Lit by the afternoon sun, he looked different from any man I had ever seen. The fringe of silvery white skin below the hairline, and then the rest of his face cooked reddish-pink like tandoori chicken.

Teacher Aunty, who was with him, laughed at my bewildered face and said something in English. He nodded, like he understood. But the quizzical look in his sky-blue eyes and the way his sun-coloured eyebrows remained raised when he turned to me suggested he was just as clueless as I who did not know English.

‘This is Albert Sir, Neeta,’ Teacher Aunty told me in Hindi.

When I continued to gawk at him, she made as if to put her hands together. Finally, I folded mine in a namaste.

‘Namaastey,’ he said.

Then he must have asked Teacher Aunty my name. For her reply was to simply repeat it.

‘Nee-ta,’ he intoned.

He mispronounced the ta where the t sound is supposed to be soft. Neither I nor Teacher Aunty made an effort to correct him. I guess she realised that was the best he could do. And I was still far too taken with the sight of him to utter a word.

That was the first time he visited our dhaba. After that, he came for chai practically every day. At first, it was with Teacher Aunty. She was the only one in the village who could speak English and acted as his interpreter. But then, as he got more used to us, he came only with his papers. He would lay them out on one of the scarred tables in the section of the dhaba that was covered by a tarpaulin roof. They were unlike any papers I had ever seen. They contained very few words, just a lot of numbers, pictures and sketches. Lest they were blown away by the grinding table fan, he would use whatever came to hand as a makeshift paperweight--his water bottle, notebook, sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat…Then he would ease into one of the rickety chairs and pore over the sprawl with pens of various colours, drawing lines, making marks, jotting things down. The only time he looked up was to wipe away the sweat that never seemed to leave his face or, for that matter, the back of his shirt.

His chai was special. Ma took her time over it. The water had to be boiled exactly right, with just the right amount of leaves added. While everyone else, including Teacher Aunty, received their chai in glasses, his was always served in a cup. Baba insisted on serving it himself, saying he didn’t want to run the risk of me or my little brother Ajit making a mess. Unable to believe that anyone could actually prefer chai without sugar, he never failed to take along some in a saucer. It always came back untouched. No wonder he is so thin, we all thought.

He was staying in a government guest house in the nearby town. From there he would be driven to our village in a jeep. He would leave the jeep near the school and dawdle in the village with Shyam, the school peon. Pretty soon they were a familiar sight. Albert Sir, dressed in a pair of shorts and T-shirt, with a satchel bulging on his back and a hat pulled down so low that the brim almost blocked his sunglasses, and Shyam, in his khaki shirt and trousers, trailing like an old-fashioned wife. Teacher Aunty probably wished she could go with him herself; Shyam wasn’t much good--a bit stupid and not a word of English. But she couldn’t leave the school, where she was the teacher, principal and administrator rolled into one. Sending Shyam along meant at least the white man wouldn’t get lost.

As Albert Sir drifted all over the village, I wondered what the heck he was doing. I saw him, variously, with a measuring tape, chains, a meter of some sort, and always scribbling away in a notebook. Shyam was our neighbour and his wife Ramkali often came over at night to share the latest gossip with Ma. I bombarded her with questions. At first, she didn’t have an answer. Then one night she arrived, looking as if she had just won the lottery.

‘He is a surveyor,’ she announced. ‘He comes from the United Nations. They are getting ready to do a project here.’

She had no idea what a surveyor was. She couldn’t tell me anything about the project either. I concluded she had merely repeated what her husband had told her. And he must have reiterated what he learnt from Teacher Aunty. She didn’t care to enlighten him any more and he wasn’t inclined or bold enough to question her further.

By then I had lost all interest in the nature of his work. It was the United Nations part that intrigued me. I knew about our nation India and our neighbour to the West, Pakistan, who everyone said was evil. But where was this nation--the United Nations? Ma and Ramkali, I was sure, would be as ignorant about it as I was. So the next day in school I asked Teacher Aunty. She laughed.

