@ The Shanghai Tea House by Brinda S Narayan

Mrs Rao was in awe of her cousin, Prema. Though it hadn’t always been that way. At one time, she used to think they were alike. Both small-town girls from Mandya, both educated only up to the Eighth Standard. Both married off early, Sheela Rao, when she was sixteen, Prema, when she was seventeen. Both meticulously trained in household tasks: cooking, washing clothes, braiding a child’s hair. And both, at least in their early married days, shy around their engineer husbands.


But at some point, the likeness faded. Mrs Rao had moved to Bangalore, where her husband was employed in the Hindustan Aeronautics finance division, and where she reared her successful accountant son. Prema, with her green-carded spouse, had emigrated to the U.S. and mothered two snooty American children who rarely engaged with their Indian relatives. The daughter eventually became a sculptor and the son, an archaeologist. But it wasn’t the kids so much. After all, by now, both cousins had grandkids. It was Prema herself, after her fleeting visits to India, who made Sheela’s life seem small and cloistered. They met sometimes at Sheela’s home or over tea and snacks at the exclusive Golf Club, where Prema’s husband had an outstation membership. After these visits, Mrs Rao dwelt on everything her cousin had said, about the way she lived, and more than anything else, the places she’d travelled to.


Prema, who had shaken off her Mandya origins, spoke now in unfaltering, American-accented English. Given that they were first cousins, they bore a strong family resemblance, the cabbage nose and the thick, woolly hair. But in all other ways, they were poles apart. Clear-skinned Prema didn’t have Sheela’s pouchy eyes. And her body looked svelte in trendy salwar suits while Mrs Rao bulged under her traditional cotton and silk saris. Prema had started eating eggs and chicken and fish, drinking wine on social occasions while Sheela remained staunchly vegetarian, and frowned when her husband picked up anything alcoholic. And then there was the way Prema related to her husband who had retired from a prestigious post at NASA. In some ways, it was more forward than the interactions between Sheela’s son and daughter-in-law, who rarely fondled each other in her presence. Prema laid an easy hand on her husband’s shoulder or on his thigh, sometimes with light strokes that made Mrs Rao stumble on whatever she happened to be saying.


More than anything else, each time she called on Sheela in Bangalore, Prema spoke of places she’d been to on the way to India. At one time, it was the Canary Islands. Another time, Nice in Southern France. And then Cyprus, apparently a tiny island inhabited mostly by Greek and Turkish people. Mrs Rao was usually tongue-tied when Prema described these visits, because she had never heard of these places, and more than anything else, it astonished her that a one-time Mandya girl could be unfazed in such alien territories. And Prema had interesting stories to tell: about the Canary Islands, she said the beaches were great, but the seafood was ‘simply fabulous.’ Sheela rolled those words around in her head for a long time: simply fabulous. She’d never encountered anything in her life that could be described like that. And it was in those Spanish islands apparently that Prema and her husband had made friends with a French couple, who invited them to stay in their Nice home. Sheela’s husband, who thought Prema’s accounts were exaggerated, curled his lips when she preened about her Nice invitation. But sure enough, the next time around, Prema described how they had actually stayed in the French couple’s home, and how they had been provided the most lavish beds and breakfasts ever. Sheela couldn’t imagine becoming a friend of anyone so foreign, certainly not someone who didn’t speak a word of Kannada or English. The Cyprus trip, apparently, was a spin-off from the Nice visit, because the same French couple, introduced them to a Greek couple, who was eager to host ‘their very interesting Indian friends.’ Prema added that she skyped and emailed regularly with her French and Greek friends and she couldn’t wait for her next trip where she would add to her collection of Facebook contacts.


‘You should get on Facebook,’ Prema said, ‘Tune into what’s happening in all our lives.’


Mrs Rao had only recently started going online, and rather gawkily on Google chat, to talk to her Wisconsin son and grandson. Her daughter-in-law was never available, and Sheela worried that their American diets didn’t sound healthy. Very few fresh foods, and an excess of instant noodles.


After Prema’s visit, Mr Rao created Sheela’s Facebook account, posting her grim passport picture on her profile page. The first two weeks on her new online turf, Sheela was enchanted by all the minutiae of her friends’ glittering lives. Especially Prema’s, her pictures titled ‘@ Byzantine Church in Cyprus with Christos & Alexis’ or ‘@ rocky French Riviera beach with Adele and Luc.’ She was delighted too, that in two weeks, she already had 43 Facebook friends, though she tried not to dwell on Prema’s shocking 745 contacts. But soon, she was dismayed by her own humdrum life. She could hardly post ‘@ KEB office, disputing electricity Bill’ or ‘@ wholesale market, buying onions’.


So it came as a surprise, like some kindly god had willed it, when Mr Rao, who had retired from his public sector job, and worked as a private consultant to aeronautical companies, was invited by a Chinese contractor to Shanghai. Of course, it wasn’t the kindly god but Mrs Rao herself who insisted, that this time, unlike on his solitary trips to Singapore and Berlin, she would accompany him. Four words, but forceful enough for Mr Rao to quickly concur. ‘This time, I’m coming.’ They postponed their health insurance upgrade to cover the ticket cost.




Sixty-five years old and this was Mrs Rao’s first time out of India. She had seen the new Bangalore International airport, from the outside, when she picked up her son and grandson on their last visit to India. Coming to think of it, she hadn’t seen her daughter-in-law in four years. Inside the new airport, she was surprised at how foreign everything looked. The shops all swank, the counters all gleaming, the ticketing girls all polite and chic. Mrs Rao regretted the sari she had chosen for the flight. The border seemed shabbier in the ultra-bright lights of the airport than it had at home. Mr Rao had suggested she wear a salwar suit, but Mrs Rao couldn’t get herself to agree. But the airport itself was making her buoyant and carefree; as they ordered coffee at the fancy café beyond the immigration point, she wondered if she should have worn a salwar or Western pants even. She felt like a misfit in her butterfly yellow silk below steel tubes that criss-crossed the ceiling.


