Homer had his Muse. Dante had his Beatrice. Jay-Z has Beyonce. I have Jhumka Auntie.
My inspiration for writing about chai wallahs is a 5-foot tall Nepali woman who brightened every day for me during the year I taught English at Nav Yug School Peshwa Road on a Fulbright Fellowship.
The students made me laugh. The teachers made me fat. But it was Jhumka Auntie who made me feel at home and kept me going each day with her warm smile and warm adrak chai.
I returned to Nav Yug School to relearn the words to Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram, and to brush up on my Nepali while Jhumka prepared chai.
As she boiled water, she recounted her personal story. Jhumka was born in a village near Pokhara, a peaceful town on a lake at the base of three of the world’s ten highest mountains. Twenty-nine years ago she came to Delhi with her husband who had found a job at the Parliament House. She worked as a domestic in the home of S.B. Chavan, who served as Home Minister in the governments of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. When Chavan died, his son Ashok, who was Maharashtra’s Chief Minister until removed amid a corruption scam, found Jhumka a job at Nav Yug.
Hired as an aide to help supervise small children, her responsibilities quickly expanded to include making and delivering chai to teachers. They pool money for Jhumka to buy ingredients and give her tips to supplement her salary. “Teachers are addicted to tea,” she explained.
She splits duties as school chai walli with Anandi, who came to this school with the principal when she transferred from another Nav Yug branch. “We use different recipes for different people. Madam ko chini kam pasand hai.” The principal takes less sugar.
As Jhumka tosses tea into her pot, students pile at her door to place orders for their teachers, listing the classrooms where Jhumka’s services are needed.
Some teachers can’t wait for her to make her rounds. Lured by the sounds and smells of smashed ginger, Negi Ma’am, who teaches high school English, enters Jhumka’s kitchen. “This is my break period and I have a lot to do, but I can’t do any of it until I have tea,” Negi says. “If I’m tired I have tea. If I’m hungry I have tea. For every problem, our solution is tea. And for this solution we need Jhumka. We handle the students’ problems. Jhumka handles our problems.”
Jhumka pours a cup and hands it to Negi. She takes a sip. “Jhumka is the lifeline of our school.”
Jhumka Auntie’s Adrak ki Chai (Ginger Tea)
Serves ~8 small cups from Jhumka’s thermos
3 cups water
1.5 cups milk
4 teaspoons black tea
6 teaspoons sugar
1 inch piece of ginger
Bring water to rolling boil. Add tea and ginger. Cover and steep for 10 minutes. Add sugar and milk. Put mixture on highest heat. Just as it is about to boil over, stir. Repeat three times. Reduce heat and let sit for a minute. Pour through strainer and serve in cups to teachers in kitchen or bring thermos around to classrooms and provide a welcome interruption to lessons.