Ninawe’s Poha and Chai

Ravindra Bhalerao

Ravindra Bhalerao is a rail heritage activist and member of the Indian Steam Railway Society.

Outside the Sai Baba temple in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Raju Ninawe serves piping hot poha and chai to devotees and passersby. Ravindra Bhalerao recalls Ninawe’s story and hopes for the future.

For twenty long years Raju Kaka has watched the crowds that throng the Sai Baba temple in Nagpur: pilgrims and devotees, some young, others old, all dressed in colourful attire and eager to bow down in reverence before the Baba. These folks come from all over the city and its neighbouring areas; some of them come only occasionally, while others are regular visitors who find time to drop in at the temple each week, maybe more often. Raju Ninawe, the chai wallah, has his perch next to this revered place of worship. And these people are his friends; he owes his livelihood to these folks who throng the place, as he does to the ‘regulars’ who congregate at the benches laid out beside his stall.

Lest anyone should imagine that Ninawe is the solitary chai wallah offering refreshments next to the temple, let me say that his cart is only one among a whole line of stalls that line the tiny street adjoining the temple. There are paan wallahs and florists selling garlands, there are women selling coconuts and various sundries that the devotee needs for his ritual. And there is the occasional fruit-seller, the mumfalli wallah, and the kulfi wallah too. Worship and commerce thrive here side by side, as they have always done.

Ninawe's tea stall

Ninawe’s tea stall

But it is Ninawe whose fortunes seem to us worthy of record. An old hand at brewing tea, Ninawe has a stall painted a breathtaking yellow shade. If you are hungry, he does not have much to offer besides fried rice—but then it is rice with a difference. It is ‘poha’, a much loved item on the breakfast table here in Central India. So then if you are famished, Ninawe is going to treat you to a plateful of poha garnished with coriander and sev and served up with appetising gravy. He will also treat you to tea: rich, strong tea flavoured with ginger or cardamom, whichever you please. Tea has been his life, his very breath; he has brewed it ever since he was ten.

Bespectacled and with his hair combed neatly back, Raju Ninawe is the chai wallah who takes pride in his work. You can see the twinkle in his eye when he tells us of a time when a leading Marathi television channel had filmed a documentary in this area and went on to include a brief shot of his tea stall next to the temple. And going even further back, he tells us of a time when he worked at a tea stall next to the home of Muttemwar, a local politician. The late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, yet to enter politics at the time, was to pass through Nagpur and hoped to meet Muttemwar briefly as he passed through town. It was in the early hours of the morning while it was yet dark that Mr. Gandhi arrived by car and halted by the roadside to have a word with Muttemwar. Ninawe, who had been instructed beforehand, stood prepared with kettle and cups, and went on to serve a morning cup of tea to Mr. Gandhi and others in the company. It was a grand occasion, a rare privilege for the young man, an event which he recounts with a good deal of warmth and gusto.

Raju Kaka is only too eager to share tales from his childhood days. Like many others of his line, he grew up amidst appalling poverty, we are told. “I grew up in the Sitabuldi area of Nagpur close to Shree Talkies. My childhood was far from being memorable; it was more like a nightmare for I was more or less an orphan,” he says with a tinge of regret. But the young boy was not an orphan in the strict sense of the word. Ninawe lost his father, a rickshawallah, when he was only an infant. As the lad grew up, his mother, a construction worker, began to find it increasingly difficult to cope with her son’s erratic behaviour. Consequently the boy was sent away to live with his grandmother. It was hoped that this would effect a change in the boy’s temperament, but things only seemed to get worse. And so at the young age of ten, Ninawe found himself on the streets with only one set of clothes and not a penny in his pocket.

It was this period in his life that shaped the boy’s career. He had attended school before, but went only as far as Class II. Education was clearly out of the question. Young Raju now found employment as an assistant to a tea vendor in Netaji Market. As a tea stall boy, he was paid around Rs 150 a month. The work was simple enough: stirring tea, carrying around trays laden with cups, washing up, while all the while learning the art of brewing by watching his superior at work. There was nothing particularly difficult about the job. But it would keep him on the run from morning till night.

