The Sweetest Cup: Coming Full Circle in Delhi

When we arrived in Delhi eight months ago to document chai wallahs across India, we could not have imagined the characters we would meet and the wild detours we would take along the way. After visiting 18 states, hearing hundreds of stories and drinking countless cups of chai, we are heading back to the United States to write a book that brings together our experiences. This blog post about the chai wallah who was our original inspiration for Chai Wallahs of India is the final song of the first act of our project.

Devraj Singh at his chai stand in Kalkaji Extension, Delhi

My last day in Delhi. It was hot, the sky gray and oppressive, dust hovering in the dry air. We were finally going to Kalkalji Extension to see if the chai wallah across from the school where I had taught on my Fulbright fellowship three years ago was still there. Zach and I had already experienced disappearing chai wallahs – we would head back to a stand a few weeks after having a great conversation with someone only to find the spot vacant or occupied by a new vendor – and I was worried that my chai wallah, whose name I couldn’t remember, may have moved on to bigger and better things.

As we walked down the unpaved road leading to the spot, memories rushed back. Here was the chole bhature guy, selling plates of sizzling fried bread and chunky chickpeas for only ten rupees (less than 20 cents). There was the row of chicken sellers, leaning on sagging cages overstuffed with filthy birds. The samosa wallah had converted his formerly modest shack to a proper restaurant offering thalis for 25 rupees a pop. Flies hung thick in the air as we continued up the road toward a dumpster surrounded by putrefying garbage. The familiar smell, which on muggy days had wafted up to the classrooms where I wrangled 30-plus hyper kids, indicated that we were near. And then suddenly there it was – set back from the road, a tin roof supported by wooden sticks shading a small table over which my chai wallah stood stirring a pot.

Devraj Singh’s chai stand in Kalkaji Extension, Delhi

I approached him hesitantly, smiling but nervous that he would not remember me. He had been one of the major inspirations, along with the chai walli at Zach’s school, for us returning to India to collect stories from chai wallahs around the country. Dozens of times during the past year, when people had asked us how we had come up with the idea and why we wanted to write about chai wallahs, I would talk about this man. His stand was a place of refuge for me when the school environment – often tense under the ruthless reign of Principal Ma’am, whose approach to running a school terrified me and the students – got to be too much. The other American teacher and I would sneak out of the school midday for chai and egg sandwiches, much to the dismay of the Indian teachers, who ate homecooked lunches tightly packed in tiffins and would never have dared to eat such “unhygienic outside food.” But for me, those greasy, spicy sandwiches and thick milky chai were salvation, and the chai wallah was the one delivering it. We didn’t have conversations with each other – my Hindi wasn’t great, and he must have thought us odd to visit his stall so often. His regular customers were all men, mostly laborers from the surrounding industrial area. When the school year ended and I said goodbye to him, handing him a picture of me along with a Hawaii calendar that I had brought from home months before, I teared up. I felt silly knowing that to him, I was probably just another customer, but I wished I had taken the time to find out the story of the man behind the kettle who had come to mean so much to me. That’s why we had come back this time.

We ducked under the black tarp covering the chai stand and I half-smiled at the chai wallah. He met my questioning eyes over the bubbling pot on the stove and grinned in recognition. “Oh, you have come back after so long?” he said simply. “Ji ji ji!” I exclaimed, relieved that he remembered me. “Chai?” he asked. “Haanji. Two,” I said, pulling up the bench for me and Zach to sit on. Zach asked his name. “Aap ka nam kya hai?” The chai wallah looked at me expectantly and realized I didn’t know. “D.R. Singh. Devraj.” He waved over the teenage boy who had been watching our exchange and told him to make us chai and an egg sandwich.

Satyam serves chai while Devraj looks on.

Satyam serves chai while Devraj looks on.

The boy, who we found out was his nephew Satyam, was a new addition to the business. So was the man who had set up shop on a wooden table in the back corner of Devraj’s stand, frying pakoras and rolling out dough for samosas. But otherwise, things were the same. Loaves of white bread leaned against the old mustard oil tin shielding the stove from wind and stacks of oily bread pakoras loomed over packets of Parle G biscuits strewn over the wooden table. The chai was just as delicious as I had remembered – thick, milky, and the perfect sweetness – and the egg sandwich too.

