Ninawe’s Poha and Chai

Ravindra Bhalerao

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

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

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

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

Ninawe's tea stall

Ninawe’s tea stall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninawe at work

Ninawe at work

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

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

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

Ninawe's poha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninawe and his son work together

Ninawe and his son work together

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

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

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

Pre-dawn chai in rural India, 1982

Daniele G.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dudh wallah in Rettanai, Tamil Nadu

A dudh wallah in Rettanai, Tamil Nadu

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

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

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

A girl in Hathlana, Haryana with her water buffalo.

A girl in Hathlana, Haryana with her water buffalo.

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

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

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

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

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

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