Mr Rao had said the Indian airport was ‘nothing’ compared to the Singapore airport. And Sheela could see how Bangalore itself, despite all the hyper-growth and rapid changes like the new Metro, was dwarfed, when they arrived in Shanghai. Mrs Rao had expected a city like Mumbai, stifling, grimy, shockingly slick in spots; instead this felt like Europe or the United States. Everything speedy and spanking clean. Though Mr Rao was jetlagged and tired inside the taxi, Mrs Rao couldn’t help exclaiming at everything: ‘Baap re, see how tall that building is.’ ‘Oiyyoo, the cars go really fast here.’ ‘Does our taxi driver know where he’s going?’ and so on, till Mr Rao shut her up with his usual terse: ‘Keep quiet, will you?’ It was the way he’d always been, right from their early marriage days, surly and bossy. How could she ever stroke the thigh of a man like that?


When they finally arrived at the Renaissance hotel, Mrs Rao was amazed that the Chinese contractor was paying for this. Struck by the lobby with its red silken backdrop and backlit wooden screen, Sheela wondered about her husband’s Singapore and Berlin trips. Had he always been living in such lavish places? She had a different image entirely when he called in a tired, long-distance voice, and complained about the local foods and the poor laundry facilities. Inside the hotel, her husband looked younger and zestier despite his baldness, despite a neck that sagged and trembled. Was he really that valuable to these foreign contractors? The same man who was so curt in bed? Though, that evening, her feelings sank when he suggested they make do with ‘steamed rice and salad’ instead of all the exciting Chinese food Sheela was itching to try. After all, she had been looking forward to conversations with her cousin, to describing the black mushroom gravy as ‘rather interesting,’ like those French or Greek breakfast pictures that Prema had posted on FB.


The next morning, Mr Rao had woken up earlier, breakfasted at the hotel buffet and left with his contractor friend before Sheela had shaken off the fog from the long flight. She hadn’t realised the trip to a Chinese city – given that China was India’s neighbour, given that there were frequent ‘border skirmishes’ – could be so fatiguing. The previous night, Mr Rao had given her stern instructions. The room rate included one free breakfast only, so it didn’t make sense for Sheela, with her restricted, brahminical diet, to pay 100 Yuan for a measly bowl of fruit or cereal. Instead, she was to take the lift to the first floor, turn to the right, exit through a swivelling glass door into the mall attached to the hotel and find something suitably cheap for brunch. After that, he suggested she occupy herself by wandering around the mall for a few hours. He’d even left a few Yuan for ‘trinkets’ she might want to purchase. In the afternoon, he said, she could take a nap inside the room and make herself tea with the electrical kettle and free tea bags by the side of the mini-fridge. He warned her that snacks inside the mini-fridge were chargeable, so she shouldn’t open any packets. He added that most of them, even the chips and wafers, were likely to contain bacon or beef strands. In the morning, as an afterthought, he left her with 200 Yuan, ‘in case of any emergency.’


She had great difficulty finding something suitably cheap and vegetarian inside the mall, since none of the Chinese seemed to speak English. They responded to her questions with an unintelligible neighing and frantic hand gestures that drove her into a Baskin Robbins where she breakfasted on ice cream sandwiched between two large cookies. The mall itself was larger than anything she had seen in Bangalore so far, and though it had several floors filled with gleaming shops, she was baffled by those complex, Chinese letters on all signs and she couldn’t locate local handicrafts for her relatives back home. India had many languages, but at least some Indians spoke English and attended to bewildered foreigners. The Chinese seemed indifferent to the rest of the world. Were these signs of a superpower? She returned to her room much earlier than planned, and once inside the heated comfort of the queen-sized bed, she started feeling depressed about her trip. If this was the way it was going to be, there wouldn’t be much to tell Prema.


However, after her free cup of Earl Grey tea, which she had much sooner than Mr Rao suggested, her jet lag had worn off and she felt newly energised. She scanned the room: the bed, with the cover tightly tucked in by the housekeeping staff, the kettle steaming with hot water, the mini-fridge with its banned temptations, and then the 200 Yuan by the bedside table. She wondered how Prema would act in such a situation. Surely, reasoned Sheela, she wouldn’t stay confined to her eleventh floor hotel room, after a seven hour flight and a two hour stopover in Delhi? Surely, she’d ‘take off’ into the city and bump into ‘rather interesting’ Chinese sights and ‘simply fabulous’ people? Hugging her sweater tightly over her sari, Sheela stepped towards the lift again, and braced herself for the cold blast outside. Weather reports had warned of sudden lows in Shanghai temperatures. On the way out, she encountered the concierge. She thought the man – Chinese like all others, but taller, and with even teeth – wouldn’t speak English. Surprisingly, he did and fluently too. ‘I want taxi,’ Sheela said, in a careful halting fashion. ‘Where to?’ asked the man, who wore a brass button that read May I Help You? ‘To sightsee,’ Mrs Rao said. ‘Nearby,’ she added, wondering how much of that emergency money she could fritter without evoking a domestic crisis.


‘To sightsee?’ the man repeated, raising his eyebrows. ‘What would you like to see?’


‘Something nearby,’ Sheela said. ‘Cheap taxi fare.’


‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you’d like to see something in the vicinity. Can I suggest the Jing An Park, and then the Jing An temple. The taxi fare will be only 40 Yuan, one way.’


