Chai with a Dose of Ayurveda!

Amit Sinha

Amit 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.


A chai stand in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

A chai stand in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly


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.

Chai served in bhar, clay cups commonly used in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly

Chai served in bhar, clay cups commonly used in Kolkata. Photo: Resham Gellatly


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!

Tins of chai, or cha in Bengali, in a Kolkata market.

Tins of chai, or cha in Bengali, in a Kolkata market. Photo: Resham Gellatly

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.

The Sweetest Cup: Coming Full Circle in Delhi

When we arrived in Delhi eight months ago to document chai wallahs across India, we could not have imagined the characters we would meet and the wild detours we would take along the way. After visiting 18 states, hearing hundreds of stories and drinking countless cups of chai, we are heading back to the United States to write a book that brings together our experiences. This blog post about the chai wallah who was our original inspiration for Chai Wallahs of India is the final song of the first act of our project.

Devraj Singh at his chai stand in Kalkaji Extension, Delhi

My last day in Delhi. It was hot, the sky gray and oppressive, dust hovering in the dry air. We were finally going to Kalkalji Extension to see if the chai wallah across from the school where I had taught on my Fulbright fellowship three years ago was still there. Zach and I had already experienced disappearing chai wallahs – we would head back to a stand a few weeks after having a great conversation with someone only to find the spot vacant or occupied by a new vendor – and I was worried that my chai wallah, whose name I couldn’t remember, may have moved on to bigger and better things.

As we walked down the unpaved road leading to the spot, memories rushed back. Here was the chole bhature guy, selling plates of sizzling fried bread and chunky chickpeas for only ten rupees (less than 20 cents). There was the row of chicken sellers, leaning on sagging cages overstuffed with filthy birds. The samosa wallah had converted his formerly modest shack to a proper restaurant offering thalis for 25 rupees a pop. Flies hung thick in the air as we continued up the road toward a dumpster surrounded by putrefying garbage. The familiar smell, which on muggy days had wafted up to the classrooms where I wrangled 30-plus hyper kids, indicated that we were near. And then suddenly there it was – set back from the road, a tin roof supported by wooden sticks shading a small table over which my chai wallah stood stirring a pot.

Devraj Singh’s chai stand in Kalkaji Extension, Delhi

I approached him hesitantly, smiling but nervous that he would not remember me. He had been one of the major inspirations, along with the chai walli at Zach’s school, for us returning to India to collect stories from chai wallahs around the country. Dozens of times during the past year, when people had asked us how we had come up with the idea and why we wanted to write about chai wallahs, I would talk about this man. His stand was a place of refuge for me when the school environment – often tense under the ruthless reign of Principal Ma’am, whose approach to running a school terrified me and the students – got to be too much. The other American teacher and I would sneak out of the school midday for chai and egg sandwiches, much to the dismay of the Indian teachers, who ate homecooked lunches tightly packed in tiffins and would never have dared to eat such “unhygienic outside food.” But for me, those greasy, spicy sandwiches and thick milky chai were salvation, and the chai wallah was the one delivering it. We didn’t have conversations with each other – my Hindi wasn’t great, and he must have thought us odd to visit his stall so often. His regular customers were all men, mostly laborers from the surrounding industrial area. When the school year ended and I said goodbye to him, handing him a picture of me along with a Hawaii calendar that I had brought from home months before, I teared up. I felt silly knowing that to him, I was probably just another customer, but I wished I had taken the time to find out the story of the man behind the kettle who had come to mean so much to me. That’s why we had come back this time.

We ducked under the black tarp covering the chai stand and I half-smiled at the chai wallah. He met my questioning eyes over the bubbling pot on the stove and grinned in recognition. “Oh, you have come back after so long?” he said simply. “Ji ji ji!” I exclaimed, relieved that he remembered me. “Chai?” he asked. “Haanji. Two,” I said, pulling up the bench for me and Zach to sit on. Zach asked his name. “Aap ka nam kya hai?” The chai wallah looked at me expectantly and realized I didn’t know. “D.R. Singh. Devraj.” He waved over the teenage boy who had been watching our exchange and told him to make us chai and an egg sandwich.

