MAR 21 – It’s a foggy morning in Lalbandi, Sarlahi, and I need my morning tea. I’d thought about ordering a cup at the hotel I’m staying at, but the people there have recommended Binod Kumar Shah’s place instead, which they say is around a five-minute walk away. Apparently, Shah’s tea stall is a required pit stop for anyone passing through this small town. I make my way down the main thoroughfare of the town and before too long come upon a crowded shack abutting the far-end of the vegetable market, where trucks are loading from the market’s shops bushels of tomatoes—the major produce that Sarlahi is known for.
The tea stall is basically an area canopied by a corrugated tin roof weighed down by salvaged motorcycle and bicycle tyres—and there’s even a bent truck-tyre rim thrown on top of the roof to keep it in place. The roof descends from the brick wall of an adjoining building and is supported by soot-stained bamboo pillars all around. There are benches scattered both inside this space and around the shack—their placement allows the people who’ve come for their daily fix of Shah’s famous tea to congregate with other townspeople either inside the shack or take in the early-morning sun, unhindered by the tin roof, out in the open air.
Even as I make my way into the shack, past people clutching small glass tumblers of tea, mostly talking local politics, I have already figured out the proprietor from amongst the crowd. Shah is the wiry man in the blue shirt, blue apron and gumboots, flitting among the customers, bending low to the level of the seated people’s heads every so often to take yet another order or to throw in a phrase into the thick of the conversations. And before I can place my order, he’s already homed in on me, and he makes his way towards me with a glass of tea. The place sells only tea, after all, and he’s already made the first move towards initiating contact with me, making it easy for me to proceed to making small talk with him.
I park myself on a nearby bench, take the first few sips of his brew and the insides of my mouth are immediately awash with its milky goodness. There will be no small talk now; the more sips I take, the more I want to know what’s happening here: how does it come about that a tea stall, of all places, is the go-to destination in this town? I mean, I have already figured out that the man knows how to run this show—the brisk pace of business I am witness to, with some of the people around me already onto their second and third glasses of tea, tells me the obvious. So what’s the secret? I want to know.
“It’s simple,” Shah says. “I just want to make great tea. That’s it.” He shows me how he does it, and it really is a simple affair, if you take simple to mean confining yourself to producing a rich, unadulterated version of our national drink. Unadulterated at Shah’s shop means tea that has for its base only milk—undiluted by water, and suffused by the strong flavour produced by tea leaves that have not been squeezed for all they’re worth. To create the tea’s creamy body, Shah lets simmer a cauldron of milk throughout the day—over a wood-fired earthen stove, both to save on energy costs and to have the woodsmoke infuse the tea with the kindling’s earthy tones; and he boils the tea leaves over a gas stove, in small batches, getting rid of the spent stuff before the tea leaves turn so effete that the only flavour they can impart are acidic, metallic overtones.
But the journey that led him here to his tea stall, I soon learn, is anything but simple. Shah, who is 30 now, was once a Maoist cadre during the People’s War. He grew up poor—his father brought him up on the meagre earnings that he made from selling biscuits and sweets that he sold off a cart (his father is parked a little distance away; he’s still hawking biscuits, even after all these years); and when the Maoist movement picked up steam, Shah hitched his hopes to the ideals touted by the rebels. He dropped out while he was still an eighth graderat the local Shree Janajyoti Higher Secondary School and joined the Maoist ranks. His younger brother soon followed suit. Shah was deployed, he says, all over the country and even accompanied soldiers on military raids and battles, mostly as an informant or as a scout. While he was taking part in a raid on the Pattharkot Police Post, north of Lalbandi, in 2000, he was struck on his right calf by a bullet’s shrapnel, which put an end to his days of active duty in the field. In February 2001, he was arrested by the Nepal Police for being a Maoist cadre and jailed.
A few days later, on finding that his cell’s door was unlocked, he made a break for it, and ran away to India. He then continued to live underground in India, biding his time, waiting for the day when the Maoists would control the government and bring forth the changes as promised by the leaders. He returned to Nepal around the time of Jana Andolan II, in 2006, full of hope. And then he entered a period of listlessness, through the transition, and the years to follow, post 2008, when the Maoists were at the helm. He began to grow disillusioned with the way the leaders were going about their duties, and when they couldn’t come up with a new constitution, he was done with transferring his hopes onto others, hoping they’d bring about change; and he says, wrapping up the bits about his past, he’s all but given up hope that he’ll one day get compensated by his party. Three years ago, he decided that he needed to take charge of his life again, and thus was born his tea stall.
I listen, enthralled by his tale, only snapping out of his story’s stream when he keeps reiterating his newfound belief, “We can only forge our own destiny by working on the small things we can devote ourselves to.” I am surprised to find that I have already downed three glasses of Shah’s tea, so I wind down the conversation, ask for his leave. And walk back to my hotel, Shah’s story swirling in my head, his tea’s warm goodness coursing through my body.