Marco Werman: Tea time. It's not something you can really ignore when you work with a bunch of Brits, as we do here at The World, but Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks have taken tea time to a much higher level. They were both on Fulbright scholarships in India when they met two years ago, and during their time there, they became fascinated with tea vendors.
They're known as chai wallahs in India, and they're everywhere. So Resham and Zach decided to crisscross the country to talk with chai wallahs and their customers. We reached Resham and Zach in New Delhi today, and Resham told me what was surprising to them at first was the diversity of customers at the tea stalls.
Resham Gellatly: So, at one stand, you might find a businessman next to an auto-rickshaw driver, next to a college student. It's one of the places in India that it's very rare to see such mixing. It's a very stratified society otherwise, by caste or socioeconomic status or religion, but a chai stand is one place where all of these difference smelt away over a cup of chai. So we thought that was very unique.
Zach Marks: For us, you know, chai stands were really a gateway into communities. We would go to new places where we might not know anyone, but we would just settle up to a chai stand, and begin a conversation, and that's how we would learn about the neighborhood we were in or the new city we were visiting.
Werman: So, take me into a typical tea stall. How does it all go down? Is there a line when you get there?
Gellatly: Well, it really depends on the time of the day. Throughout a day, a tea stall experiences different waves of people, different waves of productivity and how busy they are. Sometimes you'll have a line -- you know, first thing in the morning, there's often a morning rush as people are going to work, and the chai wallah, around the clock, never really stops working. There might be a line, but the chai wallah's quickly churning out cup after cup after cup of milky sweet chai. Customers sometimes sit around, chat, read the newspaper. Others just gulp the chai and get on their way.
Werman: Do Indians know the best tea stalls in their neighborhood? Are there ones that are more popular than others?
Marks: Definitely. I think this journey has been possible for us because everywhere we go, we'll ask, "Where's the best chai we can find here?", and everyone will take you to their favorite chai wallah.
Werman: I imagine a chai wallah as kind of like a bartender. They have great stories, they hear a lot of complaints from people, their rejoices...what's the best story a tea vendor ever told you?
Gellatly: One of our favorite chai wallahs so far is at Delhi University, and his family has had this tea stall there for a couple of generations. They've seen students come and go over the years, and they've become a fixture on campus. This chai wallah, whose name is Deepu, has a notebook that's filled with stories and poems and memories that his customers, former students, have written for him. He keeps this notebook with him at all times. He was very eager to show it to us, and proud of what his students have written about him. His students have come back year after year, and it really shows that he's not just a chai wallah to them, he's more a friend. There's no distinction there.
Werman: What was the best story he told you?
Gellatly: He had an amazing song that someone had written for him, and it was all about tea. Basically, I think the person was comparing their relationship with Deepu and his tea to falling in love at a chai stand, so we thought that was very poignant and sweet.
Werman: Now, like that man, the chai wallahs are usually men. Is that a new thing? Are women ever tea vendors?
Marks: That's a great question. It really depends where you go. In Delhi, we found nearly all the chai wallahs are men. You'll very rarely find a woman chai wallah, or chai walli, as a female chai wallah is called. But in Calcutta, which is a much more female-friendly public space, we found a lot of chai wallis, and they were there, not with their husbands or sons or any male presence, just running their own businesses on their own. That was really encouraging to see.
Werman: So I gather Starbucks has entered the Indian market. I'm just curious: What's the cost of a latte compared to a cup of chai?
Marks: About ten cents for a cup of chai on the street, but a chai tea latte at Starbucks will run you something like 100 rupees...
Gellatly: 100, 150.
Marks: ...maybe even more. So there's a real great contrast there. We had an interesting encounter where we went to the Starbucks here in Delhi, and we asked the waiters there whether they preferred the chai at Starbucks or the ones outside. They said, "Oh, there's no question, of course we take our chai breaks outside." So we went out and had a chai with the waiter on his work break.
Gellatly: And we even had a chai with the manager, who came out to the chai wallah and shared a cup with us there.
Werman: No kidding. That's wild. It may have already answered my next question. A lot of upwardly-mobile Indians were waiting with bated breath for that Starbucks. I'm just wondering, does Starbucks pose any threat to the culture of tea vendors in India? Could they eventually?
Gellatly: It's not just Starbucks, but there's a few other coffee chains, such as Cafe Coffee Day, that have become really trendy. You know, they're air-conditioned, they have WiFi, young people can go there, guys and girls can hang out together, but largely, people have told us that they don't think that's ever going to happen. Chai is so integral to the culture that we don't see it going anywhere anytime soon -- hopefully.
Werman: So, what makes, for you, Resham and Zach, a really good cup of chai? Can you reproduce it?
Gellatly: My favorite cup of chai is my mom's chai. I'm half-Indian, and I grew up with her making me chai every single morning, so I'm obviously partial to that taste. The chai wallahs here do it a little bit differently. They boil the tea with the milk, and bring it to a boil five or six times...
Merks: And, of course, all the sugar they use makes it extra special.
Marks: The chai here-- it's often like, "would you like some tea with your milk and sugar?"
Werman: Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks in New Delhi, telling us about their adventures in chai-land in India. Thanks so much for your time.
Gellatly: Thank you.
Marks: Thank you, Marco.
Werman: And you can see pictures and a video of chai wallahs at work at pri.org...
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