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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Pappu’s Chai Stall


Jenny Kostecki-Shaw and Patrick Shaw

Jenny Kostecki-Shaw and Patrick Shaw (a.k.a. The Masala Chai Wallah) share a love for good chai, Indian culture and each other. Jenny is a freelance illustrator and national award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. Patrick teaches Ayurveda, Ayurvedic cooking and Ayurvedic herbology at the University of New Mexico in Taos and has been making homemade masala chai for over 20 years. They recently published an illustrated book, Chai Pilgrimage, which you can order at chaipilgrimage.com.

Inspired by their love of chai, Patrick Shaw and Jenny Kostecki-Shaw embarked on a pilgrimage around North India to collect recipes, learn about ayurvedic traditions, and find out the secret behind what makes a good cup of chai. They recently published their story in a beautifully illustrated book, Chai Pilgrimage. Their journey led them to Pappu’s chai stall in the sacred city of Varanasi.

Amid the traffic of rickshaws, motor scooters, market-goers and a small herd of water buffalo being led down the road, we discovered the popular Pappu chai stall. Early in the day, it is a gathering place for elder intellectual types who read the newspaper, debate political issues and get their morning dose. After hours, it becomes a quiet hangout for bhang (edible marijuana) users. Locals told us the chai stand had been there for 80 or 100 years.

We sat down outside on a low concrete wall next to Ashu, a regular customer and owner of Shiva Rooftop Restaurant down the street. Over the noise of horns and bicycle bells, we asked him what made Pappu chai so special. “Because it is hygienic,” he told us. “They clean the gilaas [Hindi for glass] every time by the hot water. It is unique way. You will never see like this one.” It was true. In all our time in India, we had never witnessed soap or hot water being used to clean glasses or any chai-making implement. We observed as a young boy first rinsed the glasses in reused cold water like other chai stalls, then gave them a thorough cleansing with hot water that was boiled on an open coal fire. The health of chai drinkers across India would surely benefit from this trademark disinfecting procedure.

Manoj operated his chai stall with great precision and speed. A third-generation chai wallah, he employed an unconventional chai-making technique handed down from his grandfather. Instead of making a pot of chai, each glass was prepared individually in assembly-line fashion. First, he carefully calculated the number of glasses to be made by a count of seated customers, expected regulars and estimated drop-ins. The glasses were grouped together into three parallel rows, and a spoonful of sugar was put in the bottom of each glass. Manoj ladled hot milk on top of the sugar, then measured the tea by hand into a tea “sock,” with tea carefully added or taken out to suit the number of glasses being made. Boiling water was then slowly poured over the tea until it was fully saturated and the tea water started to come through. When the flowing tea had a rich, dark-brown color, it was quickly passed over the glasses with one hand while hot water was poured from the kettle with the other hand. He first moved the filtered tea lengthwise over the line of glasses, then back and forth. A little more tea was added, then again across the glasses. Unlike other stalls, the chai at Pappu’s is made from “new tea every time — not boiling again and again,” Ashu told us.

We learned that Manoj prepares about 700-800 glasses of chai per day from five in the morning until ten at night. We asked Ashu, “How much per glass?”

He answered, “two rupees,” and before I could do the dollar conversion of multiply, take off the zero and divide by four, the chai wallah started laughing and talking to us in Hindi. Ashu explained, “There are many customers that come every day and they are friends and take chai free. Many one is coming here and many crowd and he’ll give you chai and [snaps fingers] “chalo” [meaning “let’s go!”] — not paying the money. But they’re not caring about these things because they’re very much very good fellows.”

Finally, Manoj stirred each glass vigorously, with the rhythm and calm fervor of a classical Indian drummer. The “clink-clanking” of the metal spoon against glass was like a dinner bell to the customers. In the madness of anxious hands grabbing for their glasses of chai, Manoj handed us ours.

It was dark, bold and on the edge of being too bitter. I liked it. Even though the tea was not steeped or boiled like most, it bore a distinctive strong tea flavor that provided quite a wake-up. We attempted to give Manoj four rupees for our chais, but he just shook his head and smiled.

Jenny Kostecki-Shaw and Patrick Shaw enjoying chai in kulhars, traditional clay cups popular in Varanasi.


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.