‘80 Yuan, round trip?’ Sheela asked.


‘Yes, that’s right,’ he said, bending over a card which had a tiny map inscribed at the back. ‘I am writing the name here, you can show this card to the taxi driver.’ Sheela found that he’d filled in baffling Chinese characters on the dotted line even before she agreed.


‘Have a nice trip,’ he said, and ushered her into the taxi queue.


Inside the taxi, the driver was playing some Chinese pop music. A metallic plaque stuck to the driver’s seat advertised the Shanghai World Expo with a thoughtful ‘If you need assistance communicating with the cab driver, please call 789232303.’ And beside it, a tiny TV screen for riders to watch. For a long time, Sheela fiddled with those TV buttons and changed channels but suddenly realised she was wasting the taxi’s ticking meter without taking in the sights: shops, shops, shops, and tall apartments with symmetrical, box-like homes. They were climbing a steep road, and turning a sudden corner behind a wheezing bus, and Mrs Rao felt delightedly giddy at her own recklessness. Jing An Park, she thought, would be the exactly the kind of place Prema would visit, as she alighted near the entry. Even while she carefully paid her driver the 34.85 Yuan, she was shocked by how cold it was. The driver noted her hands, trembling outside her sweater sleeves, and said, in a kind voice, ‘Wewaan, Zeewaan,’ pointing at a stone building inside the park. It had started raining while Sheela wound her way down a walking path edged with flowered bushes and drooping trees. In the distance, a lotus pond had dervishes spouting water into it. But all Sheela could think about was the cold, the wetting, biting, hurting cold. So she hurried, with tiny but quick footsteps, towards the stone building which turned out to be a restaurant. The inside was heated, or at least insulated in some manner. Mrs Rao quickly took a seat at a table by the window, and looked out at the park. Through a wide window misted with raindrops, she saw old Chinese people walking with umbrellas, some pushing little babies in prams. ‘Grandparents,’ thought Mrs Rao, and smiled as she remembered her Anand, her grandson whom she hadn’t seen in all of two years. She wondered if these grandparents realised how fortunate they were. As she tried to recall what Anand looked like when he’d last visited, the waiter thrust a large menu into her hand. ‘Oh?’ Mrs Rao said, and then smiled. ‘You want me to order?’


‘What would you like Ma’am?’ said the young boy, who was dressed in traditional clothes, some sort of a sarong with a long shirt. He too spoke flawless English, just like the hotel concierge.

‘I will look and tell,’ Mrs Rao said, already nervous about the prices printed in bold numbers. The cheapest thing on the menu was tea, a peppermint tea, and even that cost 40 Yuan. As much or even more than her taxi fare. She wondered if the waiter would let her linger inside the warmth without ordering anything till the rain stopped. But as she looked at the way the tables were filling up, and the boy’s confident manner as he ushered people to their seats, she realised she’d have to order that tea. And besides, Prema wouldn’t have hesitated at such a time. ‘Peppermint tea,’ she’d have said, boldly and brightly, as she gazed at the interesting view: those Chinese grandparents still strolling around with their little wards, in the freezing rain.

At the next table, and Mrs Rao couldn’t help looking there every now and then, an old American man was holding hands with a young, too young Chinese girl. Every two or three minutes, the girl, who was wearing a short skirt, and bright red lipstick, giggled explosively at something he said. Though Mrs Rao couldn’t understand his thick American accent, she didn’t think he was as funny as his companion made him feel. And it didn’t seem right, the way his hands were wandering over her skirt, a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. A girl, who should have been married by now to some decent Chinese boy, but who was wasting her life with this lecherous, disgusting man. Sheela wondered if the girls’ parents lived in the same city, and if they knew what their daughter was doing; she had half a mind to stand up and slap that slobbering man, but as Mr Rao would have said, it was none of her business.


Thirty minutes later, Mrs Rao felt decidedly better. Her hands, after holding the steaming cup, had stopped fluttering. Her sister’s husband had Parkinson’s, and that was one of Mrs Rao’s fears: falling victim to such a disease. She couldn’t see Mr Rao, with his brusque, impatient ways, nursing her daily, feeding her mashed rice with a tireless spirit. And she hoped Mr Rao wouldn’t succumb to such a condition either. It was bad enough catering to him now, she could hardly attend to a sickly and more crotchety version. Still the rain had ceased and this was not the time for black thoughts. So she rose from her seat, after counting out a careful 40 Yuan and leaving it inside the folded menu. She decided not to tip that dressed up youth, since appeasing him was less important than appeasing her spouse.


She walked down the street to the Jing An temple, which was fortunately, even at her age, a walkable distance. And given that China was a communist country, she expected the temple to stand like a relic, un-worshipped, forgotten by all but tourists. But as soon as she as had entered those wooden gates, she was startled by how crowded it was; and not even by tourists, but by bowing, muttering Chinese. There was a fire in some large iron kettle, into which several people were throwing flaming incense sticks. And all around, were tall buildings, with curved wooden roofs and pillars that towered over the busy street with its shops and honking cars and silly giggly girls. She convinced a passer-by to click a snapshot of her by the smoking pot. She was comforted by the thought of her Facebook post: ‘@ Jing An temple, Shanghai’ She walked into one of the temples, and found a female goddess in the centre. For some reason, she was reminded of her daughter-in-law. And perhaps it was the atmosphere inside, the silken drape, the plastic flowers, the bowing Chinese, the incense sticks, and a new thought descended on Mrs Rao in the presence of the she-Buddha: her daughter-in-law was separated from her son and grandson.


