Drinking at the Boiling Point

Frequently in India, the roof of my mouth was burned.

Not a little pink burn. Or a little sore burn. But seared, naked tissue across the dome of my mouth.

Through a friend of my mother’s, I had wound up working with a community of traditional folk musicians in the desert villages of Rajasthan, India. Hop in a car in Delhi, go left for 10 hours, and you were there. Among the yellow sandstone forts and goat herders with thin, deep lines on their faces and groups of men in orange turbans sharing life over chai.

Together, the musicians and I were creating an archive of their music. In short spurts during college breaks, I dashed over to India to barrel through recording as many songs as possible. I never knew where funding for my next trip would come. So each time I was in Rajasthan, I felt like it was my last shot to get every single sound.

Recording took place in the musicians’ homes. Usually mud huts out on the absolute edge of the village. Out past where the electricity ended, past where the running water poured, past where there was status or respect.

Always, when I would arrive at a home, chai was made. ‘No need! No need!’ I’d say. Thinking, No time! No time! Too much to record. ‘Don’t take the trouble to,’ I’d say.

Always, they took the trouble to. A child went out for a plastic sack of milk. A woman lit a fire. The household sat down alongside me. Asked about my health, my family, my sunburn. Shared stories of the sandstorms, the heat, the sores on their feet.

And many, many minutes later, a metal cup of boiling chai was handed to me.

Always, I’d drink it at the boiling point. Scorching the flesh of my mouth. If it would have saved more time, I’d have drank the chai right off the fire.

And years and mouth burns and mouth scars later, I’d understand what I didn’t understand then. Understand that the roof of my mouth was seared raw again and again because I mistook chai and stories for getting in the way of life.

And didn’t see that it was about sharing life.

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