Post 12
While It Steeps
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Cross Country in Search of The Chai Wallah

Meet Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks. She was from Hawaii, he was from Philadelphia when they both arrived in India as Fulbright scholars. Their first month was spent in Mussoorie equipping with conversational Hindi. Every day, after their Hindi lesson was over, they would walk into town, eager to practice what they had learnt. Inevitably, this trip would involve a chai stall where the tea was always hot and conversation flowed easily and readily.

For Resham and Zach, the rest of the year was spent in Delhi where they both taught at schools for the underprivileged. Before long, a chai break and the ubiquitous chai wallah changed the way they saw the country. And both Resham and Zach began to seek new chai wallahs out. Returning home after their year ended, life resumed – she worked as Clinical Research Coordinator and he as Consultant with McKinsey & Co. But the adventure they had left behind proved to be a strong call and they were back.

A year-long journey going cross-country in search of the chai wallahs began. They met over a 1000 chai wallahs and listened to stories told over as many as 3000 cups of chai. All of this began to go into their blog, Chaiwallahs of India. It makes you wonder why no one ever thought of doing something like this before! The stories are quintessentially Indian – colorful, spiced, full of warmth and rather touching. The project ended in 2014 and Zach and Resham are back once more in the United States. Here, over the promise of chai, is another conversation

It’s been, what, a year since you both returned to the US after your incredible chai wallahs project? What have you both been busy with?

It’s been a big adjustment from our routine scoping out the chai scene across India, but we’ve been keeping busy. Zach recently cofounded Oystir, an HR technology company, and I’ll be starting a PhD program in clinical psychology at UCLA in the fall. Of course, we have continued to work on a book of our stories and photographs of chai wallahs, and we hope to find the right home for it soon.

After a blog, now a book? What will it have that we haven’t seen yet?

The book includes some of the best content from the blog, but will actually have new stories and photographs that we have not published elsewhere. Readers can expect stories of roadside chai wallahs as well as other major players in the industry, from tea plantation workers in Assam and Kerala to village dairy collectives in Gujarat. We also touch on the future of chai consumption in India and worldwide. And there will of course be some fun stories from our travels, like about the time we nearly drove off a mountain cliff in a frantic search for yak milk chai in Ladakh!

Going back to your year of chaiwallahs, when did you know the project was coming to an end? Or rather, how did you decide, this much and no more?

We could of course spend a lifetime documenting chai wallahs and never run out of amazing stories. Before leaving for India, we gave ourselves about 8 months to do on-the-ground research. This helped us focus on the stories we wanted to tell while giving us enough time to get around much of the country. We spent time in 18 states across the country to get a representation of India’s incredible diversity. When it came time for us to leave, there was still much to see and many stories to tell. It wasn’t easy to pack up and head home. We would love to come back to the same spots in ten years (or much sooner!) and see how things have changed.

How does a town or city appear when you view it through the chai wallah?

One of the main goals of our project was to share India’s diversity through the lens of chai wallahs, so we went into each new area and situation very aware of their presence. When we arrived in a new place, we often had an idea of the stories we wanted to tell. For example, we wanted to speak with a chai wallah on a Bollywood set in Mumbai, a famous university chai wallah in Ahmedabad, a tea plucker in Assam, and a herder who used yak milk to make chai in Ladakh, among others. Our definition of chai wallah encompassed people at every point along the tea supply chain, from CEOs of beverage companies to tea estate workers to roadside tea vendors. We also met many chai wallahs who told us stories we had never expected to hear, which made our experiences in each city and town even richer.

Zach and Resham at a chai stand in Lower Parel, Mumbai. Photo credit : Shraddha Bhargava Chaturvedi

Zach and Resham at a chai stand in Lower Parel, Mumbai. Photo credit : Shraddha Bhargava Chaturvedi

Who is the hero of your story the chai or the chai wallah? Or is it hard to separate one from the other?

We were inspired to return to India by chai wallahs more than the chai itself. While living in Delhi from 2010-2011, we both grew close to chai wallahs in and around the schools where we taught. Jhumka, the chai walli at my school, brightened my day with her jokes and taught me her Nepali chai recipe. Resham considered the chai wallah across the street from her school a source of comfort. However, she never got to know him on a deeper level. It made us realize that while chai wallahs are an integral part of Indian society, most people rarely take the time to find out their stories. Chai is so tightly woven into the fabric of Indian life, whether at home, at school, at work, or on the street, yet nobody had documented the people making it all possible. Of course, the chai itself is another central character of our project. Few westerners and not many Indians are aware of the numerous regional variations of chai. From the ingredients to the method of preparation to the serving and drinking vessels, chai differs from one village to the next.

