My Tryst with Tea: Of Bureaucrats and Travels

Saanya Gulati

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chai Diaries: A Punjabi Peace Corps Memory

Tondalaya Gillespie

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

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

Tondalaya sips chai in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh.

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


Tondalaya and Ron's wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Tondalaya and Ron’s wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Yak Milk Chai in the Himalayas

Sonya Dutta Choudhury

A journalist at Mint, an Indian business newspaper, Sonya Dutta Choudhury is used to going the extra mile for a story. Her newfound passion of long-distance multi-day racing often has her going more than just an extra mile. A recent race led her to submit this entry to Chai Diaries.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury, a journalist for Mint, pushed herself to the limit when she participated in the Himalayan Race, a 100-kilometer multi-stage run organized by The WindChasers. Luckily, when the going got tough, a cup of yak milk chai saved the day.

A yak walks down a road in front of Himalayan mountain peaks in Ladakh, India.

A yak walks down a road in front of Himalayan mountain peaks in Ladakh, India.

It was cold in the mountains that September, more so than was usual. There was  rain, and with it mist, that made our progress difficult. We found ourselves stranded. Day 3 of a five-day 100-km race, and we couldn’t go on. Our group of 10 was in a small lodge in Sandakphu, a tiny village on the border of India and Nepal. It had been raining all night, endless streams of water that poured down the mountainside. So when it cleared at 2 pm, without pausing to consider much, we donned our caps and coats and mufflers and our rain gear, and set off running on the trail towards Phalut.

A brief drizzle began, but we ran nonetheless. The mist had cleared and the views of the dark green conifer covered valleys and the mountains were magnificent. Which one was Mt. Makalu, which one was Mt. Lhotse? And in the distance, race director Ram Sethu and guide Pemba Sherpa pointed out, was the highest  mountain in the world Mount Everest.

Running back to the lodge a few hours later, exhausted, breathless at 12,000 feet, we made a stop. Leaving the trail behind, we climbed up, and up. The hut that emerged, on top of the windswept grassy knoll, was a simple one. Outside a little boy ran circles around a yak. Inside was cool and dark. Cooking utensils hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a bed, a fireplace.  Carl, Nancy, Sunita, Priya and I sat inside, while Ram, Pemba and the other guides walked around outside.

“You must have tea,” our village woman host smiled and put a saucepan on the stove. So wonderful was the prospect, that we just smiled happily. We didn’t protest, not even a tiny token,  though it is polite to do so. At least the first time. Instead we watched in fascination and in happy anticipation, as the water in saucepan boiled, with tea leaves and sugar and thick yak milk. The prospect of a cup of tea had never seemed more alluring, even life affirming. When it was ready, glasses of the steaming hot chai were passed around. It was different to any other tea I’ve ever drunk – hot and sweet but also a little salty with the unusual flavour of yak milk.

“Come out,” called Ram, “the clouds have cleared.” So clutching our tea glasses in both hands we each stepped out, onto the mountainside. The sky outside was a rosy pink, and in the distance were revealed the mighty Himalayan peaks. Standing there, drinking in the chai, and the view, I knew for sure, that this was the most wonderful cup of tea I would ever drink.


Radio City Chai: On Air in Hindi

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

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

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

Listen to the full interview here:


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

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

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

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


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

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

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Clowning Around in Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brewing Business in the Backwaters of Kerala

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

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

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

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

A woman does her laundry in Kerala’s backwaters.

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

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Help in a Cup: Bus Station Chai

Travelling to new places can be exciting. But when the journey involves changing buses at a crowded terminals where all the signs are in a language you can’t read, you could use a helping hand. Fortunately in Indian bus stations, chai wallahs abound and act as de facto help desks when station workers cannot be found. We found ourselves in need of assistance at the Pollachi bus stand in the middle of a ten-hour journey. We had descended from the heavenly hills of Munnar, Kerala where we had been visiting tea gardens and cardamom farms and were en route to Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu where another tea estate awaited us. But first we had to find our bus. A constant stream of buses painted in marvelous colors poured through the station, slowing to a rolling stop as passengers packed in and conductors screamed their destination in nasal Tamil.

Coi, Coi, Coi, Coi, Coiiiii!” It seemed every bus was headed to Coimbatore, not one to Kotagiri. Looking for help and a little caffeine, we turned to one of the station’s chai wallahs, Selu Kumar, who operates a modest stall from which he sells tea, coffee, and an assortment of deep fried vadas.

