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Tea Tuesday: Meet The Chai Wallahs Of India


Bechan Baba in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Courtesy of Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly
Bechan Baba in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

On virtually every other street corner, in every city or town or village in India, there is a chai wallah — a tea vendor who supplies the piping hot, milky brew that fuels the country.

And because everybody — politicians, rickshaw drivers, schoolteachers — needs a daily cuppa, chai wallahs get to meet people from every walk of life.

Like New York cab drivers, they "witness a slice of life in such an intimate way," says photojournalist Resham Gellatly. She and journalist Zach Marks have been documenting the lives of tea vendors throughout India on their blog Chai Wallahs of India.

Marks and Gellatly met while they were in New Delhi — both were there as Fulbright teaching fellows in 2010 and 2011. During that time, they also grew close to the chai wallahs working near the schools where they taught.

So, after they finished their fellowships, Gellatly and Marks returned to India to learn more about chai wallahs — and this time they spent eight months traveling to 18 states throughout India, meeting with hundreds of tea vendors who highlight the country's culture and diversity.

In New Delhi, Laxman Rao caters to lovers of literature.

At his tea stand outside Hindi Bhavan, a cultural center in the city, Rao sells not only tea but also books that he has authored. His 24 self-published works include plays, novels and analyses of Indian politics.

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His writings have earned him literary acclaim and an audience with famed politicians, including the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and former President Pratibha Patil. He has been profiled on the BBC and the Indian news network NDTV.

And while you'll have to go to New Delhi to sample his chai, you can buy Rao's books on Amazon.

In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Rambhai Kori has been selling tea just outside the Indian Institute of Management for more than 30 years. And over the years, he has taught students and professors quite a lot about how to run a business. Kori's successful model has even been used as a case study on entrepreneurship, and when a group of graduates developed a social networking site, they named it Rambhai — a nod to the lively discussions they had at his tea stall.

Despite their presence on nearly every street corner, the chai wallahs may go unnoticed. They often play more of a part behind the scenes. Sometimes that can be literal, as Marks and Gellatly found when they met with Balwan Singh Negi, who also goes by Bahadur. For the past 40 years, he has served chai on the sets of more than 200 Bollywood films.

Not only does he know all the Bollywood gossip, Bahadur also knows the stars' tea preferences. He told Gellatly, "Some want black tea. Some want ginger. But, my dear, most want my masala chai. The VIPs come here and say, 'We need our special chai,' so I put some in this VIP flask, but I will tell you a secret — it is the same chai, just with a little less sugar. You know, my dear, everyone is on a diet today. All the high-class artists want green tea these days."

At the bus terminal in the south Indian city of Pollachi, a cup of chai may come with a side of directions. Chai wallah Ravi gets travelers to their destination while making their tea using a technique that is unique to the state of Tamil Nadu — frothy milk is pulled with sugar and then combined with black tea that has been brewed separately.

Female tea vendors are called chai wallis. During the Durga Puja festival, the trains temporarily stopped running. The enterprising, unnamed chai walli seen in this image seized the opportunity, setting up her stand on the tracks at Baghbazar station in Kolkata, West Bengal, offering visitors tea, eggs and noodles.

Lalu Yadav's chai stand is next to Manikarnika Ghat, a cremation ground by the Ganges River in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Yadav told Gellatly and Marks, "The constant proximity to death has become part of life. There is no sadness here. We are used to seeing this 24 hours a day. These are only bodies."

Bechan Baba and his son Amit operate a chai stand in the alley leading to the Chaukhamba Masjid, a 14th century mosque in Varanasi. Although both Bechan and Amit are Hindu, Marks and Gellatly say, "Followers of all faiths often come to seek Baba's wisdom — and a cup of Amit's chai."

Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

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