Thursday, January 9, 2014

Wayside Tea Seller, Crows and the Lessons on Unconditional Love

(Wayside tea seller - image for representational purpose only)

From a walk I come to this wayside tea stall. The stove is already lit and a kettle hisses on it. A husband and wife, unbeaten by the hardships of life, enthusiastically do their chores. I observe the paraphernalia of their business; a few aluminium vessels, tea making devices, a small wooden cupboard and a little cash box. A bench made out of several pieces of abandoned wood is kept by the side of the trolley on which these utensils are kept. It is has a canopy over it. Though the concept is of moving it to their living place once the day comes to an end, most of such trolley-based stalls are more or less permanent on the pavements of any city in India. They are moved only when the policemen ask their owners to do so. Cities, despite their harshness towards the economically deprived, have developed some sort of kindness to accommodate the poor sections. Perhaps, policemen take their weekly bribe from them, some pittance or a few rounds of free tea, a free shave, a free meal and a bunch of free fruits when money becomes too dear to be transacted. The city is on its wheels, always rolling, hardly resting. But these wheeled stalls on the pavement never moves; they witness the movement out there on the roads. Life passes by, in varying colours and paces. But these wayside survivors remain there, without changing the course of their lives much though they wish it to change proportionately with the changes happening before them. Then they slowly find happiness in their existence. That’s why unlike the rich and obscene, powerful and health conscious on the joggers’ park, these people do not talk much about money. This couple who runs this tea stall does not talk about money. My Bengali is very poor still I could gather their conversation and make sense out of it. They talk about computer education; they are talking about their son’s education.

Sitting on the wooden bench I look at the road with all intention to overhear the conversation of this couple. But they stop talking. I ask for a cup of tea. Surprisingly, nobody has come to the stall to have a cup of tea so far. Am I too early or too late, I ask myself. But the lady, who looks like the thinner version of a Laxma Goud character with a rustic sense of charm about carrying herself, takes an small earthen tumbler, which is called a ‘kullad’ in India and pours hot tea from the kettle. The smallness of the tumbler makes you to give and take it with some kind of a body language (perhaps, added by the hotness of the liquid which has been poured into it right then) that resembles reverence. I understand it as reverence only. You are filled with some sort of strange gratitude to anyone who gives you a cup of tea like this. I realise that in your hotel room, or in the restaurant or an upmarket coffee stall, you do not receive a cup of coffee or tea like that. You show your arrogance; you are paying a lot of money for showing off your self-importance. You can be absent minded when you open the packet of brown sugar and transfer its content to the shiny porcelain cup in front of you with a smile etched with cream by the unsmiling boy at the counter. You can look at your lap top screen and jab away digits and letters into it. You can read a magazine or newspaper. Or even you can have huge decisions in your life over a cup of coffee, with no reverence towards it. But in wayside stalls your body turns into an expression of gratitude. I realize it with a smile. I sit firmly on that wooden bench, which is a collage of refuses.

Silently I sip at the kullad. The feeling is intense. First, the dryness of baked clay touches your lips. Your lips are already dry. You feel earth, provided if you have ever felt earth in that fashion. If you have memories, you go into reveries where you see a lump of clay on a wheel, turning into a small cup, fingers of an unknown man, child or woman picking it up from the wheel while it is still circling, with trained fingers. They are coarse but still look at the dexterity with which they pick up the supple clay. He keeps it on his side. Someone picks it up with a lot of care and beat the bottom of it with a paddle. Someone else comes and takes it to the sunlight where thousands of such clay cups are drying. Then faceless people come, they pick the dried ones and stack it up elsewhere. When a huge number is ready in this fashion, a few people carry them to rustic kilns where they fire it. When the fire embraces the earth, water content in it goes out as vapours. From their earthy brown and grey, they turn into fiery red. Later the fire is killed. The cups are taken out. From the potters’ basti, they travel by different modes, carried off carefully and reverently by unknown people to various parts of the country, where unknown people like me sit at the way side and kiss them with reverence. Hot tea, then touches your lips. You could hear a silent hissing at the edges of the cup and at your lips. It gives a jolt in your brain. The tea does not taste like the teas that you have already tasted in your life. It is different because the tea maker is different. You are drinking a part of the tea maker’s life. The tea has his or her story in it. It is hot and it is different.

