to his family. He had not been working with us for a while, but we were heartbroken too. The people who are with us when we are down are the ones we hold on to the most.
On the back cover of the 40th anniversary edition of Graham Swift’s celebrated novel Last Orders, is a phrase I remember often: the extraordinary courage of ordinary lives. Ours is a large country, there are too many people. We need to remember. We need to bear witness.
Muthu was our driver. He wasn’t perfect, but he loved his family and conquered himself to provide for them. There was pride and courage in his life. He had fought his way through, and got somewhere. He had a family, he had friends, he had a job, and he was loved. May he rest in peace.
The first thing I ever wrote with some regularity and intent was a cricket blog I started during my undergrad years. This must have been 2008 or 2009. I called it A View from the Pavilion, and it wasn’t bad. I know this because I sent a piece to the former England correspondent of Cricinfo, George Dobell, and he was quite happy with it. It was probably the first time someone told me I was a good writer.
For some reason, I grew tired of it, stopped writing, and deleted it. Not the writing though, just that blog. I started writing on another blog - it’s still up - a few months into business school. I would usually be able to write one post a month, at times two. It was angsty, romantic, sentimental stuff, and I cringe when I read it now. But some of it is still surprisingly readable, even good. My professors encouraged me, and gratified by the attention, I kept at it.
That blog got me the most important break of my life. When I applied for a marketing role at a small startup called Freshdesk, the founder, Girish Mathrubootham, read it and decided to hire me.
Through those years and after, I kept writing. I wrote everywhere. I tried Wordpress, Tumblr, Medium, but was never happy.
I like classification, order, and neatness. None of these spaces gave me that. I was too lazy and technically inept to make something for myself, but I kept writing. I published a piece in the Hindu, a few pieces for Scroll, and worked on a book. This was all during a gap year when I was back home in Pondicherry.
Returning to work after, writing took a backseat and life took over. But soon the restlessness came back, and I craved a creative outlet of some sort. And now I had a few things to say about work. The CMO Journal was the result. A newsletter on marketing, I have been writing it for 2 years now. It's easily the most satisfying writing I've done, and it’s added so much value to so many people.
Around the same time, I also started writing another newsletter called East Coast Road, for other things I'm interested in. I have quite a few pieces up there now.
But late last year, as I was thinking about starting on another long term writing project, I realised I had to tighten it all up a bit. My writing was thematically scattered, and it couldn't be found and read in one place even if people wanted to.
I realised that East Coast Road was not a newsletter at all. It was a blog, an old-fashioned personal blog. But again, I had the problem I had since the time I began writing: There were too many places to write. I needed a simple personal blog, I didn’t want to sit and code it up, and I didn’t want it to be fancy.
That’s when I found Posthaven, where you are reading this. It’s a blogging platform whose promise is that it will stay online forever. I love its simple clarity, and I love that I can just spend my time writing, not worrying about how things look, what I can fiddle with, and so on. This is exactly what I wanted.
So, over the next few months, I will be migrating every single thing I’ve ever written to this place, this blog of my own. I will also be deleting my other blogs when all that is done. East Coast Road will go down, so will my old college blog.
Simple, then: The marketing writing will go to my newsletter, The CMO Journal. Everything else will be here.
Why do this now?
A huge part of this is just me indulging my order-obsessed brain. I'm absolutely certain no one else cares. But the other is that once this is over, I will have the clarity to launch a couple of projects that have been in my head for while. And having one place where all of my work can rest, and be read, is something I’ve always wanted.
What does this mean for you, the few of you who think my writing is worth reading?
It makes it simpler for you to follow my writing. All you have to do is click the Follow this Posthaven link underneath this post, and the posts will land in your mailbox, much like Substack. And finally, I will be revisiting, editing, and publishing again my older work. I get to go back down memory lane, refresh a few things.
A few days ago, there was a question on Twitter: What did your ex leave you with? I think specifics were expected, like music, or movies, or art.
But what came to my mind immediately was too long to write out there. So here it is.
Ours was a closed campus, and though the boys were allowed to go out and roam the city whenever we wished, the girls usually had only two gate passes a month. Which meant that our time together, at least outside campus, was limited. We were aware of this, though we had enough time together that it never weighed on us. It was just that we couldn't eat out, or go on coffee dates, or travel.
She was a feisty character, gorgeous, studious, and driven. I was the opposite, more interested in the library, in long walks, and in volleyball, which I'd just discovered.
One of the first times we were out together, on a gloriously pleasant day, we were shopping, and I did something that irked her. I don't remember what it was, just that it was minor enough to not matter to me, but important enough for her to get worked up. I knew these moods of hers. This was going to be a long day, I thought, and braced myself.
But when we exited the mall to bright sunshine, she was back in the radiant mood she had been in all morning. I was taken aback, having anticipated glares and taunts. But no. She took my hand in the cab to the restaurant, and talked as if nothing was amiss. I was confused, but only too glad to go along.
