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.

Hole in the wall

“I come here four times a day,” said Bitu, a tailor who climbs down from his shop above the stall. “Chai ke bina meri ankhon nahi khulte. Daru ke bina ankhon band nahi hote.” Without chai, my eyes won’t open. Without alcohol, my eyes won’t close!

As we chatted about Old Delhi’s layered history, Ajay Verma pointed out the obvious. “This area is very old.” To prove his point, he took us to see a building that had recently fallen down roughly a hundred years after its construction.

Ajay Verma

But the tour was just beginning. From the building, we wound our way past Ajay’s friends making meethai behind a sweet shop. Past the famous Gali Paranthe Wali, where the same shops have been flipping paranthas since the 1870s. Past a crouched old man chiseling away at a grindstone in a grain store. Past the childhood home of Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar and the temple where he used to perform puja in front of 200-year old murtis of Ganesh and Hanuman. Past cracked doors providing peeks into havelis where children laughed and pigeons flapped in open courtyards. And, of course, past chai wallah after chai wallah where similar groups of men gathered, each with their own version of Old Delhi’s history, their own experience of its narrow lanes and their own favorite cup of chai.

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