Academic All Nighters at the Tea Stall

Raman Sharma

Consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Midterm exams are beginning in colleges across the globe. ‘Tis the season for students to pull all nighters and to procrastinate. What better way to procrastinate than with a philosophical debate over a cup of chai?

Raman Sharma, a graduate of the prestigious and hypercompetitive Indian Institute of Technology, knows this as well as any. Currently a consultant at McKinsey & Company, he took a break from advising clients to share this memory of his favorite campus chai wallah.

Wanted to share a very special chai place which will always be memorable for me and a lot of other people from my campus. I did my undergrad from IIT Kanpur, where there is this small marketplace called ‘MT’ which has a couple of chai shops along with 2-3 paan and cigarette shops, a bike repair shop and a general store. In the middle of the compound is a small temple beside which there is a bit of an open area and a raised platform. The place has been a hub for morning tea and breakfast, cigarette supplies and evening snacks for ages. It’s the first eating place that opens in the morning on the campus and is often the final destination of a long all nighter for all students. At the same time, you’d find a groups of professors enjoying their morning tea after the morning walk. 

The place had such a charm that people even had loyalties to their particular chai shop based on the type of chai they liked. People would come in groups but would get chai from their preferred chai shop. Like a typical chai shop in Uttar Pradesh, the shops also had jalebi with curd, pakodas and namkeen to enjoy with chai. Not to mention the shops entertained credits, which would be cleared once or twice a semester. One would often spend hours debating various topics ranging from curriculum, grades, professors, research topics, hypothetical extreme ideas to politics, elections, music and even some campus gossip over several cups of chai and devotional songs playing in the background.  It’s a one of a kind social hub. 

Recent scenes from Delhi University, where famous chai wallahs are a gathering space for students. The campus plays host to many sorts of wallahs, from bike rickshaw wallahs shuttling students to scale wallahs who weigh them.

Old Delhi’s History One Cup at a Time

Chai takes you on journeys past the chai wallah’s stand.

Old Delhi alley

After ambling through Old Delhi’s labyrinthine alleys, we came upon a small crowd gathered around a young man making tea in a hole-in-the-wall. The term hole-in-the-wall is used liberally in the United States – often to describe small places off the beaten path. This man was literally making tea in a hole in the wall. In a nook of crumbling concrete, he had constructed a cabinet in which to make chai, and by doing so, had constructed a community. As he tossed sugar and tea into a pot of boiling milk, five men gathered just as they have in this same spot for as many years as they can remember.

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Riding High on Chai

The Free Souls Rider motorcycle club

The Free Souls Rider motorcycle club

Few people have visited more chai wallahs in India than the members of the Free Souls Rider motorcycle club. The Delhi-based group consists of 900 bikers who ride by the motto: “Biking is the way to nirvana. We live to ride longer and ride longer to live longer.” Their Harleys and Hondas have covered the country, recently completing the Himachal circuit with its hairpin turns through the Himalayas.

Of course the journeys would not be possible without chai. “We stop for chai every hundred kilometers,” said Ved Prakash, one of the group’s administrators. “It keeps us going and gives our butts a rest.”

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A Break from the Office Grind

Vidya Mahadevan

Joint MBA-MA candidate at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Lauder Institute in International Studies with a focus on India.

If anyone knows about the diversity of India’s chai culture it is Vidya Mahadevan. She attended schools across 5 Indian states, has lived in a few more, and picked up 6 languages (excluding English) in the process. She’s currently in Philadelphia getting her MBA from Wharton and MA in International Studies focused on India from Lauder. But while the City of Brotherly Love has plenty of degrees for Vidya, it’s unfortunately lacking in chai wallahs. Here’s an anecdote she submitted, the latest entry in our Chai Diaries notebook:

This was back in 2008. I was working out of Bangalore, India for a large multinational bank based out of the US. As one would have guessed, my job inevitably required me to work until late in the night almost everyday. We, like several other multinational giants, were stationed in ITPL in Whitefield, one of the best and high-end tech-parks of the Bangalore, the Technology Hub of India.

At the back gate of this ITPL’s campus there were several chai walas selling “cutting chai” for Rs 3 to 5 from their small mobile shops which were called “tapri”. They operated until very late in the night and always served hot “elachi chai” and “adarak chai” in small plastic cups. Many who stepped away from their desks for smoke breaks preferred to enrich those breaks with a cup of cutting chai.