It was a good day, full of laughter and love and that silly optimism being young affords you. We went to get coffee before boarding the train back. I walked her to the hostel. It wasn't dark yet, and I could see her face, slightly flushed after the long day and the walk from the station. She was happy. I was too.
At the gate, she turned, and to my surprise, started chewing me out. She told me to go to my room and call her immediately so she could give me a piece of her mind.
Even more confused now, I walked back to my hostel, changed, got some water from the cooler, and called her. She did what she told me she would. I told her I didn't think it was a big deal. I know better now, but it was obviously the wrong thing to say. The argument ran its course. I went down to meet the boys, played a game of volleyball, read a bit (I think it was my economics phase - Nouriel Roubini and Raghuram Rajan and Tim Harford), and then called her to say good night.
She had been studying, as I knew she would be. I asked her what had been on my mind all evening: Why, if she was so angry, did she wait until we came back? Couldn't she have brought it up then, and sorted it all out face-to-face?
But, she said, that's the only time we have with each other outside campus. Why should I ruin it? I can be angry with you later. Why waste the time we have together?
This was more than 10 years ago. I've never forgotten it.
In 2007, I was trying to pass my large backlog of engineering exams, and was studying like a madman, starting at 3 in the morning. The tea shop near where I lived then opened at 3 too, to cater to the fishermen who needed the pick-me-up before leaving to sea. I would go and stand there, along with all these rough and sun-cooked men, and I would get a steamy cup of milky, strong tea without having to ask. I would go again at 4, and again at 5, punctuating my studies with tea so I wouldn’t get tired or fall asleep. And I would never say a word, I’d just stand there, sometimes with one of my large, unwieldy textbooks in hand, and the tea would come to me. Never coffee, or the special tea. Just the normal tea, everyday.
I was a regular, with a usual.
In 2009, at my university under the mountains, the tea and coffee would arrive in large cans to my hostel, and I’d be one of the first to come get a mug. This was because it was cold there, and I was one of the few early risers. I would nod at the guy who brought the cans everyday, who knew me well. I would take my mug and walk outside to the volleyball courts, and wait. I would wait for the light to come up, and ponder the day ahead. Much later, my friends who had rooms that looked out on the courts would tell me that this was what they saw every morning when they woke up and opened the windows: Me walking around with a mug of coffee, looking up at the sky.
In 2011, at my first job, and in my first real experience of the world, I would wake up and walk to a mosque nearby, at the entrance of which was an old man selling Irani chai. I had no money and no clear thoughts about anything, but this was a routine I understood, so I would follow it without thinking. Every single morning I would be there, sipping that fragrant tea and looking around at the faithful, thinking about where life was going to take me. That city of the Deccan held me close then, and would call me back later. But I didn’t know that yet.
In 2012, in the Tamil capital, I lived near the sea, and ran laps around the road near the old church. Later, drenched and exhausted, I would go to a moderately famous restaurant on the main road. They would be just setting up, but coffee would be ready. It would arrive as soon as I sat down. The waiters knew me and also knew that at times I’d have two, reading on the Kindle. Once a friend of mine was visiting, and because she ordered tea, I asked for tea too. The surprised waiter told my friend, in Tamil, that ‘sir usually drinks only coffee’.
In 2013, in the national capital, my best friend and I were in that phase when we were rebelling against everyone and everything. Every day, he would take out his motorcycle, and we would go to the shop nearby to buy beer. One day, we told ourselves we wouldn’t drink, it had become too much, and we should stop. We would just go home that day, and watch the cricket or something. But as he drove home, he inadvertently, by sheer force of habit, drove to the liquor shop. We looked at each other, and bought bottles of Tuborg.
In 2016, in my town, I was attempting to write. I would come to the French library at 10, write for an hour or so, and go out for a filter coffee around noon. Every day for a few months, I would do this. I would go and have a strong coffee in the bar from where you could see the sea. I would stand there with the clerks from the government secretariat, and wonder at the beauty of the place I was born in.
In 2020, in a city surrounded by hills, where the idea was to slow down a bit and get some more time, I was delighted to find a Irani chai place, complete with bun maska and colourful bottles of Ardeshir. I spent some time there every morning, reading. It was a delight, and I thought that this was something I could get used to, having a place to come and read in, and go back home from. For some time, it was. And then the pandemic hit, and soon another move happened.
One day, I’ll go back home. I’ll have a boring routine. I’ll have nothing to work on, nothing to get to. I’ll just have time and a sense of contentment in my head. And I’ll have a bar to go to, one I’ll go to everyday with my friends. I would have made a couple more friends there. I will sit down there in the evening, drink a beer, and marvel at some small thing, like an insect, or the afternoon light, or the smell of the ocean. And I won’t think about anything else.