When I first traveled to New York City from Mumbai in 2008, I remember my Indian friends already in the city trying to ease my transition into this new country by comparing various American mainstays to their corresponding Indian counterparts.
For instance, New York’s Chinatown was to be treated as Mumbai’s Fashion Street: never buy anything without bargaining first. Avoid Penn Station during rush hour; it was like, well, every hour at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. And those ubiquitous Starbucks outlets one saw on almost every street corner — they were akin to the Mumbai chai wallahs (and chai wallis) handing out “cutting chai” everywhere from Andheri to Virar.
While I felt my friends were bang on with the rest of their helpful match-ups, I didn’t quite agree with the one that drew a line between Starbucks and the chai wallahs. Starbucks has a sanitized corporate conformity to all of its outlets, and that is certainly not the ambience one gets when around a chai wallah in India. While they do share a unifying factor in the tea that they serve, every chai wallah is unique, with brews and stories specific to each of them.
Documenting the chai wallah’s stories is what the Chai Wallahs of India project is all about. Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly have taken it upon themselves to tell the tale of a country from the perspective of the chai wallahs. As they explain on their website: “The same way New York cab drivers might be able to tell the story of the city through their interactions with customers, chai wallahs can tell the story of India in all its complexity.”
(All photos courtesy Chai Wallahs of India.)
Following their article in The New York Times about a chai wallah who is also a published poet, we got in touch with Gellatly and Marks to tell us more about their project. What follows below are excerpts from an email interview with the duo who are currently on a chai-quest in Mumbai, with a view “to check out the famous Irani cafes, the chai wallahs of Bollywood and the love marriage of vadapav and chai.”
What is the Chai Wallahs of India project all about?
Zach Marks: As Fulbright scholars in India from 2010-2011, we traveled the country and witnessed firsthand the importance of chai and the communal interactions chai wallahs facilitate. In India, chai is an integral part of the rhythm of life, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the seaside megacity of Mumbai — a constant, unifying presence in a profoundly diverse, complex and rapidly changing country. And behind each cup of Indian chai, whether served in a flimsy plastic cup, earthenware clay pot or silver-plated kettle, is a chai wallah.
Resham Gellatly: In the last ten years, chai drinks — often called “chai tea” or “chai tea latte” — have become popular outside of India. Around the world, coffee chain customers order chai every day. But very few know the story of its origins or how important chai is to Indian culture, where it’s more than just a drink. We want to tell chai wallahs’ stories for Indians who love chai but may not have thought about its larger role in the society, as well as for Westerners who have no idea what chai means to one-sixth of the world’s population.
Where did the inspiration for the project come from? How did the project begin? Did you come to India with a specific decision to explore this angle, or did it just start somewhere else and evolve into something bigger than what you initially thought?
ZM: The inspiration for the project came from all the chai wallahs we met during our year in India. Every time we traveled to a new place, the chai stands we stumbled upon provided a way for us to learn about the community through the customers and chai wallahs. Resham and I also had favorite chai wallahs in Delhi — mine was the chaiwalli in the government school where I taught, and Resham’s had a stand just outside her school. We returned to the States in 2011 and about a year later, we thought of this idea and decided to leave our jobs and go for it.
RG: We wanted to document a slice of Indian culture that is essential to India’s fabric and was an important part of our experience in the country. Chai wallahs are the behind-the-scenes players who fuel India. Through caffeine, sugar and conversation, chai wallahs keep India running. Many people visit chai stands or accept cups from the office chai wallah several times a day, but not everyone has thought to find out more about the person behind the kettle. We did some research and found that although people have written on tea in India, nobody has really focused on the chai wallahs, so we decided to tell their stories. If we don’t document this unique culture, who will?
On your blog, you say: “By documenting how chai is woven into the daily fabric of India, they will bring these characters to life and depict a culture that epitomizes India’s diversity and unity.” Could you elaborate on this? How does chai figure into India’s culture and sensibility?
ZM: Chai wallahs’ small stands are like the hub of a wheel whose spokes are people from every walk of life. At one chai stand, you might find a rickshaw puller next to a businessman next to a college girl, all drinking the same brew from the same cups. In a country as stratified as India, where caste, socioeconomic status and religion can be incredibly divisive, it’s amazing to see barriers melt away over a cup of chai.
