August 8, 2010 2 Comments
“Ek Garam Chai ki pyaali ho…Aur usko banane wali ho” – so goes the song in a Sallu Bhai movie. Although I dont have a six pack and can’t work as a lifeguard (although I can probably float thanx to the tyre around my waist ) , I can sympathize with his feelings. On both fronts. Again, I have never had the luck of having a cuppa tea at a railway station followed by a dance with a gorgeous model on train roofs.But I have had the fortune/misfortune of having tea at some unique and shady spots.
Tea has often been compared to ambrosia specially when its available on cold wintry mornings or during the monsoons. In fact one might say that its a magic potion for us Indians much like the magic potion used by the Gauls Asterix and Obelix. Funnily the commercial production of tea was not started in India till the Britishers started using vast regions of land for mass production of tea.The Britisher’s preference for tea has been beautifully portrayed in Asterix in Britain where it shows the Britishers taking time off from a battle to have a cup of tea.Thanx to the introduction of tea cultivation in India, India is the largest producer of tea and close to 70% of our production is consumed by us Indians showing what tea-totallers we are. As if thats not enought, we also have some of the largest varieties of tea styles: halki chai (light tea), kadak chai, elaichi chai and of course, Railways chai which sometimes resembles the piss of a skunk caught on a bad day.
As if this is not enough, chai wallahs themselves are an amazing lot. They wake up at 4:00 AM and light their pots to prepare the first tea of the morning. This soothing brew is then prepared continously for the whole day till around 10 PM. Not only do they serve tea but also provide cigarettes for the desperate smokers and tobacco for the gutkha addicts. But the exceptional part about chaiwallahs is not their early rising habits. Its the individuality. No tea I have tasted at two different places is the same. There are subtle differences, be it those of taste or of aroma or ingredients. They are also adept at juggling streams of tea between different jugs and glasses, a dance which I have been blessed to watch many times(See pic below). In recent days, chaiwallahs are also very tech savvy what with people using their mobiles to send orders which are then delivered by the chai- boy who does door to door delivery within a short time.
My introduction to tea was during school days when I struggled to stay awake for the early morning school bus trip. I switched to tea from Bournvita(I never took Boost as I had excess energy) in the hope that it would help me stay awake. From then, its been a continuos journey with numerous stops for a “chai ki chuski” on the way. But it was in college that we truly accepted it as the opiate of the masses. In the early morning, even as we were late for the longgggg classes of SKD, we would still nip inside the canteen to grab a cuppa tea because that was the only way to stay awake for the first 15 minutes till attendance ended. Sometimes we would change paths halfway to college and turn towards Jhoops, our own canteen + gathering spot + election campaigning theatre (about which I have written more here). When we would land at Jhoops, the first thing to do would be to order a glass of chai and a biscuit. Regular replenishments would be provided which we would pick up without noticing.When the final bill would be presented, the costs would be similar to the estimates required for treadmills ordered by Mr Kalmadi. However after all the grumbling, arguments and fights, we would be back the next day ordering “ek chai and two biscuits” yet again.
As I said, Chai is of different types and much like scotch / beer , can tell a lot about a person. The type of chai ordered / drunk by someone and the manner in which he drinks the tea can tell tomes. For example, I have seen a lot of people who will sip at the tea slowly as if they are at an English tea party with the Queen while others will slurp it loudly from the saucer and lick their lips happily at the end. Yet another group gulps it down as if it was a shot of medicine while a large majority (including yours truly) sips slowly until realizing that its losing its warmth , following which we take large gulps.
Tea also varies as per occasion / timing. Early in the morning, if one lands up at railway stations/bus stands one can always count on “kadak chai” or “khadi chai”. Kadak as the name suggests stands for strong tea but khadi chai is special and peculiar in the sense that it has enough sugar to make the spoon stand straight ( and probably render the person valid for Type I Diabetes in a week). But the energy that these provide last much of the morning. During my sales internship, it was Kadak chai taken three times in the morning which gave me and my sales manager the energy to hit all the points on our route.
Now Railway Chai, as I mentioned earlier is a great equalizer of people.All races, castes, creeds and classes uniformly hate it but cant live without it. During any journey, as i have commented earlier, one can always count upon a railway vendor moving through the compartments screaming “Chaiyaaaa”. Just when one wakes up, you can count on finding such a chaiwala waiting to present you with drainwater passed through a cement strainer and spiced with salt in a small plastic cup. Gone are the days of “kullads”(mud cups) even though Laloo promised to make each railway vendor and station use kullads . Instead we have plastic cups which are thinner and more fragile than an eggshell and paper cups which threaten to leak faster than CWG staduims (no fun if there isn’t a CWG reference these days).
Another amazing tea available in India is the Cutting Chai. The cutting or 3/4th glass is a Mumbai speciality and available at all tea-stalls. As shown in the picture, its cheaper than a full glass and it can be emptied at a jiffy be it at a local station before getting into the maelstrom thats called Mumbai locals or before getting onto buses.
But the importance of tea for me is not just about the energy it provides or the Sanjeevani effect it has on harried travelers. Its in promoting discussions, arguments and general gyaan that I admire tea. Even the quietest of folks becomes more loquacious once he has a cup of tea. And in places like Bengal, discussions over endless cups of tea go on and on for hours. In many parts of India, the teahouse/ chai wallah’s shop proves as the local melting pot where people discuss their travails, seek advice from their elders or fellow people. I have been helped by the oddest of people at tea shops. For example , there is this amazing Parsi Bakery just outside Andheri West station where you get excellent tea and Buns (Ahh those butter filled buns how I miss thee, I count the ways). On my first day in Mumbai I was not sure about the route to reach a place in Mumbai and a kind gentlemen showed me the route and actually dropped me off. Tea brings out the gentlemen in many of us but also leads to huge arguments be they about politics or cricket matches. And who can forget the hours of sipping tea in sweaty college canteens waiting for Sachin to hit that ton or Dada to smash that six over the bowler’s head?
Now that I am in the corporate world, I find that tea is even more important than never. Its over long cups of tea that we get to discuss important issues with our colleagues. These important issues include the deplorable lack of pretty women in the cafeteria as well as crucial changes required in payment and reimbursement policies. But without those all important cups of tea , one could hardly get the energy to drag oneself through the long days of work. So here is to that ambrosia of liquors named Chai.