Friday, January 06, 2012

What is Chai

And, why is the chai so much a part of our lives? In India, we believe that time is cyclic and in the many years we live before we are reborn again, the chai is at the core of our existence. It is the cup of chai (tea) that helps us mark time in our homes, in our streets, in our marketplaces. Every home offers its guest a cup of tea. Every street corner offers its visitors a glass of chai. In the marketplace, the chai creates the social space that people need as an introspection, an interaction or a sharing of experiences.

The Chai glass: in a Street in Udaipur

The tea or “chai” has a special place in the homes of North Indians with its range of flavours to choose from. There is the Adrak-ki-chai (ginger tea), the Elaichi-chai (cardamom tea), the Dalchini-chai (cinnamon tea) or the Pudina-chai (mint tea) and with every cup, you add to your memories of a morning of reflection, an afternoon of family decisions or an evening of sharing with a friend. As I look closely at tea stalls in the streets and bazaars of Ahmedabad, Udaipur or Delhi, I realise that there are so many different ways in which people gather in public spaces "for a cup of chai".

As people participate in the buying and selling of goods in the Bazaar or Marketplace, they exercise control over the space in which they are situated and which surrounds them. For vendors, this control is the ability to transform some part of the bazaar environment to support their economic activity and sometimes their social needs as well. It is this transformation process that the chai stall seems to symbolise as it becomes the point of departure for economic and social exchanges in the marketplace.

1. a Shopowner sipping his morning cup of tea as the street bazaar begins to ready itself for the day’s customers

2. a Chai stall in Ahmedabad that manages its operations on a push-cart with its customers standing around the cart and exchanging the morning news or discussing the day’s work.

3. The functional space requirement for the making of the tea is quite minimal and the tea vendor needs a supply of water for the tea and for the washing to fulfill his operations at the marketplace.

4. While you can have a cup of chai as a shopper in the bazaar, the chai vendor also serves his fellow workers. At Sadar Bazaar in Delhi, the cycle rickshaw wallah, the auto rickshaw wallah and the tempo driver, all of whom bring the agricultural produce and other goods to the market in the early hours of the morning have their tea served to where they choose to rest. 

5. The chai stall in the town of Patan in Gujarat has a generous sitting place that belongs to the street. The tea seller uses a public space for private consumption and this borrowed space becomes a place of social exchange that he offers his regular customers. 

6. Sketch Plan of Chai stall in Patan: The tea vendor is part of a layering process that has spatial elements – those that mark his own territory and those that circumvent his territory

7. In Gujarat as in other parts of India, you can buy yourself adrak chai on the streets and you may have a choice of a plastic cup or a ceramic cup and saucer to suit your own levels of hygiene and nostalgia

I first began to think about the place of Chai in Urban spaces when I had the chance to listen to Philip Lutgendorf present his research work at Dakshinachitra on the Indian Tea. Here is a link to: Chai Why? – The Triumph of Tea in India

And, this is an interesting blog on the Irani cafes in Mumbai:

Read about:
The Golla wallah
The Informal Economy & Urban space
Peanut festival in Bangalore
The Pani Puri wallah


....Petty Witter said...

What a fascinating post, I never knew there were so many things to learn about tea.

radha said...

Oh yes, how we search for some of these tea vendors on the highway on a journey. For that break, to stretch your feet. But the yuppie crowd in India prefers to meet at exclusive coffee outlets to have an expensive cup of the beverage! But the purpose remains the same - for social exchange.

Indian Bazaars said...

Petty Witter: Thanks.

Radha: The tea vendors on the highway - that is yet another large category of tea vendors to study, I guess. I hadn't thought about them. I recollect the small tea/coffee shops when inter-city buses stop on the highway for their mid-journey break. Some passengers walk into the restaurant for an idli/dosa and some just have a tea break. Now, in South India, I miss the Maharashtra highway stops, where you can have a vada-pav with the tea.

Meena Venkataraman said...

Beauitful pictures Kiran!.
Enjoyed reading your post. I miss home!!

Neha said...

Ah Chai! I've grown up with cutting and vada-pav, but late last year I found myself in Kolkata and got to taste the street corner chai there. Amazing!

Anuradha Shankar said...

lovely post!!!! i first had pudina chai at nathdwara last year, and thought of doing a post.. unfortunately, hadnt taken my camera along, and without the pic, never got around to doing it.. am sharing this post.

radha said...

Kiran - now that you brought it up, I must tell you last month on a journey from Pune to Kolhapur, we stopped at one stall, and ordered a lot on their menu - we were a large group - and had the most delicious vada-pav, thalipeeth and poha. Of course with a cup of chai.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot:) Very well written woven with info :) ! Inspires me tow rite a poem

Nisha said...

And these days I am drinking so many different varieties of 'chai'. :)

Indian Bazaars said...

Meena: Thanks.

Neha: It's been a long while since I went to Calcutta. I do remember very well the chai we would get on the Howrah express that we took from Bombay.

Anuradha: Went to Nathdwara just once. Have always wanted to go back. Now that you mention it, I'm trying to recollect the streets, the temples. I guess there is around the "chai" and the "kaffi" so much about the people, isn't it?

Radha: It isn't quite the same anymore anywhere without the vada-pav one grew up with. But, we've found this shop in Bangalore that has thalipeeth and sabudana vada. And, it does help feel a bit at home!

Divenita: It would be nice if you would have a poem on the chai. Have you read R.K.Narayan's essays on the coffee? I just love those.

Nisha: The home-made desi versions? This also reminds me now of the shelves in the supermarkets - the variety in chai (tea bags) is amazing these days!

Sanchia said...

Not a poem on chai, but here's the Orwell essay I was talking about...

Indian Bazaars said...

Sanchia, thanks! It's a really interesting essay, reminded me of this section on how to make filter coffee in 'Cook & See' an old-time recipe book by Meenakshi Ammal.