The Yiga Choeling Cultural Center of Sera Jey Buddhist monastery has a small tea shop in front of it, a round-shaped hut that opens only in the evening. In the beautifully landscaped meadow, you see monks sitting and sipping tea. Away from the tourist hustle bustle of the Bylakkuppe golden temple and the adjacent Tibetan market, this area is not known to many people. Most of the visitors see the golden temple and return. Just three kilometers interior, you find Sera Jey and Sera Mey monastic universities, exquisitely painted temples, libraries and typical Tibetan streets. An extraordinarily peaceful place. Suddenly you feel a touch of magical realism, as if you are in another country, remote and exotic, exploring through its exiled traditions.
The tea shop serves a stimulating special tea with heavenly taste: ginger-lemon-honey tea! With a Tibetan flavor and ambience. What a mixture. This pretty small shop is mainly intended for the monks studying in the monastic university and occasional visitors who stretch their visit beyond the golden temple. I have found myself sitting here many times, with all its becalming stillness and serenity, very slowly sipping its distinct taste, looking at the meditative rhythm of monks or young Tibetan boys or girls preparing it for other customers.
The otherwise hushed landscape of rural Karnataka in Kushalnagar area, in Mysore district, with the cool weather of adjacent Kudak hills, might have been a soothing abode for the fleeing Tibetan refugees when India generously hosted them in the early 1960s after the Chinese invasion. I remember the award-winning film The Cup being shot in the monasteries of Bylakuppe. In one of my earlier visits, our friends even spotted some of its locations. The film describes the hilarious struggles of some passionate young monks to watch World Cup football matches on TV despite the fact that they are not allowed to do so by the monastery authorities. In subtle ways, the film tries to relate how modernity and religious traditions, precisely Buddhist spiritual traditions, undergo a conflict of interests over the generation gap phenomenon and how the tradition finds strength to reconcile with the challenges technology poses. The tea is reflective. The taste buds take you for a trip of meditation.
The monks have a sophisticated way of cooking the special ginger-lemon-honey tea: first of all, they don’t serve it in a usual tea glass – there are big, tall glasses that you usually find in juice shops. First, chopped ginger goes into it, then honey is poured over, almost to cover the ginger; next lemon essence is sprinkled over. Now, one third of the glass is full, then from a traditional jug, already prepared tea (without sugar) is poured into the glass and now one third is left. There they pour hot water from the coffee machine. The tea is ready.
The medicinal worth of the ingredients contributes to the freshness of body and spirit. Its aromatic lure instantly tempts your nostrils. The mood gets refreshed, the taste just brings back your tea loving buddies to memory. You remember the importance of tea in spiritual traditions, particularly in Buddhism. Tea to Buddhism was what wine to Catholicism. An elaborate and nuanced tea culture grew through the paths Buddhism traveled and nourished. The Japanese tea ceremony has been very remarkable in this regard, teaching people mindfulness and the openness of heart through tea meditation. Sen no Rikyu called it ‘The Way of Tea’. My own humble initiation to this ritual was at a Zen & Aesthetics workshop organized by Kamura Art Community at Narayana Gurukulam, near Ooty. Our much loved facilitator of the workshop, Gita Gayatri, a Zen priest who has served many years at the Zen Centers of Tassajara and San Francisco, trained us in doing it with patience, grace and compassion. It teaches us that even the simplest and the most ordinary things in our daily life could be very beautiful and deeply meaningful. Our mentor Gayatri learned the ritual from the US and she reminded us: “this is an Indian version of an American version of a Japanese version of an Indian custom,” meaning the ritual originally traveled from India to Japan and then to America and then towards us. The Japanese added the exquisite finesse it currently has. The ceremony has several styles and adaptations.
In fact, a tea meditation is possible every morning, for any one. It is too simple, deceptively simple. It is all about mindful preparation, a deep prayer, thankfulness to the tea and everyone who helped to get you the tea, an aware sipping of tea, by sitting comfortably at a nice place. In somebody’s company or all alone. Silence helps to reflect on the colour of the tea, its aroma, taste, warmth, the shape and texture of the cup you hold, the paths the tea dust has traveled to meet you and enter your body and spirit.