Having begun life on this tragic note, one might think the boy might be spared of any further disappointments along the way, but things proved to be otherwise. Barely had a year passed after he had set out on his own when his mother died. The boy continued at the tea stall, later moving on to Dhamangaon where he stayed for a while with an uncle tending to goats and selling bread. His boyhood was one long battle to earn his bread and win social acceptance. Recalling his past, Ninawe tells us that he tried his hand at anything that came his way during those days. “As I grew up, I worked in petrol pumps, as a labourer, as a chowkidar, and in kirana shops. With the exception of stealing, I have tried my hand at everything; I even begged for a while,” we are told.

But then circumstances would bring him back to the streets of Nagpur, back again to the job of an assistant at a tea stall. It was with tea that he had begun life, and it was to the tea stall that he looked with hope. The kettle and the cup beckoned to him; he would live in the great outdoors, pumping up the Primus, grinding up ginger and cardamom, pouring out the brew, serving up cups. These were the things he excelled in, the things that really mattered. This was the stuff life was made up of.

Ninawe at work

Ninawe at work

Speak to the man behind the wheel of a lorry on the highway and he will tell you he dreams of the day when he will own his own truck. The chai wallah’s assistant likewise dreams of the day when he will own his own stall. The turning point in Ninawe’s career came when he was working at Ajni Square. He was 28 years old at this time with a wife and kids at home, and paid a sum of Rs 450 each month from his earnings to the owner of the cart. Then one day a friend named Lohikar turned up offering to sell him his tea stall next to the Sai Baba temple on Wardha Road. Ninawe’s joy knew no bounds and for a sum of Rs 5000 he bought the thela from his friend. The whole thing took place without a hitch, unannounced, and without any effort on his part, and Ninawe believes it could only have been an act of Providence. Henceforth, he would no longer be an assistant; he was a full-fledged chai wallah with his very own 4-wheeled stall!

For twenty long years Raju Kaka has worked at his stall brewing tea. “When I first began here at the Sai Mandir, I offered poha, aloo-bonda and puri-bhaji besides chai,” he tells us. Today the fashionable Krishnum Restaurant nearby beckons to the visitor offering a menu as dainty and variegated as the colourful folks seen arriving at the spot. Ninawe’s own menu has seen a corresponding decline; he has only poha to offer besides tea these days. But this has not affected his business in an adverse way. While Krishnum may lure away the fashionable and the rich, Ninawe’s tea stall is still the best place for homely fare savoured amid a rustic setting. Even womenfolk and young ladies stop by his cart for a quick bite and a glass of ginger tea before moving on.

Ninawe runs his tea stall six days a week taking a holiday on Mondays. He arrives in the morning at around 8 o’clock bringing along with him four kilograms of poha, and a rich, spicy gravy containing chhole, both cooked in the home. Most people who drop in for poha order half a plate which costs Rs 15, and is served with a garnishing of gravy, sev, and finely chopped onion and coriander. A full plate of the same dish would be charged at Rs 25. A glass of ginger or elaichi tea is priced at Rs 6 (without milk it is Rs 5), while packaged drinking water costs Rs 3 per pouch.

Ninawe's poha

Over the years the numbers visiting the Sai temple in Nagpur have grown beyond reckoning, and Ninawe’s sales have boomed. “I easily make Rs 500 to 800 each day, even more,” he points out with a feeling of pride. On Thursdays the temple draws visitors in thousands to celebrate Baba ka din, and Ninawe’s sales reach a peak. At such times he may even earn as much as Rs 1500 in a single day. The family lives in Juni Ajni where his wife runs a mess from her home. With income coming in from both sides, Ninawe is no longer the chai wallah dressed in rags. He arrives for work on a Bajaj scooter, he has two sons, one studying in an Industrial Training Institute, and pays a rent of Rs 5000 each month for his home. Gaurav, his elder son, is the proud owner of a mobile phone working on the Android system.

People dropping into Ninawe’s tea stall range from casual passersby who stop by for a chai, to devotees arriving at the temple seeking the blessings of the Baba. You will find youths from the neighbourhood seated at the bench engaged in endless dreamy talk on a variety of topics. And you have shopkeepers in the vicinity who are regular customers buying on monthly credit. Ninawe, who can read and write Hindi, tells me that no one can cheat him here as he enters all credit transactions in a register he maintains especially for the purpose.

