A Tea Tale from Sri Lanka to India


After completing an M.A in International Studies, Asma conducted research on South East Asia. She now focuses on the Middle East. You can read more of her travel tales at http://travelbedazzled.wordpress.com/

Asma brings us the story of one of the most important women of her household. Referred to in this post as “Woman Friday” – a take on the character Friday in Robinson Crusoe – she is “a housekeeper, a breakfast chef, a now retired maid, the market shopper, the family ‘news messenger’, a friend to all in the neighbourhood, a cricket lover, an avid newspaper reader and a watchful aunt.”

My late grandmother’s Woman Friday has a history interesting enough to relate over tea. A daughter of a Sri Lankan headmaster and tea plantation owner, she worked at the tea company’s office. Her job was to cater to the European buyers. She proudly arranged for their tea tasting ceremonies and helped her father with the business.

Alas, the war in Sri Lanka redrew her destiny. After finding their father murdered for not cooperating with certain factions, she and her siblings migrated to India.

My grandfather discovered her when he was posted as a Forest Officer in South India’s tea plantation district. He wanted my grandmother to have company and a capable friend while he was busy travelling. She happily agreed and arrived at my ancestral home 30 years ago as a young woman, barely out of her teens.

The doorway at Asma’s ancestral home.


She was never considered a servant; our grandfather had shunned discrimination.Today she remains as close to us as our own aunt. She is a housekeeper cum butler, friend and confidant. When we were children visiting on vacation, she was a watchful governess, leaving our mothers to relax. She refused to leave to her brother’s home after both my grandparents passed away, such was her sense of belongingness. She even cooked for orphans as is the community  tradition of those who want to add good deeds for their erstwhile elders.

Today she continues to preside over the sprawling house, and we remain confident in her ability from afar. We never mention her past life in the tea gardens. It is a bygone era. But she still makes a beautiful cup of tea.

More Than Just Tea

Uttaran Das Gupta

Poet, actor, journalist, and senior sub-editor at Calcutta's Telegraph newspaper.

Poet, actor, journalist, and senior sub-editor at Calcutta’s Telegraph newspaper. A man of many talents, Uttaran let us in on a chai wallah who keeps something extra at his stall.

As I have lived and grown up in Calcutta, I have met and interacted with numerous chaiwallahs

The most interesting one, however, is Mahadev, who has a kiosk right outside the sprawling office of Anandabazaar Patrika on 6 Prafulla Sarkar Street. I have worked at this office for the past three years.

Besides serving tea to the employees of ABP and The Telegraph he also serves as a keeper of their liquor. The employees of ABP are not allowed to carry liquor into the office, even if they are not consuming it. So, many of them deposit their bottles at Mahadev’s kiosk and collect it after work.

He also plays host to acquaintances who have enough money for a bottle but not to go to a bar. So they often drink at the kiosk on the footpath. Mahadev also often joins them for a drink.

Chai cups ready to be filled - but with what?

Chai cups ready to be filled – but with what?

Heartbreak and Happiness

Ana Stern

Former Education Manager at The Akanksha Foundation in Pune, Maharashtra.

Not all chai stories have a happy ending. Like many street vendors in India, chai wallahs often lead a precarious existence. Their stands can be shut down by police or the local mafia demanding a bribe, or by the government when it needs to clear space for development.

Ana Stern lived in Pune for nearly three years and became close to her favorite chai wallah, who faced eviction and an uncertain future:

Unfortunately my favorite chaiwala disappeared when the government decided to clean up the streets. One day they just started knocking down roadside stalls. I wanted to cry. My chaiwala’s partner was walking away with a slab of sheet metal, said that was all that was left, and bye. Later in June I ran into my chaiwala trying to find employment at a mall. It was heartbreaking to listen to his story. He really did have the best chai ever.

Ana also shared a more uplifting story about Yatin, her friend and chai guru.