This simple beverage called tea kept the monks alive and awake, through the meditations and the journeys of the spirit. This time, at Sera Jey monastery tea shop, I was drinking the yummy ginger-lemon-honey tea with my friends of MBL Media School. We passed the tea from one person to another; you can see people’s faces getting animated. The flavor, aroma, taste! Most of the students liked it and some did not. The tea shop, the monks who served tea, the soothing mood of the monastery, and above all the meditative tea, remained with us even after we left the place.
Amit SinhaAmit Sinha is a medical device professional. Originally from Kolkata, Amit now lives in the Philadelphia area. He visits India often to spend time with family as well as to work with the microcredit project that his nonprofit Prana International started.
Amit Sinha makes an unexpected connection with Prodip Pal, a chai wallah in Kolkata, and receives a healthy dose of advice about ayurveda.
He grinds the piece of ginger down with the handle of his disfigured knife. A pot boils in front of him. The radio booms out a “Baul song”. The Bauls are Bengal’s unique troubadour community. It is 6:30AM in Kolkata – I wait for Mr. Prodip Pal to make his first batch of tea for the morning. Having stayed at the hospital overnight with my father, I had come across his little shop on the pavement as I walked around to find a cup of tea.
I try not to give into my trepidation of what the unsanitary handle and that piece of ginger could mean for my gastrointestinal system that has been weakened by living 22 years in America. But, this is my city! I fondly remember those days when the thought of drinking tea from a street shop and its effects would not even have crossed my mind.
I realize, even when I lived here, I never experienced Kolkata like this. Simple, mundane and yet beautiful. I settle back as I watch the ginger being thrown into the boiling pot, some tea leaves (“tea dust,” for the puritan) follow, and Mr. Pal brews up a cup of tea that even the Queen might stop to savor.
There is a break in the singing and the radio announcer begins talking about herbal remedies. The great qualities of the “Teto Jhinge (bitter gourd)” and the “Misti Jhinge (sweet gourd)”. Mix it with some honey and milk and you have a concoction that can dissolve kidney stones in three days! Then there is the incredible “Notay Shag (leafy greens)”- eat it every day and it will take care of all kinds of skin rashes during the summer and a mixture of dried “Notay Shag” along with honey and cow’s milk takes care of a multitude of ailments for women.
Mr. Pal lights up his “Biri (local cigarillos),” looks at me and says “Did you hear that? People run to the doctor when they get a pin prick. All our health problems can be healed by natural leaves and roots. I have never been to the doctor. I apply leaves to cuts and scrapes”. He joins his hands and does the customary “Pronams (Namaste)” to the gods.
I vigorously nod my head to show him that I agree with him, as I struggle to communicate that I too believe in naturopathy, albeit very recently. I ask him about his shop and how long he has been running it, as he takes a seat next to me. We make small talk. The occasional blast of horns form the Sunday morning cars interspace our conversation. A few people show up and order tea. I ask him for a second cup, not so much that I wanted it, but more to continue the conversation.
I am loving every moment! The sounds, the smells, this tête-à-tête with a man who has an entirely different reality than mine. He is from Assam in northern India. He tells me of a time his brother broke his femur, they reset the bone and wrapped it in some thick leaves found in the mountains – his brother was walking in three days! I think, for now, it is best these inexplicable curative vegetation remain undiscovered, as it could mean some serious competition for my business developing implants for fractures, and might jeopardize the lives of people depending on a $40B industry.
I love my city! This to me is quintessential Kolkata, where even the local chaiwallah’s experience with 5000-year-old Ayurveda (natural healing) is something to ponder.
And yes! The chai was amazing!
Mariellen WardMariellen Ward is a professional travel writer based in Toronto and Delhi. Breathedreamgo.com, her award-winning travel blog about "meaningful adventure travel," is inspired by her extensive travels in India. She writes for many print and online sites, co-founded the Toronto Travel Massive, Delhi Travel Massive and founded the WeGoSolo online community for female solo travellers. Though Canadian by birth, Mariellen considers India to be her "soul culture" and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture. You can also find Mariellen on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Mariellen Ward, editor and publisher of Breathedreamgo, tells the story of her pilgrimage to Darjeeling’s tea gardens and lessons learned along the way.
