“Pour in the melted jaggery only when the water has boiled to the hilt,” Ayappan. K says as he drags along his bicycle.

On one side of the side bar hangs a small bag that has oodles of powdered coffee, crushed ginger, coriander seeds and the magical ‘chukku' powder, and small packets of biscuits and rusted bread. “A cup of tea with just the right quantity of milk will relieve you of any pain,” he says confidently.

From markets and offices, to parking lots of railway stations and beach stretches and even on a deserted road at 1 a.m., you find them - most often on bicycles, offering the tired pedestrian a steaming cup of ginger tea or cardamom tea, or coffee, and sometimes even cakes and biscuits.

While the rapid-fire pouring of hot milk and tea from tumbler to dawara is commonly associated with the roadside tea stall, these mobile beverage vendors have a few stories to tell too.

K. Sekhar (46) genuinely feels his coffee is the best one could get. A veteran of 15 years, he sleeps just three hours a day and sells instant coffee at Koyambedu market in the mornings and tea on the Marina in evenings. “When the milk gets spoiled or when it starts raining badly, the day is ruined,” he says. Walking continuously on the sands for more than five hours is tiring, says K. Madiappan (65). More people come to the beach when it drizzles and drink more cups of tea, he says.

The investment is relatively less, and works well even for people from other parts of the State. Many seem to have opted for it hoping to alter their fortunes. While the earnings vary, most of them make a profit of around Rs.200 daily.

Coffee sells faster but inflation has hit them hard as customers especially in offices haggle over price. “People often insist on tasting the tea before buying it, but they don't understand that for us, hundred of such ‘taste sips' would increase cost,” says Sekhar.

“Often we are not allowed to be near eating joints, but I stand at the street corners,” says Gunasekaran T. “After sumptuous food at these big places, many feel the need for a good inji tea,” he adds grinning.

And they cherish their regular customers. Yogaran J fondly remembers a customer who used to bring his dog along for walk every day on the Marina stretch, and wait for him, because he is one of the few vendors who sell milk.

“The old man would have his tea, while the dog drank milk. Some days when I didn't have milk, he wouldn't buy tea either.”

For Jaichandran K too, waiting near Panagal Park at 8 a.m. is not a mere ritual. “Many of my regular clients who come to jog around look forward to my arrival,” he says, not forgetting the time when he received an unusually long lecture by a visitor doctor on how he should not tempt the joggers with tea and coffee, and sell coconut water instead.

S. Sami and C. Arumugham may look like your regular tea vendors but they are celebrities in their professional circle. They were at the Classical Tamil Conference held at Coimbatore, and claim to have served tea to many international visitors. “Few vendors take interest in ensuring that their cup of filter coffee makes the day for the drinker. I certainly do that,” says Mr. Sami.

Keywords: tea vendors

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012