Raju Kaka’s tea stall is set in a location that at once presents to the viewer a glimpse into both sophisticated and genteel living and the rustic charm of a wayside inn. One only has to take a seat at Kakaji’s bench under the lights in the evening before he begins to see that both worlds co-exist here side by side. Across the street is a modern, up-to-date block where may be found a watchmaker, a doctor’s clinic, a pizza center, garment stores, and Krishnum. In Krishnum’s courtyard may be seen row upon row of parked scooterettes, and every now and again one may see a young lady in salwar-kameez, very coy and demure, escorted by her beau, having a tete-a-tete. Nothing wrong in that. The restaurant draws mostly families from respectable homes and towards evening after it has grown dark, gentlemen dressed in their evening best may be seen moving down the steps leading to the restaurant with their ladies, all daintily done up, phantom figures in diaphanous sarees moving dreamily down the steps with plump, prettily dressed children in tow.

Ninawe has his tea stall facing Krishnum, next to the paan shops, lottery centres, tea stalls, florists and rows of beggars who arrive each day. This is the hangout of young bucks, street corner loungers, the man who has had a peg too many, and brash ladies who have enough pluck to step into this not-so-respectable male domain and emerge unscathed.

“A tea stall is a place where people talk about almost everything under the sun,” Raju Kaka tells me as I sip a glass of ginger tea beside his stall. As if to make himself clearly understood, he adds, “… everything from business plans to latest fashions, jilted love, vendetta, girls….” At this point I interjected and asked him if he had anything to offer by way of advice to budding young chai wallahs today. But Ninawe was silent on this issue. “One good thing about a chai stall is that you can begin one without any prior experience,” he said philosophically. Which is of course true; all one needs is a small outlay of capital to buy a thela, glasses, kettle and stove to begin. But what about the lads who may be seen at chai stalls ferrying trays of cups to customers around—don’t these unfortunate boys deserve our sympathy? “Oh, no one treats them with much respect,” Ninawe tells me. “Someone may yell out to a chhokra saying get me a cup of chai, you @#*&$%…” Ninawe himself has gone through it all and is well acquainted with the trials along the way. And by now he is used to it.

As I put my glass down, two college youths arrive on a motorbike. “Kyon Kakaji, aaj bahut young lag rahe ho?” said one striding into the place with a grin. (“Kakaji, why do you look so young today?”) Ninawe, now 46, is pleased with the comment. The other boy, looking like a Hindi film villain, seems equally pleased, but is in no mood to pay compliments. “Abbe @#$%*&, chal do cup chai la…!” he orders, a roguish smile on his lips.

And thus Raju Ninawe the chai wallah works on, remaining at his stall from 9 o’ clock in the morning til 9 in the night. His sons, Gaurav and Mayur, may be often seen at the spot helping their father with his work. Does he have any plans for the future? “I have no plans, for I am satisfied with my work,” says Ninawe in reply. Yet he would not like his sons to follow in his footsteps. “Gaurav, my elder son, is studying in an ITI and takes part in sports and athletics; I would like him to join railway service.”

Ninawe and his son work together

Ninawe and his son work together

But won’t he like to graduate to a larger, more lucrative business? “I did have plans to set up a restaurant, but did not have the money for it,” Ninawe says. He still feels an urge to learn English and when a message arrives on his cellphone, he tries his best to decipher its meaning. “I would have liked to get an education, but that was denied to me,” he says.

Despite these setbacks, Ninawe has few regrets in life. “My only disappointment is that I still live in a rented home,” he tells us. He has no plans for himself; all he wants is to see his family happy, his sons settled well in life. His own childhood had been eked out in misery and he would not like anyone else to go that way. Looking back over bygone days he can still feel the pain of a childhood deprived of love. “Back then I was only a chhokra dressed in half-pants, always begging for things,” he recalls. “And those around me who were more fortunate brushed me aside as though I were filth. Today those very people come to me with awe and respect.”

And what does he do, when these folks come round? “I don’t wish to have anything to do with these people. I merely fold my hands in a namaste and go my way.”

