Chai chai, garam chai garam garam garam chai, chai wallah! Chai chai, garam chai…
When your train pulls into a station in India it’s sometimes like someone has suddenly turned the volume up on a radio symphony. Columns of tea and coffee dealers rush up and down alongside the train windows, a few leap inside and drag tall streams of glittering milky tea from their canteens into little cups. Each has their own chant advertising their wares, and it’s like their rhythms and melodies stream in and fill the space, interlocking into each other.
Kaafee wallah, kaafee wallah! Garam kaafee, garam garam kaafee wallah! Kaafee wallah, caafee wallah…
My grandfather was on the train opposite me, the bottom half of his face lit brightly by the gold Indian brightness. We were passing the border from Delhi and Haryana into his – our? – home state, Punjab. Punjab, the Land of the Five Rivers. ‘Panj’, ‘five’, was one of the few Panjabi words I’d ever learnt – ‘garam’ for ‘hot!’ and ‘suad’ for ‘delicious’ weren’t unimportant too. There was a touch of a frown, it looked like, under the shadow on his forehead. This was our first time in India together, flying straight from Heathrow after the 20 minute drive from his house in Hounslow.
Stepping out of your airport cab into Delhi is like nothing else: the heat hits your properly, and the hot burnt tarmac smell of metropolises in the sub-tropics, and the noise that characterises every big city in South Asia, all wraps you like a shawl folded tightly round your shoulders. Kingsley Road, by his house, has three Indian confectioners, a sari shop and two halal butchers, but it’s a faded dull shadow in comparison with even the smallest parade of shops in Delhi.
You saw them sail past from the train windows, and I wondered what he was thinking of as he looked out on them, stalls draped all over with strips of five rupee foil sachets – toiletries, sweets, sometimes little things of mango pickle – and all I thought of was how the shampoo sachets were the same brand as the one my aunt uses at home.
Little parts of his identity were scattered around the world now – 35 years in the Post Office in London, homes made by children and grandchildren a Tube journey from the government that had taken his country once, but still those old, old lands in Punjab.
Our home had been there, deep in the crazy bright green of the agricultural lands, for hundreds of years. Pride of place at home in Hounslow went to photos of his children; pride of place in the India house went to an old nobleman’s sword. In India he was different to my quiet grandfather, some other core took over and he became prouder, he smiled deeper. He wore a turban again after a few days, tied with unshaking hands, hands distorted a little by his age. The white wraps of fabric covered the hair he’d cut back when he first moved to Britain.
You think of those long pieces of dark hair, never cut from birth, washed combed with a wooden comb every day since it first grew long enough. They were tossed away in a Southall bathroom bin but his hair was white now and, it seemed, it felt like the vow in his heart was never broken.
The sunlight through the open, glass-less windows had shifted up as the train moved or as the day passed and the edges of his white turban were catching the glow of the sky. The green of the plants and fields is so bright it’s like the gold of the sun has poured down and stirred into the rich black earth and water until there’s just endless dark glowing perfect green, just glowing dark green.
As we passed deeper and deeper into the fields and open plains of water and paddy his shoulders relaxed and slipped down a little more, and it seemed like his breath slowed a touch, calmed. It was funny because he always seemed in his element around my grandmother (leader of the house) and my father and even with me and his sister in his soft natural English – but passing into the rich lands of his home he somehow became a man in his own home.
Chai! Garam chai, garam! Chai wallah chai! Chai! Garam chai…
The music started again as the train slowed and people, vendors, samosa wallahs leaped on and off and around. He smiled and it was as if his smile translated the black characters on the yellow station sign outside. Jalandhar was just a few miles from our home, from our nearest station. There were a few parts of me in this land, too. He was at home and I was a part of him, nothing more. Perhaps he was a part of me, too, but most importantly the rich black earth, golden green fields had taken us both and wrapped us in her sandalwood-scented arms. He stood glowing with the golden light you only ever see in Indian trains, light poured in through the open glassless windows and his white turban wrapped round his forehead, soft rich smooth fabric he held high.