The Loneliest Tearoom in India


We left at nightfall
Delhi still ringing in my ears
the menacing rickshaw driver
the protective tuktuk driver
and now this bus, a pencil case
on wheels conducted by a man with
lips stained red with betel nut.
I sat at the front. I wore a loose headscarf
but how to mask the whiteness?
The woman beside me gladly made
sign language conversation for a while
til our vocabulary ran out.
All this time a man with a white
handlebar moustache was scrutinising me.
“Madame,” he said at last, “when you are asleep
you look like doll.”
I could not sleep much after that.
The turns, so thoughtfully marked
with yellow signs that wrung their hands
in big black letters:
“Always Alert Avoid Accident”…
“Someone at home wants you to return safe”…
while the betel in the driver’s blood
pressed the pedal into the floor
almost wearing a hole
turning the wheel with violent grace
and even though rocks tumbled down
into the glossy void over the edge
down in the Himalayan crooks
we could not see them land.
The wheels kept their footing.
My stomach, however, did not.
It slid about upon the vinyl seats
barely contained by my thin skin
wringing itself to squeeze out
that cheap thali I had wolfed
but when we stopped, blinking by moonlight,
the latrines seemed worse so
on we oscillated
round the mountain’s shoulders
road a snakeskin through the glacial dark
and at one moment someone asked me
“What’s your name, Madam?”
I answered honestly. They wondered
why? So I replied. They shrieked
with glee, or horror:
“She’s a Muslim?”
In between the wracking pains now
I was sobbing, still too teenaged to
admit the tears to strangers.
Finally two young men with
much more reasonable moustaches
offered me some herbs for stomach pains
and then a bidi, which I smoked out of
the back window. The others asked my pardon,
though I was not sure if this were
initiation into some strange
Indian social rite.
As dawn let colour flood back down
the mountains, trees emerged
a perpendicular gorge
a river cavorting at its feet.
We paused for breakfast and latrines.
This time I was not so particular.
The chai was good, the teacakes edible.
Steel cups; you must avoid the rims
for hygiene’s sake. Low knocked-together
wooden stools and tables. The loneliest tearoom
in India. We embarked again,
our destination Manali, town of hashish,
long-eared rabbits, dreadlocked Germans and
vast heights. But Manali, curious as it was,
never did shake off that bus trip.
Once we reached Leh
after four by four, trek, pony ride
and rooftop hitchhike
I did the journey back
by plane.

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