A red tarp makes up the roof of the lassi shack. It has a back wall made of wood and half of another, but the third is illusory, formed by the neighboring fruit stand.
“Please,” he says again, gesturing behind himself to the back of the shack. He is thin, and stands roughly three-quarters my height, with brown skin and wiry tufts of wool for hair and a mustache. On his head rests a knit cap, as if the tarp were so effective at blocking the sweltering sun that he must guard against feeling chilled.
In a former incarnation, my seat was a plastic Coca Cola crate. Now it rests lengthwise, with a thin cushion resting on top. I fabricated a similar cushion in elementary school, made from two spill-proof vinyl placemats, a bag of cotton balls, and yellow thread.
He hands me the lassi in a cone-shaped cup of red pottery. I had seen these before in another city, and watched in shock as patrons tossed them into a steal drum, each with seemingly more force than his predecessor, shattering them to pieces. At the time I didn’t realize the shards would be repurposed to make more cups.
At home, pottery is expensive and labor-intensive relative to a cup of paper or plastic. Here, in a country of over a billion people, the opposite is true.
The lassi is perfect: its yoghurt sweet and frothy, with a crusty biscuit-like formation floating at the top. I sip it slowly and observe the tea preparation. After several weeks we have all become vigilant assessors of culinary practice; each thing we put past our lips has the propensity to bring illness. Despite the dirt floor and the flies and the heat, the workspace looks immaculate.
He shifts from one calloused, dusty foot to another, as if a song were floating through his mind. Without rushing, the fresh ginger is peeled, it is sliced, it is crushed against a small plank. Finally, it is thrown into boiling water in a small tin pot on a propane burner.
As it brews he tidies his workspace. Again, humming without sound. We share no conversation – he never even glances at me – but it’s a comfortable silence. Past him, I notice members of our group beginning to congregate around the caravan of glossy black SUVs. In some areas we travel by bus, but the roads to Sarnath are pitted and narrow.
Having finished his chores, he sits across from me on a similar bottle crate. He directs his gaze towards the bright sun of the street, but doesn’t seem to register that our group is now climbing into the cars, preparing for departure. He remains seated tranquilly, hands on his knees, waiting for the tea in its time. A voice in my head tells me to rise and indicate that I must hurry, but my feet don’t move. I feel unrushed.
Seconds pass which feel like minutes, and then he rises as if on cue, pouring the tea into another clay cone. He turns and trades it with me for the used lassi cup.
“May I take this with me? The group is leaving now,” I say, and watch his mind calculating the cost of the cup and whether or not to charge me for it.
He nods slowly and takes my change as I thank him and say goodbye.
“Where were you?” they chorus, as I climb into the car. “We were afraid you were lost in the deer park!”
“I was sitting in that lassi stand, waiting for this tea to be ready.”
“In there? Really? You’re brave!” they laugh, and return to their conversation.
But it turns out my friend doesn’t want the tea, after all; it’s too hot today, and I must not have heard her when she rescinded the request.
My thoughts move immediately to the lassi vendor. Would it be possible to hop out and return the cup?
“No, miss, I am sorry. Your group leader says we are already late and must leave this very minute,” says our driver. As he begins to turn the car around, my friend chimes in.
“You know what? I wouldn’t mind keeping that cup as a souvenir. Could you just dump this tea out for me?” she asks, tapping the shoulder of a woman sitting next to a window in the front.
The woman obliges and sticks her arm out the window. In an instant, I see her fingers release and watch through the glass as the cup smacks the ground and shatters to pieces.
“NO!” we cry in unison. “I was going to keep the cup!” my friend exclaims.
“Oops! Oh well. It doesn’t really matter, right? Just get another at the next stop.”
We speed away as I look back over my shoulder. The cup lays in pieces in the very center of the road, tea marking the surrounding asphalt. Several people have stopped to watch us leave, but there is no movement at the lassi shack. Its shadowy interior contrasts starkly with this bright, hot world of mine, and reveals nothing.