Nagarajan is a picture of efficiency. He stirs the boiling milk; collects the money from customers; and into tea glasses, he strains out a thick decoction, squeezes half a lime, and spoons in the sugar. “I’ve been working in this shop for 30 years,” he tells me, standing inside the narrow, blue tea bunk he co-owns with his uncle, Rajendran. But didn’t he say he was only 40 years old? “Yes, my mother died when I was 10, and there was no money for my education. So I came to Chennai (from Sillampatti village), to work with my uncle.”

And work, he does, from 6.30 every morning till 8.30 or 9 in the night. “Only six days; Sunday is a holiday,” he smiles. Nagarajan lives near Greenways Road, with his wife and son (his two daughters are married), and uses three modes of transportation to get to his shop opposite Taj Club House (near Spencer Plaza). “First, I take the MRTS, then, a bus, and finally I walk here. Akka (uncle’s wife) brings vada batter, which is then fried fresh, for the customers. Masala vada and medhu vada are our specialties,” Nagarajan says, quickly fixing me a lemon tea. “Please drink this,” he says, hoping it will give him a few minutes respite from my constant questioning, and help him get on with his work. And so, sitting on a stool, inside the bunk, drinking lemon tea, I watch life unfold outside the tea stall.

A lady in an expensive Kanjivaram silk, a man in a suit, construction workers in lungis and vests with cement-stained fingers, and well-dressed office employees — all of them stand around amicably, drinking their tea. Some hold smouldering cigarettes between their fingers; some others chew on vadas or biscuits. The air smells of milk, tea, lemon, and is thick with orders. Voices float into the cramped space, from left and right, demanding vadas and teas and Nagarajan hands them out faster than I can write them down.

“My uncle taught me how to make tea,” he says, pouring tea into the glasses. “Seven years ago, we started making lemon tea. Even foreigners love it. You need a lot of skill to make it well; otherwise, it will taste bitter.” Besides milky tea (elaichi/masala), he sells lemon tea, ginger-lemon, sukku coffee, Ragimalt, Boost and Horlicks.

“Anna also makes a great kashayam. I drink it when I’m sick,” a customer comments, and a pleased Nagarajan tells me it’s made of sukku (dry ginger), milagu (pepper) and lavangam (clove). “You can add athimadhuram, but that’s very expensive. We serve a full glass for just Rs. 10.”

It’s five in the evening, and people are still streaming in. “In summer, we serve buttermilk and lemon-juice. But whatever the weather, morning 10 to 1, and evening 2 to 6 are busy hours,” says Nagarajan, asking Akka to ‘pass on a lemon tea to Prakash’. I ask if he knows his customers by name. “Of course,” he smiles, and quickly adds, “Please mention that my customers are like my family. They keep an account of what they eat, and pay me honestly.”

Nagarajan’s own family turn up every Saturday, for some hot vadas and lemon tea. “We don’t make lemon tea at home,” he explains. “But every morning, I brew tea, and then leave for work.” What are his interests, I ask, besides working in the tea shop. “Well, I always wanted to study. If only someone can help me study now,” he says, wistfully, before calling out to a customer “sister, here’s your lemon tea”.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)