*picture from our 2004 chai sessions*
This is not my first cup of chai with Agam-ji.
While the kinship I feel for him might well transcend centuries, Agam has already become a revered character in one of my many lifetimes within this one; I studied the art of silversmith under his mentorship, three years ago, on my first trip to India. But in our many hours sitting cross-legged in the tiny carpeted studio attached to the shop showcasing his craft, I spent far less time melting, hammering and buffing than I did sipping, listening and laughing. And while my silver may have laid battered and unbuffed, my understanding of India was shaped and polished by Agam’s stories; of his beautiful arranged marriage, of his father’s life work and its distribution among his sons, and of his business, art, love and skill – silver – all in one.
Agam was the first star I found in my evening sky of India; my first friend born of the country. And on my last day in Banaras, I ran into his shop and asked him to mark our memory of times together, to which he agreed, as always, with a humor-her chuckle. He took out one of his tiny silver earrings and sharpened its blunt end to a piercing point. I stood with my back flat against the wall and when he told me to take a deep breath, as he’d instructed the hundreds of Indian women before me, I filled my lungs and exhaled my complete trust in him. What remains is the little star-like stud, on the left side of my nose, which I wear to this day.
Today, three years later, I find myself again in Agam-ji’s shop, wafting on the memories that the scent of silver dust in the air has yanked from past to present – as the smells of all the best stories do. And now, with a night sky full of Indian friends, I recognize just how lucky I was to have found such a North star: his character is un-faded by time; his charm as luminous, and wisdom striking, as the day I met him…
I look up over my chai cup and shout my surprise, “Agam! Look at all the little birds sitting above your shop door! That must be auspicious!”
He tips his wire-rimmed glasses up from the tiny earring that he is shaving with a hair-thin wire and with a chuckle says, “Well, yes, it is. And I am also feeding them!”
I laugh, stand up, and walk over to the doorway. I move slowly, but the dozen little finches and sparrows, in one great wing of wind, scatter to the tree across the street.
Agam laughs out loud and says, “They don’t know you!”
“Do they fly away when you go through the door, Agam?”
He laughs again, as he does with every response, and says, “well of course not!”
He instructs me to reach up and feel the top ledge of the metal door and as my fingers scope out inch-deep divide, I feel, with the tips of my fingers, a thick layer of seed lining the length of ledge.
“One day,” he begins as he holds up the earring for inspection of his work…
“One day, a bird came to my store. It was May. A very, very hot day. In the hottest month of the year. Everyone was hot and thirsty and this little bird came to my store. And it opened its mouth like this, breathing without closing its mouth, doing this, what is that called? Panting? Yes. Panting. It was panting and I thought to myself, “this bird is thirsty.” And I had a glass of water by my side and thought, “it does me no harm and it will make this bird happy if I give it water.” And so I put some of my water in a little dish and this little bird flew right to the dish and drank the water. And then I thought to myself; I wonder if this bird is also hungry? It will do me no harm to feed this bird and then the bird will be happy, isn’t it? So I went out and bought a bag of birdseed – which, in the market – it costs nothing. Only one rupee a day and this bird will be happy. And so I put the seed on the top of my door and the bird came back every day to eat and drink and it made me happy to see his bird happy. Then one day another bird came. And the two birds were happy and came back every day. Soon a third bird came. And the two birds did not like this one, and chased him away. They are very fun to watch; how they get along with each other, just like we do. But the third bird came back, and then a fourth came, and now they are many. Sometimes there are thirty or forty. They come for lunch at 11:30 and they come for dinner at 5:30. Everyday, they come at the same times. And they are very happy. Do you hear them singing? They are happy knowing that if they can not find any food that day, they can always come to my shop and have food. Do you know what it’s like to be very, very thirsty? Or very, very hungry? I am very happy to know that when they are feeling this, they come here. And that when they receive food, they give me their blessing. And this blessing is the blessing of a thousand. Because when you are very, very thirsty, or very, very hungry, your gratitude is of a thousand. And it is good karma to have thousands of such blessings sent into the world each day.”
“Some people, they come into my shop, and they complain that the birds leave seed on my doorstep or their shirt– they say the birds make things dirty and ask me why I feed them. But I ignore them. It is nothing to me. I only need to clean just a little bit every day. Every morning I only need to use a rag to wipe the ledge and a broom to sweep the step, and it is so very little work for me to make the birds happy, isn’t it. Just a little bit of work every morning. Human beings are so selfish. We do not want to give, even when it costs us nothing. Only 1 rupee a day and look how many birds we can make happy. Look how many blessings we can have. And they chatter and sing and are beautiful to watch and they are happy and they are free.”
The smile fades from Agam’s face as he puts the piece he is working on down and raises his voice with an edge (not of anger, but of strength) that I have never heard before…
“Now, I go sometimes to a person’s house and I see a bird in cage. And I ask that person, ‘What are you doing! What are you doing to this bird? This bird is not happy!’ And that person says, ‘Well, I’m feeding it, aren’t I?’ And I say, but that bird is not free. Look at it. That bird is not singing or playing or fighting or flying. That bird is very unhappy! Why do you have to cage it to feed it? Your bird is unhappy and you have only one lonely and unhappy bird. Why only have one unhappy bird when you can make many, many birds happy and they will come to you the same, but they will sing, and fly and be happy and free?”
He puts the finger down that he was using to make his points in the air and picks up a soft cloth and starts to softly buff the silver while at the same time softly explaining…
“So this is my rule. Every morning. The first person who walks into the door of my shop. If it’s me, or one of the workers, or my trainee; no matter who it is, if you walk through the door first, it is your job, first, to clean the ledge and to sweep the step and to feed the birds. And if he, who comes through my door first, does not do this….”
Agam looks up at me above the wire rim of his glasses and says with a winking smile,
“Then I do not give him money for his breakfast either.”