The air hostess didn't ask him if he'd like his tea remade. He was reclined in his seat, eyes closed, iPod playing; the teacup held by both his palms and a smug smile glowing on his face. She pushed the trolley. There were plenty of passengers left who were displeased with the excess sugar in their tea. He took the last sip from his cup but continued holding it with both palms. He wasn't prepared to let go of it. Not just yet. It had been two decades since he'd last had tea this syrupy.
His was one of those families that had migrated from a village to a city. His dad was the last member in the family tree who had been born in the village. Every couple of years, the family visited the village during his school vacations.
He remembered those times better than any memory he had of the city.
Their village was an obscure place in the middle of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. The kind of place that folk stories described as a stopover for hungry caravan riders and tired camels. A place where genies thrived and miracles occurred inside every earthen pot. A place that had neither a telephone nor a TV...but a place that the man's family, nevertheless, called home.
He remembered the first time he'd gone there. He'd fallen in love with the sand. He loved clutching a fistful of sand and watching it fall from his palm, blowing with the wind as it did. He loved going out with his dad every evening with a jar of water, making balls of wet sand, arranging them in a line, and then having a camel walk over the line. Rarely, if ever, had he been that thrilled.
He remembered the first time he rode a camel. The camel got up on its hind legs throwing him forward and then straightened up its front legs, almost shrugging the poor chap off its back. He was impressed by his own ability to stay put and by the camel's attempt to cast him off. He had always thought the camel looked cool. It had an indifferent countenance, walked like it couldn't care less, dragged its feet without hesitation, and ate food like it was chewing gum.
He remembered the peacocks and how his dad would wake him up early and sit with him in the veranda watching the peacocks pick on the grains he'd spread for them. If they were lucky, they'd see a peacock spread its wings in full majesty. If not, he'd have to be content with collecting the feathers the birds had dropped. He remembered trying to write with the feathers by dipping them in ink. He'd given up, exasperated, after a few words.
He still laughed when he thought of the cricket matches he played with the local boys there, especially that one smiling chap who used to do commentary as he ran up to bowl. He wondered what might have become of him. Whether he left the village and made a career or took after his forefathers and tilled the land. He wondered what would have happened if his own father hadn't made the move to the city. He could have been the same as that smiley guy. Maybe Nature does play dice, he thought.
He remembered the dinners. The chapattis cooked on an earthen kiln, a splash of melted butter on them, the generous helping of jaggery , the crisp papad baked on the kiln for after dinner. He believed the kiln added magic to the food. Somehow, the chic gas stove had missed a trick.
He remembered the tea they used to have after dinner as they sat on the terrace and gazed into the nothingness surrounding them. The local folks loved the tea sweet. That was the only form of tea known there, and that was the tea he got used to when he was there. He felt teleported to a different world as his dad recounted stories from his time and those he'd heard passed down from generations. Wrapped in a warm blanket, sipping tea, watching the sand dunes change shape as the winds blew, he'd fallen asleep many a night in his mom's lap on the terrace.
He remembered going with his parents to the fairs in nearby villages: watching the puppet shows, the dances in traditional costumes to songs in an unknown dialect, listening to the cheers from those on the hand-operated Ferris wheel, and the din of vendors selling handicrafts and earthenware.
He remembered going up to the terrace by himself at dusk and looking at the camels and the cacti in the distance. He enjoyed the solitude and the emptiness around him. He loved the way the air became cool after sunset. Now, more than ever, he longed for those quiet moments. He smiled a wry smile.
C'est la vie, he thought, as he opened his eyes and searched for John Denver on his iPod -- Driving down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday. "Country Roads" suited him for the moment. He reclined his seatback and got lost in the memories of those times gone by.
Back in the pantry, the air hostess smiled. A passenger had just asked her for more of the tea, "With extra sugar, if you please."