RG: Chai is also a huge part of the culture beyond the chai stand. Chai is served in business meetings, on trains, at home — it is something that every Indian can relate to, no matter what religion, caste or state they belong to.
What has been your process for documenting this story? What have been some of the challenges you have faced, and how have you gone about fixing them?
ZM: To make sure we get consistent and comprehensive data, we let the proposal we wrote for our research affiliation (with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, based in New Delhi) guide some of the questions we ask chai wallahs. For example, we always ask how long the chai wallah has had his or her stand, how they started the stand, if they want their children to continue the business, where they source their supplies from, how many cups they sell per day, and what makes their chai special.
Depending on the person, we might also get into stories of their customers, religion, politics, hopes for the future, and the best and worst parts of being a chai wallah. Most conversations end up taking directions we didn’t anticipate, which is part of the fun. The character and nature of the chai wallah drive the type of interactions we have, and with such variety in the people we meet, we’re always coming out with more material than we know what to do with!
We also talk to customers at the chai stands and have met with other players in the tea industry from Biswajit Bera, Director of Research at the Tea Board of India to Ravi Suchanti, a director of J. Thomas & Co., the largest tea auction in India to Anamika Singh, who just opened a high-end tea boutique in Delhi.
RG: For the most part, people have been very excited about our project, and we have gotten a great response from Indians and foreigners alike. A couple of people have left us negative comments, but I think that criticism is to be expected whenever you put yourself out there.
Excuse me for taking the tone of an overtly concerned Indian relative, but, I must ask… given that both of you are Americans, has that factor been a boon or a bane when doing this project? Have there been problems with language, getting lost in translation, moving about the country, etc?
RG: We lived in Delhi for a year, so we are familiar with Indian culture and are conversational in Hindi. We haven’t run into any cultural issues yet and have been careful to feel out each individual before probing too deeply into his or her business. Just like anywhere else in the world, people have unique personalities and what tactic works with one chai wallah doesn’t always pan out with another.
Since Hindi isn’t spoken everywhere, we sometimes bring friends along with us to translate. We also try to tape record our conversations and review them with native speakers of whatever language the chai wallah speaks in to make sure we get everything right.
Do you have a timeline for your project, and if so, what form is the end result going to be like? Also, how can readers interested in your project follow and/or support you?
RG: Our timeline is a bit up in the air. We were planning to be in the country for six months, but we may end up staying for a year instead. It all depends on what we want the final project to be. As of now, we’re planning to write a book but also want to incorporate photo, audio and film elements.
One of the photo components we’ve been working on is called EkShabd, which means “One Word” in Hindi. EkShabd is a photo series of people we’ve met whom we ask, “When we say the word chai, what is the first one word that comes to your mind?” We have them write this word on a small white board in whatever language they are most comfortable, and then we photograph them. So far, we have over 400 photos of people from all walks of life and almost a dozen languages. It’s been fascinating to see which words come up most often and what kinds of people say them.
We’ve also been gathering people’s chai stories. Everyone seems to have a chai story — a favorite chai wallah, a unique recipe discovered in the alleys of a crowded market, or memories of a profound conversation with a new friend made over a hot cup. So we’ve been collecting stories from readers, friends and people we meet of their memories made over chai then posting them on our site in a section called Chai Diaries.
Have there been any chai wallah stories that particularly appealed to you, or touched you? Also, what has been the most interesting/surprising thing you have learnt since you started your research?
ZM: We met one of Delhi University’s famous chai wallahs, Deepuji, who runs J.P. Tea Stall on the D. School campus. The stall was packed with college students, faculty and groundskeepers sipping chai and playing carrom together. Deepu took a break from his work to show us a diary he keeps in his stand. It goes back years and is filled with notes from his customers, including poems and songs that students have written for and about him. These students continue to visit him for years after graduation, and Deepuji remembers them all. This was especially exciting for us to see because we had been worried about India’s new coffee chains wiping out the street chai culture, but seeing how connected young people are to their chai wallahs made us realize that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Check out Zach and Resham’s work by heading to their website, Chai Wallahs of India. Do you have a chai wallah story to share? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow the project on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Aby Sam Thomas is a writer and journalist currently based out of Dubai. Talk to him on Twitter @thisisaby.