Having memorized the locations and timings of each bus departure, Selu Kumar pointed us in the right direction and sent us off on the next leg of our journey. But not before he poured us a glass of chai brewed with the trademark technique found throughout Tamil Nadu’s tea kaddais: straining a stream of black tea into the glass, adding frothy milk pulled with sugar, and topping it off with one more touch of tea.


With another hour to go before our bus to Kotagiri and thirsty for more chai, we decided to visit a few more of the station’s chai wallahs.

A Romance to Last a Lifetime

Simran Luthra

A Fulbright Fellow at Stanford University, where she teaches Hindi, Simran has experienced chai across India, from her childhood home in Kolkata to the streets of Hyderabad, where she recently worked.

Simran Luthra’s love for chai runs deep. From early yearnings to drink chai as her older siblings did to poignant memories of chai sipped around India, Simran’s relationship with chai is a lifelong romance.

Drinking chai was an aspiration growing up. With two significantly older siblings who began their mornings with the ritualistic cup of tea, I was only too eager to join the ranks of the tea drinkers. A common way to disincentivize children from drinking tea in India is to tell them that it would make their skin dark, like the color of the beverage. (With the obsession for fair skin, it actually serves its purpose well!) But that argument never really cut the mustard with me. Subsequently my journey as a chai drinker started pretty early on.

Growing up in Kolkata, the capital of Bengal in the east of India, but born into a Punjabi family from the north of the country, provided me insights into the unique traditions of tea drinking of both these states. So while Bengalis mostly have their cha in small quantities, mostly in little, delicate bone-china cups, prepared with a greater proportion of water than milk, the Punjabis prefer their cha in tall glasses (mostly steel), made with more milk than water. My family of course was somewhere in between. My mother and sister had developed distaste for the milky Punjabi chai, and preferred the slightly less milky Bengali style tea. However, the chosen way of consuming it was in glasses (in our case made of glass). And thus it began – the year-upon-year of starting the day with chai along with biscuits, which were of course to be dipped in the steaming cup, for a certain amount of time, till it achieved just the right amount of moisture to melt in your mouth, and not dissolve in the tea. (If the biscuit dropped and fell into the tea – you of course were a novice, still inexperienced enough to intuit when the biscuit was to be taken out of the tea!)

Family time meant dinners to city restaurants, but another favorite haunt was Balwant Singh’s Eating House located off Elgin Road, which served perhaps the tastiest, Punjabi style cha in earthen pots called bhaad. Life in Hyderabad, which is where I was last living, the dearth of chaiwalas on the city streets hurt the most. It was surprising and strange for me to not find chaiwalas dotting city streets and lanes. The same is true with my brief experience in Bangalore.

My two years at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, doing my masters involved routine trips to the chaiwalas housed at the campus canteens. Milan da as he was affectionately called was our regular, and served cha in the cutting chai glasses. He also had a variety of food items you could choose from. But the chai was something intrinsic to the journey as a student in college or at university. Attaining adulthood was synonymous with the amount of time you spent at a chai thek. Besides, the caffeine and the temperature of the drink certainly helped in making one more alert – readied one for the onslaught of the remaining classes of the day.

My chai-buddy – one enthusiastic and as much a connoisseur of tea as I – was Pooja Das Sarkar. In our two years at university, we explored a number of chai theks, drinking tea, sitting on benches – in the rain, in the sun – dreaming up the future. That was while we were still living in Calcutta. But the chai bond still remains: even though we live in two different cities, whenever we visit each other, the most-looked-forward part of the day is the morning chai and cigarette ritual, with frequent iterations throughout the day.

As I have moved to California for a year on a Fulbright at Stanford University to teach Hindi, the one thing I missed the most was good ol’ Indian chai. I got super excited to see chai-tea-latte (of course the ‘tea’ being redundant in that name) at the Stanford bookstore, and immediately ordered one, much to my intense disappointment. It was nothing like chai or latte! A visit to an Indian store, (ah! Such joy that was) gave me the opportunity to purchase an Indian brand of tea leaves. Often in the evenings when my Filipino flat-mate is at home, I ask her if she would like to drink tea or coffee, and when she says ‘tea’, I am filled with joy! Perhaps I have another convert to Indian chai!

Chai is pretty much the one thing I cannot say ‘no’ to; something which has earned me the distinctive title of ‘tea-guzzler’ by close friends. And ‘tea guzzler’ I will remain – a romance which will last a lifetime – chai and me!