Chai truly is the drink that unites India, and acts almost like social grease. Chai is more than a beverage; in fact, it is a ritual, enacted millions of times each day across the breadth of India to bring people together, to create bonds among the diversity, friends among the masses.
I drink chai throughout India, on trains, in homestays, at ashrams, in the market and with friends. I like it thick and sweet, in the traditional style, and I also search out the best quality teas, from Darjeeling and Assam.
Once I made a pilgrimage to Darjeeling and walked happily among the tea gardens. I wanted to find out if tea plants impart the same refreshing feeling as a cup of tea. And they do. This was a revelation! I wrote about it — and meeting Rajah Banerjee, the King of tea — in my blog post “Tea and sympathy,” originally posted on my blog.
TEA HAS A MAGICAL effect. It instantly refreshes and soothes the soul. But, for me, it also carries an aroma of nostalgia — as if the past is steeped into the leaves, along with hope and optimism.
Is it the nature of tea leaves to impart this effect, I wondered, before I made my pilgrimage to Darjeeling? Or did I feel this way about tea because of tender memories of tea parties with my Nana when I was a child?
This is what I travelled to Darjeeling to find out. I wanted to ascend to the heights of one of the world’s great tea growing regions, the home of the “champagne of teas,” and to experience the spirit of tea first hand.
Tea with the Thunderbolt Rajah
I stand in anticipation before the row of white porcelain teacups. The King of Tea, Swaraj Kumar “Rajah” Banerjee – known in Darjeeling as the Thunderbolt Rajah – flourishes his arms as he speaks excitedly about silver tips, muscatel flavours, the movements of clouds and the secrets of growing the world’s most expensive tea. His quiet assistant, in an apron emblazoned with the green Makaibari logo, deftly pours a different tea into each cup, the colours ranging from pale straw to rich honey.
I am sampling some of the world’s finest teas – organically grown on the Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling, land of the thunderbolt. Makaibari is the oldest tea estate in Darjeeling, the first to go organic and one of the most successful: they supply tea to the Tazo company, sold at Starbucks. As I hold the earthy, fragrant flavours in my mouth, I gaze out the window on the rolling green tea gardens, lit up by the late afternoon sun. I suddenly realize I am having the perfect Darjeeling moment: stimulating, refreshing and deeply satisfying.
The scent of far-off lands
Though my grandmother, Nana, loved to bake and tell stories, there her resemblance to story-book grandmothers ends — for Nana was very elegant. She smoked with a tortoise shell holder, had long painted nails, wore Wallis Simpson-inspired A-line taupe dresses and drove a matching taupe-coloured car.
From the time I was about three years old, Nana and I had tea parties together. At first, she gave me a plastic tea set, and I remember drinking from the tiny cups. When I was about six or seven, she gave me a white-and-gold china tea set fit for a princess.
Nana lived with us when I was growing up. She had a way of making occasions special, and our tea parties are among my earliest childhood memories. We had tea together, just the two of us, in Nana’s small apartment, built onto the side of our house. She wore full make-up, ropes of thick costume jewelry around her neck and an enormous emerald-coloured glass ring, and served the tea on an antique table, on her last remaining Persian carpet. The tea was always accompanied by bread, honeybutter and stories.
Nana’s stories and the scent of tea – grown and harvested in a far-off land of mist-covered hills – transported me. Those tea parties were the first of many steps that eventually took me to India, and then, after an arduous journey from Delhi that included a bone rattling, four-hour drive up a steep road and into the clouds, to Darjeeling.
The story of tea
Darjeeling, the town, sidles precariously up a steep mountain face in remote northeast India. The region of Darjeeling spreads out for many miles in all directions beneath the town, and encompasses many tea plantations: tea cannot grow at the altitude of the town, it must be 1,000 metres lower.
The history of how tea came to India and the west is fraught with intrigue and adventure. It all starts in China in the 18th century when British traders began bringing crates of it back to England. The English acquired a taste for tea and soon demand far outstripped supply, and Britain began running a trade deficit with China.