The man at the stall opens a fresh packet of bread with no brand name etched on the cover. He rips off the polythene cover, takes a plate crumbles the bread into more or less identical pieces and adds some curry to it from another vessel and mixes it with his fingers as he talks to his wife in a tone which oscillates between wailing and hope. I think about him eating the mix of bread and curry as his breakfast. But he walks past me and goes to the iron railings that part the pavement from the road. All the railings, road dividers, public walls and all possible surfaces that are owned by the public sector undertakings are painted in a faint blue and white. Kolkata is slowly turning into a city of blue and white stripes. Like the colour coded cities all over the world, Kolkata slowly assumes the colour of blue and white. You think about it. What could be the reason for such a government decision? In South I have seen most of the temple cities have brown/red/saffron and white stripes all over the places. That connotes the presence of religious establishments there. It is a great feel to see a temple pond reflecting the red and white stripes on the walls around it with the shiny gopurams inhabited by innumerable images of gods and goddesses. This reflection is the inverted sight of the world around. It puts the world in perspective; part real and part illusion. But in Kolkata you don’t see such reflected images of the world. The more I think about the logic of blue and white stripes the more I come to think of the white saree and the blue border of it worn by late Mother Theresa and her flock of sisters. Mother Theresa had adopted this city and alleviated many from their destitution. She wore white saree with blue borders. But my friend tells me another story. West Bengal whose capital is Kolkata is ruled by Trinamool Congress led by Mamta Banerjee, a strong leader who came up from the roots but turned into a corrupt autocrat. She too wears cotton sarees, to emphasis her humble origins. But the information given to me is a bit shocking. Someone from the ruling party runs a paint company and all the paint for turning the city into blue and white stripes come from his company. When the man goes to the railings with the plate of crumbled bread in hands, I think about the man who runs a paint company.

The tea stall man puts the bread crumbles there at the pavement and walks back to the stall. I ask for one more cup of tea and the woman pours it into the same kullad that I hold before her with some sort of unintentional reverence. I come back to the bench, rather a local constructivist collage (I cannot help mentioning it) and once again sip at the cup. This time memories do not flow. I have come to terms with the memories. But I watch the theatre of life unfolding before me. Tens of crows come down from the nearby trees. They have been sitting there all the time, which I have not noticed before. I had seen them, while walking at the lakeside, right in the middle of the lake, on a leafless tree with each branch filled up with crows as if they were black flames from a surreal lamp in the shape of a tree. These crows clean the place within a few minutes. They do not fight each other. They wait for their turn. These crows look healthy and they all have shiny black feathers. They do not make too many sounds. After having their breakfast they fly away. What surprises me is the attitude of both the crows and the man. They do not go to the man to say thanks. The man does not even look at the crows once, expecting some kind of gratitude. Perhaps, it is daily ritual. They are already bonded in an invisible thread of selfless love; unconditional love.

Love is a problematic word. I consider it as a linguistic problem. As there are not too many words to express the human bonding filled with kindness, care and gratitude, we all use the word love. From parental love to the love talk of spiritual gurus, from lovers bonding to city planners’ caring for the city, for anything and everything we have only this insufficient word, love. But it has become a powerful word of its own merits and rights. It is perhaps one word that has not lost its charm after all these ages of overuse and misuse. The adjective ‘unconditional’ makes it further problematic. Most of the people develop relationships with the others on conditions. When people get married they take vows of marriage; these vows are conditions. When attend spiritual sessions, we follow certain conditions. When we love our pets we expect certain returns from them; another set of conditions. We are full of conditions. We do something for the world because we expect certain things in return; name or fame or fortune. If we are not getting it, we leave it there. We carry conditions and norms along with us. The most ironic thing is that the more we talk about love the more we think about conditions and returns. People say that their love for god is unconditional. If it is unconditional why people carry offerings to the god and ask for so many things. It is not unconditional love. It is bribing and asking for favours. People say that god loves everyone unconditionally. As we do not know whether god is out there or not, we cannot believe in his/her unconditional love either. There are interesting stories about the unconditional love. For example, a man went to god and complained that when he was in his happy days, he could see two pairs of foot prints wherever he went; of his and the gods. But when he was lonely, tired and was in trouble, he could not see two pairs. Whatever he saw was one pair of foot prints. God smiled and told him; Look, in those days I was carrying you on my shoulders. It is good to listen to stories. But this footprint story is all about making you feel good.

