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.
When a young man offered us some unsolicited advice about a closed bank then began asking where we were from, we nearly ended the conversation there as we had with so many strangers who had approached us. But we had a question for him. Where could we find a chai wallah in Connaught Place?
“Chai wallahs?” the young man Rakesh asked. “Chai wallahs are not allowed here anymore. Only branded stores.” He suggested we visit one of the many Café Coffee Days – we had passed three in our short stroll from the metro already – or the recently opened Starbucks. But we wanted chai. He professed to be a tea lover himself and suggested we buy some loose tea to make if we were going to be staying in India for a while.
When we explained we were researching chai wallahs, he realized he had just the place in mind. He led us through back alleys into the innards of C.P., past stray dogs and open electrical boxes with wires hanging. The British had designed Connaught Place in the regal Georgian style as a modern marketplace, its shops neatly organized for customers to stroll by. But their architecture could not suppress the Indian entrepreneurial spirit from turning the shaded back alleys of C.P. into places of commerce themselves, as merchants set up little aluminum stalls from which to sell beedi cigarettes, tobacco packets and paan. Turning past corner after corner, we came upon a beautiful open space with a large banyan tree under which sat a bustling chai stand.
The stand was covered by a tin roof jutting out of the adjacent building. Customers chatted at a table in front of a man boiling chai and another frying samosas. Clotheslines had been strung from the balconies above to the banyan tree. Kurtas and churidars hung from the line, blowing in the wind above our heads.
“Teen chai bana do.” Rakesh ordered three cups and pulled up stools for us to sit. He was still a bit perplexed by our project and asked why we found chai a topic worth researching. Before we could respond, he answered the question for us. “In India, there are too many varieties of tea. You must go Rajasthan – there you will find chai made with camel milk. In Punjab you get rich buffalo milk chai. There is also the Kashmiri kahwa, which is really very nice.”
Our tea arrived – three little glasses, each the height of a finger, containing a double espresso shot’s worth of sugary chai. We continued talking, now less about tea and more about life. Rakesh had come to Delhi from Khajuraho, a town famous for its temples with erotic carvings depicting detailed scenes from the Kama Sutra. He was from a farming family, but did not want to be a farmer. “This new generation – we don’t want to work hard like our elders.” He said this while pointing to an old man nearby hammering away at piece of drywall.
He has struggled to find work in Delhi. ”There are no good jobs. All the easy jobs don’t pay and all the jobs that pay are too hard. So now, what am I to do?” He drives an auto rickshaw at night, which provides some pocket money and lets him meet lots of interesting people. “Old, young, drunks. It’s interesting but it’s not great work.”
“In life you have to work but you also have to enjoy,” he said. “On Sundays we play cricket and watch films.” He invited us to join him and we exchanged numbers. Rakesh may not have seen what was so special about chai at first, but over just a cup of tea a new friend had been made.