Ayyanar Street was crowded. Always. Known for its ill traffic of public transport buses, the road housed some of the most frustrated citizens of Madras. The road, though situated in the middle of the overgrown city, had fallen prey to its own goodness of growth; it had houses, with people in them having to wait for ages to catch the over-crowded 25E that rested its whole weight on the left wheels, where young and old clung to anything solid on the bus and to anyone in front of them, like little spiders…Many a request for better transit system had gone unheeded. But life moved and grew on, like the faithful old 25E that sighed and growled, like the hungry mutt wounded under its wheels, like the pile of tea dust aside Ayyanar Tea Stall, like the froth on the tea with every whisk of Kannan’s expert hands, like Manickam and his ever present smile. No one noticed it though. There was a time when he did. And he hadn’t stopped laughing ever after.
Young mothers with their inquisitive sons called him the “boochandi mama”, roughly translated to “the ogre uncle”, who was after kids that didn’t drink up their milk or that didn’t finish their home-works as soon as they got back from pre-school. He smiled at the little kids who pointed their tiny fingers at him and hid their little faces into their mothers’ pallus.
Their husbands were always on their feet. Running to their dank places of work to earn their meager annas, only to spend a little on an arm’s length of sweet smelling jasmine, a little at a 5- Rupee Sale, a little at the old woman who waved her stacks of spinach in the air all day and a little at the government owned “oyin shaap”. Manickam laughed to himself as these little dormice ran to their holes, chewing on a well folded leaf of betel, only to get whacked by their faithful wives with everything, ranging from brooms to household utensils. He laughed…everything broke…the husband, who tried his best to hide his little quart…the wife at her never learning man…the broom…the utensil…him…
The racket stops. The wife cries. The husband promises, bribing her with the braid of sweet smelling flowers. She sniffs away her tears. Smiles. Carries the fallen bags back in to feed her shaky spouse. Sleep. Manickam laughs on…
Kannan smiled too. But at smelly notes and frothy tea, prepared from a concoction of watery milk and Top Star dust. And at Manickam.
“Dei Muthu…namma ayyanarku dhagamungoy!” (“Oye Muthu…Our big man seems to be thirsty!”)
And Muthu, the scrawny 14 year old picks up the glass of frothy tea and dropped it casually into his little carrier made of stainless steel string, his pride, his machine, his weapon! He crosses the road like he knew the traffic patterns, like a lab rat who knew his way in a plastic labyrinth, placed to test his mental strength. Not a bubble of froth slips down…not a drop of watery tea falls to the floor…he smiles at the known faces that run for the approaching 25E, in starched shirts and with red eyes. The vehicle, screeches a good 10 meters beyond the stop. Some spiders fall. Some cling on. Others cling on. Pull. Tug. Scream. Cuss.
Muthu smiles. He runs over to Manickam, who’s smiling too.
“Annachi kudukka chonnarungo!”( “Brother asked me to give this!”), he announces as he places the glass in front of Manickam, on the single plastic tea coaster.
Manickam smiles again. Kannan catches the smile and sighs. Muthu runs back Ayyanar Tea Stall.
Manickam puts his pinkie out. He holds the glass close to his unshaved lower lip. It’s the same tea. Cardamom and ginger sting his nose. He sips on. And smiles.
Manickam picks up the plastic tea-coaster, fresh with a brown ring that smelt of cheap tea and cardamom and wipes it with a damp rag that smelt worse. He puts it back in the little holder that was shaped like the Taj Mahal with a broken minaret. He smiles. “Purrrffect!,” he growled to himself, smiling.
He knew why he smiled.