A wallah is one who performs a specific task. A rickshaw wallah drives the rickshaw, a dhobi wallah washes clothes and the chai wallah, you guessed it, makes 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 cars, along riversides and on footpaths that lead to religious 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, making chai is what they do for a living every day, all day long. Many chai wallahs develop a stylized preparation and presentation for their chai. They put a little something special in their blend: a pinch of spicy garam masala powder, a smashed-up nub of ginger — or even a strand of saffron on top — to make it unique and keep their customers coming back. Sometimes it is the performance that sells the chai. Some let the chai boil until an instant before it spills over the side; then, with great agility, they swirl the pot an inch above the flame, suspending it in an almost-boiling-over state before removing it from the heat and repeating the trick. In Kolkata, the “metre-pour” chai, where the chai wallah blends the chai by pouring it back and forth between pots two arm lengths apart, attracts a thirsty crowd.
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 sellers, who take and fill orders from local shops. For the chai delivery person, the faster he can move on foot through the crowded city streets, the more chai he can sell.
When pulling into a train station in India, the first sound you hear is the ensemble of chai wallahs singing their sales pitch. Breaking chai into two syllables and accentuating the second, “chai-eee, chai-eee,” the chai wallahs make them- selves known to the passengers. You can hang out the window and get a chai to go, or wait for them to come to your seat.
In India, I preferred to purchase my chai from the wallah with the best vibes — one who was wearing a smile and kept a clean chai stall. In Banaras, 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 the day. I was surprised to see several people waiting on the steps for their morning cup when there were several other chai wallahs in view already serving. I sat down to wait with them.
The young man strained the boiled pot into an aluminum teakettle. He then poured a small bit of chai next to the orange cooking-burner flame, reverently closed his eyes, and paused for a moment. I recognized this as an offering to the ancient Vedic God Agni, Lord of Fire. He then poured the first cup into a clay vessel and handed it to me. I felt honored. Even though I prefer a little ginger or cardamom in my chai, instead of the instant coffee he sprinkled on top, he became my new favorite chai wallah.