It was twilight. The sun was setting behind the mountains. Birds were returning to the safety of their nests. The trees had bowed down their canopy, as though cowing down against the terrors of the night. The sky was switching shades from a gay blue to fiery red, yellow, orange with a fast-approaching shade of grey. Mansukhram had withdrawn the tables placed in front of his tea-shop, signalling the end-of-business for the day. His accomplices would soon return in the last bus from the city with their day’s remuneration, all of which would be risked in several rounds of gambling through the night, within the inner confines of Mansukh’s tea shop. This had been their routine for the past 30 years, and tonight would be no exception.
As Mansukh was emptying the last ounce of tea from the boiler into a glass, he noticed a girl of about thirteen watching him from a distance. He beckoned her to come closer. At first she seemed unsure, but the sight of the glassful of tea was too tantalizing to resist. She went closer and stood in front of the shop. Mansukh studied her- a sturdy girl in her teens. Her clothes were torn. Her face was weary from exertion. “Where do you come from? You don’t have anyone with you?” he asked.
She looked down. “I ran away from home, ten kilometres from here. My mother is ill. I have two brothers and three sisters- all younger than me. No food. My father works hard in the farms- day and night. But no money. So, he borrowed. Now he is unable to repay. So, the rich man ordered my father to send me to work for him. My father refused. He sent men to beat my father; father is hurt, everyone’s crying.” Tears trickled down her cheeks. She looked up, “I could face them no longer. I ran away from home with a silent promise of returning with lots of money. That day our debts would be cleared and we would have to cry no more.”
Mansukh had been watching her face all along. In spite of the pain, sorrow and adversity, there was a streak of confidence, a ray of hope characteristic only to the very young. “You want some tea?” he asked her, handing over the glassful of the lukewarm beverage. She nodded and took it from his hands. “You may sit here and drink. I’ll be back.” Saying so, he disappeared with the empty boiler behind the shop.
She sat there silently, drinking from the glass. The tea wet her parched mouth; parched from travel, hunger and thankfulness. As she took another sip, the taste awakened her taste buds, stimulating her soul, strengthening her hope in life. She relished every sip, becoming stronger with each. The sky turned a fiery yellow.
Her reverie was broken by a bunch of loud voices coming towards the shop. Mansukhram’s friends had returned with their day’s hard-earned money, which would soon be let loose into several hours of gambling, to be lost once and for all, occasionally to be regained double. The girl’s presence was a surprise to all of them and they stopped short of entering their gambling paradise. The youngest of them stepped forward, “Who are you?” he asked, “Why are you here?” “I’m Tamanna’’ she replied, “I ran away from home. The Chaiwallah uncle gave me some tea and asked me to sit here.” All of them exchanged glances at this reply. “Will you work for us?” the eldest one asked, “We’ll give you a lot of money. Come inside, we’ll show you how much money we have.” Tamanna’s face lit up. “Really?” she exclaimed. He nodded and urged her inside. She placed her half-drunk glass of tea on the table and followed.
By this time, Mansukhram returned after finishing his chores. He had heard his friends coming and was eager to send the girl away. He was worried on not finding the girl where he had left her and became nervous on seeing the half-drunk glass of tea. He, at once, went inside. The scene that met his eyes filled him with pity and rage. The men had heaped all their money on the floor and the girl was looking at it, transfixed with helpless amusement. One of them looked up at Mansukhram, “Looks like we have a great night ahead, what do you say?” Mansukh shook his head, “She’s only a kid, you can’t do this to her. “Oh! Come on, she’s no kid, look at the way she’s eyeing the money.” The man went close to Tamanna and touched her back. “No, I won’t let you touch her”. Mansukh jumped forward to hit the man. But in vain. The angry mob pounced on him, hit him and threw him out of the shop, closing the door behind as they went in.
His whimperings of pain, mixed with the girl’s whining echoed against the silence. There was no one to hear or help. Abruptly, the whining of the girl stopped. Mansukhram broke into a sob. The sky had turned black. He cried through the night. The half-empty glass of tea stood a mute witness to what had happened. The tea inside had turned cold, as though it was chilled by the ruthlessness of the world.