In between sips and bites, we told Devraj about our project documenting chai wallahs around India and how he had been part of it from the start. He told us about his life, filling in the gaps I had always wondered about. His was a story of migration and hard work, like so many others we had heard. Born in a village near Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, Devraj came to Delhi 40 years ago, leaving his family behind to find work in the capital. His first job was as a painter. “White wash,” he said. Once he had saved enough money, he opened the tea stall right outside his home. We could see the house from where we sat – a two-room cement box painted lavender, the roof made of corrugated tin and tarp. Inside, his wife chopped vegetables for the midday meal Devraj sold to the construction workers across the street, who were busy clearing land for a new housing project by the Delhi Development Authority.

I asked him about his children, recalling that he had a daughter attending the school where I had taught. “My daughter is married! She lives in Faizabad,” he said. “But I thought she was in third grade when I was here, “ I responded, confused. “No, that is my son. My daughter is older. 26 years. Her name is Resham,” Devraj smiled.

I stared at him in disbelief. How had I never known that his daughter shared my name, my age? In all our travels, Zach and I had met plenty of Reshmas and Reshmis, but no other Reshams. Yet there had been another Resham on our journey all along. It was a twist to the story we had shared so many times to explain the motivation behind Chai Wallahs of India, and it made clear that the question we had set out with – who are the people behind the cups? – was one worth answering.

We drained the last drops from our glasses, the taste transporting me back three years to when chai was just a drink and Devraj had been simply a smiling face behind his kettle. It was the perfect cup of chai to have as my last before leaving for the United States the next morning, and finally knowing the story behind the chai wallah who had started it all made it even sweeter.

Devraj and Resham meet again


Waking Up The Village

Mornings start early in Rettanai, a small agricultural village about four hours south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Cows begin to rustle and roosters start to crow by 4 am. “That’s the village alarm clock,” jokes a local.

Agricultural life in Rettanai.

Agricultural life in Rettanai.

If the animals don’t wake you, the temples surely will. By 4:30 the main temples in and around the village are competing to see which can blare prayer music the loudest. The old speakers can hardly take it and emit a mix of crackles and garbled chants.

But a quieter awakening takes place at Mohan’s tea stall. Farmers, eager to get into the fields early and finish their work before the oppressive late morning heat sets in, gather around one of Rettanai’s oldest tea shops at dawn and wake up with Mohan’s milky chai. For forty years, men (and the occasional woman) have gathered at the stall to discuss village matters, read the newspaper and prepare for the day ahead over a cup of hot tea.

 

Mohan and his early morning customers.

Mohan and his early morning customers.

Mohan’s daily routine begins at 3 am when he milks his cows – “it is the first thing I do before I even brush my teeth,” he says. Mohan will go through about ten liters over the course of the day to serve his regular customers.

We visited Mohan on Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival. We wondered if the village tea shops might shut for the holiday, but Mohan opened his stand even earlier than usual, explaining the importance of starting the year on the right foot. “We wake up especially early on this day. Some people might open their shops early and then close them to handle their Pongal festivities, but we stay open all day to start the year right. If we were to close, it could mean that business will be bad the rest of the year.”

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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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Radio City Chai: On Air in Hindi

“Chai! Chai! Chai! Chai! Aap aksar sunti ho gayi local train mein ya apni gali zaroor agar koi bechta hoga. Toh lekin Radio City 91.1 par aaj do khaas mehman hamare saath…”

(Chai! Chai! Chai! Chai! You’ll often hear this from someone on the local train or on your street. But today on Radio City 91.1. we have two special guests…)

So began our Hindi radio debut on one of Mumbai’s highest rated morning talk shows, Kasa Kai Mumbai on Radio City 91.1 FM. Just as millions in the Maximum City were drinking their first cup of the day or sitting stuck in rush hour traffic, we chatted with hosts and Salil Acharya and Archana Pania about Bollywood and where to get the best cup of chai in Mumbai.

Listen to the full interview here:

 

The spicy masala chai served in the Radio City studio was just what we needed to get our brains into Hindi mode. (The hosts had warned us their audience gets turned off by even a few words in English and the studio’s walls are plastered with papers reminding radio jockeys: “WATCH LANGUAGE. HINDI.”)

After commenting on our favorite film of the season, Ram-Leela, we gave a shout out to two of our favorite Mumbai chai wallahs: Santosh and Rajendra.

