On a mouldering day in Delhi, Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly met a Shakespeare-wallah in a chaiwallah. Laxman Rao sits outside Hindi Bhawan and sells about 150 cups of tea a day. He’s also written and self-published 24 books, sold about 10,000 of them, and counts among his fans, former President and current laughing stock Pratibha Patil. Fulbright scholars Marks and Gellatly met him while researching the chaiwallahs of India — a project that has taken them to the farthest corners of the country, in the middle of a people always thirsting for tea.
“We’ve been off the beaten path and found chai stories where we least expected,” says Marks in an email interview. “At a 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 over a cup of chai.”
On their journey, the two have sipped tea whitened with camel milk in Rajasthan and yak milk in Ladakh. They’ve visited tea stalls on boats in Kashmir and snake boats in Kerala. They’ve interviewed Balwan Singh Negi, the chaiwallah of Bollywood, and Sukhpreet Singh, the chaiwallah at the Golden Temple. They’ve even come across a one-woman tea party. “We were driving through the remote hills of southwestern Odisha when we saw a political campaign poster with the kettle as its symbol. We asked around and ended up in Kelar. Ahalya Kandapan is a very inspiring figure — an Adivasi woman who is fighting through the Panchayat system to improve the everyday life of her community. Whenever people come over, she offers them a cup of tea. That’s politics at the most local level,” says Marks.
It’s strange to think that the mom-and-pop stalls we frequent every day could be a research project. But, Marks says, “When you take tea as your lens, you can go deeper into places, whether it’s a home, a school, an office or a factory. Some of these stories are very happy like the success of an entrepreneur who expands his business. But, we’ve also met chaiwallahs who have been displaced by development or forced to shut down or harassed by authorities. One unfortunate reality is that many employ young boys. We’ve also spent time with tea workers on estates in northeast and south India. Some continue to live in deplorable, semi-feudal conditions.” Despite these words, their website (chaiwallahsofindia.com) is brewing with optimism. “Chaiwallahs are the behind-the-scenes players who fuel India. Through caffeine, sugar and conversation, they keep India running,” he says.
Most of us don’t think of tea with such sentimentality. It’s something that begins our mornings and ends our noons. We talk around it, not about it. With their project, Marks and Gellatly are showing us something vital about those cups of buttery tea. That our tea breaks are, in reality, a welcome break from our worries.