Unconditional love exists in rare areas of human relationship. Whether you accept it or not, the biggest and strongest form of unconditional love exists in self love. You cannot love anybody else unconditionally than yourself. The more you love your own self unconditionally the more you could love other unconditionally. How can you put conditions on your own self? How can you go to a gym and tell your right hand secretly that ‘look man, I am going to give you some extra pushes today because you are more useful than the left one.’ We do not do it. The supreme kind of unconditional love is there in self love. I am not talking about selfishness. Selfishness is conditional. You love yourself and use others and relationships for your means and ends; that is selfishness. Self love is all about taking care of yourself without expecting anything in return. How can you punish yourself because you are angry with your face or stomach? If people are doing it, they are all the victims of perverted thinking not only on an individual level but also on a collective and societal level. If you love yourself unconditionally and your being is so aware of that then you could love others also unconditionally. That’s why sports people who makes the greatest physical efforts to make themselves fit and competitive (not with life but with other sports people within the given competitive fields) generally do not hurt others. They know the pain that they have taken to perfect themselves. How can they ruin others? If someone does it, then they do not love themselves. They are driven by the passions of revenge and hatred. You cannot destroy anybody if you love yourself. Hatred comes from self hating. If you love yourself unconditionally, you will love everyone unconditionally. If you are not loving anything and anybody unconditionally, the inference is simple; you are not loving you unconditionally.

The only relationship in which people behave and love unconditionally is parental love. But let me tell you, this too is a false belief. Children are brought in this world by parents. So they take it up as their duty to love them unconditionally. But this unconditional love happens only within a given context. When things are good or threatening, parents love their children unconditionally. When parents themselves are troubled, they just do not love their children unconditionally. They, then deliver their duties. Think about parents who beat up their children ruthlessly. Why do they do that? Is it because of unconditional love? I do not think so. It comes from self hate. We give education to children thinking that they would bring us the returns. If we are just educating them to be full blown individuals we will not think about their future. We will think about their present and will be absolutely happy about it. But most of us think about the future of the children. When we do it, we are just investing in their as well as our future. They will have a secured life, which will automatically give us a secured and safe happy life in future. And we call it unconditional love. But fortunately, we do a lot of things towards unconditional love when it comes to our behaviour towards our children. We feed them before we feed ourselves. We try to give them the best clothes. We try to keep them happy. We try to do whatever they ask us to do. But remember, whenever we oblige our kids, we are actually showing love towards ourselves. When we pamper our kids we pamper the kids in us. We love ourselves so much and in our love for our children that love gets expressed.

I can tell you for sure that unconditional love stems only from self love. The more you love yourself the more you could love others. The more you care for yourself the more you care for others. The more you avoid rules and regulations for yourself the more you bring down the barricades that you have set up for others. Self loving is a way to deliverance and freedom. I am not talking about deliverance to moksha and such romantic things. I am talking deliverance in terms of happiness. Freedom brings you happiness and freedom comes when you love yourself unconditionally and love others unconditionally. Otherwise you will remain as a bonded slave to your selfishness and hatred. However we qualify our love for nature or kids or ideology or anything, if we are looking for returns it is conditional; it is not unconditional. The man who spreads out bread crumbs before the crows shows unconditional love for them. And for whatever reasons he does it, it comes from the love he has for himself. He knows hunger so he knows the hunger of the crows. He knows what quenches his thirst and hunger so he gives the same to the crows. Unconditional love happens when you are free. A way side tea seller is a better guide than a guru who misguides you for profit.

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