The heat was oppressive, the smells around me overpowering. Thankfully, together with the bodily odours and car fumes, there was a hint of the warm aroma of spices.
This was Chennai, in the height of summer in May. The street was a teeming mass of bodies of all shapes and smells, while here and there on the pavement were carts selling freshly ground cumin, turmeric and curry powder.
I was out for a walk on what was my last day in India. My friends were shopping for sarees and fabrics to bring home but I’d had enough of shopping so I ventured out.
After walking for half an hour in the afternoon sun I decided it was time to have a drink. I found a small teashop on a quiet road away from the traffic and sat down.
The owner of the teashop, a skinny man with streaks of prayer ash on his forehead, shuffled up to me to take my order.
“Masala chai, please,” I said. Stick me in another country and I would have asked for a can of Coke with a bucket of ice, but I was going home the following day. The writing on the can may be different, but it was Coke anywhere in the world, so masala tea it was.
Three loud, long honks, one after another, caught my attention. A mangy dog had wandered into the middle of the road and had seen fit to scratch itself right in the path of a truck. They would never honk at a cow like that, I thought.
About ten minutes after my masala chai arrived, a little girl came up to my table. I had seen her walking slowly outside the teashop earlier, her eyes studying me the whole time. She approached me now, having sufficiently sussed me out. She was wearing a brown, knee-length dress and black slippers.
“You want to buy?” she asked, holding up a few handmade cloth pouches. She gave me two. She handed them over like they were precious jewels, with both hands, carefully and gently.
The pouches were made of smooth and shiny saree material, but they were crudely sewn. The stitching showed through all around the top.
“Ten US dollars,” the girl said. I fingered the pouches again. They were worth much, much less than that. Probably just a dollar.
“Did you make these yourself?” I asked.
“Yes, and my big sister helped me too,” she said politely.
“How old are you?”
“I am nine. But please, they are only ten US dollars.”
Ten dollars was a ridiculous sum, but this Indian summer had drained me and I was too tired to think. I selected a dark red, orangey-coloured pouch. “Okay. Ten,” I said, and gave her the money.
She stared at me, eyes wide open, her fingers clutching the dollar bill. That was when I realised she had only been trying her luck with me. She hadn’t expected me to say yes.
She took a step forward.
“You want to buy one more?” she asked timidly, trying her luck again.
I couldn’t resist smiling. “No, it’s okay. Just one is enough.”
The little girl smiled back at me and pressed her palms together.
“I want you to always be happy and have a good life,” she said, her face beaming with joy. And before I could say anything else, she turned and ran out the door.
I watched as she scampered away, probably back to her family to show off her takings for the day. I think I’ve just made her happy. I can live with that.
I looked at the pouch I had paid US$ for. It had two pieces of string at the sides; if you pulled the strings, the opening tightened up and the pouch would close.
May you always be happy and have a good life, the girl had said. People say the best prayers are often said by children.
I leaned back in my chair and looked around me. The stray dog, no longer in the middle of the road, was now gnawing on a bone it had found by the roadside.
This- this whole thing, the insanity that is India, the car horns, the smell of curry powder, the hordes of people, the sweet little girl, the joy and inner peace that travel brings- this is why I had come here, to this very spot. This is why I travel, and this is what it means to me.
I sipped my masala chai. I had made someone’s day and in return, she had made mine.
© 2015, Anis. All rights reserved.