In this post, Ravindra Bhalerao writes about railway station chai wallahs of the 1970s and 80s. Although times have changed, with many passengers drinking chai provided by Indian Railways’ catering companies, station chai wallahs still occupy a special spot in travelers’ hearts.
For years the chai-wallah on Ajni platform served out steaming hot cuppas to folks. With its darkened walls and lack of electric lighting his stall looked dismal; it did not look inviting. Whether he did brisk business or not, I am not prepared to say, for Ajni was only a transit station, 3 kilometers south of Nagpur, built to serve the army of railway folk who lived in the railway colony here. The crowds were to be seen at the platform only a few times each day, as when the Kolhapur Express halted, or when the Kazipet Passenger called to pick up its load of night travellers. My morning visits to Ajni were often timed to coincide with the Bhusaval Passenger drawing in lazily behind a streamlined pacific. Even at this time, not many of the passengers would care to stop by the chai-wallah, so I conclude his profits came mostly from the cups he served to the station staff of this tiny station.
In striking contrast to the unfortunate vendor in Ajni is the tea stall at a large junction station. Here we may find activity at each hour of the day and night. The stall here is manned in shifts by two or more persons who have to remain on their toes throughout. The chai-wallah here is constantly amidst the bustle of the platform, amid the trains, amid the shouts and cries of frantic passengers when an express draws in. His station in life may be deemed as being of no great significance by some, yet we cannot do without him. He is constantly sought out by eager eyed folk looking for a sip of the cheering brew; at peak hours he is literally at the centre of a mob. At other times, as when the Mail has left, our chai-wallah is left alone in tranquility. The sun beats down on an empty line of carriages standing sullenly on one side; an engine a little way off lets out blasts of steam making a great noise as it prepares to move to a nearby line; a lone man chooses to have his cup of tea at this hour and is lost in thought as he leans against the stall; families may be seen lounging around on the platform reclining against trunks and bedrolls. Even at such times of lull when business is slack, and the platform is lifeless, the chai-wallah has to be prepared with his brew for the odd customer who may want his drink at this hour.
The Indian rail journey can be likened to a voyage by land, lasting as it does sometimes over three days. For the Sleeper coach passenger a journey of this duration can easily turn into a test of endurance, a battle against fatigue, poor food and monotony. He can hope to get respite from it all only by getting off the train at halts along the way. Then comes the mad scramble to fill up water bottles at the station tap. For the man who is sick of being on the same berth for over two days, who is tired and stiff, this is something like a blessing in disguise, for it allows him to stretch his legs, to be out in the open, to feel his feet are back on solid earth again. Having filled his bottle, he may be seen to return to his seat triumphantly. Now is the time to toast his success with cups of tea ordered through the window. “Kitne paise hue, bhaiya?” his wife cries out to the vendor alongside. “Teen rupye,” replies the man. “Jara jaldi karo, memsahab, signal ho gaya”. Even as the woman begins to fumble for the coins in her purse, the kids seated opposite let out a wail for some inexplicable reason. The drama is laden with tension. But the coins are passed through the window, and the chai-wallah moves on, satisfied with the deal, crying out “Chaa—ye…. chaa—ye…” The train jolts forward. The effect of this is almost miraculous, for the children settle down with peanuts and sandwiches and chai. There is a calmness now that nothing seems able to disturb. As the platform begins to slide back the family settles down in comfort. The Wheeler’s stall appears momentarily before passing out of view, as does the parcel booking office. And there, far ahead, amongst others, is the chai-wallah with his cups, his cries forever stilled, gazing open-mouthed at the train as it moves out on its onward journey.
A train journey can be quite inconceivable without tea. This is partly due to the ever present tendency amongst most of us to toast every occasion with a cup of tea. But tea has its therapeutic effects as well, some real, other imagined. It freshens up a man, clears his mind, envigorates the nerves, banishes lethargy, spurs him on to greater effort, improves judgement, helps breaks the monotony of routine. With so many advantages this simple beverage has to offer, it is not surprising that the tea stall vendor, or chai-wallah as he is known, has come to occupy a place of central significance on the railway platform.
My sojourns through station land in the past revealed three categories of chai-wallahs at the platform. To begin with you have the vendor who holds charge of a built-up stall right in middle of a spacious platform. Grubby in appearance, his stall is nonetheless equipped with counters made of cement or stone slabs which the customer may lean against. These counters form a kind of cubicle with a small entrance on one side, inside which the man brewing the tea functions. Stacked on the slab may be found tins of sugar and tea, spoons, glasses and cups, pots of milk. For his supply of fresh water, he relies on a tap, failing which you will find matkas (earthenware pots) holding clean water, while waste water is disposed of in special buckets kept for the purpose. The station chai-wallah finds it easiest to brew his tea in an aluminium kettle with a well insulated handle, and on the more busy stalls, several of these kettles may be seen, some holding ready-made tea, others simmering on the coals. I have not found the drink here (or anywhere on a station for that matter) to my taste, but for an extra rupee you can have the chai-wallah add a little extra sugar with cardamom which lends a wonderful flavour to the brew.