The Railway Station Chai Wallah

Ravindra Bhalerao

Ravindra Bhalerao is a rail heritage activist and member of the Indian Steam Railway Society.

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.

Tea stall at Gondia railway station platform in the 1930s. Archival photo courtesy of Ravindra Bhalerao / Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, Nagpur.

Tea stall at Gondia railway station platform in the 1930s. Archival photo courtesy of Ravindra Bhalerao / Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, Nagpur.


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.


Traditional clay cups used to be a quintessential part of every train journey.

Traditional clay cups used to be a quintessential part of every train journey. Photo: Resham Gellatly


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.


Chai set-up at a train station

Chai set-up at a train station. Photo: Resham Gellatly


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.

These days, most passengers drink chai served by railway employees on the train. Photo: Resham Gellatly


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.

This post originally appeared on Railways of the Raj

Life on the tracks in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

Life on the tracks in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

Tea, Nostalgia and a Reunion

Pransu Raj Kaushik

Pransu Raj Kaushik is a consultant with Damayanti Tea Industries. He is a qualified tea taster and writes regularly on tea for newspapers, magazines and koi-hai, a web portal on tea life.

For Pransu Raj Kaushik, tea is a way of life. His great-grandfather was a planter, as was his father. Pransu followed in their footsteps, beginning his career as a welfare officer at Hokonguri Tea Estate before joining Damayanti Tea Industries as a consultant. Pransu took a break from managing O! Chai, Damayanti’s “tea retail unit-cum-lounge” in Dibrugarh, Assam, to write another entry in our Chai Diaries series.

There is actually no limitation to what a cup of tea can do: rejuvenate us, make us happy, or simply let the drinker experience fulfillment. This humble cup of tea has rightly been said to create tempest throughout the ages. I experienced a similar sort of tempest, or change, during the Durga Puja celebrations last month. I got a call from Dr. Zachariah, a renowned pathologist from Shillong and my classmate from school, inviting me to meet him after almost a decade and a half. We planned to meet on the 8th of October at my office.

L to R: Zach, Leon, Jawed & Pransu

L to R: Zach, Leon, Jawed & Pransu

That phone call turned out to be a catalyst that me to meet not only Zachariah, but also two other classmates: Jawed, an avid biker, and Leon, an advocate. We met over cups of milk tea and cookies at O!Chai, talking over one another about school days, our first cupid tales, crushes on teachers and what not, the tea catalyst at work.

How that simple yet enigmatic cup of tea eased us into reentering our boyish groove was really amazing. Zachariah was transformed to his horny best in expletive bursting mode; Jawed turned into that foxy character; and Leon became the quintessential jester. As for me, the readers are the best judges. After endless dramatics in the middle of the road – yes, the middle of the road, because the O!Chai lounge was way beyond its closing time – we got down to planning something fruitful. Again, the tea catalyst was at play.

We gave birth to a group of all my batchmates from Don Bosco School, Dibrugarh of the year 1997 – the Bosco Boyzzz! The zzz was made more prominent by the zing of the milk tea and jazz. After some more deliberations, Bosco Boyzzz took shape on 11th of October, 2014 in the form of a group in a social messaging app, Whatsapp. Within hardly half a minute of being launched almost the whole of the batch was able to connect together after all these years! The catalyst at play once again!

Pransu and his classmates in Class 9.

Pransu and his classmates in Class 9.

The naughtiness, the raunchiness, the nostalgia – all came together with a blast and almost the whole bunch (besides the late night boozers) messaged one another that whole night. Bhaskar, Abir, Rintu, Jaideep, Ankur, Abhisekh, Zakaria Khan, Joseph, Nilotpal and the rest have again come together for the rest of each of our lives. The feeling of déjà vu is still in the air as I pen my thoughts here. The only grey point is that I have to keep on looking at the messenger in otherwise “no-go” places as well! But that price I am willing to pay anytime.

Readers, this is my short tale of how an evening over a cup of tea created a tempest, and I am satisfied to be floating about in its aftermath and sharing my joys with you.

Tea: A Way of Life

Pransu Raj Kaushik

Pransu Raj Kaushik is a consultant with Damayanti Tea Industries. He is a qualified tea taster and writes regularly on tea for newspapers, magazines and koi-hai, a web portal on tea life.