Now that she thought about it, her son had been alluding to it in a vague, roundabout way. He must have been afraid of saying it outright, of its effect on her health; or perhaps, of a hysterical reaction he didn’t want to face. That’s why the India visits had stopped. That’s why she wasn’t on Facebook at all. Sheela had always felt her daughter-in-law had teeth like fangs. Who else, but a wretched vampire woman, would desert her husband and son like that? And how were they managing now without a cook or maid? No wonder, there were all those awkward pauses on the telephone. Sheela picked up an incense stick from a wooden bucket that rested against a pillar, and prayed for her abandoned son and grandson. ‘Please oh great Buddha, please keep them well and happy and healthy.’ She watched an old Chinese man, bowing again and again and again. Each time, he fell completely prostrate on the floor. Mrs Rao couldn’t do that with her arthritic knee. Still she managed to sink down on her knees and pray again. ‘Please oh, Buddha,’ she repeated, ‘Get him married again. To a nice woman.’ Then she added a curse: ‘And let the vampire bleed to death.’


The next day, Mr Rao had a free day as well. So he said he would show her Shanghai’s sights. He hadn’t approved of her previous day’s adventure. It was dangerous, he pointed out, in a city where one does not speak the language, to wander about on your own. Sheela did not argue. She did not point out that Mr Rao himself did not speak Mandarin, and was hence as lost and foreign as she was. Such a comment would have eaten into his manliness, already withered by age and the loss of his job. And she hadn’t told him about the peppermint tea either. On the taxi back, when she’d done the calculations, and converted the cost of the tea into rupees, she was shocked at how easily she’d spent it. So she told Mr Rao that her breakfast had cost a little more, and that she’d had another snack in the evening, and that one of the taxi drivers had short-changed her on the fare. That was another reason, Mr Rao said, for Sheela to stay inside the hotel during his absence. She wasn’t good with money matters.


The next morning, they made a plan. They had one day only, to cover Shanghai, then ride a train to Suzhou (a smaller city, more ‘authentic than Shanghai,’ the concierge said), the next day. The concierge had booked on them a mini-bus that would carry them with ten other tourists to four Shanghai destinations. Four seats inside the van were occupied by oversized Americans travelling together in a loudly jabbering gaggle. Two seats, by fair-skinned women who murmured to each other in some European language. And right next to Mr and Mrs Rao, a young Chinese couple. The Chinese woman smiled widely at Sheela.


They started the day with a visit to the jade Buddha temple. For some reason, Mrs Rao had preferred the Jing An temple, where there seemed to be more locals worshipping. This place was packed with tourists, and there was a fee for everything: the jade Buddha was in some upstairs room, and could only be viewed if a ticket was purchased. Mr Rao thought the ticket was too pricey for a glimpse of something visible on a postcard in the shop downstairs. He rushed through the maze of wooden corridors with potted bonsai trees to make it back to the mini-bus on time. The driver, a stocky man who did not speak English, had held up a card with the departure time: 10:15 a.m. Just outside the temple, they bumped into the Chinese couple. The man stubbed out a cigarette with his shoe and Mrs Rao noted a tiny hole in the black leather, and below it the pinkish shimmer of a naked toe. Maybe it was a local custom to wear shoes without socks. ‘Will you take a picture of us?’ Mr Rao asked of the Chinese man, pointing to the screen on his camera.


‘Sure,’ he said, in surprisingly faultless English. ‘Would you like to stand there? You will get very good background of temple tower.’


‘Thanks,’ Mr Rao said, ‘You speak very good English.’ He had told Sheela that he’d been struggling to talk to his Chinese business partner.


‘Thank you very much,’ he said. ‘I’m from Chizong village, and this my first day in Shanghai.’ He had crooked, stained teeth and stubble on his face.


‘We’re from Bangalore, India,’ Mr Rao said.


‘Ah, Bangalore, many, many software engineer.’ He flashed his crooked teeth. He wore a boyish innocence behind the stubble.


‘You know a lot,’ Sheela said, impressed by the young Chinese man, whose rural origins were given away by the faded pants and shirt below his frayed woollen jacket. ‘What’s your name?’


‘I’m Kang. And this Fu, she my older sister.’


‘Bangalore very famous,’ Fu said. ‘We hear lot about Bangalore. We love Indians.’


‘Where did you learn English?’ Mr Rao asked.


‘I learn English in my village,’ Kang said.


‘I learn in Shanghai,’ Fu said. Her hair, unlike that of most Chinese women, was wavy. Mrs Rao wondered if it was permed.


‘You live in Shanghai?’ Sheela asked.


‘Yes, I work here. For Kang, this is first visit to Shanghai. So I’m showing him all tourist sights.’


‘Oh, that’s nice,’ Sheela said, heartened that they were siblings. Even in India, such relationships were fraying.


Eventually, the mini-bus stopped at a Chinese restaurant for lunch. The place was noisy and crowded, and they quickly lost sight of their fellow travellers. As expected, ordering vegetarian food was strenuous. The waiter did not understand what they were saying, and the manager was called, but he found their words equally baffling. ‘We want vegetable only,’ Mr Rao said. Eventually, he gestured to the waiter who came back with a hot broth that Mr Rao asked Sheela to drink up. ‘I can’t,’ Mrs Rao said. ‘Stinks of meat.’ ‘We don’t know,’ Mr Rao said, ‘this might be the smell of Chinese vegetables.’ ‘Beef,’ Sheela said, inhaling animal odours in the rising vapours. She’d heard Chinese ate all kinds of creatures, cockroaches, lizards and snakes, so maybe this wasn’t beef, but something else entirely. After several speechless wrangles with the waiter and manager, they managed to receive some sticky rice and spiced cabbage in which Sheela detected a pig stench. And suddenly she spotted Kang and Fu, floating like god sent fairies by their table.  ‘Sorry to bother you, but can you please help us here? Can you please tell the waiter we would like vegetarian only?’


