The Unforgettable Glass of Chai

September 22, 2009

A fruit wallah in Delhi.

My last day in India was spent, after careful consideration, wandering around Old Delhi, desperately trying to soak in the essence of the city one last time before I boarded a plane bound for more familiar traditions.

I took the metro (one of the only places in India where I actually felt cold) into the heart of the old city, crammed between a handrail and several women in sarees, laden with shopping bags. Disembarking at the Chawri Bazaar station in Old Delhi is quite an experience. There is something so enchanting about walking from an underground, air-conditioned escalator and stepping into the heart of mid-afternoon chaos, surrounded by buildings that are twice as old as the United States and draped in thick clusters of electrical wires.

A typical street in Old Delhi near Chawri Bazaar.

A typical street in Old Delhi near Chawri Bazaar.

A few minutes later I boarded a cycle rickshaw which took me through some of the narrow, winding streets and dropped me off in front of the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. I decided to take my time walking back to the metro station, trying to savor the smells, sights and sounds surrounding me. After stopping in some of the shops along the way, most of which were selling either stationery or metal (in this part of the city, it seemed that every street was dedicated to selling just one or two different types of items), I grew tired of the monotony and was a bit exhausted from the afternoon Delhi heat. While crossing the street to buy a “cold drink,” which in India means any type of soda, juice or water, I spotted a tiny woman behind a little wooden table covered entirely by some sort of cooking pot contraption, a small jug and several metal cylindrical containers. This was even better than the cold drink vendor I was looking for. This was a chai wallah!

India is a country known for small, hole-in-the-wall businesses, but even by Indian standards this was a small business: one cart, one woman, one pot, one jug of milk, one strainer, several spices and six small glasses. I walked up and asked, “Yeh chai kitney rupiyeh hey?” meaning “How many rupees is this chai?” She answered that it was paunch rupiyeh, five rupees, equivalent to about ten U.S. cents. I asked for some, and, right then and there, she started brewing it, asking me if I wanted it bahot mita, very sweet, or just plain mita. I didn’t realize that I would get customized chai!

Seeing that I was carrying a considerable number of bags, she invited me to sit with her on her bench. As the chai simmered, I asked her where she was from and whether or not she liked the city. She answered that she was from Delhi and asked if I had brothers and sisters, where I was from, and if I liked India. The remarkable thing was that she knew no English and I knew only tora tora, a little, Hindi, yet we were still able to communicate. In fact, this was the first time I actually had a complete conversation in Hindi, which I would never have thought possible only a few weeks before.

During the pauses in conversation, she added spices and more sugar to the chai, straining and testing it to make sure it was the right flavor and temperature. This whole process took about ten minutes outside in the searing late-afternoon Delhi heat, and in the meantime more customers congregated around the little table, patiently waiting for their caffeine fix while engaging in daily gossip.

From the top of the minaret at Jama Masjid you can see the zig-zag pattern of buildings typical of Old Delhi.

From the top of the minaret at Jama Masjid you can see the zig-zag pattern of buildings typical of Old Delhi.

When the chai was ready to her satisfaction, the woman poured it into the six small glasses and collected the money while the customers savored the drink and continued to chat. Slowly, I sipped my chai and eagerly attempted to eavesdrop as best I could after only a few weeks of Hindi 101. I finished my glass and thanked the woman, bowing out of respect and telling her “Bohot shukria. Namaste ohr salaam,” “Thank you very much, goodbye.” (“Namaste” is the general greeting, but since Old Delhi is overwhelmingly Muslim, I decided to add “salaam” just in case). At this, she took my hands in her weathered ones, nodded her head, smiled and sent me on my way. With renewed energy, I finished the short walk to the metro station to return to my guesthouse across the city.

A vendor in Delhi selling different types of grain.

A vendor in Delhi selling different types of grain.

That afternoon I got more than just a taste of the best chai I’d had during my six weeks in India—I also gained a glimpse into the Delhi that most Westerners simply overlook on their quest to see all of the sights. Not only was this an unforgettable experience, but it was also the highlight of my studies abroad. What did I learn? Slow down, look around, be patient and talk to the people you encounter. Otherwise, you might miss real life going on around you.

 

Ariana van den Akker is a sophomore Photojournalism major from El Dorado Hills, California. She received the Phillips Ambassador scholarship to study in the UNC Summer in India program. She may be reached at arianav@email.unc.edu.