A Presentation on India’s Chai Wallahs

Friends in Delhi:

We hope you will join us tomorrow, Tuesday, February 25 for a presentation on India’s chai wallahs to open an exhibit of our photographs of tea vendors from around the country.

The American Center will feature a gallery of our photographs through March 7. We hope you can make it to the talk tomorrow, for some free chai and stimulating conversation.

What: Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks present their research on tea vendors from around India

When: Tuesday, February 25
5:30 pm: Tea
6:00 pm: Inaugural and presentation

Where: American Center, 24 Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi (near Rajiv Chowk and Barakhamba Road Metro stations)

Seats are limited and available on a first come, first served basis.

Please carry a valid photo identity card to enter the American Center.

Mobile phones and laptops are allowed in the American Center. However, photography is prohibited.

All visitors may be featured in photos or video to be used for promotional purposes or on social media by the American Center or U.S. Embassy.

The American Center does not provide public parking on its premises.


Chai Pe Charcha: Narendra Modi’s Tea Campaign

Thanks to Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi’s campaign to become prime minister, chai wallahs across the country are in the spotlight perhaps more than ever. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been making much of the time he spent working as a boy at his father’s tea stall at the Vadnagar railway station before rising to the post of Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi had a brief stint as a chai wallah at his father's tea stall before becoming Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi had a brief stint as a chai wallah at his father’s tea stall before becoming Chief Minister of Gujarat.

In October, the BJP began a campaign in which chai wallahs branded their businesses as NaMo Tea Stalls, distributing promotional materials and money for chai wallahs to improve their stalls in exchange for their public endorsement. (Modi is often referred to as NaMo, the Hindi abbreviation for his name.) After an errant comment by Mani Shankar Aiyar, a prominent politician from the ruling Congress party, that Modi would be welcome to serve him chai but could never become prime minister, the BJP has brewed up a new storm of chai-related campaigning.

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Chai in Gujarat: A Family Affair

Chai in Gujarat is often a family affair. The western state’s first family in terms of tea is indisputably the Desais, owners of the Wagh Bakri Tea Group, which has become the third largest packaged tea company in India after Hindustan Unilever and Tata. And of course, Gujarat’s chief minister and candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi worked at his father’s tea stand during his childhood, a story that has been extensively covered by the Indian media. But more often than in boardrooms or politics, the business of tea is carried out by families in the streets of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city.

For the Rajputs, chai is a family business. Pictured left to right: Manu Singh, Ganesh, Devraj and Bharat Bhai serve customers near Ahmedabad's Law Garden.

For the Rajputs, chai is a family business. Pictured left to right: Manu Singh, Ganesh, Devraj and Bharat Bhai serve customers near Ahmedabad’s Law Garden.

The men of the Rajput family are one such example, running a popular chai stand near Ahmedabad’s Law Garden. The Rajputs came to Ahmedabad nine years ago from a village near Rajsamand in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district. Whereas many chai wallahs begin their careers by washing glasses and serving customers for other chai wallahs until they save enough money to open their own stands, the Rajputs were able to pool their savings and open their own business from the get go.

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My Tryst with Tea: Of Bureaucrats and Travels


Saanya Gulati

Since returning to India after completing her B.A. from Tufts University in Boston, Saanya has worked in Delhi on different initiatives that increase citizen engagement in India’s political discourse. She blogs about contemporary political and social issues when she is not curled up with a book at home, or out exploring new lands. You can read her work at www.sanyagulati.com and follow her on Twitter @BombayDelhiGirl.

Saanya Gulati, an astute observer of South Asian politics, culture and society, files this report of her tryst with tea. Read more of her work at www.saanyagulati.com and on Twitter.

 

I was a heavy coffee drinker during the four years I spent in the United States completing my undergraduate studies. My tryst with tea began only upon moving back to Delhi after I graduated. At first it was the elaichi-flavoured Tetley tea bags, which were quick and easy to make at home. Soon my mornings felt incomplete without a steaming hot cup of the strong beige liquid.

I am accustomed to drinking my chai without sugar – the same way I would drink coffee – how else do you enjoy the real flavour? But unsweetened chai is a bit of an anomaly in India. The first time I asked for chai without sugar at the tea-stall outside my office in Delhi, the chai wallah responded, “pheekee chai?” which literally translates to “bland tea?” – and thus I was outcast as a pheekee chai drinker, but a chai drinker nonetheless!