‘Sure,’ Fu said ‘What would you like?’


‘You choose,’ Sheela said. ‘Anything vegetarian.’


After a stream of Fu’s rapid Mandarin, they had plates of steamy, spinach-filled dim sums, rice with mushrooms and cashew nuts and flat noodles with red, chilli sauce. Without foul meat flavours.


‘Thank you so much,’ Sheela said.


The last stop that evening was the Shanghai art museum. The mini-bus heaved off its passengers who were to make their own way back after the museum visit.


‘You’re going to art museum? Not good,’ Fu said.


‘Not good?’ Sheela said. The queue was too long already, and she wasn’t in the mood for a series of dull pictures stuck on walls.


‘Bad,’ Fu said. ‘Worst museum in China. You must see Beijing museum, very good.’


‘How much is the fee?’ Mr Rao asked.


‘20 Yuan entry,’ Fu said. ‘Cheap, but not good.’


‘20 Yuan?’ Mr Rao asked, his eyes whirring as he calculated the equivalent rupee amount.


‘We are going for traditional Chinese tea ceremony,’ Kang said. ‘Would you like to join?’


‘Traditional tea ceremony?’ Sheela said, with interest. This wasn’t on the tour agenda but it was exactly the kind of offbeat thing Prema would have sprung on.


‘Yes, lovely tea ceremony being conducted for us. My sister has organised for me. If you would like to join, then no problem.’


‘We would like to join.’ Mr Rao normally wasn’t impulsive about such things. Maybe because they were so friendly and so innocent, all the way from a distant province. Maybe because they were only ones on that mini-bus who had engaged with them.


On the way to the tea house, which was across the street, and then behind a building on the left, Fu chatted with Mrs Rao. ‘I love your dress,’ she said. ‘So beautiful.’ ‘Thank you,’ Mrs Rao said, ‘it’s called a sari.’ ‘How you wear it? Does it come all stitched up?’ ‘No,’ Mrs Rao laughed. ‘Six yards of material, and we drape it around our bodies twice and then we fold into pleats.’ ‘Amazing,’ Fu said. ‘If you don’t mind, can I ask you question?’ ‘Yes,’ Sheela said. She couldn’t believe it was so easy to chat with this Chinese woman. She looked into Fu’s lovely creaseless face, at her wide eyes, at her shiny, wavy hair, falling across her forehead. She looked like one of her grand-nieces. ‘How old are you?’ ‘Sixty-five this year,’ Mrs Rao said. ‘I can’t believe,’ Fu said, ‘you look so young, so beautiful. And I can tell your husband loves you very much.’


‘You can?’ Sheela said, startled. She had never thought of Mr Rao in that light. But she started wondering, as the wide-eyed Chinese girl continued chattering at her side, if Mr Rao liked her more than he acknowledged. After all, he wasn’t very good at expressing himself. He’d been like that with their son too. Years ago, when Krishna had gone on a school trip to Mumbai, her spouse bid him a hurried goodbye, when he left for work. However, that whole week, Mr Rao had been tuning into weather reports in Mumbai, scanning newspapers for untoward events, and constantly worrying that the train back might be derailed. She’d never seen him like that. Perhaps, if she disappeared for a period, he might worry about her as well.


‘You must tell me your secret,’ Fu said.


‘What secret?’ Mrs Rao asked.


‘How you can look so young and beautiful at your age. And how to keep your husband attracted.’


‘Nothing special,’ Mrs Rao said, blushing.


‘I hope I can get a boyfriend just like your husband, a man who will stay with me all my life.’ Sheela looked at that girl’s face again. She wondered how old she was, if she was really old enough to worry about a boyfriend. Most Chinese women, Mrs Rao felt, looked younger than their age.


‘How old are you?’ Mrs Rao asked.


‘I am twenty-eight,’ Fu said.


‘You don’t look twenty-eight, you look sixteen.’


‘Ah, you are too kind. Your husband is lucky, he has kind and beautiful wife.’


Kang had been walking ahead with Mr Rao, and Sheela could see that her husband was intensely engaged in a conversation. She had rarely seen him so spirited. Past few years, he was usually fatigued, and indifferent to most things. At one point, she’d suggested he try Viagra, but he’d given her such a scathing look, she dare not bring it up again.


In the meanwhile, they had turned into the building, and were climbing dark steps to the second floor. Fu thoughtfully held Mrs Rao’s elbow during the climb-up, as if she’d sensed that her vision might not hold up in such dim light. When they reached the second floor, both Mr and Mrs Rao were panting slightly. On the right, a lady in a green Chinese costume, with a high collar and red, fire-breathing dragon embroidered on the chest region, bowed deeply at the sight of Fu and Kang. Fu stepped forward and said something in Mandarin. The lady nodded and smiled at Mr and Mrs Rao.


‘She say you are very lucky today, because she have place for you. Normally, this tea house very popular, so always is full.’


‘Wonderful,’ Mr Rao said. Sheela could sense an excitement building up inside her. It wasn’t as difficult as Prema made it sound to befriend foreigners. Crossing the threshold into the tea room, Mrs Rao felt like she’d been admitted into the guarded interior of another culture. In the centre stood a dark wooden table with six high chairs surrounding it. Stuck on the wall were silken screens, with sun and bamboo and dragon designs. And softly piped into the room was the plaintive plucking of a stringed instrument, sad notes that reminded Mrs Rao of the village where her grandfather used to live.