British adventurers came up with the idea of growing tea on Indian soil, and began importing tea bushes from China into the regions of northeast India that had the most suitable growing conditions – namely, the hilly regions of Assam and Darjeeling. In fact, they discovered that tea grew indigenously in this region, and experimented with both the imported and natural varieties to achieve the best flavours and yields. As the British Raj flourished in India, so too did the tea trade.
During these wild east frontier days, Rajah Banerjee’s great-grandfather, G.C. Banerjee, escaped the confines of Calcutta to seek his fortune in the hills. He prospered at a very young age – by 20 he was already wealthy – and a friend bequeathed his estate to him. It was on this estate, Makaibari (which means corn field) that Darjeeling first’s tea plantation came into being, under the leadership of G.C.
Three generations later, when Rajah Banerjee was a graduate in England, intent on a future there, he went home to Darjeeling for a visit. While riding his horse among the tea plantations and forests of his ancestral home, he fell, and as he thudded to the ground had a life-altering, thunderbolt of an experience: “Beyond time and space, I saw a brilliant band of white light connecting me to the trees around me. The woods sang out melancholically in an incredible concerto, ‘Save us! Save us!’”
That was on August 21, 1970, and from that day to this, the “Thunderbolt Rajah” has put his heart and soul into saving the vanishing woodlands, and protecting and nurturing the people and culture of his Himalayan region.
Drinking tea in Darjeeling
I dutifully tried each of the teas that Rajah Banerjee laid out before me, and began to appreciate the subtle and distinct differences between them. “What champagne is to wine, Darjeeling is to tea,” he said. From light and golden, to rich and flowery, Darjeeling tea is delicate and delicious. The differences in colour and flavour are the result of many factors, such as the season it is harvested.
Over the course of an afternoon, Rajah explained the art and science of Darjeeling tea to me. “This is a magical, mystical land,” he said, “and the tea is symptomatic.” As a long-time student of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic agriculture (precursor to organic farming), Rajah has been a tireless pioneer and advocate of human, cultural and environmental sustainability in Darjeeling. When he converted Makaibari in 1980, and had it certified in 1988, it became the first organic tea plantation in Darjeeling. Now, about 35% of the gardens are organic.
“Makaibari is an oasis,” he said. “We are not seeking to be a leader, but an inspiration. We have the tools here at Makaibari for a much better world, a sustainable world.”
For Rajah Banerjee, the end result is the flavour of the various teas Makaibari produces, such as their top-of-the-line Silver Tips Imperial, apparently the most expensive tea in the world — and my favourite of the ones I tasted (I bought a bag of it at the Makaibari store). But the process is equally important and it includes a long list of innovations in agriculture and in creating a sustainable human environment that protects the culture and the people who live and work on the estate.
Kena Shree“You don’t need magic to disappear. You need destination.” Kena is dexterously adept to magically disappearing in the goodness of food, music, travel and poetry, at any given time. Her partners in crime will be a backpack, a Nikon, water bottle, a credit card and pen and paper to fuddle with. When not travelling or blogging, she is a Human Resource professional, speaker and corporate storyteller. She may be contacted at the Twitter handle @KenaShree
Kena Shree reflects on memories and bonds nurtured and strengthened over cups of chai – and how they made her into the tea addict she is today. This Chai Diaries entry was originally published on The Huffington Post.
There is something typical about early mornings in most Indian households. A little before dawn sets in, the lady of the house jumps out of bed, slips her feet into her chappals and immediately rushes into the kitchen to begin her daily warming-up ritual: put the water in a kettle to boil, sprinkle in some black tea, pour milk, add sugar (and perhaps some ginger or cardamom for extra flavour) and let the dance of cha-cha-chai begin. While she may then choose to brush, wash, bathe, walk, jog or pray, the tea continues to brew slyly in the pot, losing its virgin golden colour to turn copper black and then blending with other ingredients to assume the burlywood hues of typical Indian masala-chai. She pours it into cups, ready to greet her loved ones with a good morning and a cup of tea, either in bed or at the dining table.
For some, the most magical properties of the drink appear in its perfect timing and temperature. I remember my grandmother driving the whole house crazy if she wasn’t served tea on time and piping hot, along with a Hindi national daily. If this ritual failed, her bowels would revolt and she’d be quite incapable of producing a satisfactory movement. Tea was probably the only laxative she knew of in her entire life.
