Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly share a common passion. Chai...not tea. And it is not just the chai, but the rustic aura and day-to-day stories that revolve around it in the streets of India.
Convinced that these chai addas across the country are places packed with a unique charisma of its own, this duo from the US visited more than 15 Indian states and documented stories from over 500 chai stalls, over the past year.
These stories of people who make and serve chai around India, as well as the stories of people who love chai have found way to their online platform chaiwallahsofindia.com. And after exploring the gallis of some of the most classic chai states of the country like Kolkata, the duo will be seen in Bangalore next week, delving deep into the chai culture of the city.
“What we really want to do is bring together the stories of people who are otherwise very nondescript characters of the Indian society. Everyone we meet has a story to share about chai or chaiwallahs, but they rarely have the time to go beyond the surface and find out more about the faces behind the cups. We understand how integral and unique chaiwallahs are to India, and we want to acknowledge and celebrate their contributions to the culture. Ultimately, we are planning to write a book that brings together the stories of the chaiwallahs we have met, providing windows into different realms of Indian life,” says Resham, who is currently in Chennai.
From Bangalore, they want to take back stories of chaiwallahs who serve the city’s large office complexes, fuelling the IT industry.
It was on a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship in 2010 that the duo travelled extensively in the country and what they encountered amazed them. “We were bewildered by how diverse the country was, in terms of language, religion, food, culture, and landscape, but what really caught our attention was that in the midst of all the diversity, there was one constant: chai. Everywhere we went, we found chai and chaiwallahs, and the chai stand was often a spot for us to meet people and get a sense of the city or village,” says Resham.
After the Fulbrights, they returned to US and worked for a couple years at jobs they loved, but in the summer of 2012, they decided to return to India to document the chai culture. “Chaiwallahs are essential characters in Indian life, and they provide a lens through which to explore the society. We wanted to capture their stories, especially since India is developing so rapidly. Who knows what street food culture will look like in 20 years?,” she shrugs.
One chai story that remains etched in their minds is that of Laxman Rao, who runs a chai stall outside Hindi Bhavan in Delhi. Besides selling the usual chai-biscuit combo, he also sells books that he has written and self-published.
Almost 40 years back, his passion for writing got him to the capital from a small village in Maharashtra. And even though his days were spent brewing tea leaves, he did not let go of his love for words.
Till date he has written 24 books in Hindi and has met Indira Gandhi and Pratibha Patil who commended him on his writing. He just happens to sell chai to support his family.
“The most surprising encounter of our visit to Laxman’s stall came when a police van rolled up. Many chaiwallahs have to bribe policemen since they often operate without proper licences. Laxman said he was also forced to do so before he got his licence. But as these policemen approached, each of them bent down to touch Laxman’s feet in a sign of respect and called him ‘Rao sahib’,” she says.
The duo now plans to release a book based on their experiences. The paperback will take most of the material from the blog.
“Our day-to-day activities are a mix of interviews with chaiwallahs and other people in the tea industry. In addition to blogging, we have a couple of other features on our site. One is Chai Diaries, where we post other people’s stories about chai and chaiwallahs. Another is a photo project featuring people holding a whiteboard on which they write the one word that comes to their mind when they think of chai. This project really represents India’s diversity and shows how chai transcends differences,” they add.