Saturday, January 8, 2011
That Lady Who Brings The Chai
She keeps her head down and seldom makes eye contact, though she might smile shyly if you happen to notice her in an encouraging way.
You probably won't, though. No offense. I'm no different.
When I first came to India at the age of 23, the whole idea of servants creeped me out. I was a self-help American girl and though I had once been a waitress myself, I couldn't bear the idea of anyone waiting on ME. Toast? Thanks so much! I'll make it myself. Tea? Thank you, no really. I'm fine. I'll get my own later.
Over time, I got used to the idea. Learned how to reach out for the cup while continuing to listen attentively to the other people in the room. Later, I could even go right on talking while picking it up, continuing with my important train of thought as if that lady with the tray wasn't even there.
Because she wasn't.
She was in her world; I was in mine. This went on for years. Then slowly, the walls began to come down. My friend Gloria - in her gentle, inimitable fashion - showed me another way, a way which acknowledged the humanity of the person holding the tray without stooping to condescension or pity. My friend and house guest Angie - with her fiercely democratic and egalitarian presence - taught me how much more fun it could be to engage with the person holding the tray.
And then it was off to the races.
Because now, every person serving tea - whether in my home or in some dreary government office - has suddenly leapt to life. There they stand, holding the tray, yet full of a hectic, inspired life the depths of which I cannot begin to fathom.
She brings the tea in on a tray, but she's thinking about her village. She's remembering the bus journey that brought her here. She's calculating the days until her sister's son's wedding. She's hoping it will rain so her crops back home will flourish.
She's alive. She is not just that woman holding the tray. She's got a life, and a story and a dream of a common language. We owe it to her to look into her eyes and acknowledge her existence.