The Price of Tea

By Madeeha Ansari
Chartering a land of red tape.

I wondered what he would look like. In my head, he was the thick-voiced embodiment of corruption and malpractice. Middle-aged, balding, with an ample belly and a large ringon one finger. In he would stride with an important-looking list on which he’d tick off theladies’ names and take charge of their business.

“Don’t give your documents to anyone,” he had said on the phone. “I’ll be there directly.”

Unfortunately for him, he was up against someone with her first point to prove upon herreturn to Pakistan. So we ignored the telephonic instructions, smiled at the gentleman behind the counter of the PIA cargo office and handed over the receipt for our goods. Just then, there was another frantic call.

“Are you there yet?”

There was barely time to reply when the door clicked and he entered in person.

I turned around and bit my lip. He was young, perhaps thirty, and hardly the obnoxious personality I had resolved to overpower by the force of righteous feminine will. He did not look very important, even a little bedraggled after a sprint in the rain.

“Assalam-u-alaikum”.

We returned the greeting and returned to the counter.

“You must do their work properly,” he volunteered, with slightly less confidence.

The bespectacled gentleman handling our papers pursed his lips in a wry, dry way.

“Passport?”

“Passport,” echoed our eager aide, while I rummaged about. By this time I felt nearly bad enough to want to help him assume some dignified control over the situation. However, there was little to be done. There was no way the process could have been expedited, even if we had let ourselves be taken over by the anxious airport official who sought a lucrative opportunity in a lady’s telephone inquiry. Our would-be friend must havesensed this; when I turned around, he was hovering no more.

This small, bland victory was soon eclipsed by the realization that we had picked up anever-ending trail of red tape. I found myself drawing my dupatta a little closer as wecrossed the verandah to the cargo warehouse. A great many men were sitting on thebenches, leaning against the walls, sipping tea or talking among themselves. It wasraining, but somehow I suspected that the picture of the verandah was just so even when summer was at its most witheringly dry. A great many pairs of curious eyes followed us without inhibition, though few must have meant ill.

“Go help them out, Babaji,” instructed a ginger-haired smoker, who had been mapping our progress from the first office. One elderly member of the male mass disattached himself from the Great Many and attached himself to our little group. Babaji had onlybeen waiting to oblige.

So it was that we found ourselves swallowed by a powerful sub-culture stemming notonly from male protectiveness, but from that deeply entrenched South Asian practice of delegation. We could not fight the expectations aroused by our gender and appearance.

The process of cargo retrieval is straightforward but tedious, involving much running around to get first one then another document stamped. Babaji and his friends may havehad formal job descriptions, but they were not required. With luck and an appearance of amiable efficiency, they could earn a living from being self-appointed liaison officers between clients and the warehouse staff. It takes a few hundred rupees to “locate” one’s particular boxes in the go-down, a few more to get the papers past a random sticky stage,and a final few to thank Babaji for his stamina.

As I sat on a bench in the warehouse in sullen surrender, I wondered how much I actually begrudged the loss of the hundred rupee notes. I was irked, it was true, by the principle that it was somebody’s job to find my boxes and the relevant He was not performing it. I secretly thought about how I could have waited in the car and let the unfortunate airport official assume some importance, perhaps for a few hundred more.Then I looked at the ring of chairs under the fan turning ever so slowly under the highwarehouse ceiling. There were young men, grey men, strong men, waiting for a chanceto leap to their feet. I wondered how many alternate ways there were of providing that chance.

The sound of an airplane landing in the background brought the vivid memory of yesterday’s drawing-room conversation. When family and friends went to identify thevictims of the Air-Blue plane crash, they were told that no jewelry or valuable electricalequipment was retrieved from the wreck. It was said that women who might have been wearing rings or bracelets were found with hands amputated. Such is the desperation ofmaking ends meet.

Babaji and his comrades were not among the dishonest men of the world, nor yet the desperate. They were simply the products of a generation bred on chai-pani. The metaphorical beverages come in all forms, consumed by different genres of people. There is the kind bought by policemen, vending freedom from jail and traffic tickets; bureaucrats, holding on to applications needing approval; politicians, sipping cups of thestrongest brew. Just as nepotism is now called networking, the euphemism for bribery is heartbreakingly mundane.

Chai, pani. Tea, water. Both are almost equally essential for survival in Pakistani life. They have long seeped into the fabric of every institution, so no one remembers theoriginal colours. Who is to say that with a bit of willpower we shouldn’t need tea, and that water is a right that should be free for all?

Not businessmen, going about their contracts and tenders. Not activists, campaigning against injustice while blocking the best jobs for the undeserving. Not me sitting onmy bench, watching an old man do my running around. I had no solution for the tea-drinking men whose taxable income could not pay the rent.

It was then that I began to see the holes in the do-it-yourself philosophy. It was not always going to work. Not unless hundreds of manicured hands were ready to dondupattas and join the fray in an acceptable way, or thousands of work-worn hands were given the tools to build a respectable life. There were going to be many mountains of red tape to scale, the price of tea rising with the altitude.

“Well, choti,” smiled my driver as I got back to the car. “Welcome home.”

Madeeha Ansari was formerly Articles Editor for The Missing Slate and is currently pursuing her postgraduate degree at Tufts University as a Fulbright Scholar.

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