Then there are chai-wallahs who move around the platform with a trolley on wheels. These mobile vendors carry equipment that is near complete: cups, kettles simmering over ‘sigris’, tea leaves, sugar, milk, buckets of water. But as the trolley has to be pushed around, it still makes progress slow. To overcome this obstacle, the vendor often employs boys carrying around trays laden with cups and a steaming hot kettleful of tea prepared prior to the arrival of the train. With respect to mobility, these boys are decidedly at an advantage as they can move around speedily from one carriage to the next shouting out their wares.
It was with respect to these ‘itinerant’ vendors that an elder once cautioned me advising me to carry an ample supply of change with me on my travels. I was but a young lad setting out from home for the first time, and this piece of advice stood me in good stead in the years to come. The rule is to hand out the requisite coins through the window of the train, and never to pass on a note expecting the vendor to return the balance. He may make up an excuse and make off with the money.
No one would deny this is sound common sense, but it should not be thought that every tea-seller on the platform who asks a customer to wait till he returns with the change, does so from intentions that are not honourable. Quite on the contrary, many of these simple hawkers may be found to be honest in dealing with a helpless passenger. I can recollect an instance when I was travelling through the poverty-ridden area of Assam with a ticket to Delhi. The Mail arrived at New Bongaigaon early in the morning, and as I rarely if ever fall asleep while on a train, I was at the door looking for a morning cup. It must have been around 1 a.m., with no one in sight on the platform. I was offered tea in an earthenware cup which is a most welcome feature in Assam and Bihar as you need not trouble yourself over emptying the contents of the cup before the time is due. The man did not have the rupee note he had to return to me, so he said he would be back in a short while. For once, let me trust this man, I thought to myself, as I stood at the doorway of the carriage sipping my tea. Soon the whistle blew, and the train began to pull out. I leaned out through the doorway, a bit disappointed. The platform, well lit, but deserted at this hour, presented an eerie sight. The station bookstall wheeled past, and I was about to give up hope when I spotted a solitary figure standing a good way ahead looking for anyone who might be at the doorway of a carriage. It was the friendly chai-wallah who remembered he owed me a rupee. When he came abreast, I swung out an arm and with a quick movement whisked up the note he held out.
At the larger junctions we find that is is often the chai-wallah who has to fear the unscrupulous passenger. He has to keep a sharp lookout, for with a crowd of men pressing in for their cups of tea half of whom are only hanging about with no particular business in mind, it is doubly easy for the habitual cheat to filch a porcelain cup. Then too, even if there is no crowd around, there is always the passenger who may wish to carry his cup to the carriage opposite the stall to offer to his wife. Chai-wallahs are aware of the danger involved here, and at one stall at Delhi Junction I found the vendor would ask the passenger to deposit a sum of twenty rupees, to be later refunded, before he could carry his cup to the window of his carriage.
Taken in solitude, or while amongst a boisterous group of friends, a cup of tea always affords pleasure. And it seems to become doubly enjoyable if the tea is accompanied by a slice of cake or snacks of any kind. A chai-wallah on New Delhi station seemed to have guessed this and hit upon a novel idea to boost up his sales. Delhi is famed for its Britannia cakes, a range of light spongy cakes available in several pleasing flavours. “Dilliwalon ki pasand — Britannia Cake!” the ad would shout. This chai-wallah would offer his customer his cup while silently slipping two slices of Britannia cake into the saucer, unsolicited of course. If the passenger felt the cake was offered as a bonus he was sadly mistaken and he could find himself in an unpleasant situation at the end. One man was sharp enough to see through the chai-wallah’s trick when offered tea and cake in this manner and shot back: “Listen, I never asked you for this!”
The railway platform is a hive of activity. A station master making entries in his register, porters scurrying about with luggage, a crowd of men at the station tap, the hurried transaction over a cup of tea, the shouts and cries of vendors advertising their wares, all this and much more add charm and romance to the Indian train journey. Railway enthusiasts are not known to spend their hours exploring the chai-wallahs and other vendors at the station; they would rather usefully employ their time in gathering details on the trains and engines they fancy. I for my part, had a similar tendency all along, when one day I found myself bored stiff exploring the yard and a thousand tonnes of steel rolling on wheels on parallel lines. My preoccupation with trains had come to a sad end, I thought, but a few days later, I got an opportunity to watch a short film made at a railway station. It was not a professional production, but was made well; it showed scenes on the platform, then on to the yard, an engine shunting a line of carriages, a solitary man sipping his brew at a tea stall, and various other scenes. I am glad I watched this film. It brought a warm glow to my heart; it rekindled my enthusiasm for trains as no visit to a locomotive shed could. And in a marvellous way it came home to me that the charm of the railway which I hold so dear, comes as much from the hustle and bustle of the platform, from the shouts and cries of the vendor selling sweetmeats and tea, indeed from the whole army of uniformed men who run the station, as it does from the trains and engines I love.