On a happier chai note, my friend used to come to my house and teach me how to make chai properly. I would lay out all of the ingredients when he said he was close by and then get called a good student. For fun we would namaste and bow when he walked in and I would greet him with a, “hello chaiguru!” We would then proceed to the kitchen where he would call me a great student for laying out the ingredients. It was always amazing. Occasionally I would make the chai before he came over and it was never quite as good. Just once I got a “bahut acha” from him and it made my day (that and the great chai). When one of my best girlfriends came over she would tell me that the way I made it is all wrong. Although I listened to her for all other cooking advice, I will only follow my chaiguru, Yatin, for chai.

Ana Stern with kids at The Akanksha Foundation where she worked as education manager

Ana Stern with kids at The Akanksha Foundation where she worked as education manager

A Hidden Treasure Among Jaipur’s Palaces

Fiona Caulfield

Founder of Love Travel Guides, Fiona Caulfield believes that "Falling in love with a city is just as exciting as falling in love with a person. Your senses become more engaged and you simply feel more alive."

Today’s Chai Diaries entry comes from reader Fiona Caulfield, founder of Love Travel Guides. Fiona’s criteria for what makes it into her guidebooks is simple: “Does this entry help you fall in love with this destination ? If yes, then it is in; if no then, it is out.”

Fiona’s favorite chai can be found in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s Pink City, famous for jewels, leather, and now chai wallahs!

Sahu Chaiwalla

365 Chaura Rasta (adjacent to the Shah Bldg). Daily 5 am – midnight.

The search for the best chai took some doing, but early one morning I found this small stall, which has been run by the same family for over 40 years. Their chai secret is the slow cooking of the milk on a coal stove and a cup costs a mere R10. Many regulars spend double the cost of the chai to travel here to have their morning cuppa. Stand on the street near the stove or step down into the café, which has a few tables.

Birds in flight, Jaipur, 2011

Birds in flight, Jaipur, 2011

Academic All Nighters at the Tea Stall

Raman Sharma

Consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Midterm exams are beginning in colleges across the globe. ‘Tis the season for students to pull all nighters and to procrastinate. What better way to procrastinate than with a philosophical debate over a cup of chai?

Raman Sharma, a graduate of the prestigious and hypercompetitive Indian Institute of Technology, knows this as well as any. Currently a consultant at McKinsey & Company, he took a break from advising clients to share this memory of his favorite campus chai wallah.

Wanted to share a very special chai place which will always be memorable for me and a lot of other people from my campus. I did my undergrad from IIT Kanpur, where there is this small marketplace called ‘MT’ which has a couple of chai shops along with 2-3 paan and cigarette shops, a bike repair shop and a general store. In the middle of the compound is a small temple beside which there is a bit of an open area and a raised platform. The place has been a hub for morning tea and breakfast, cigarette supplies and evening snacks for ages. It’s the first eating place that opens in the morning on the campus and is often the final destination of a long all nighter for all students. At the same time, you’d find a groups of professors enjoying their morning tea after the morning walk. 

The place had such a charm that people even had loyalties to their particular chai shop based on the type of chai they liked. People would come in groups but would get chai from their preferred chai shop. Like a typical chai shop in Uttar Pradesh, the shops also had jalebi with curd, pakodas and namkeen to enjoy with chai. Not to mention the shops entertained credits, which would be cleared once or twice a semester. One would often spend hours debating various topics ranging from curriculum, grades, professors, research topics, hypothetical extreme ideas to politics, elections, music and even some campus gossip over several cups of chai and devotional songs playing in the background.  It’s a one of a kind social hub. 

Recent scenes from Delhi University, where famous chai wallahs are a gathering space for students. The campus plays host to many sorts of wallahs, from bike rickshaw wallahs shuttling students to scale wallahs who weigh them.

A Break from the Office Grind

Vidya Mahadevan

Joint MBA-MA candidate at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Lauder Institute in International Studies with a focus on India.

If anyone knows about the diversity of India’s chai culture it is Vidya Mahadevan. She attended schools across 5 Indian states, has lived in a few more, and picked up 6 languages (excluding English) in the process. She’s currently in Philadelphia getting her MBA from Wharton and MA in International Studies focused on India from Lauder. But while the City of Brotherly Love has plenty of degrees for Vidya, it’s unfortunately lacking in chai wallahs. Here’s an anecdote she submitted, the latest entry in our Chai Diaries notebook:

This was back in 2008. I was working out of Bangalore, India for a large multinational bank based out of the US. As one would have guessed, my job inevitably required me to work until late in the night almost everyday. We, like several other multinational giants, were stationed in ITPL in Whitefield, one of the best and high-end tech-parks of the Bangalore, the Technology Hub of India.