As little kids, tea made us furious. We’d watch in envy as the adults sat together at dawn, chatting about their plans for their day, sipping their tea and occasionally dunking Marie arrowroot biscuits into the brew. We youngsters had to make do with some distasteful health drink with hot milk, signed off with an elder’s instruction: “You can have tea only once you’re grown up.” We’d lay out our sour grapes on the table: “It’ll ruin their complexion,” or “It tastes so bitter,” or even virtuously proclaim “Good children don’t.” This, when a rebellious few of us had already made a secret promise to ourselves to adopt the forbidden drink as early as we could.
Today, my love of tea extends beyond the taste and ritual of it. It is as much about the magical stories and memories that get spun around cups of tea. Our numerous train journeys invariably began with a tea vendor on the railway platform shouting in one particular musical note, “Chai, garam chai!” He’d serve the chai in a piping hot kulhar (clay cup); the man was always in such a hurry that he would often run parallel to a moving train, literally snatching change from our hands and hopping like Spiderman from one bogie to another. I can almost smell the aroma coming from that clay pot. It was a constant companion to the friendly gossip, conversations with strangers and offerings of snacks that were such a staple of train journeys.
The other day in office, a friend who happens to be tea-hater, picked an argument with me over my habit of downing five cups of cha a day. She was horrified! She probably thought I was trying to battle depression with my addiction to tea. And perhaps, yes, tea did serve an emotional purpose, connected as it is to so many memories and narratives.
Narratives of bonds getting stronger during preparations for competitive entrance exams in which a few of us would study the whole night, protected from exhaustion by countless tea breaks. Like the maddening rehearsal days of campus theatre in which we spent weeks learning dialogues, making props and marketing our ‘play’ in the city suburbs, over sips of warm cutting chai with samosas. Of those endless chat (read gossip) sessions in our college canteen.
Narratives of my drawing room in which guests are allowed to pop in at any time, day or night, for a cup of tea to ease them into venting bottled-up feelings. How about the métier of a smart deal sealed between corporate executives over high tea over days and weeks? How can I not see the priceless guffaws of granny and her friends who sit sipping sugar-free (or sugarless) tea in our colony’s park on a sunny winter day, cracking juvenile jokes? Or those tears of joy that well up in a mother’s eye who when returns fagged from office is greeted by her child asking, “You look tired! Want some tea?”
Green for slimming, herbal for health, white for gourmets, Oolong for burning fat, black for caffeine, lemon ginger for immunity, ‘kadha‘ for de-congestion, chamomile-jasmine for flavours. I didn’t even realise when the regular tea transformed itself from beverage to medicine to health supplement.
While I sit here on a spring day – when there is summer in the light and winter in the shade — to write about my trysts with tea, the mountains of Munnar and Darjeeling are covered with a green carpet of tea plants basking to beauty under the sun, getting caressed by the gentle winds and glistening with dew drops every morning. One day, these tea leaves from the hills will make their way to countless homes, become a part of so many people’s memories.
So while our Hon’ble Prime Minister chooses chai pe charcha as part of his foreign policy arsenal, I choose to enjoy sips in solitude with my fountain pen and paper. Yet, we both, like so many other Indians, are bound by a common elixir.
Ravindra BhaleraoRavindra 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Ravindra BhaleraoRavindra 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.
In striking contrast to the unfortunate vendor in Ajni is the tea stall at a large junction station. Here we may find activity at each hour of the day and night. The stall here is manned in shifts by two or more persons who have to remain on their toes throughout. The chai-wallah here is constantly amidst the bustle of the platform, amid the trains, amid the shouts and cries of frantic passengers when an express draws in. His station in life may be deemed as being of no great significance by some, yet we cannot do without him. He is constantly sought out by eager eyed folk looking for a sip of the cheering brew; at peak hours he is literally at the centre of a mob. At other times, as when the Mail has left, our chai-wallah is left alone in tranquility. The sun beats down on an empty line of carriages standing sullenly on one side; an engine a little way off lets out blasts of steam making a great noise as it prepares to move to a nearby line; a lone man chooses to have his cup of tea at this hour and is lost in thought as he leans against the stall; families may be seen lounging around on the platform reclining against trunks and bedrolls. Even at such times of lull when business is slack, and the platform is lifeless, the chai-wallah has to be prepared with his brew for the odd customer who may want his drink at this hour.