For Pransu Raj Kaushik, tea is a way of life. His great-grandfather was a planter, as was his father. Pransu followed in their footsteps, beginning his career as a welfare officer at Hokonguri Tea Estate before joining Damayanti Tea Industries as a consultant. Pransu took a break from managing O! Chai, Damayanti’s “tea retail unit-cum-lounge” in Dibrugarh, Assam, to write this latest entry in our Chai Diaries series.

It may sound a bit maniacal, but my tryst with chai started at the very moment I took ‘life form’ in the warm innards of my mother’s womb. This might be because of the reason that I breathed the same cool and fragrant air of the tea estate that my mother breathed as well, or due to the full bodied cup of dudh chai (milk tea) that she drank during her pregnant days. Whatever be the reason, I can say it with confidence that tea runs in my veins.

Pransu Raj Kaushik’s father and mother in their early days on the tea estate


The orange frothy bright liquor that we all crave for has a story imbibed in every droplet: the story of human toil, of the various emotions, of the rich and sometimes violent history and many things more! Let me begin by sharing my own experiences of tea life. My father, who sadly is no more, was an employee of the erstwhile giant in tea business, Jokai India Ltd. His grandfather in turn, was a planter as well. So, I can proudly say that tea-life runs in my veins. We in tea regard it not only as a profession but a way of life, which is unique as compared to all other professions. Tea life provides one with the best of disciplined social life. “Once in tea, always in tea” is a dictum that is rightly associated with a tea person because of the fact that relations forged in tea almost always run a lifetime and go beyond as well.

Days started quite early in the morning in a tea garden. The siren at the factory used to prod us all to wake up at 5:00 in the early misty mornings. It may hereby be worth mentioning that tea estates in Assam (I am not aware of the other regions) always run their clocks an hour ahead than the prevalent Indian Standard Time. There are unique monosyllables for denoting different words in tea garden parlance. The waking up time is generally known as “murgi daak” (the crow of the cock). It really was a busy time for all in the chai bagan (tea garden). Be it the minis (young labourer girls), the chokras (young boys), the babus (clerks) or the sahebs (managers), everyone had to be at their work by 6:00 a.m. The silky rays of the sun, reflecting off the green scenery, would light a stream or river flowing by, and the pleasurable soft blowing wind would bring a heavenly fervor to the mind and body.

Early morning in the tea gardens in Assam


The days for the babus and the chota sahebs (assistant managers) started at the burra saheb’s (manager) office, wherein kaamzari (work) was allotted for the day. After that, at around 7:00, all the mohurers (field clerks) and chota sahebs went to the respective challans (sections) in the tea estate under their control to supervise the work being undertaken. There were no allotted breaks for breakfast as one could have it as per their convenience. The morning shift was till 11:00 am and its break was again announced by the wail of the siren. After a two-hour hiatus, full of a heavy country lunch and a short afternoon siesta, work again resumed at 2:00 p.m. The mohurers measured and recorded the leaf weight and made arrangements for the green gold to be transported to the factories for the purpose of production. Work ended for the day at 4:00 in the evening.

View of the tea factory through one of the many pieces of machinery involved in processing


Then there were (still are, but the activities have greatly been eroded as usual by the busy schedule of the modern planter’s life) the Planters’ Clubs, with all the amenities that go with a good life in every tea district. The tired planter, after a long day toiling in the field, loved to have his drink at the bar. Weekends were specially reserved for sporting activities like swimming, tennis, polo and what not. Then there was the usual ball room dance, the club supper, the celebration of the different festivities and what not. It really was a jolly good life! Unfortunately, the old world charm of tea has somewhat lost its way to materialistic realms of modern life.

O! Chai, Damayanti’s “tea retail unit-cum-lounge” in Dibrugarh, Assam


What I have portrayed here is the way tea was during the days of my father: the sixties and seventies. Maybe a residual effect of the good times dragged on till the early nineties, when I was just beginning to learn the alphabets. The different activities unique to a tea life are still prevalent, but the zing is missing somewhat. If Zach and Resham and the revered readers can tolerate my “written torture,” I am willing to dole out some more tales in the future. Till then, Chai piyo, mast jiyo!!