Are there fewer chai wallahs in south India, more famous for its coffee?

Contrary to popular belief, south Indians are big tea drinkers! We found many roadside chai wallahs in the south. The south is of course, famous for its filter coffee, but chai is still more affordable and more popular with many working class consumers. Tea kaddais (tea shops) in Tamil Nadu are some of the most entertaining places to visit because the tea masters, as the chai wallahs are known, do this trademark pour from several feet to mix the milk, tea liquor and sugar and create a frothy concoction. It’s a sight that often left us mesmerized.

In the months since your return to the States, are there people or stories you find yourself remembering more than the others?

We think about the people we met every day; their stories have become part of us. Someone we think about often is Rohit, a chai wallah in Navi Mumbais red light district. He works in a tea shop serving sex workers and their customers before they head off to the neighborhoods brothels. He is only 12 years old and was forced to quit school when his mother passed away. His vulnerability has stuck with us, but we know his story is not unique; there are many school-aged children working in chai shops and as tea runners. We also met countless chai wallahs who work around the clock in order to provide a better future for their children. And we met chai wallahs who left white-collar jobs to take over family-run tea shops when their fathers were no longer able to work. They loved making chai and being a presence in the community. While we feel can make some overarching statements about chai and chai wallahs, what we really learned is how unique each persons story is.

You have been holding talks and chai sessions. What do people want to know about your experiences?

We were invited to share our experiences at a number of talks both in the US and in India, and we have enjoyed doing so! People are interested in hearing about how we came up with the idea for the project, what some of our favorite stories are, what we found surprising, and where we think the tea industry is heading. Indians were often curious to know more about how we decided to quit stable jobs and move for this project. We like to think we inspired a few people to take risks.

So how difficult was it to quit stable jobs?

After we returned from the Fulbright, we often looked at pictures of India and reminisced about the people we had met. We had always talked about how we should write a book about India’s chai wallahs, but it actually took a trip to Zanzibar to convince us to do it. We were there during Ramadan, so the streets were mostly empty during the day. Then at night they would come alive with large crowds gathering around the chai stands. Sitting around Babu’s chai stand in Zanzibar, we met people with incredible stories and decided we had to return to India to write about chai wallahs and the special role they play bringing people together.

How has your chai journey influenced you both? As people and as drinkers of tea?

One of the best parts of our chai journey was experiencing how easy it is to connect with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds over a cup of chai. In the United States, staying with a distant connection, such as a cousin of a friend of a former colleague, would be nearly impossible with our social conventions. But those kinds of connections made our trip to India possible; so many people opened their homes to us, took time to explain the role chai played in their lives, and brought us to their favorite chai wallahs. This has made us more open in our daily interactions back in the US you never know what common ground you can find with someone when you take a moment to speak with them.

Do you keep in touch with any of the chai wallahs you met here?

While we were in India, we would call and text chai wallahs we met in different parts of the country to stay in touch. We have kept in touch with several chai wallahs through Facebook and it has been nice to hear their life updates. One chai wallah in Chennai, for example, shared the news that his daughter won a karate competition but also that he had been forced to shut his stall by the police. We have recommended many chai stands to people who ask us for travel advice, but the unfortunate reality is that chai wallahs and other street vendors are often displaced as a result of development, and its possible that the people we met have closed shop or moved to new locations.

Are you now expert chai brewers? Whats your secret chai recipe?

We both regularly make chai, largely based on Reshams mothers recipe. We use lots of freshly grated ginger to keep it spicy, along with cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, whole milk, and brown sugar. We have also experimented with recipes we came across in India lebu cha, mint and lemongrass tea, kahwa with varying degrees of success.

What other teas can we see in your kitchen?

We are staunch tea drinkers, though we enjoy coffee as well. Lately we have been experimenting with fancy teas. Zach just picked up some rare Quangzhou milk oolong and an earthy organic golden puerh aged 5 years in a Yunnan mountain cave. But, of course, we are most loyal to the masala chai!

The featured image is from the Chaiwallahs collection. Resham writes, Chetan Singh, a camel herder from Daulat Pura village in Nagaur, Rajasthan, walked for two days to reach the Pushkar Camel Mela where he hopes to sell and buy livestock. He makes chai using milk from one of his seven camels along with plenty of sugar and ginger to disguise the salty taste of the thick milk.

Photograph by Resham Gellatly, Chai Wallahs of India

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