Tea tales

Chai brings people together, say U.S. tea researchers Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly,who have come to love their cuppa in India

Cha, chai, theneer… the charms of a bubbling pot of tea and its ubiquitous maker intrigued two Fulbright scholars from the U.S. so much that they started a project called chaiwallahsofindia. Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly first came to India in 2011 on their scholarship. They were in Delhi teaching at a school. That’s when they discovered the popularity of this brewed beverage. “We realised the importance of chai and the chaiwallah in Indian society. The tea stall is a place where people gather and have conversations. It’s fascinating to see so many cultures in India. You can learn a lot/tell a lot about a community through the chaiwallahs and their customers. For example, we noticed that Delhi doesn’t have a single woman chaiwallah. But Kolkata, on the other hand, has quite a few,” says Zach.

Resham, who is of Indian origin and resides in Hawaii, is used to drinking tea at home, but for Zach it was something new. From sipping on mugs of Cappuccino and cold coffee in Philadelphia, he now drinks four to five cups of tea in India. That’s part of the research. Besides it’s hard to say no to the person offering tea, he says, adding, “Chai is what I associate with India.”

Moving to Mumbai

Currently, the two are in Mumbai getting acquainted with the tea vendors there and making their interesting stories known to the world. “We are attempting to learn about the chaiwallahs of Bollywood. We get to the sets and pretend we are going to see the actors but it really is all about the chaiwallah,” laughs Zach.

Zach and Resham plan to cover all the Indian states for their project. As of now they have covered 10, including Haryana and Pushkar (Rajasthan) during the camel fair, Bihar (they were in Bodh Gaya the day the bomb explosions took place in October), Kolkata, Delhi, Vishakapatnam, Bhuvaneshwar, Kochi... Obviously, this includes sampling tea at various places and that also means a few not-so-pleasant experiences…taste wise. The people, of course, have always been warm and welcoming. “In Pushkar, the tea was made out of camel’s milk which is a little salty. In Leh and Ladakh, they make tea with salted yak butter and the tea is a thick yellow concoction...more like soup. The taste varies from region to region because the milk is different. For example, Punjab has really thick milk,” adds Zach. The most unusual tea they have tasted was in Kolkata. Called “label chai”, it apparently contained spices, kala namak and crushed Hajmola! As for the most popular variety of tea in India, they say it’s the masala chai with a hint of ginger and cardamom. And in all these months where did they have the best tea? “At people’s homes where tea is made with tulsi leaves,” he says, amused.

What about language barrier? “We speak enough Hindi to ask basic questions. People around always help out and translate our questions and the answers.” Well then, when the duo turns old, rest assured they will have many fascinating stories about chaiwallahs to tell their grandchildren. Zack grins as he lists a few. There's the inspiring story of a tea seller in Gurgaon, who after a few years in the business started serving instant noodles and soon bought himself a car, then another, and over the years a fleet which he started renting out as cabs. Then there’s one in Kokata with a Masters Degree, another in Delhi who writes short stories and is quite revered by his clients, and the much loved chaiwallah in Delhi University who maintains a guest book filled with superlative comments about his tea and how much he means to the students and other regulars. How long do they intend to carry on this project? "Maybe six more months...once we collect enough to compile a book. Honestly, we could do this forever!" he laughs.

Their website has interesting photographs, accounts, blogs and chai diaries where tea enthusiasts/lovers/addicts write about their experiences, and Ek Shabd where people in one word describe what tea means to them — life, addiction, friend means for a headache to go away, the perfect accompaniment to samosa...

And what does a cup of tea mean to Zach and Resham? “Chai is a way to connect with people. Whether we're making friends with other customers at a chai stand, learning a chaiwallah's life story while he brews a pot, or meeting chai enthusiasts through Facebook, chai brings people together," says Resham.

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