The Indian rail journey can be likened to a voyage by land, lasting as it does sometimes over three days. For the Sleeper coach passenger a journey of this duration can easily turn into a test of endurance, a battle against fatigue, poor food and monotony. He can hope to get respite from it all only by getting off the train at halts along the way. Then comes the mad scramble to fill up water bottles at the station tap. For the man who is sick of being on the same berth for over two days, who is tired and stiff, this is something like a blessing in disguise, for it allows him to stretch his legs, to be out in the open, to feel his feet are back on solid earth again. Having filled his bottle, he may be seen to return to his seat triumphantly. Now is the time to toast his success with cups of tea ordered through the window. “Kitne paise hue, bhaiya?” his wife cries out to the vendor alongside. “Teen rupye,” replies the man. “Jara jaldi karo, memsahab, signal ho gaya”. Even as the woman begins to fumble for the coins in her purse, the kids seated opposite let out a wail for some inexplicable reason. The drama is laden with tension. But the coins are passed through the window, and the chai-wallah moves on, satisfied with the deal, crying out “Chaa—ye…. chaa—ye…” The train jolts forward. The effect of this is almost miraculous, for the children settle down with peanuts and sandwiches and chai. There is a calmness now that nothing seems able to disturb. As the platform begins to slide back the family settles down in comfort. The Wheeler’s stall appears momentarily before passing out of view, as does the parcel booking office. And there, far ahead, amongst others, is the chai-wallah with his cups, his cries forever stilled, gazing open-mouthed at the train as it moves out on its onward journey.
A train journey can be quite inconceivable without tea. This is partly due to the ever present tendency amongst most of us to toast every occasion with a cup of tea. But tea has its therapeutic effects as well, some real, other imagined. It freshens up a man, clears his mind, envigorates the nerves, banishes lethargy, spurs him on to greater effort, improves judgement, helps breaks the monotony of routine. With so many advantages this simple beverage has to offer, it is not surprising that the tea stall vendor, or chai-wallah as he is known, has come to occupy a place of central significance on the railway platform.
My sojourns through station land in the past revealed three categories of chai-wallahs at the platform. To begin with you have the vendor who holds charge of a built-up stall right in middle of a spacious platform. Grubby in appearance, his stall is nonetheless equipped with counters made of cement or stone slabs which the customer may lean against. These counters form a kind of cubicle with a small entrance on one side, inside which the man brewing the tea functions. Stacked on the slab may be found tins of sugar and tea, spoons, glasses and cups, pots of milk. For his supply of fresh water, he relies on a tap, failing which you will find matkas (earthenware pots) holding clean water, while waste water is disposed of in special buckets kept for the purpose. The station chai-wallah finds it easiest to brew his tea in an aluminium kettle with a well insulated handle, and on the more busy stalls, several of these kettles may be seen, some holding ready-made tea, others simmering on the coals. I have not found the drink here (or anywhere on a station for that matter) to my taste, but for an extra rupee you can have the chai-wallah add a little extra sugar with cardamom which lends a wonderful flavour to the brew.
Then there are chai-wallahs who move around the platform with a trolley on wheels. These mobile vendors carry equipment that is near complete: cups, kettles simmering over ‘sigris’, tea leaves, sugar, milk, buckets of water. But as the trolley has to be pushed around, it still makes progress slow. To overcome this obstacle, the vendor often employs boys carrying around trays laden with cups and a steaming hot kettleful of tea prepared prior to the arrival of the train. With respect to mobility, these boys are decidedly at an advantage as they can move around speedily from one carriage to the next shouting out their wares.
It was with respect to these ‘itinerant’ vendors that an elder once cautioned me advising me to carry an ample supply of change with me on my travels. I was but a young lad setting out from home for the first time, and this piece of advice stood me in good stead in the years to come. The rule is to hand out the requisite coins through the window of the train, and never to pass on a note expecting the vendor to return the balance. He may make up an excuse and make off with the money.
