Amit Sinha makes an unexpected connection with Prodip Pal, a chai wallah in Kolkata, and receives a healthy dose of advice about ayurveda.
He grinds the piece of ginger down with the handle of his disfigured knife. A pot boils in front of him. The radio booms out a “Baul song”. The Bauls are Bengal’s unique troubadour community. It is 6:30AM in Kolkata – I wait for Mr. Prodip Pal to make his first batch of tea for the morning. Having stayed at the hospital overnight with my father, I had come across his little shop on the pavement as I walked around to find a cup of tea.
I try not to give into my trepidation of what the unsanitary handle and that piece of ginger could mean for my gastrointestinal system that has been weakened by living 22 years in America. But, this is my city! I fondly remember those days when the thought of drinking tea from a street shop and its effects would not even have crossed my mind.
I realize, even when I lived here, I never experienced Kolkata like this. Simple, mundane and yet beautiful. I settle back as I watch the ginger being thrown into the boiling pot, some tea leaves (“tea dust,” for the puritan) follow, and Mr. Pal brews up a cup of tea that even the Queen might stop to savor.
There is a break in the singing and the radio announcer begins talking about herbal remedies. The great qualities of the “Teto Jhinge (bitter gourd)” and the “Misti Jhinge (sweet gourd)”. Mix it with some honey and milk and you have a concoction that can dissolve kidney stones in three days! Then there is the incredible “Notay Shag (leafy greens)”- eat it every day and it will take care of all kinds of skin rashes during the summer and a mixture of dried “Notay Shag” along with honey and cow’s milk takes care of a multitude of ailments for women.
Mr. Pal lights up his “Biri (local cigarillos),” looks at me and says “Did you hear that? People run to the doctor when they get a pin prick. All our health problems can be healed by natural leaves and roots. I have never been to the doctor. I apply leaves to cuts and scrapes”. He joins his hands and does the customary “Pronams (Namaste)” to the gods.
I vigorously nod my head to show him that I agree with him, as I struggle to communicate that I too believe in naturopathy, albeit very recently. I ask him about his shop and how long he has been running it, as he takes a seat next to me. We make small talk. The occasional blast of horns form the Sunday morning cars interspace our conversation. A few people show up and order tea. I ask him for a second cup, not so much that I wanted it, but more to continue the conversation.
I am loving every moment! The sounds, the smells, this tête-à-tête with a man who has an entirely different reality than mine. He is from Assam in northern India. He tells me of a time his brother broke his femur, they reset the bone and wrapped it in some thick leaves found in the mountains – his brother was walking in three days! I think, for now, it is best these inexplicable curative vegetation remain undiscovered, as it could mean some serious competition for my business developing implants for fractures, and might jeopardize the lives of people depending on a $40B industry.
I love my city! This to me is quintessential Kolkata, where even the local chaiwallah’s experience with 5000-year-old Ayurveda (natural healing) is something to ponder.
And yes! The chai was amazing!