At the back gate of this ITPL’s campus there were several chai walas selling “cutting chai” for Rs 3 to 5 from their small mobile shops which were called “tapri”. They operated until very late in the night and always served hot “elachi chai” and “adarak chai” in small plastic cups. Many who stepped away from their desks for smoke breaks preferred to enrich those breaks with a cup of cutting chai.

One could find several IT and finance professionals, clad in their formal clothes and suits enjoying their small cup of tea over friendly chats and deep and thoughtful conversations. I used to wonder several times- What makes people frequent these tapri ‘s so often? We get the best Café Coffee Day coffee and tea in our offices and that too for free, then why do we still feel the need to grab a small cup of cutting chai every day?

I think I also knew the answers to my questions very well. These chai breaks helped us switch off our professional brains for a while and get out of our highly intense work zones. Personally, these chai breaks also allowed me to be myself for that brief span of time. I enjoyed going on these breaks alone, lost in my own thoughts and with some time in my hand to observe the life around me. Most importantly, owner of one of the chai tapri’s that I frequented very often recognized me very well and always greeted me with a beaming smile and warm words of welcome. Whenever I have had a really long day or was stressed out, she used to figure that out that just by looking at me and ask,”Kaisa chal raha hai sab kuch, Didi, bahut kaam hai kya? Chai doon?”

Those few warm and caring words and hot chai would brighten my day, instantly!

Pictures from Sonu’s chai stand outside a corporate office complex in Gurgaon, Haryana.

Special Treatment in a Paper Cup

Shandeep Sharma

A product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up.

Today’s Chai Diaries entry comes from Shandeep Sharma, a product developer and account manager at a Silicon Valley tech start-up. Life would seem pretty good for Shandeep. But there’s one thing missing from the Silicon Valley — chai wallahs. He sent in this memory of a favorite chai wallah from his childhood.

During winter holidays my family and I would visit our relatives in Gwalior. We would take trips to the city center (“Sudder” street) and have Kashmiri chai. This chai never tasted as good in Singapore where we lived, and I would rarely have it there since it was too hot for the temperate climate. Plus my parents didn’t want me developing a caffeine addiction.

The great thing about the chai wallah we went to was that he was my dad’s primary school friend and would give us “special” treatment. I’d get my chai in a white paper cup with extra pistachios because he knew I enjoyed the added texture. I would sip it very very slowly — savoring it as much as possible. As we drank our chais by the roadside, I would hear stories of my dad when he was my age while he reminisced with his chai wallah buddy.

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge

Shandeep Sharma contemplating chai under the Manhattan Bridge

Cell Phones and Chai: A Boon for Business

Philip Lutgendorf

Professor of Hindi at University of Iowa and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

Philip Lutgendorf might know more than anyone about the history of chai in India. Professor of Hindi at University of Iowa and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies, Lutgendorf spent a year in India researching chai on a Fulbright-Hays faculty research award. He submitted this anecdote of a chai wallah he met about ten years ago in Delhi whose business was revolutionized by cell phones:

I went to Old Delhi to buy some Hindi books at Star Publications on Ansari Road. Outside, on the arcaded pavement, a chai wallah had set up his stand. Nothing unusual about that, but the man was. He was smartly dressed, with a sport jacket, loafers, sunglasses tucked into the opening of his shirt. He could have been a moonlighting university professor! And he had a mobile phone (not so common in those days) hanging on a cord around his neck. While he was making chai for me (excellent chai, made to my request, with fresh ginger) his phone rang and I realized he was taking an order from a nearby office. Soon a little boy was running off with the usual wire basket full of brimful glasses. He remarked to me on what a boon the phone was for his business. This vignette, at that time, seemed to epitomize to me the changes wrought by the coming of cell phones and the emergence of a new middle class, even among very small entrepreneurs like this man.

- Philip Lutgendorf, Professor of Hindi, University of Iowa