Santosh, Pandurang Budhkar Marg outside Kamala Mills back entrance, Lower Parel

Santosh now runs Janta Seva Hindu Hotel, the tea stall where he has been working for the past 15 years since he was a boy. We were tipped off to Santosh by Joanna Lobo, a reporter at the newspaper Daily News & Analysis, or DNA, when she was writing a piece on our chai project.

chai-wallah-mumbai

“Most of the DNA staff would go to his stall every day,” she said, recalling how she and her colleagues would gossip about office politics over cups of Santosh’s gingery chai. DNA has since moved to a new office complex about twenty minutes away, which has imposed a change in caffeine consumption patterns – there is a Starbucks in the lobby and chai wallahs are prohibited from entering the complex. This has caused a crisis among the DNA staff.

“The whole profession of journalism revolves around people drinking chai and having smokes,” Joanna said. “[Santosh’s] chai is worth the walk, but we just don’t have time.”

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Clowning Around in Mumbai

For our ongoing Ek Shabd photo series, we have been asking people around India what one word comes to their mind when they hear the word chai. But one word is not enough to tell the stories behind these individuals. This post, about a clown in Mumbai, begins a series of profiles describing the people whose pictures are included in the Ek Shabd gallery.

Foolingyou, a clown based in Mumbai, poses for our Ek Shabd photo series.

Foolingyou, a clown based in Mumbai, poses for our Ek Shabd photo series.

MUMBAI – ”I’m Happy,” the man with a big red nose introduces himself. “Happy Foolingyou.”

Mr. Foolingyou, whose website claims he is “The first ‘INDIAN’ clown,” has been clowning around professionally in Mumbai for 15 years. “Before that I was in the Navy. There were a lot of clowns there too,” he jokes.

Just as the chai wallah is an essential figure in modern India, “the maskara or vidushak has played a key role throughout Indian history,” Mr. Foolingyou explains, using the Hindi words for clown. “He was the jester who would make the king laugh. The one guy who could tell jokes and not get slaughtered. He was the village buffoon and would serve as the king’s spy since he could get people to talk and no one would take him seriously.”

Mr. Foolingyou sprinkles his acts with a little social activism. One of his characters is named Chukka Chuk, which he says means “squeaky clean.” He goes to low-income communities and teaches students about proper hygiene and sanitation practices. “Being a clown is not just shaking my butt. It is teaching kids and families while bringing joy into their lives.”

Among his incarnations are Happy TOYBANKER, who brings donated toys to poor neighborhoods, Dr. Laff A Lot, who visits sick children in hospitals, and Indian Maharaja, the self-proclaimed “KING of magic.”

We asked Mr. Foolingyou what the first word he thinks of when he hears the word “chai.” Ever the joker with a social message to share, Mr. Foolingyou responded, “Pani!” 

“Chai-pani” literally means “tea-water” in Hindi, but it is widely used as a phrase for a bribe, representative of the petty corruption that is rampant in India. If you want to avoid a ticket after being stopped by a cop or want to get your file to the top at a bureaucratic office building, you might be asked to give a little “chai-pani,” just enough to buy a round of tea or two.

For more stories of what chai means to people from various walks of life in India, visit our Ek Shabd gallery.


Brewing Business in the Backwaters of Kerala

The sleepy backwaters of Kerala provide a tranquil escape to a simpler world. On quiet waterways under sunny skies, fishermen let their lines hang from small wooden canoes and birds swoop down occasionally to see what fish might be swimming close to the surface. Towering coconut palms line the water banks and rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see.

A kettuvallam, or traditional houseboat, floats down Vembanad Lake in Kerala’s backwaters.

Drawn by this idyllic setting, tourists come from around the globe to float down the backwaters in kettuvallam, traditional houseboats with thatched roofs covering wooden hulls. With tourism comes an infusion of money into a part of the world where most residents practice small-scale fishing and agriculture. It would not be India if there were not eager entrepreneurs setting up businesses to get a piece of the action.

To get a glimpse of life in the backwaters, tourists hire small canoes to take them “rounding” – exploring narrow canals that snake off the main waterways. They glide past women in hiked-up saris beating their laundry against stones in the water and wave to children running home along the banks after being dropped off from school by a motorboat. It is a relaxing ride, but tourists must remain alert, ducking their heads under low-lying pedestrian bridges and swerving from side to side to avoid getting smacked in the face by jutting palm fronds and drooping vines.

A woman does her laundry in Kerala’s backwaters.

Amid the thick foliage in the backwater village of Kainakary hangs a tire brightly painted with the words “Coffee Hut.” A sign next to the tire promises visitors “spicy tea” and “homely lunch.” This is the work of Preejith Lal, a 22-year-old Keralite who proves the Indian entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well even in the remote backwaters.

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