My mother had taught me to address men as Gaaru, especially strangers. It was not only a sign that I’m cultured, but also a reminder that we were nobody to each other- neither friends nor relatives.

 

“Nice music,” John Gaaru said, listening to Subbalakshmi.

 

“Thank you. You like tea?” I asked.

 

“Sure,” he replied.

 

While I drank from a stainless steel glass, I offered him tea in a porcelain cup that had a picture of an apple painted on it. I kept my head down and eyes mostly focused on the floor. Whenever I glanced at him, I saw him turning his head towards me.

 

“So, where are you from?” He asked.

 

“I am from Rajamundry, the place famous for the bridge on Godavari River.”

 

“Did you get to see any of New York so far?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What did you see?”

 

“Buildings from my window.”

 

“New York is also famous for the bridge over the river.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Knock on my door, if you need company for tea,” he said, putting down the empty cup on the glass table in front of him.

 

I invited him for tea every day for the next several weeks. I‘d knock on his door every afternoon and ask if he wanted some tea and he never refused. Every day it became less odd than the previous day- to knock on his door, to look at his face, to invite him for tea and to have his presence in the house, sometimes for an hour and sometimes even more. A cup of water, half a cup of milk, three spoons sugar, two spoons Assam tea powder, three seeds of cardamom and few pinches of ginger- it was the best tea I could offer. Along with the tea, I’d serve him the sweets that I’d offered him on our first meeting.  John Gaaru really liked those sweets. I also would offer him spicy South Indian snack to restore his taste buds. I always sat on the farthest seat from where he was, kept the door wide open when he was in the house and continued to address him as Gaaru.

 

For the first few days we scarcely talked. Nevertheless, I liked making an extra cup of tea. At times we talked about different recitals that I played on the audio player. Other times we talked how cold New York would be in the winter, snow falling regularly for three or four months, unlike Rajamundry where it never snows. It took time for me to focus my eyes on him, but eventually it became a routine.

 

I underestimated his age in our first meeting. He was more or less my age. He was a tall sharp faced man, a little bald above the forehead, with black-framed glasses, slightly hunched shoulders and few lines on the brow. He had a crease between the eyebrows, the same way my husband had. He always wore blue jeans and plain blue, green or white T-shirts even at his age, something that my husband would never wear.

 

John Gaaru worked as a photo art journalist, a profession that wouldn’t pay bills in Rajamundry. He was between jobs, hopeful of finding work by the end of the summer. He was the only child for his parents. His mother had died when he was sixteen and his seventy-seven year old father lived in an old age home in a neighboring state called New Jersey, whom he visited for a mere couple of hours every Sunday evening.

 

John Gaaru was a lucky person. He was never forced to live a certain way. When he was nineteen he had started making money and started living his life- eating at the restaurants, going to the movies, returning home late nights and finding new places- he did everything on his own. He explored three different countries and more than a dozen states in the US before he was twenty-four, but lived in New York all his life.

 

“Why?” I asked.

 

“I don’t know. I guess it never occurred to me. Who wants to leave New York anyway?”

 

I agreed. It was not unusual for people to live in Rajamundry all their lives. Unlike me and Pavan, my own husband had lived in the same town all his life and never complained.

 

Two things about me surprised John Gaaru the most- that I never met my husband before marriage, and that I “gave up” my entire life in Rajamundry to come and live with my son. I have to say, these matters don’t surprise me at all.

 

Every weeknight, I stood near the dining table, served dinner to the children and wondered if they would inquire about my day. They talked with each other about their commute, colleagues and work, but they never inquired.  I never invited John Gaaru for tea during the weekends. Like in the past weekends, Pavan and Sunita would invite their friends and I’d serve pakoras and tea.

 

“How was your weekend?” John Gaaru said, commencing a new week of our acquaintance.

 

“It was okay.”

 

“Did you get to see any of New York so far?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What did you see?”

 

“Buildings from my window.”

 

“That’s the Skyline.”

 

“Skyline?”

 

“Yes. Let me show you, come with me.”

 

“Where?”

 

“To my apartment.”

 

“To your apartment?”

 

“Only if you’re comfortable.”

 

We walked into his makeshift studio, which was the same in size as my bedroom. There were three tall framed pictures next to each other on one side of the studio walls, all taken by John Gaaru. One picture was of a glowing bridge at night with a river under it. John Gaaru traveled on the same bridge to see his father every Sunday, and it’s named after a President. The second picture had an old man wrapped in a torn blanket sleeping on the footpath, as high heels and leather shoes walked past him. Until then I did not know that America had beggars. The final picture had people sitting in line next to each other, an old black woman staring at me with dry eyes, the people in the foreground visible and those in the background dissolving into light. It was the picture of the underground train called subway, probably the same train that Pavan and Sunita took everyday.

 

“This is what I wanted to show you,” He said, opening the plastic curtains of his window. He really had a better view of the skyline. Further, his camera lenses made the skyline seem closer to the eyes.

 

 “Who is she?” I asked. There was a framed picture of a middle aged White woman at the corner of his working desk. She was smiling at me in her blue housecoat and matching eyes.

 

 

 

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Kiran Bharthapudi  

Fiction

© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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Teatime with John Gaaru by Kiran Bharthapudi