The Architecture of Chai

Jim Manjooran

Jim Manjooran runs an architecture practice based in his home state of Goa, where he strives to incorporate regional and local characteristics into modern designs. He is a 1994 graduate of the School of Architecture at the Arvindbhai Patel Institute of Environmental Design in Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat.

The chai Jim Manjooran drank at architecture school more than 20 years ago provided lasting memories and the blueprint for a successful career. In this Chai Diaries entry, he recounts some of those memories:

My “tryst” with chai was realized 25 years ago during my architecture school days in Vallabh Vidyanagar, a campus town in Gujarat.

Jim and his classmates juggle cups of chai and blueprints.

Jim and his classmates juggle cups of chai and blueprints.


The study course of architecture is one of the most trying professional studies, next only to medicine, with incessant all-nighters, hunched over drawing boards, buried deep into tracing papers, surrounded by lead pencils, inking pens, scales and the like, for each and every of the five years that the course required – a pressure cooker situation that could only be alleviated by a very short list of methods perfected by those who had already gone through the rigor of architecture school. A break for a cup or two of chai, freshly brewed by the overfriendly neighborhood chai wallah in company of good friends, in the outdoors, was right on top of this precious list.

A favorite outdoor spot to sip cups of chai.


“Chai ho jai!” was the most welcoming of shout-outs to everyone to gather for a round of tea. Those words were magical, breathing life into tired bodies and minds – and suddenly life was beautiful!

Its literal translation has a God-like connotation and it goes “Let there be tea!” There are many who will even swear that this phrase is equal to, if not more effective than, that other set of famous words: “Let there be life!”

These chai breaks of our growing up time in architecture school fostered a unity akin to a kind of chai brotherhood, cutting across different cultures, uniting North Indians with South Indians, breaking down barriers between seniors and juniors, even between professors and students, between the chai wallah and the chai pine wallah (chai drinker), uniting everyone in their shared enthusiasm, pursuit and enjoyment of this good brew.

One of the gang's favorite chai shops.

One of the gang’s favorite chai shops.


During those strenuous times in the school of architecture, chai sipping was the one of the better habits that we cultivated among scores of others about which the less said, the better!

It’s now been 25 years since those glory days, and circumstances have changed, but this desirable chai fixation continues to flourish. The pressures of architecture school are now replaced by the pulls and pushes of a busy private architectural practice, but the essence of a round of chai remains the same: a lifter of moods and the ultimate unifier.

Jim and a friend take a chai break during one of their many all-nighters.

Pre-dawn chai in rural India, 1982

Daniele G.

Daniele G. is an expert in sustainable development who advises development institutions and governments on improving sustainability practices.

A morning chai routine is more than just a means of consuming caffeine to start the day. It provides a chance to observe, reflect and be a part of a community. Daniele G., who today advises development institutions and governments on improving sustainability practices, worked in India in 1982. More than thirty years later he still remembers the cups of pre-dawn chai he would sip in rural Maharashtra. Here is his Chai Diaries entry:

Buffalo dung patties dry to be used for fuel in Hathlana, Haryana

Buffalo dung patties dry to be used for fuel in Hathlana, Haryana

My footsteps seemed inordinately loud crunching the dried leaves and random sticks along the dark narrow path heading away from my small room at the far end of the mango grove. Before placing my foot I took a slight momentary pause, hoping to diminish the disturbance of an otherwise nearly silent pre-dawn. The path wound under trees and past fields, gently rising and falling in near darkness. Beyond our compound, it skirted along the shabby old fences that could not hold anything in or keep anything out but that serve simply to mark property in these remote rural areas. It was a serene time, surprisingly cool enough to warrant a shawl and more than one layer of my thin cotton clothing.  Bombay, about four hours away by road, rarely experienced this calming coolness during the hot months as the built mass of asphalt, steel, and cement continued to radiate the day’s heat through much of the night.

