The chaiwalla: a saviour to legions of India’s sleepy office workers

The saviour.
The saviour.
Image: Reuters/Ahmad Masood
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The thing about rituals is that we don’t think much while performing them. But when skipped, a vague incompleteness lingers.

Tea drinking is something like that in India. Especially for us office-goers trying to shake off the languor of a soporific post-lunch session.

By around 4.30pm, we begin to fidget and squirm. The sounds emanating from around us—ringing phones, clattering keyboards, buzzing printers, and yapping colleagues—begin to coalesce into an incoherent drone. There’s a beautiful Italian word to describe this state of the mind, midway between sleep and wakefulness, which I’m unable to recall (yeah, it is that time of the day here as I write this piece).

Ever mindful of that strange animal called the boss, we get off our seats as inconspicuously as possible and cubicles and stretch. If the coast is clear, we exchange glances with buddies who’re themselves doing stretches and furtively looking around. A quick sideways nod of the head or a momentary arching of the eyebrows later, we leave discreetly for the most pleasurable routine of the day’s second half: chai, or tea, drinking.

It’s not that we don’t get enough of it otherwise. After all, the day begins with tea for most of us. And most modern offices have tea- and coffee-vending machines. But you’d agree that’s not tea, nor coffee. What they ooze is a brutal concoction of flavouring agents, powdered milk, and water. Try preparing biriyani by dumping rice, meat, spices, and cashew nuts into a mixer-grinder! We Indians know our stuff, you see.

So out in the daylight, we make our way to the chaiwalla, the neighbourhood tea seller, who’s usually already busy by this time. And just in case you get it wrong, this is not one of the hipster tea joints sprouting across the country that I’m referring to. Nor are these restaurants or shops that hawk condiments and beverages.

This is just the chaiwalla, whose sole purpose in life, it sometimes seems, is to help us out of our stupor. And this is what his typical joint looks like:

A makeshift box just enough to accommodate the vendor, his assistants, if any, and his tea-making apparatus. Often, it could just be a four-wheeled cart. But, importantly, he is always found at the most accessible spot of the locality, and almost always has a cigarette-seller next door.

At peak time, the shop is typically swarmed by people—and flies.

A huge vessel, usually made of aluminium, but sometimes copper or steel, is placed on a gas or kerosene stove, with the tea boiling constantly for hours together. As it empties, the shopkeeper pours in more and more milk, adding the appropriate quantities of tea leaves, sugar, and his unique ingredient: cardamom, ginger, or a mix of all spices, including cinnamon and clove.

The order-call varies according to the language spoken in the region. The classic in Hindi-speaking parts is, “Bhaiyya, ek cutting. Kadak.” It is impossible for the English translation of this statement—”Bro, half a cup. Strong”—to fully evoke the Indian workplace-fugitive’s mild excitement. The order in place, the chaiwalla gets to work, sometimes making a great pomp & show of the process. In fact, for some of the vendors, the process itself is the centrepiece, creating ever widening gaps between your glass—those unmistakable, vertically striped, little ones—of tea and the bigger cup or kettle from which it is poured with great precision.

Just can’t do without it.
Image: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

All this usually happens in less than a minute. But that can often seem like an hour. For by then the oppressive afternoon heat, the aroma, and the relief on the faces of customers already served accentuates the desperation. All the more so if one’s a smoker.

Finally, our glass of hot sweet tea in hand, we move to a favourite spot, often under a tree, a milestone, or just near a wall to lean on. The ritual begins, accompanied by random chats. The instinct is always to prolong the session, even if it means being out there in the stifling heat, pollution, and noise. But however much we try, the unsaid deadline always arrives, and we get on our way back. The precious glasses are returned, and the chaiwalla paid (between Rs6 and Rs10 for, say, 50-75 millilitres. And here’s how the economics work).

The used glasses are then simply dipped in a bucket of water that turns increasingly ochre due to the frequent washing. Thus perfunctorily rinsed, they are ready for the next set of customers who either don’t notice the icky practice or are too inured.

Our slow march back to work begins and ends too quickly. Always.

But then, we are certainly not fluttering between sleepiness and wakefulness anymore. And hey, the word for that is “dormiveglia.” Look what the marvelous cutting-chai can do to you?

PS: Tea at the chaiwalla on winter mornings is another experience altogether!

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