‘It’s not a nation,’ she said. ‘It’s a place where people from all nations come together.’
Now my curiosity deepened. We couldn’t come together in our village. We lived in one part of the village, while my classmate Salma and her people lived in the other. Baba said they had been banished there, because they worshipped an evil god. And then there were the untouchables whom everyone denounced. They had their own neighbourhood, their own temple and shops. We didn’t serve them in the dhaba or take any food from their hands. And we all looked the same and spoke the same language. In other nations, there were people as different from us as Albert Sir. Then how did all these people come together?

When I asked Teacher Aunty, she became quiet.

‘They talk to each other, try to resolve differences,’ she said, finally.

A light entered her eyes. ‘It’s like a family,’ she continued. ‘Your Ma and Baba speak to each other and discuss things and decide what is best for you and your little brother; the United Nations works the same way. Only it is people from different nations.’
She sat back, satisfied she had explained the concept adequately. When I didn’t say anything, she took my silence for understanding and went away looking pleased with herself.

In actual fact, she couldn’t have confused me more. Ma and Baba spoke at the dhaba, where Ma was the cook and Ajit and I helped Baba serve. They discussed payments, orders, the price of sugar, tea leaves, cooking oil and bread. That was the extent of their conversation. Baba was rarely home. After closing the dhaba, he disappeared into the village for a game of cards with the other men. Often we only saw him the next morning. Instead of coming home, he would go straight to the dhaba. Where he spent the night I don’t know. I never heard Ma ask him and I doubt by then she cared. Some nights he woke us all up by banging on the front door. When Ma refused to let him in, he called her all kinds of names and railed against God for giving him a wife like her. Even after he fell silent, none of us went to the front door. Ma forbade it. Sometimes I would open the front door in the morning and find him sprawled outside, fast asleep, with a stale stench oozing from his mouth. After we had dragged him inside, Ma would tell me and Ajit to get ready to go to the dhaba with her. There was no school for us on those days. By the time Baba hauled himself over to the dhaba, it was already afternoon.

Was that the way the family of nations functioned?

After a month, Albert Sir suddenly disappeared. His jeep was no longer parked near the school. No one saw him in the village. He quit coming to the dhaba...Wondering what had happened, I asked Ramkali. She came back with the news that he had finished what he had to do in our village and was now working in another village. I was disappointed. I had just begun to get used to him. The other day, he had spotted me hovering near his table and smiled at me. For the first time, I was bold enough to smile back. And now I would never see him again.

Two weeks later, though, he returned. This time the only papers he had with him were a letter and the picture of a little girl. The girl didn’t appear much older than me, although she was very pale with eyes and hair the same colour as his. He chuckled, as he read the letter. I wondered if it came from her.

The next day at school, curiosity got the better of me and I asked Teacher Aunty.

‘That’s his daughter,’ she answered.

‘Where is she?’

‘She lives far away from here, on the other side of the world.’

‘Does she live with her mother?’

She didn’t answer, just picked up a book lying on the table in front of her and opened it.

Normally, that would have been my cue to leave her alone. But that day I was too taken with the girl.

‘Is everyone there pale like her?’ I asked.

She was silent for several seconds. ‘Yes,’ she said, finally. ‘They don’t get much sun there. The sky is usually grey.’

Now I was really intrigued. In our village you couldn’t get away from the sun. Was it just possible that in the little girl’s world there was more sunshine and blueness in people’s hair and eyes than up in the sky?

I started to ask her that, and stopped.

Her eyes were on her book, but I could tell she wasn’t reading. The expression on her face reminded me of how Ma sometimes got when she was on her own. Tiny lines would poke out of the corners of her eyes. The wrinkle between her eyebrows would deepen so much that it could be a scar. Her lips would tremble, sometimes jamming together as if to stifle a scream. And then there were the eyes, still and unblinking. You could stand right in front of them and they would look at you but not see you.

I had learned to leave her alone when she got that way. I did the same with Teacher Aunty.

Although he didn’t come to the dhaba, Albert Sir visited the village frequently in the coming weeks. He arrived round the time the school closed in the afternoon. I often passed him, bumping along in his jeep on the unpaved village roads. He never failed to wave to me, and I waved back.

He spent his time with Teacher Aunty. If Shyam was to be believed, as the day lengthened, they made their way from her office to the annexe in the school compound where she lived. What might be going on in the annexe became the hottest topic of conversation in the dhaba.