The beauty of that time was, in part, the soothing quiet of an era in rural Maharashtra when radios and electric lights were not so common and were used sparingly. Even the odors were muted at that hour. I loved the meditative gliding of those early morning walks, disturbed only by my sandals. Of those many walks, when thinking was unnecessary, the memory of only one thought remains now, thirty years later, because it accompanied my walks for months. I had heard of an early morning scorpion sting that swelled a neighbor’s foot to a painful lurid purple. Closed shoes were out of the question in this climate and conditions and, for quite a while, that small possibility of arachnids made each and every darkened step feel like an individual adventure.

My daily walk was not without intention. Of course, the walk itself had a soothing purpose all its own but my daily objective was nearly always the same. I had learned how to boil and mix the array of ingredients for an authentic spiced chai and needed fresh milk. Refrigeration was not available and so getting fresh milk each day was the only option and I had located the dudh wallah down the road. But this was not run-of-the-mill cow’s milk. No, I had discovered something much more tasty: water buffalo milk. At first look, I would not have guessed that this dark, nearly fierce looking animal that was often in a mud hole would produce such delicious milk. The flavor was not so very different from cow’s milk but the fat content was more than double and it made the best chai I ever tasted.

A dudh wallah in Rettanai, Tamil Nadu

A dudh wallah in Rettanai, Tamil Nadu

Each morning, I walked early to the stalls before the milking occurred. This was important because the dudh wallah regularly diluted this rich milk as soon as it was in the big aluminum tubs. Arriving even 10 minutes late meant you got watered down milk. Apparently that was the norm. A couple of hours after milking, he loaded two large aluminum canisters with a long hooked ladle onto a sturdy bicycle and visited people in the small village for their delivery. I doubt anyone knew the milk had added water and I wondered how many things we simply do not know about the foods we purchase.

We never spoke of it, his dilution. He knew and I knew, but speaking of it seemed an unnecessary rudeness. On some mornings it seemed that it was not altogether pleasant for him to part with undiluted milk and even the slight upcharge that I quietly allowed him did not prevent him from occasionally attempting to fill my small bowl with a diluted batch. Of the many things I learned during that year, one was that what may be inappropriate from my perspective, was an accepted cultural or societal norm from another. I learned to suspend judgment when possible and to simply observe and learn. In fact, I sometimes felt slightly embarrassed to show up in his milking yard in the dark to be the only exception to his business practices. Yet, I always stood close by, watching that my portion came from the pure milk. Once I grew accustomed to the taste of full fat buffalo milk, it was not easy going back. In later years, returning to live in in the US and elsewhere, I never again bought cow’s milk. The relatively thin chalky flavor simply lost its appeal. I felt the same about chai in the US, Australia, and Europe; it paled in comparison to what was available in nearly every part of India, and almost always disappointed. Refined tastes sometimes carry with them a bit of a curse, like Tantalus never to be satisfied. But there were many satisfactions while there in that small rural community.

The whole milk, undiluted and still warm from the dark animal, was my reward for the walk. Its warmth comforting to my hands cradling the open aluminum container that served as both the receptacle and then later to boil the milk, and mix the chai, one pot for everything. It was 10 inches across and about five inches deep with a broad half inch lip all around to help grip and pour. Heading back along the path to my hut I more than once tripped and spilled part of the milk. I accepted the consequence of my carelessness, less chai to drink and never returned for more milk. Buying a closed canister would have cost the equivalent of a week’s expenses and it was thus an unnecessary luxury. Besides, many local families had only one or two such containers. Walking with that open bowl was an act of simplicity, an invitation to mindfulness, a soft stride, and patience. Once back, I carefully lit the small gas stove, even matches were not plentiful, and judiciously measured out the tea and masala ingredients. As the smell of gas and sulphur quickly dissipated, the aromas of chai emerged. The sharp fragrance of tea was first, the cinnamon, pepper, and other spices slowly emerged into the cool morning air and then finally, as it all came to a boil, the caramel scent of sugar added last. A cotton cloth served for filtering and no tea cups, just small sturdy glasses as was the local custom. The morning focus, nearly every day, was this chai ritual. It would be several hours yet before a breakfast could be had and chai’s familiar aromatic warmth was a like a first greeting from a friend, constant and intimate, a small ceremony that never failed to soften my face in a grateful smile.

A girl in Hathlana, Haryana with her water buffalo.

A girl in Hathlana, Haryana with her water buffalo.