One could find several IT and finance professionals, clad in their formal clothes and suits enjoying their small cup of tea over friendly chats and deep and thoughtful conversations. I used to wonder several times- What makes people frequent these tapri ‘s so often? We get the best Café Coffee Day coffee and tea in our offices and that too for free, then why do we still feel the need to grab a small cup of cutting chai every day?

I think I also knew the answers to my questions very well. These chai breaks helped us switch off our professional brains for a while and get out of our highly intense work zones. Personally, these chai breaks also allowed me to be myself for that brief span of time. I enjoyed going on these breaks alone, lost in my own thoughts and with some time in my hand to observe the life around me. Most importantly, owner of one of the chai tapri’s that I frequented very often recognized me very well and always greeted me with a beaming smile and warm words of welcome. Whenever I have had a really long day or was stressed out, she used to figure that out that just by looking at me and ask,”Kaisa chal raha hai sab kuch, Didi, bahut kaam hai kya? Chai doon?”

Those few warm and caring words and hot chai would brighten my day, instantly!

Pictures from Sonu’s chai stand outside a corporate office complex in Gurgaon, Haryana.

A Friendship Forged in the Alleys of Connaught Place

It’s a pretty common sight at Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi – western tourists warily walking, bags clutched tightly to their chest, trying to speed past beggars and touts. Shouts of “Which country? Which country?” and “Come look my shop” fill the halls of C.P., as the complex is known, a magnificent circle of commerce built in 1933 to replicate the Royal Crescent of Bath, England.

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Special Treatment in a Paper Cup

Shandeep Sharma

A product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up.

Today’s Chai Diaries entry comes from Shandeep Sharma, a product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up. Life would seem pretty good for Shandeep. But there’s one thing missing from the Silicon Valley — chai wallahs. He sent in this memory of a favorite chai wallah from his childhood.

During winter holidays my family and I would visit our relatives in Gwalior. We would take trips to the city center (“Sudder” street) and have Kashmiri chai. This chai never tasted as good in Singapore where we lived, and I would rarely have it there since it was too hot for the temperate climate. Plus my parents didn’t want me developing a caffeine addiction.

The great thing about the chai wallah we went to was that he was my dad’s primary school friend and would give us “special” treatment. I’d get my chai in a white paper cup with extra pistachios because he knew I enjoyed the added texture. I would sip it very very slowly — savoring it as much as possible. As we drank our chais by the roadside, I would hear stories of my dad when he was my age while he reminisced with his chai wallah buddy.

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge

Our Journey Begins


Reflections from Resham

When I learned in high school psychology class that smell is the most primitive of our five senses – that the nerves are located in the very back of the brain, far removed from the frontal lobe where all our logical decision making takes place – everything made sense. Since I was a child, I’ve always had strong reactions to smells. They’ve transported me to times or places that I had forgotten, taking me out of my current state and temporarily transforming me to a younger version of myself. Stepping off the plane from Delhi today and inhaling the air – somehow humid and full of the smell of burning trash, even though we were still in the enclosed, modern, sterile airport – was one of those moments. My eyes were bleary from 17 hours of travel, my ears were still ringing with the white noise of the airplane’s engine, my mouth was dry from lack of water, and my body felt cramped from being curled into a hard seat for too long, but my nose told me that everything was right, that I was back home.

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Cell Phones and Chai: A Boon for Business

Philip Lutgendorf

Professor of Hindi at University of Iowa and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

Philip Lutgendorf might know more than anyone about the history of chai in India. Professor of Hindi at University of Iowa and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies, Lutgendorf spent a year in India researching chai on a Fulbright-Hays faculty research award. He submitted this anecdote of a chai wallah he met about ten years ago in Delhi whose business was revolutionized by cell phones:

I went to Old Delhi to buy some Hindi books at Star Publications on Ansari Road. Outside, on the arcaded pavement, a chai wallah had set up his stand. Nothing unusual about that, but the man was. He was smartly dressed, with a sport jacket, loafers, sunglasses tucked into the opening of his shirt. He could have been a moonlighting university professor! And he had a mobile phone (not so common in those days) hanging on a cord around his neck. While he was making chai for me (excellent chai, made to my request, with fresh ginger) his phone rang and I realized he was taking an order from a nearby office. Soon a little boy was running off with the usual wire basket full of brimful glasses. He remarked to me on what a boon the phone was for his business. This vignette, at that time, seemed to epitomize to me the changes wrought by the coming of cell phones and the emergence of a new middle class, even among very small entrepreneurs like this man.

- Philip Lutgendorf, Professor of Hindi, University of Iowa