21. the chaiwallah next door

My photo does not go unnoticed;

the chaiwallah gestures puzzledly to me.
“Yean photo?” he asks—“Why a photo?”

—and I try to explain the symmetry
of the masala jar library in front of me,
that the dust of tea and cigarette smoke
wind through the light like whispers,

but I can’t find the throaty Tamil words to tell him.
I fumble and only say “light.”
He pulls aside a tarp to correct me.

“Light illai. Hole thaan.”
 There is no light, only a hole.
He tells me that his landlord
comes in the night to punch holes
in the ceiling to drive him out
of the property, even when it rains,
especially when it rains,
mornings of scooping ankle-deep storm out of his teacups.

He tells me that
he has already gone to court
against him, and won, ten lakhs
of rupees in damages owed,
but “this is India.”
It’s been twelve years.

“Manikkavvum,” I tell him,
which is both “I’m sorry” and “excuse me,”
both of which, I realize as they slip through my lips,
are not enough.

He shrugs, offers me two biscuits
in crumpled newspaper.

The customers keep coming back, he tells me.
People trust people who have nothing left to lose.

 “Indha light nalla irukku.”
“This light is good.”


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