Where Does Grief Go? Indian Reporters and Chai Conversations

Sometimes I think about how much sadness exists in this world. Do we have to always carry our life’s tragedy with us in secret? Or are we all waiting for someone to ask us “How are you doing today?”

Photo: Ismat Ara

was a chilly day in New Delhi. After covering a press conference, I stopped by a roadside tea stall to get some chai (tea), mainly because I knew the cup would warm me up very well.

Next to the road near a bus stand, an old woman sat crushing adrak (ginger).

Then she put it into a pan with simmering hot tea, perfectly brown in colour.

I asked her if she could put a bit of Elaichi (cardamom) too for me, to which she happily agreed. I started a casual chat with her, which I do often as a practice since I became a reporter. Ultimately, my goal was to understand how different people vote.

How are you feeling today? I asked.

The woman began to weep. I wasn’t sure if I had said anything wrong. I asked her if I had. Her eyes swelled up and she told me that today, 23 years ago, she had lost her 18-year-old daughter, her jawan beti.

Perhaps I reminder her of her daughter?

I thought about how much grief people are unknowingly carrying within them. The kind that no one talks about. Setbacks at work. A broken friendship. Losing a parent. Losing someone you love. Suffering from an illness. Seeing someone you love get sick.

The crushed adrak and elaichi on the roadside in Delhi winters smelled strangely familiar. I came back to the present moment.

How did you lose her? I asked.

“Her husband was a bad man. He strangled her neck with her own dupatta,” she told me.

Why? I asked.

“She couldn’t give him a dowry anymore, because her father and I didn’t have any money…” she said.

This was frightening. This was so frightening. Honestly, the brutality of what I had heard was not distressing for me. This is India, and I am a reporter. This is not new.

What was depressing for me, was that it had been 23 years since the incident but it continues to haunt her. 23 years. That’s how long she has lived with this feeling.

That’s also just as long as I’ve existed on this planet.

Here’s a woman telling me the greatest tragedy of her life, while making tea for me on a beautiful sunny day in New Delhi’s winter.

In the past 23 years, so much has happened in her life. Her other daughters are now married. Her husband is gone. At last, she has set up this little tea stall to sustain herself. But the grief of losing her daughter is still fresh. 23 years and counting. When will all this grief go?

And if it doesn’t, will she find more strangers who will ask her how she is doing?

As I finished my tea and got ready to go, she told me to visit her whenever around. Then she dried the last of her tears and began with the next batch of tea.

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Ismat Ara

Ismat Ara is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. She shares insights from her coverage amid rising hostility towards minorities and declining press freedom.