For the love of chai
Yet, even as tea is a national unifier, it also has its divisions based on how well you are doing in life
As it (finally) started raining across Delhi-NCR over the past few days, I instinctively switched from my morning coffee to kadak adrak-wali chai. You see, I am a tea loyalist, even the mere thought of having a hot cup of tea in the sultry weather is too much.
However, it is important to note that tea is not a mere beverage for Indians—it is an emotion that runs through each family. Most of our days start with ‘chai’ and, for many, even end on the same note. It is also very personal for all of us, as we all have our own specifications for it—‘kam doodh’ (less milk), ‘zyaada doodh’ (more milk), ‘bin doodh’ (without milk), ‘paki hui’ (cooked), ‘pheeki’ (without sugar), etc.
A local chai stall
Discussions—grave or casual, individual or shared, and to the ever-so-famous ‘chai pe bulaya hai’ being a metaphor for the infamous arranged marriage setups—have often been centred around the humble tea. From the oldest, most intimate alleys of Delhi to the newest office hubs across NCR, tea plays a unifying role for one and all.
During my college days at Delhi University, my friends and I would occasionally get into long (and often heated) discussions over endless masala chai at the Triveni Kala Sangam—a place that has endured the test of time with its millions of servings of tea. While this was a quintessential experience from college, visits with family to Connaught Place would never begin without at least one tiny paper cup of steaming tea from a vendor.
The experience remained consistent during my early years of working for a national daily—in the winter months, reporting early morning to work was a pain! Yet, even in all the hustle of working on the desk of a newspaper, I remember how the culture of chai breaks was ingrained into my team. No matter what the discussions and hostilities would be within the newsroom, tea breaks would be a different world altogether—a potpourri of the latest sports debates, Bollywood gossip, and political conversations alike.
A few days ago, the morning newspaper wasn’t delivered to our place—prompting us to go on a quick drive looking for the nearest newspaper stand at 6:30 in the morning. The quick excursion brought back recollections of how differently this city functions in the early hours of the day—men sitting around a tea shop, sipping on hot tea, debating the news of the day.
I had crossed the tea shop many times during my daily schedule—but I realised that I had never taken time out to see how it is an economy in itself. Servings of garam chai, nankhatai, and namak paare keep a massive chunk of everyday workers fuelled for the day. In the media industry, you would often be told that you’d get to hear real breaking news at tea stalls. The assumption isn’t far away from the truth.
Yet, even as tea is a national unifier, it also has its divisions based on how well you are doing in life. From the elite, selective Makaibari tea that you’d find many vouches for to the everyday produce that nobody really asks about in terms of their origin—there is perhaps nothing better to define the vast diversity of the capital the way tea does.