‘Can we take a picture?’ Sheela asked. She could already envision her Facebook post. Kang spoke with the dragon lady and then smiled apologetically. ‘Sorry, no pictures in traditional tea house.’ Then Fu turned to Sheela: ‘This is secret ceremony which they are sharing with us. That’s why, no photos.’ Sheela understood. There were many temples and mosques in India where cameras were banned.


Kang pointed to the high chairs that had the dragon screen as a backdrop. ‘That is for King and Queen, for you and your wife,’ he said. Mrs Rao, who had never been treated like royalty, noticed that their chairs had soft cushions with embroidered silken covers; and though this ceremony had been intended for them, Kang and Fu occupied plain wooden seats. She started feeling that the Chinese were such humble, warm people, that surely those border skirmishes could be avoided if Indian leaders sat down and spoke with their Chinese counterparts.


The woman in the green dragon costume started the tea ceremony. Fu volunteered to translate for the Indian couple. The lady pointed to the teak table with grooves in it, and special trays attached to the bottom. Fu got up and stood by the side of the woman. ‘She say this Chinese tea table, very special table, inherited from Ming dynasty. Used only for King and Queen.’


‘You are very special people,’ Kang said. ‘That’s why they use for you.’


The lady said something more in Mandarin, a fierce three-minutes of something. Shortly, she produced four menu cards. Mrs Rao looked long and hard at the menu. Startlingly, the prices were higher than the Jing An park restaurant. But that, after all, was a commercial restaurant. This was a historic tea house, with a unique cultural demonstration. Each tea varied between 50 to 60 Yuan. Mrs Rao was afraid that her husband might walk away. ‘I will take twelve teas,’ Kang said, swallowing his dismay at the prices. ‘I will also take twelve teas,’ Fu said. ‘Will you take twelve teas or eight teas?’ Kang asked, turning to Mr Rao. ‘Twelve teas,’ Mr Rao said, smiling fiercely. For the first time, in their fifty-plus married years, Mrs Rao felt she couldn’t read her husband’s expression. He didn’t look happy exactly, but he wasn’t scowling either, the way he usually did when he parted with money.


The lady quickly whisked the menus away and returned with a wooden tray filled with twelve blue-white bowls and eight special cups. She laid it on the table and bowed deeply before it. The bowls were made of the popular blue Chinese porcelain, and each held a different, aromatic tea leaf. Mrs Rao had never seen anything so exotic in her life. Who would think that something as simple as tea could have so many fascinating varieties? The lady poured hot water from a kettle, raising it first to a tremendous height and descending in frightening swirls, up, up, up, and then around and around and around, across the eight cups and a clay pot, steeping everything in steamy vapours. She muttered something to Fu and Kang. ‘This from Sung dynasty,’ Fu said. ‘This way of pouring water on cups and Chinese tea pot.’


The lady said something else. ‘She say this very special pot, from Eeshing province. Eeshing clay very special,’ Fu said.


‘Eeshing?’ Mr Rao asked.


Kang walked up to a white board, partially hidden by the silken screens; there were two markers readily available. ‘You spell like this,’ Kang said. He wrote YiXing on the board. ‘Pronounced Eeshing.’


Mrs Rao wished she had some pen and paper to jot all this down. She thought of her Facebook post: ‘@ Shanghai, met some very interesting Chinese people, and we became very good friends. They took us to a tea ceremony, where they used an YiXing pot. The tea had a special flavour.’


In the meanwhile, the dragon lady, who seemed younger than Fu, smiled and bowed and scooped one of the teas from the bowls into the tea pot, with a special tea spoon. The first tea served was green Oolong tea, which the dragon lady insisted, had dragon shaped leaves. Mrs Rao found it fascinating that any culture could pay so much attention to a simple afternoon beverage. At home, she used the Brook Bond Red Label tea, because it was stronger, and she needed only a half-spoon for one cup.


The lady handed each person a longish cup, along with a smaller cup, and poured some green tea into the long cups and asked them to swirl it between their palms. ‘Don’t drink,’ Fu warned. ‘First brewing only for smelling.’


‘Ah, lovely,’ Kang said. ‘This smell like rice field.’


‘This smells like wet mud after rain,’ Mr Rao said. Sheela looked at him with surprise. She wondered if they’d added a drug to the green liquid.


‘This smell like my mother’s hands’ Fu said. Mrs Rao tried to think of something poetic for the next tea.


The lady picked up the longish cups, and threw the tea away. They hadn’t had a sip yet. She poured the tea from the same pot, into the longish cups and placed the smaller cup on top.


‘Small cup on big cup is like happy family, husband and wife. You and Mr Ra-oh, very loving, joined together,’ Fu said. At that point, Kang said he already had a girlfriend waiting in his Chizhong village, but Fu was convincing him to move to Shanghai and find a job here. ‘Girlfriend not coming to Shanghai,’ he said. ‘She want to stay in Chizhong.’ Mrs Rao herself had moved out of Mandya at sixteen, unquestioningly. How would life have turned out, she wondered, if she’d refused to marry Mr Rao, if she’d gone to college and become an assertive professional like her oncologist daughter-in-law? Then she squelched the image. Her daughter-in-law was a vampire, and she wondered if that’s what higher education did to women: turned them into blood sucking creatures. Still she was impressed by this Chizhong girlfriend, who was turning down a handsome Kang, and negotiating life at her own terms.


‘I want my brother to live with me, make lots of money,’ Fu said. ‘He handsome boy, he get new girlfriend in Shanghai. Shanghai girls more modern.’


Mrs Rao wondered if she should have picked a small-town girl for her son. But what was the point, because how quickly the city rubbed off on village girls.


