Their beverage and snacks are relatively inexpensive, they are great levellers, offering a quick break for people from all walks of life, and there’s one on almost every street. Small wonder the tea kadais across the city find patrons through the day, says Geeta Padmanabhan

It is noon, the Chennai sun is gearing up for another summer, but at the tea kiosk behind Gokul Arcade in Adyar, heat is not even a blip on the business. Customers — many in ties and polished shoes — stand outside, sharing space with parked cars. Piping hot tea and samosas are the in-demand orders, though pongal and chapathi are also on the menu. Within its six-ft by two-ft space, Govind Tiffin Centre stacks a gas stove, cigarettes, biscuits / buns, vessels for making tea / coffee, paper cups, plates, water bottles. Lesson in space management!

Those who wait to be served include employees and house-keeping staff from offices nearby, and drivers. Owner Govindaraj hasn’t made any special effort to keep the surroundings litter-free, but that doesn’t deter his customers. On a working day, he could be serving tea to software engineers, civil engineers, cleaners and delivery boys. Those steps outside the tea stall are great levellers.

The tea shops of Chennai may not figure in the ‘chai-pe-charcha’ list, but are the backbone of the city’s smooth functioning, the go-to place for millions of its workers. “There are thousands of tea shops across the city,” Ahmed, my driver, tells me. “They provide sustenance for those such as mechanics, tyre shop boys, private cars / auto drivers, paperwallas.” He has his first cuppa outside the mosque and four or five during the day. “I have tea and ‘porai’ if duty extends during lunch time. Don’t know what I’ll do without them.”

This echoes across the city: Outside Indian Coffee Bar in Central Chennai, a tech consultant says he comes there to de-stress. “It’s a 10-minute mid-morning / mid-evening break for tea-bajji-vadai-bonda before we rush back to work. We can’t live without this.” Indispensable for offices that don’t have cafeterias, he says. It gives workers an excuse to come out, to get fresh air. Proliferation necessitates they name themselves differently. At R.A. Puram’s Juice Corner, Gopi, cashier for four years says, “Food is relatively inexpensive, and people relax.” Velu, tourist-cab driver, says, “I’ve been coming here for 13 years. They know every regular customer’s preferences — light / medium / strong, less / more sugar, glass / paper cup, pay-now-or-later.” Four or five teas a day keep me going, says Kumar, a vehicle dealer.

A 100-odd customers a shop, and five shops a street — do your math. Lakhs benefit, says Raghavan dropping bajjis into hot oil at Sri Sangeetha Corner on C.P. Ramaswamy Road that offers health drinks, sukku / regular coffee, milk, tea. The mix of customers can be a problem, he says. “People amble down looking tense and unload their frustration on us — shout that the tea is not hot, sugar is not enough. We manage drunkards as well.” He put up a board saying ‘No Politics’, “but it didn’t work”.

Regency Snacks, MG Road, is large enough to seat eight, and women frequent it. Vimal (8) from a local Corporation School packs tea in a thin carry bag, Aravind a mechanic is here because it is inexpensive. Insurance agent Ashok (33) needs three teas and bajji to relax during rounds. Some 200 teas are sold daily says owner Sidelavi.

For friends Raghu, Mouli and Suresh (two in software, one a movie aspirant) the dum tea-chewing gum meet at Blossom Tea Shop in Thiruvanmiyur is an unbreakable habit. It’s comfort, they insist. Their daily dose totes up to eight, sipped over cricket-movie conversation, ‘no use discussing politics!’ And, Favourite in Besant Nagar is the tea vendor they’ve been going to since Class XI.

Thensakthi, a school teacher at Kalpakkam is buying a cup for Christella, a French national learning dance at Kalakshetra. “We became friends when she taught graphic design at our school.” Christella loves the tea and the paper cup.

Tea is good is the verdict across the city. No one lingers beyond 15 minutes, so it is about enjoying the tea-snack combo, a few words on office politics. Some do complain about litter, forgetting their own habits. Women / non-smokers object to the pervading smoke spirals and leave if anyone lights up inside the shop. Chennai Metropolitan Tea Shop Owners’ Association wants permission to keep shops open 24 / 7 — beyond the 11 p.m. curfew.

Spread across the city, these shops offer you cups-that-cheer, just when you need them. A boon in a bustling city, say patrons.