Pre-dawn is a wonderful time to move in India; heat, dust, humans, and noise are all subdued. On some mornings I went in another direction on a much longer walk ambling past the sleeping local village. The objective was a natural thermal spring in a valley that required crossing a broad, mostly shallow river, always hoping that it was low enough to allow a dry crossing on the stones. Near the banks among the scrub trees sadhus, wanderers, and mendicants occasionally camped for the night. Even at two or three in the morning the occasional smoky scent of a chillum or the faint glow of a beedi – the preferred local smoke of the poor – were signals of their presence. This broad valley had long been held as a holy place and dozens of temples dotted its landscape of small villages.

On the other side, further up the valley, was a tiny ancient dome-roofed stone temple unmarked and unadorned. The temple was always empty at this hour and an ideal place to sit quietly. I brought Paul Horn with me on that walk once. We had met while I assisted the mounting of the ITA’s Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science conference in Bombay, where he gave a concert, and he had come out for a visit to the community. When we reached the temple and quietly sat inside I could not find my usual serenity, I could only recall his haunting flute recordings in other unique places like the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramid and spent a half hour alternating between kicking myself for not suggesting that he bring his flute and then feeling selfish for wanting a solo concert. Later however, over cups of hot chai and breakfast, I did get something far more valuable: some of the most memorable advice in my 24 years of life.

Near the temple, a natural hot spring served as the ideal prelude to sitting quietly in that temple. If we reached it before dawn when farmers came there to wash their cows and other things, it served as a silent magical place to soak. Enveloped in the dark steamy water and leaning back to look up at a brilliantly star-flecked sky was a sublime luxury and well worth the 40 minute walk. On the return, in the pre-dawn glow, the village chai shop was just coming to life and we were the first guests. With very limited funds, this was a delightful small luxury and it was nearly impossible to walk past the inviting smell of the first morning brew.

Usually alone I asked for one but on that day, naturally I would have asked for two or “Do chai bhaai.” The small thick four-ounce glasses came with mismatched saucers under them and if you could not wait for the liquid to cool, a small amount could be tipped into the saucer where it cooled and could be sipped. I never did that and simply enjoyed the slow process of the ritual itself. It was an aromatic delight and extended the experience beyond the few minutes that it took to drink the small portion and watch the goings on in the shop and the waking community just outside.

The décor was standard in the region: Hard and rather small angular chairs and simple wooden tables that had once been painted although it was difficult to ascertain what the original color might have been. An open-air room with no glass in the windows or simply no walls. Where there were walls, they were a pastel shade glaring in the light of a single bare bulb. The featured decorations were inevitably a brightly hued portrait calendar and a small alter or shrine where incense or a flame sometimes burned. Of the vast pantheon of deities depicted in the wall pictures and calendars across India, four were most popular and ever-present: Ganesh, Krishna (sometimes with Arjuna), Lakshmi, and the pair of Ram & Sita. Their ornateness and intense coloring were fascinating, and in stark contrast to typical wall calendars in Europe and the US where saints or Christian themes did certainly appear but they were much more likely to feature an advertisement for the utterly mundane such as tires (sometimes with less mundane cleavage to draw attention) or some bucolic pastoral scene. Here religion, or at least reminders of the spiritual life, were ever present as the stories or parables of these Hindu deities that graced nearly every room I ever saw in India.

That long ago morning with Paul etched the chai shop indelibly in my mind. We spoke for hours and I listened to the wisdom he shared about his own travelling experiences and life choices as I was facing choices of my own. Paul told me about his early life and how being a musician was not what his family expected of him. He struggled at first, playing in cafes to make ends meet but always steadfastly doing what he loved regardless of the earnings or expectations. Eventually, doing what you love will likely lead to doing it well and the passion of that pursuit is what opens doors to success; a success that is on your own terms. Paul was certainly the embodiment of that with world-wide fame and a number of very successful albums as a product of his passion for the music he loved. He said, “it is never work if what you are doing is what you love”. This idea may not have been new but, on that crisp clear morning, surrounded by the steamy aroma of chai after a long serene soak in the springs, it penetrated straight to my heart and became a guiding memory for the rest of my life. Thank you Paul.

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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