A chai-soaked passage to India

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It’s chai time Zach Marks and Resham Laihana Gellatly have already met tea sellers across 15 states in India
It’s chai time Zach Marks and Resham Laihana Gellatly have already met tea sellers across 15 states in India. Photo: Shraddha Bhargava Saxena

Like the railways, the ubiquitous culture of tea-drinking is a legacy of British rule that unites Indians across class, caste and regional divides. The rich and the poor, the socialite and the manual labourer, the politician and the postman, the bureaucrat and the journalist — it is rare to find someone who does not like his or her cup of tea. No matter where you happen to be, a tea stall run by a chaiwallah is usually just a short walk away.

If you thought the world of chaiwallahs is too mundane to merit academic interest, talk to two scholars from the US — Zach Marks and Resham Laihana Gellatly — and they will prove you wrong. Marks and Gellatly are travelling across India to document the country’s tea-drinking culture.

For the researcher duo, the fascination with chaiwallahs began in 2010 when they were in New Delhi for a year on a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship and taught at schools in the city. Just like most Indians, they settled into a pattern of drinking tea during breaks from work. While most tea enthusiasts, perhaps, do not think beyond the quality of the brew, Marks and Gellatly found themselves drawn more to the people who served them chai at various places.

Marks says he owes his interest in chaiwallahs to a Nepali woman who used to bring him his cup of tea while he was teaching at a government school. Gellatly, on the other hand, used to have chai at a kiosk outside the school where she was teaching.

“That kiosk was a regular haunt for all the teachers,” she says. “An unspoken bond formed between me and the chaiwallah, and the day I left in 2011, I felt a twinge of sorrow while saying goodbye to him.”

Hooked by the intriguing world of chaiwallahs, the two researchers returned to India in September last year, this time with a fellowship from the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. And since then, they have travelled across 15 states, including Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

“We have met tea-sellers in the remotest tribal areas in the forests of Odisha and also in the middle of the backwaters in Kerala,” says Marks. “The chaiwallahs are everywhere.”

In the remote tribal-dominated Koraput district of Odisha, Marks and Gellatly came across a tea seller who doubles as a local politician, whose election symbol is a kettle. Ahalya Kandapan continues to run a tea-stall even after she was elected a member of the local panchayat samiti. Interestingly, her election symbol was a kettle. Her conversation with the two researchers was published in the international edition of The New York Times.

Chaiwallahs often face problems from the police and the local administration. “The licence fee is quite steep in most places and many chaiwallahs operate without a licence, risking eviction,” says Marks. “They have to pay a daily bribe to the beat constables and often give them free supplies of tea, biscuits, cigarettes, etc.”

No wonder the two researchers were surprised to see policemen touching the feet of a chaiwallah in New Delhi. Laxman Rao, however, is no ordinary tea-seller; he is a writer who has 24 titles to his name, including novels. “But he hasn’t stopped selling tea and runs a stall near the ITO complex,” says Marks.

Marks and Gellatly see in the stories of tea-sellers several markers of the triumphs and travails of lower-end “entrepreneurship” in India. Take Sonu, a chaiwallah from Gurgaon, for instance, who used his modest savings to start a car rental service for corporate houses. “But he continues to sell chai because of the relationship he has developed with his customers,” says Gellatly.

In the busy commercial area of Burrabazar in Kolkata, the duo met Shivnath, who was once a cattle-herder and milk seller, but has been running a tea stall since the past 10 years. “Most cattle-owners in the city were forced to move out as a result of increasing urbanisation. While Shivnath’s son went to the outskirts of Kolkata to rear their cattle, he stayed back and opened a tea stall,” says Gellatly. “Today, he is one of the most popular chaiwallahs in Burrabazar.”

In Chennai, Marks and Gellatly met Rajendran at his tea stall near the Indian Institute of Technology Research Park. Rajendran was interested in martial arts and his father, who also ran a modest tea-stall, collected donations from his patrons to help him participate in karate competitions. After earning his black belt, Rajendran moved to New Delhi and then to Saudi Arabia, where he taught the oriental martial art to children of Indian diplomats for five years. He used to send all his savings to his parents.

After returning home, he fell in love with a girl from a different caste and married her despite opposition from the parents, who disowned them. Rajendran opened his own tea stall and now he finances his three daughters’ education and karate lessons. Thanks to the income from the tea stall, his daughters now participate in international karate competitions.

And then there is the story of the most famous chaiwallah of recent times: Narendra Modi, the three-time chief minister of Gujarat and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. To try and meet Modi, Marks and Gellatly went to the ‘Hunkar Rally’ in Patna in October last year, which was unfortunately rocked by a series of bomb blasts. While they could not meet Modi, they were able to talk to other chaiwallahs at the venue.

Travelling across the country, the researcher duo also noted how the process of making chai differs from place to place. “In north India, they throw in all the ingredients into the pan and let the concoction boil until the tea is ready. In Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, the tea is brewed in boiling water, while the milk is heated separately and added to the tea in the cup according to the customer’s taste,” says Marks. “We were told that the latter method derives from the filter-coffee culture in south India, where the decoction is brewed separately.”

However, the two agree it was in Kolkata that they found the tea they loved best. “There are some excellent tea stalls near the Tea Board office. Some of them serve their own unique blends, with a dash of Darjeeling thrown in,” says Gellatly. “We also love the lemon tea you get in the city.”

In Rajasthan, the duo tasted tea made from camel’s milk. They are now looking forward to visit Jammu & Kashmir and sample the Kahwa blend in the Valley and yak butter-laced tea in Laddakh. Come March, they will also visit Darjeeling in West Bengal, besides the famed tea gardens of Assam, to observe the tea-plucking season in its “first flush”, which is supposed to yield the best tea leaves.

In their journey from chaiwallah to chaiwallah, through tea estates and the offices of Tea Boards, carried out on a shoestring budget, the two researchers found support from both friends and strangers, many of whom were intrigued by their “mission”. In the process, they have gleaned many nuggets of insight into everyday life in India, its culture, economy and politics.

“In Kerala, we were told that the ‘revolution’ started in tea shops. In Kolkata, we met editors of Marxist publications in the Burrabazar tea stalls. There, people talk politics over endless cups of tea,” says Marks. “Forgive the cliché, but the chaiwallahs are indeed emblematic of the Indian entrepreneurial spirit.”

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