Two women in a boat and some teaA dragon fly perches on the oar and she pauses briefly, lets it alight on a bundle of grass parked on the side of the boat, and then rows again
Chandraa had to be carried down the hillside on a makeshift stretcher, as she went into labour. The pain she experienced at the time wasn’t taken away by the bright blueness of the October sky above her or the singing of the birds on the trees.
As the men hurried her down the hillside on the stretcher, the jolts they made, only made her pain worse. She wondered if she would make it to hospital on time or if like her friend, Sukundara, she too would end up giving birth to her baby in a boat. She decided that to drip into the Begnas through the boat was not going to be her fate. And in response, her water broke as they scurried downhill and they halted and the women crouched beside her to help her and there, in the middle of the forest, in the Begnas valley, Chandraa’s daughter was born.
“She’s 16 now and she’s in class ten,” Chandraa says. “My son is 12 now and he was born in the hospital. I wasn’t going to risk birthing in a forest the second time.”
The oars push into the water and away as Chandraa works her way across the lake. “You tell me where you want to go and I’ll take you there,” she says. I ask her to row closer to the thicket and we drift along the edge of the lake where the shore meets the forest— we’re far out in a deserted corner. No other boats in sight, it’s Chandraa and I, and the cicadas, at their loudest.
A dragon fly perches on the oar and she pauses briefly, lets it alight on a bundle of grass parked on the side of the boat, and then rows again.
“I don’t want my children to have to work as hard as I have had to and so they’re both going to go to college and work in offices,” she says. And so, Chandraa takes up extra work when it is available. She explains how rare a ride is during low-season, and that while she charges 800 per ride, she only gets to pocket 200.
I ask if she spends some of that money on herself. “On my children,” she says. Chandraa is a full-time farmer, but on days when the field work is wrapped up, she picks her bag, umbrella and her hat, and sets downhill to the lake, in the hope of finding a tourist to ferry around.
“This is easier than field work and sometimes I meet nice people who like to talk and ask questions,” Chandraa says. But the conversation quickly turns and she starts to dart questions at me.
“What happened to your hair, madam?” she asks. Old age, I say. She laughs: “I can’t tell if you coloured your hair or if you’re really old.”
I am old. We laugh some more.
Januka joins me on the park bench by the lake.
“It is impossible,” she sighs. “They all owe me money and say they can only pay me tomorrow. And now I have no money.” At first, it sounds as though she’s talking to herself, but I soon notice it is directed at anyone who will sympathise. Once she is done settling her twin flasks on the bench, she looks at me and smiles.
“Are you selling tea?” I ask.
She says: “Yes. But I have run out of tea today.”
By this time, I’m holding out some money in her direction. She looks at the money, smiles and shakes her head. No more tea.
I make an offer: “How about you keep the money for two cups of tea and my friend and I will meet you here tomorrow so you can give us some tea.” She stares at the notes for a while and then takes them from me and repeatedly says: “Please make sure to come by tomorrow.”
It is after two days that I am finally able to launch Mission Januka and scour the lakeside for her. When I finally run into her again, she’s sitting in a dark patch by the lake, under a tree, handing out teas in paper cups. Eh, she says when she sees me: “Why didn’t you come the other day? Right right, the storm! It lasted two days, no?”
“Where’s your friend?” She tilts her head to check as though she were expecting someone to emerge from behind me.
It’s just me, I say.
Januka pulls out a paper cup, uncorks her thermos and pours me a cup of tea. The wind has started to gather around us again and we both have hair flapping across our faces. “It’s crazy weather again, no?”
“Yes, makes me think of the year we had the earthquake,” she responds. “That’s right. My family is from near Barpak and we moved here after the earthquake. I go to school here now.” Januka says she makes around 400 rupees a day selling tea after school. “It’s not much, but the work is easy and the money is useful,” she says.
I ask if it is safe for her to walk home at night. Januka explains there are other vendors like herself and they usually wait for everyone to finish the sales and walk back together to their rented rooms.
I close my fingers over the paper cup. The liquid is warm against my hands. It begins to pitter-patter. I’ll head to my hotel now, I say. “Will you be safe walking alone, madam?” Januka asks me. “If you’re safe, I’m safe, I guess.” We exchange smiles. Hers is the smile of a child, awkward but generous.
Almost suddenly, I’m filled with a sense of joy that only a cup of sweet, fragrant tea could have brought me on a rainy evening. I sip the tea and walk on in the drizzle, talking to random street dogs and thinking about Januka counting her money at the end of each day.