No one would deny this is sound common sense, but it should not be thought that every tea-seller on the platform who asks a customer to wait till he returns with the change, does so from intentions that are not honourable. Quite on the contrary, many of these simple hawkers may be found to be honest in dealing with a helpless passenger. I can recollect an instance when I was travelling through the poverty-ridden area of Assam with a ticket to Delhi. The Mail arrived at New Bongaigaon early in the morning, and as I rarely if ever fall asleep while on a train, I was at the door looking for a morning cup. It must have been around 1 a.m., with no one in sight on the platform. I was offered tea in an earthenware cup which is a most welcome feature in Assam and Bihar as you need not trouble yourself over emptying the contents of the cup before the time is due. The man did not have the rupee note he had to return to me, so he said he would be back in a short while. For once, let me trust this man, I thought to myself, as I stood at the doorway of the carriage sipping my tea. Soon the whistle blew, and the train began to pull out. I leaned out through the doorway, a bit disappointed. The platform, well lit, but deserted at this hour, presented an eerie sight. The station bookstall wheeled past, and I was about to give up hope when I spotted a solitary figure standing a good way ahead looking for anyone who might be at the doorway of a carriage. It was the friendly chai-wallah who remembered he owed me a rupee. When he came abreast, I swung out an arm and with a quick movement whisked up the note he held out.
At the larger junctions we find that is is often the chai-wallah who has to fear the unscrupulous passenger. He has to keep a sharp lookout, for with a crowd of men pressing in for their cups of tea half of whom are only hanging about with no particular business in mind, it is doubly easy for the habitual cheat to filch a porcelain cup. Then too, even if there is no crowd around, there is always the passenger who may wish to carry his cup to the carriage opposite the stall to offer to his wife. Chai-wallahs are aware of the danger involved here, and at one stall at Delhi Junction I found the vendor would ask the passenger to deposit a sum of twenty rupees, to be later refunded, before he could carry his cup to the window of his carriage.
Taken in solitude, or while amongst a boisterous group of friends, a cup of tea always affords pleasure. And it seems to become doubly enjoyable if the tea is accompanied by a slice of cake or snacks of any kind. A chai-wallah on New Delhi station seemed to have guessed this and hit upon a novel idea to boost up his sales. Delhi is famed for its Britannia cakes, a range of light spongy cakes available in several pleasing flavours. “Dilliwalon ki pasand — Britannia Cake!” the ad would shout. This chai-wallah would offer his customer his cup while silently slipping two slices of Britannia cake into the saucer, unsolicited of course. If the passenger felt the cake was offered as a bonus he was sadly mistaken and he could find himself in an unpleasant situation at the end. One man was sharp enough to see through the chai-wallah’s trick when offered tea and cake in this manner and shot back: “Listen, I never asked you for this!”
The railway platform is a hive of activity. A station master making entries in his register, porters scurrying about with luggage, a crowd of men at the station tap, the hurried transaction over a cup of tea, the shouts and cries of vendors advertising their wares, all this and much more add charm and romance to the Indian train journey. Railway enthusiasts are not known to spend their hours exploring the chai-wallahs and other vendors at the station; they would rather usefully employ their time in gathering details on the trains and engines they fancy. I for my part, had a similar tendency all along, when one day I found myself bored stiff exploring the yard and a thousand tonnes of steel rolling on wheels on parallel lines. My preoccupation with trains had come to a sad end, I thought, but a few days later, I got an opportunity to watch a short film made at a railway station. It was not a professional production, but was made well; it showed scenes on the platform, then on to the yard, an engine shunting a line of carriages, a solitary man sipping his brew at a tea stall, and various other scenes. I am glad I watched this film. It brought a warm glow to my heart; it rekindled my enthusiasm for trains as no visit to a locomotive shed could. And in a marvellous way it came home to me that the charm of the railway which I hold so dear, comes as much from the hustle and bustle of the platform, from the shouts and cries of the vendor selling sweetmeats and tea, indeed from the whole army of uniformed men who run the station, as it does from the trains and engines I love.
Pransu Raj KaushikPransu 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.
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!
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.
Pransu Raj KaushikPransu 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!