A wallah is one who performs a specific task. A rickshaw wallah drives the rickshaw, a dhobi wallah washes clothes and chai wallahs, you guessed it, they make chai. Chai wallahs are everywhere in India. Everywhere. From busy urban street corners to hidden alleyways, at bus depots and railway platforms and walking through the train car, along riversides and on footpaths that lead to pilgrimage sites in the middle of nowhere — when you need a fresh cup of tea, the chai wallah is always near.
Chai wallahs take pride in their chai. After all, each and every day, it is their responsibility to sustain and nurture the masses by providing the beverage that keeps India running.
To stand out from the rest, many chai wallahs develop a stylized preparation and presentation for their chai.
Some chai wallahs put a little something special in their chai, a smashed up nub of ginger, a pinch of garam masala powder, or a strand of saffron on top, to make it unique and keep their customers coming back. Often it is the performance that sells the chai. Many chai wallahs let the chai boil up until an instant before it is going to spill over the side, then with great agility, swirl the pot an inch over the flame, suspending it in an almost-boiling-over state before removing it from the heat, then doing the trick again. In Kolkatta we witnessed the “metre-pour”, where the chai wallah blends the chai by pouring it back and forth between the pots at two arm-lengths apart. Frothy chai latte to go?
Most chai wallahs prepare their chai in small batches on a per order basis. In large cities, however, the chai business is often divided into one central chai wallah who makes enormous batches of chai, and the sellers who fill orders and deliver to local shops. For the chai courier, the faster you can run through the congested city, the more chai you can sell.
It is often the same at train stations, where many chai wallahs are selling from the same huge vat. When pulling into a train station in India, the first sound you hear is the chorus of chai wallahs singing their sales pitch. Breaking chai into two syllables and accentuating the second, ‘chai-eeeeeee, chai-eeeeeee’, the chai vendors signal their location to the passengers. You can just hang out the window and get a chai to go. If a loud voice doesn’t draw attention, a creative performance on the train can make a sale. Walking down the aisles, some wallahs display their skills by pouring the chai in a long thin stream, as far from the cup as possible, without spilling a drop.
I generally like to purchase my chai from the wallah with the best vibes — one who is wearing a smile and keeps a clean chai stall. In Benares, at Raju chai stand, under a tree on the orange and white steps of Assi Ghat, I watched a young chai wallah as he made his first pot of chai of the day. I was surprised to see several people waiting on the steps for their morning chai when there were several other chai wallahs in view already serving. I sat down to wait with them. After brewing his chai, the young man strained the boiled pot into a stainless steel teakettle. He then closed his eyes and appeared to make a silent invocation as he poured a small offering of chai next to the orange cooking burner flame. (In India, fire is revered as the ancient Vedic God, Agni, and it is auspicious to first offer the fruits of your labor to the Divine.) He then poured the first chai into a clay cup and handed it to me. I felt honored. Even though I prefer a little ginger and cardamom in my chai, instead of the Nescafe instant coffee he sprinkled on top, he became my new favorite chai wallah.
With the success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, we have received many visitors to our what is a chai wallah? post, from those unfamiliar with the term. To clarify the term chai wallah as it is used in the movie, and to offer a poignant example of this site’s intent, we thought it appropriate to offer an addendum to this post. So, after reading this, please check out what is a slumdog chai wallah?