Satyam serves chai while Devraj looks on.

Satyam serves chai while Devraj looks on.

The boy, who we found out was his nephew Satyam, was a new addition to the business. So was the man who had set up shop on a wooden table in the back corner of Devraj’s stand, frying pakoras and rolling out dough for samosas. But otherwise, things were the same. Loaves of white bread leaned against the old mustard oil tin shielding the stove from wind and stacks of oily bread pakoras loomed over packets of Parle G biscuits strewn over the wooden table. The chai was just as delicious as I had remembered – thick, milky, and the perfect sweetness – and the egg sandwich too.

In between sips and bites, we told Devraj about our project documenting chai wallahs around India and how he had been part of it from the start. He told us about his life, filling in the gaps I had always wondered about. His was a story of migration and hard work, like so many others we had heard. Born in a village near Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, Devraj came to Delhi 40 years ago, leaving his family behind to find work in the capital. His first job was as a painter. “White wash,” he said. Once he had saved enough money, he opened the tea stall right outside his home. We could see the house from where we sat – a two-room cement box painted lavender, the roof made of corrugated tin and tarp. Inside, his wife chopped vegetables for the midday meal Devraj sold to the construction workers across the street, who were busy clearing land for a new housing project by the Delhi Development Authority.

I asked him about his children, recalling that he had a daughter attending the school where I had taught. “My daughter is married! She lives in Faizabad,” he said. “But I thought she was in third grade when I was here, “ I responded, confused. “No, that is my son. My daughter is older. 26 years. Her name is Resham,” Devraj smiled.

I stared at him in disbelief. How had I never known that his daughter shared my name, my age? In all our travels, Zach and I had met plenty of Reshmas and Reshmis, but no other Reshams. Yet there had been another Resham on our journey all along. It was a twist to the story we had shared so many times to explain the motivation behind Chai Wallahs of India, and it made clear that the question we had set out with – who are the people behind the cups? – was one worth answering.

We drained the last drops from our glasses, the taste transporting me back three years to when chai was just a drink and Devraj had been simply a smiling face behind his kettle. It was the perfect cup of chai to have as my last before leaving for the United States the next morning, and finally knowing the story behind the chai wallah who had started it all made it even sweeter.

Devraj and Resham meet again

Pappu’s Chai Stall

Jenny Kostecki-Shaw and Patrick Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chai Pe Charcha: Narendra Modi’s Tea Campaign

Thanks to Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi’s campaign to become prime minister, chai wallahs across the country are in the spotlight perhaps more than ever. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been making much of the time he spent working as a boy at his father’s tea stall at the Vadnagar railway station before rising to the post of Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi had a brief stint as a chai wallah at his father's tea stall before becoming Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi had a brief stint as a chai wallah at his father’s tea stall before becoming Chief Minister of Gujarat.

In October, the BJP began a campaign in which chai wallahs branded their businesses as NaMo Tea Stalls, distributing promotional materials and money for chai wallahs to improve their stalls in exchange for their public endorsement. (Modi is often referred to as NaMo, the Hindi abbreviation for his name.) After an errant comment by Mani Shankar Aiyar, a prominent politician from the ruling Congress party, that Modi would be welcome to serve him chai but could never become prime minister, the BJP has brewed up a new storm of chai-related campaigning.

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My Tryst with Tea: Of Bureaucrats and Travels

Saanya Gulati

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chai Diaries: A Punjabi Peace Corps Memory

Tondalaya Gillespie

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

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

Tondalaya sips chai in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh.

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


Tondalaya and Ron's wedding in Delhi, 1971.

Tondalaya and Ron’s wedding in Delhi, 1971.