There are numerous factors common about West Bengal and Kerala, which contributed to the progress and intellect of their people. Among many concurring features, teashop culture was one that we fondly recall, since a beautiful childhood in the village. There were amazing anecdotes on how people got matured and connected through the morning conversations at teashops; based on political or other differences, they always had hot arguments, and perhaps it enhanced the taste of spicy breakfast dishes too.
A journey down the memory lane, I could still feel the aroma of deliciously hot dosas, yummy coconut chutney blended with mustard and curry leaves; bubbly appams and brown chickpea curry; crunchy fresh snacks; and last but not the least Kerala’s own tapioca masala, which used to melt in the mouth. There was one man who stood in the front corner of the teashop, always busy making the famous one-metre tea; the floating flavour of tea grew taller as his hands rose more than a metre during busy times.
Following our father, we walked into the Pappu Pillai teashop frequently as children; it was during his stint as operator of the family business. Thoroughly fascinated with our grandfather’s stories and his passion for food and people, we saw the magic continue even after his demise. We cherished people’s urge to come back each morning and get inspired by chai talks and the never-ending friendship. This rich tradition added so much to the overall happiness of the village and serenity of its people. The sentiment was, “We have everything here and bounty of time to live.”
As the world changed so much in the last decades, simple teashops like ours were replaced with modern eateries; many of them outsource dishes that taste nothing like the freshly cooked food. Today, we go around in search of a simple, delicious tea, which could unleash all the nostalgia of that fantastic past. Conversely, we experience a shockwave as we watch people knowingly eat so much unhealthy food, and there’s no system to curb the careless ways people use to cook and sell their food.
There was a good reason to go back to the village this time. Vijayan, the last of the family members who ran the teashop, had passed away at 62. He worked with three generations of masters, who were part of that 70-year-old establishment.
During our growing-up years, Vijayan had flourished well in the business as the brand became popular and people flooded in from everywhere to taste Pappu Pillai’s unique food. Peculiarly, Vijayan always acted and lived like an old man. His life revolved around the teashop and temples; he met all kinds of people and acquired tremendous information from the loud discussions that happened in the morning at his teashop. His tenure was a bit unpleasant for kids like us, who had unusual craving for teashop food and had to leave meals unfinished, as his glare burnt dosas (which used to be free for family members) on our plates.
Apart from occasional scaremongering, he was an interesting character for the villagers. They enjoyed his company even when he forced people to eat and charged them audaciously in the end. Eventually, the day had come when he rolled the hot seat to his younger brother and walked away into an immature retirement. Sadly, his brother Prasad found it hard to revive a very worn-out system and a changing market place as he stepped into a more lucrative business.
That was the end of Pappu Pillai’s teashop that taught me everything about this business and the power of food that influenced people. The comfort zone and companionship was of a rare notch, and I still miss watching how a morning tea made the difference in someone’s day and sometimes, to their entire life. Having applied those elements of care—conversation and love for food—I must acknowledge that it made a huge difference to Rasa customers in London.
The author is a London-based restaurateur, who owns the Rasa chain of restaurants