Saanya (right) and her friend Deepa enjoying chai in Amritsar.

Saanya (right) and her friend Deepa enjoying chai in Amritsar.

 

Chai breaks are an infamous part of the work culture I was exposed to in Delhi. A simple test I devised to determine whether you’re a chai glutton is when your chai wallah starts to give you store credit – because he knows that you will be back the next day, if not within the next few hours! Needless to say, I pass this test. On seeing me walk down, the shopkeeper would yell out to the chai wallah “ek pheekee chai!”  (“one bland tea!”)

To understand just how important chai is to the work culture I was part of, I turn to my favourite joke about the Brazilian bureaucracy:

Two lions escape from a zoo and take different paths; one goes to a wooded park and is apprehended as a soon as he gets hungry and eats a passerby. The second remains at large for months. Finally captured, he returns to the zoo sleek and fat. His companion inquires with great interest, “where did you find such a great hiding place?” “In one of the ministries” is the successful escapee’s answer. “Every three days I ate a bureaucrat and not one noticed.” “So how did you get caught?” “I ate the man who served coffee for the morning break,” comes the sad reply.

This example is apt for India, if you replace coffee with chai. I worked with a Member of Parliament in Delhi for a year, during the course of which I met several bureaucrats and government officials. Every meeting began with the customary offering of chai. We slowly sipped on the sweet milky goodness, while exchanging pleasantries. Chai is the desi way of ‘breaking the ice’ when you meet someone for the first time. You easily avoid the awkward silence by staring down into the swirling beige liquid, alternating between small sips and occasional glances at the person across from you. Soon I mastered the art of drinking chai in official settings.

I also learnt early on to never say ‘no’ when offered chai in such official settings. My first such disastrous mistake resulted in standoffish behaviour from the staff of the official that I was to meet. The next time I visited, I made sure to accept the chai offer, and sure enough, I was chided for having previously refused! Luckily for me, social norm dictates that one chai acceptance neutralises a previous chai refusal. After many chai acceptances, I am now on good terms with the staff at that office.

Chai has also been an integral part of my travels across India – if you are wary of drinking non-bottled water from obscure looking roadside stalls, opt for the chai. I am convinced that the over boiling of the liquid kills any infection or bacteria. This justifies the copious cups of chai I have consumed while waiting at stations, bus stops, and pretty much at any roadside. From Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu, the chai culture prevails in most of the northern lands I ventured to. Waiting for the parade to begin at the Wagah Border in Amritsar, sitting across the Hameersar Lake in Bhuj with Gujarati folk music in the background, being woken up at an unearthly hour on a bus journey somewhere between Manali and Jammu, there are several memories that involve a cup of chai. Clearly, there is something indescribable about the goodness of garma-garam chai.

Counting the change in my wallet before boarding a train last week, I lamented to my friend, “I have only 20 Rupees. Just one cup of chai for each of us!” to which she responds, “I have 20 Rupees as well. Two cups each, we’re covered.” After all, what better sustenance for an eighteen-hour train journey.

 


Chai Diaries: A Punjabi Peace Corps Memory


Tondalaya Gillespie

After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Maharashtra, Tondalaya began a 37-year career in international development, working in the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe. Her husband Ron was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Bengal and they married in Delhi in a ceremony that blended Christian, Hindu and Sikh traditions. The couple currently resides in Hawaii but makes frequent trips to the Indian subcontinent with a visit to Bangladesh planned for the fall.

Tondalaya Gillespie submits this Chai Diaries entry from Hawaii’s Big Island, which recently saw the opening of its first Indian restaurant. “It is ek dam pukka,” Gillespie reports. “You can even get veg and non-veg thalis.”

Tondalaya sips chai in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in India. I also returned for my marriage to a former PCV who was directing a PCV training program at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, Punjab. I accompanied him on a week’s programing tour along with his language instructor. We made one of our many tea stops at this little roadside makeshift spot which consisted of no more than three charpoys (rope beds) and some rocks piked up to hold the fire to boil the tea. There were a few men squatting around drinking chai and an old old chap sleeping on one of the charpoys. He was snoring away, but undoubtedly heard English being spoken. He rose up, looked at us, and in a loud voice wanted to know why we killed Kennedy, rolled over and went back to snoring!

 

Tondalaya and Ron's wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Tondalaya and Ron’s wedding in Delhi, 1971.