‘The old mare is becoming a filly again,’ Ganpat, the ex-soldier, said.

‘I am willing to bet she still gives one hell of a ride,’ Arjun, the mango farmer, quipped.

‘Well, I certainly wouldn’t mind one,’ Ram, who repaired bicycles, added.

He pretended like he was holding a horse’s reins and jerked his hips back and forth. The others laughed.

At home Ma and Ramkali spoke of nothing else. I would lie, beside my sleeping brother, on the floor in the other room and listen to them through the cow dung walls.

‘I told you she was that kind of woman,’ I heard Ma tell Ramkali. ‘Otherwise why should she leave her comfortable life in the city and live among us? She must have brought such disgrace to her family that they farmed her out here. Thinks she is better than us because she’s read a couple of books and speaks English. Ha! She is no better than a common whore.’

As I listened to her shrill voice, my thoughts flowed to Teacher Aunty. I had never seen her look better. For once her face wasn’t severe. She smiled easily, and the more she smiled the less I noticed her hawklike nose and the thick glasses that sat on it. Instead, it was the bright eyes behind the glasses that drew me in. And for the first time I had become aware of the dimples in her cheeks and the height of her cheekbones.

How could something that made someone look so much better be as bad as Ma made it sound?

Then I recalled the way her face had got when I quizzed her about Albert Sir’s daughter and wondered if Ma had a point.

A few days later, I went to the dhaba after school to find that Albert Sir had been there.

‘He’s going back home,’ Ma informed me. ‘He came to say goodbye.’ She held up a box of sweets. ‘He left these for you.’

Evidently, he had been to everyone he knew in the village, bearing gifts and handing out baksheesh. The only place he didn’t visit was the school. He must have wanted to, if only to say goodbye to Shyam; he took the trouble to hunt out Ramkali and give her his share of the baksheesh. I wondered if Teacher Aunty had told him not to come.

He was all anyone spoke about in the dhaba for the rest of the day. His kindness was unanimously touted. Other than gifts and baksheesh, he had distributed his old clothes, shoes, hat, sunglasses and several small items. Ram proudly held up a fountain pen, even though he could not so much as sign his own name.

I went about my work, thinking of Teacher Aunty. That day she had driven herself hard. No sooner had we finished one lesson than she was ready to leap into another. She even gave up her break period to help a girl who was having trouble with the Hindi alphabet. When I left school in the afternoon, she was busy with a boy who found it hard to retain multiplication tables.

Ramkali picked up on that theme when she visited Ma that night.

‘On my way I saw that the light in the school was still on,’ she said. She let out a long sigh. ‘I guess men are the same no matter where they are from. Sometimes I think it’s not such a bad thing that mine is a little stupid.’

There was a short pause. Then Ma laughed, a hideous cackle that reminded me of a jealous Bollywood vamp salivating at the sight of the villain assaulting the heroine. I recoiled, hugging my arms to my chest. Rising to my feet, I slipped out through one of the side doors. Ajit, who could sleep through an earthquake, did not stir, and Ma and Ramkali were too busy with each other to notice.

As on most nights, there was no power in the village. Drops of light that reminded me of stars floating in a dark river glimmered here and there. I recognised them as glistening lanterns. Baba would be huddled close to one of them, playing cards or downing a tumbler of country liquor.

In the distance, I could see the light in the school compound. It was the only place in our village that had a generator. Teacher Aunty was still in her office. She often worked late, though never that late.

The drone of a plane made me look up. I watched it drift past, its shape briefly eclipsing part of the moon before disappearing from sight. One day in school I had asked Teacher Aunty how Albert Sir had come to us and she said it was in a plane. That was how people travelled between worlds, she said. I wondered if that plane was taking him home.

Her light was still on when I went back inside a little later. Ma and Ramkali were still at it in the other room. As I lay down next to Ajit, a lassitude flowed through me and I knew I would be asleep in a matter of minutes.

I fell asleep, remembering the way Teacher Aunty had looked when Albert Sir was with us. Something told me I’d never see her look that good again.

When The White Man Came For Chai’ was published in Ambit Magazine (UK)

Copyright © 2012 Vikram Kapur. All rights reserved.
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