In the meanwhile, the tea lady had started turning the ‘couples’ – the longish cup below the smaller cups – upside down. ‘Now fish jumping into ocean,’ Fu said, while the woman muttered in Mandarin. Sometimes the woman said many things, and Fu’s translation was concise; but sometimes the woman said only a word or two, and Fu added long explanations. Perhaps Fu had accompanied other village guests to the tea house.


They were asked to lift the longer cups from the smaller cups, the ‘husbands’ from the ‘wives, and drink up the green tea in one throat-burning gulp. ‘You must not sip slowly,’ Fu said. ‘Drink full cup only.’ Mrs Rao could barely taste the tea since it was so hot, and she wasn’t used to drinking her Red Label that hot, even at home.


‘This taste like lotus flower,’ Kang said.


‘This tastes like a spring bud,’ Mr Rao said.


‘Like new grass,’ Fu said.


Mrs Rao couldn’t think of anything. The tea to her mind, tasted like hot water. Scalding hot water. Prema would have had a thousand things to say at a time like this. She’d have impressed Fu and Kang so much, they’d have invited her to their Chizhong village.


Then their cups were cleaned again, and a new tea was scooped out. ‘This Da Hong Pao, also called King of Teas,’ Fu said. ‘Only for you, since Mr Ra-oh so handsome, Mrs Ra-oh so beautiful. Just like king and queen.’


The tea was poured out in the same elaborate manner, with boiling water splashed over the pot and across the cups. The King of teas, swallowed in another scalding gulp, tasted bitter.


‘Like seaweed,’ Kang said.


‘Like ocean spray,’ Mr Rao said.


Fu did not say anything. And neither did Mrs Rao. They went through ten more teas in the same manner. White teas, and yellow teas, one made of jasmine flowers, which Mrs Rao described as being ‘just like jasmine smell.’ Mr Rao surprised her with a romantic ‘just like my wife’s hair.’ Fu and Kang, with a mischievous lilt in their voices, commented on their undying love for each other. Sheela’s cheeks turned scarlet and Mr Rao looked at her with a strange light in his eye. Another yellow tea was grown on a misty mountain. Among the herbal teas, one was made from yellow chrysanthemums, and another from pink rosebuds. Mrs Rao started wondering about these Chinese people. They were capable of making tea from anything. Perhaps it came from a view of the world that saw potential in all things. There was also the Gingko tea, which Fu said was ‘very good for making memory better, at your age, very good.’ Some white tea was ‘very good for cholesterol.’ Mr Rao had high cholesterol and Sheela decided to buy a packet to carry back with her.


The lady handed out menu cards again. This was for purchase of two or three tea packages to carry back to Chizhong and India. Kang ordered five tea packages. But since each tea package seemed expensive, at least 120 or 150 Yuan each, Sheela suggested to Mr Rao in Kannada, that they order only two packages. ‘Only two?’ he asked. ‘Two is enough,’ she replied. ‘More than that is too expensive.’


Shortly, they were presented with bills on a silver tray, one for Kang and Fu, one for Mr and Mrs Rao. Sheela felt like she’d been swallowed by something very large when she saw that bill. All the good feeling that had been present till then disappeared when she saw the final number: 1854 Yuan. Converted into rupees – Sheela rapidly did the calculation in her head - that was more than 12,000 Rupees! Half the cost of the airfare from Bangalore to Shanghai and more than a month’s household expenses. Much more than the insurance upgrade. She looked at Kang, and he was clearly taken aback by his own bill, which was greater than Mr Rao’s. But he was too polite to gasp as openly as Mr Rao. He smiled blandly, and nodded. The lady brought the credit card slip for Mr Rao to sign, and Kang paid his bill in cash. Sheela thought of discussing the bill with Fu and Kang, but she wasn’t sure if it was courteous. After all, they’d agreed to drink twelve teas each, and they had been shown the menu before they started. Somewhere along the way, they’d forgotten to keep tab of the spiralling total.


When they left the tea house, Kang and Fu offered to escort them to the train station. ‘If you go to central station, you can buy tickets to SuZhou,’ they said. Guiding them across the street through fast-moving Shanghai traffic, Kang invited them to Chizong. ‘On your next trip you must come.’ Fu said she would escort them to the village and they could spend a whole week exploring the Chinese countryside. ‘Very different, Chinese farming and Indian farming.’


‘Just like Chinese tea and Indian tea,’ Mrs Rao said. Kang and Fu waited on the platform till the train departed. ‘They’re so sweet,’ Mrs Rao said. ‘We have such nice Chinese friends.’


Inside the train, a host of Chinese people were doing different things; some reading magazines, some jabbering endlessly on mobiles, some knitting, some staring outside the window. None were friendly like Kang and Fu. Suddenly, however, Mr Rao jabbed Mrs Rao’s elbow: ‘Something tells me,’ he said, ‘we’ve been cheated.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Mrs Rao, and she could already feel a heavy weight that had been sitting inside her for some time, rise to the surface and fill her mouth, with a flavour as distasteful as that black tea. ‘I mean this Kang and Fu, do you think they were hand-in-glove with that teahouse?’ ‘How can they be? They are from Chizhong village. They paid a larger bill.’ ‘How do we know?’ Mr Rao continued. ‘Maybe they’re all in it together, maybe they’re laughing at us now.’ ‘I think you’re wrong. The bill amount was high, and Kang paid more than us. A poor boy like that from a village, it must be the normal price for such ceremonies. After all they spent so much time with us, and we tasted so many exotic teas.’ Even as she was trying to convince her spouse, Mrs Rao sensed her own conviction fleeing her. After all, if she thought about it, everything was too glib, too smoothly organised. It was odd that Kang and Fu, clearly impoverished in their shabby clothes, had been on that mini-bus; that they’d been so friendly with an older couple; that they’d been standing outside the jade Buddha temple, almost waiting; that they’d always been on hand to translate this and that; that the tea house lady was waiting for their arrival; that pictures were forbidden in that nondescript place; that the royal chairs were reserved for them; that Fu seemed so familiar with the teahouse ritual; that there was a whiteboard in place, for foreigners; that Kang, a village boy with a hole in his shoe, had paid such a large bill with cash. ‘I was suspicious then, but I didn’t say anything.’ ‘Why didn’t you say anything,’ Sheela said, who had angry tears rising to fill her eyes. ‘Because I wasn’t sure?’ ‘If those two people have cheated us, I’m so angry, I want to report to the Chinese police…’ ‘There’s no point,’ Mr Rao said. ‘We’ve spent the money already, let’s forget about it.’


