A Portrait of a Woman Having Tea

I wrote this in the spring of 2009 while I was living and working in Kolkata, India, a few months before leaving for Peace Corps. I reread it recently and wanted to share it here.


On a muggy, still, Tuesday morning, Mangal and I walked through a Kolkata slum called Boro Ghati. We met a woman; her image is still with me.
She sat in a chai stall off the side of the road. The little hut was all woven and collected. Its structure was a tight bunch of crude tethers and brittle strips of bamboo. The dinted tin tea pot, the blackened kettle, the warped spoon and weak cheese-clothe all seemed ‘found’. There was a thick glass jar with some unappealing biscuits. There was an uneven, lacquered bench, shiny and dark grey. The woman sat there, on the high side, her cracked feet hovering over a floor of dusty earth.
She wore a white-turned-dirt-grey sari slung about her shoulders and waist in such a tumbledown way that it betrayed the decreasing mobility of her arms, the fading dexterity of her fingers. The thin fabric was wrinkled like the thick raffia my mother used to stretch and glue to her country crafts in the ’90’s, and I wanted to reach out and touch it, hear it crinkle and feel the tiny folds against the hinges of my fingers. Perhaps her whole form might have collapse in my hands; I would very well be able to roll her up into a paper ball and toss her.
She was missing her front teeth, and her speech had a slurp to it that was detectable despite our differing mother-tongues. Her hair matched her raffia sari in color and fell oily and in dreads, down over her dark brown shoulders. She was the same dark, crust-of-bread color all over. With all her freckles she looked as if she’d gone soft like a banana.
She held a shot-glass size cup of dark, milky chai lightly between her knotty fingers.
Mangal asked her how she was doing, “Ap kyese hei?”
Her slurpy speech turned quickly, shot off like thread on a kicked spinning wheel.
Mangal would later tell me that she was desperately spooling her last few days for us; her brittle words told of ejection from her home by a family that did not want to feed and house a non-working adult. As merely an eater, she was too costly to support. Forget the ties that bind. There was only one here, daily bread, and there is not enough of that to go around.
She spoke as if what she had to say was a glass of water, tipped and running across the table, gathering at the edges, dripping in the air, then sinking in dusty ground. Without skewing her rhythm, she looked directly at me. Our eyes met. Such round, brown, wet eyes welling more and more until tears were finally running from them & hiding within the wrinkles of her face.
Then, her speech stopped as abruptly as it had started; she was spent. Left to her own devices and those of a coming death, she had simply come to this chai stall. There we found her. After she stopped talking, she lifted the glass of chai to her flappy lips and slurped the tea over her gums. The gesture seemed compulsive and desperate, her instincts’ attempt at comfort. It was as if her subconscious was saying to itself, ‘It’s not so bad. See? Tea!’
I looked at her sitting there, sipping tea, her deep brown eyes staring forward.
Mangal touched her shoulder, uttered something and walked on. I reached out and touched her shoulder as well; then I remembered touching the shoulder of my dying great aunt in Lousiana a couple weeks before I came to India. I remembered, after attending a Mass in Houston, dipping my fingers in holy water.
I walked after Mangal, rubbing my thumb across my fingertips.

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