Of course, all evening, they spoke of nothing else. ‘Why did you agree to go with them in the first place?’ Sheela asked. ‘Because you had such an eager look on your face, that’s why.’ ‘Since when have you done anything because of me?’ ‘All of my life, I’ve done nothing else.’ ‘No, no, that’s me, I gave up everything to marry you, never studied, never went to college, see how I’ve wasted my life?’


And then Sheela thought of Fu and Kang’s child-like faces: ‘Let’s go back right now, maybe we’ll find them again, the thieves.’


‘There’s no chance, they made sure we were in the train, so they could escape.’


‘What if we go back to the tea house?’


‘Do you remember the way?’


‘It wasn’t too far from the art museum?’


‘Yes, but how would we get there? And what if they have thugs waiting? Maybe this is all part of some mafia…’


‘Please don’t make it sound so terrible, I wish we hadn’t come to China at all.’


‘This was your fault, you insisted on coming.’


‘But I only wanted to see the place…’


‘You should stick to Bangalore, you don’t know how to deal with people or money.’


‘But you were the one who agreed…’


‘I’m sick of this. If you talk about it again, I will walk out of the train and leave you alone.’

At the central train station, when they tried to buy tickets to SuZhou they couldn’t read any of the Chinese characters on the automated ticket machines. ‘Shall I help you?’ asked a young Chinese student, with a backpack strapped to his shoulders. ‘No, thank you,’ Mrs Rao said, shuddering. ‘Let’s not go to SuZhou,’ she told Mr Rao. ‘Tomorrow, I want to stay in the hotel room, and then I want to go back to Bangalore.’


The next morning, they spoke with the concierge. ‘Yes, it’s a famous scam,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry this happened but you must never trust strangers in any city. Especially if you are a tourist.’


After breakfast, Mr Rao googled teahouse scams. ‘There are tea-house rackets all over China. In Shanghai, in Beijing, everywhere. And it’s always the same thing. One or two Chinese people befriend you, accompany you to this tea house, and you get obligated into paying a huge bill. See what happened to this American couple: they were accosted by two Chinese women on a street. And see, this old lady, she had a young woman approach her in a restaurant. And this man, he had a student from the University chat with him, saying he wanted to practice his English, and would he come with him to this teahouse. And before he knew it, he was paying this $250 bill.’


‘I don’t want to hear this,’ Sheela said, blocking her ears. ‘Now you’re the one who’s talking about it all the time.’


‘You were the desperate woman, who wanted a Chinese experience.’


‘Do you want me to leave the hotel?’


‘You have nowhere to go, we’re stuck in this place till we get back to Bangalore.’


The conversation dragged itself through the flight, through the long airport waits: ‘We shouldn’t have bought any tea packages, everything was undrinkable anyway.’ ‘You were the one who wanted two.’ ‘I said only two, you wanted more.’ ‘We can’t even afford our health insurance premium now. Imagine spending all that money on tea?’ And so on and on, till Mrs Rao’s trembling hands were thrusting the large brass key into their Bangalore gate.


Prema pinged her on Facebook. ‘So, how was Shanghai?’


‘All right,’ Sheela responded.


All right? Surely, it must have been awesome, we’re waiting for the pics.’


Sheela wanted to ask her how much she had paid for the French bed-and-breakfast. As Mr Rao had pointed out, no one stayed with overnight friends for free. But somehow such one-upmanship didn’t matter anymore.


What was settling was a call from her son. ‘This time, tell me the truth,’ she said. ‘Are you separated?’ ‘What are you talking about Ma?’ ‘I know Kripa’s never at home. You have to stop fooling me.’ ‘You’re crazy. You’re imagining all kinds of things. You know her doctor timings, she’s never at home when you call, that’s it.’ ‘Then why is she not on Facebook.’ ‘She’s not a Facebook kind of person.’ ‘Are you sure you’re not lying to me?’ Mrs Rao asked. ‘Amma, we’re all coming down this December. Now stop worrying about non-existent issues. Have you checked your B.P? When was your last doctor visit?’


That evening, Mrs Rao uploaded the picture before the Jade Buddha temple, the one with the two of them standing against an intricately carved wooden pillar. She added a comment: ‘Had fabulous time at Shanghai. @ traditional Shanghai Tea House, where we tasted exotic teas with our Chinese friends, Kang and Fu.’ For the first time in her sixty-five years, she winked at a bewildered Mr Rao. She was, even at this age, mastering a new universe.



Brinda S. Narayan has worked for fifteen years in the corporate sector. She holds a BA in Economics from Wellesley College and an MA in Communication from Stanford University. She currently lives in Bangalore. She is the author of Bangalore Calling, Hachette India, 2011.