Come night time, for those heading to work for the night shift or party animals about to paint the town red, a hot cup of tea to help one stay awake can at times be a luxury. Providing this sweet relief are the anonymous ‘chaiwallas’ who position themselves near hotspots at the centre of town.

They come out of the woodwork after 10 p.m. — when most cafés pull down their shutters — carrying flasks of tea, a large bag full of light snacks and other essentials, all carefully balanced on a bicycle or two-wheeler. Surprisingly, the tea is reasonably well-made at most of these mobile stalls, served in plastic or Styrofoam cups, and the chaiwallas often give the tea a twist by adding spices such as ginger or cardamom.

No small task

Their job isn’t easy — nocturnal customers, many of whom are often under the influence of alcohol and can be belligerent, sometimes make their working conditions unpleasant. To add to their woes is the constant fear of policemen, who regularly demand bribes in cash and kind.

Prabhu (name changed), a tea vendor, says he parts with most of the night’s profits on a regular basis to prevent the beat constable from puncturing his bicycle tyres, knocking over the tea flasks or even beating him. Rs. 50 is the price of keeping the beat constable at bay every night. The “roll call” doesn’t stop there, says Bob (name changed), another such vendor. Sometimes upto three police jeeps pull over at night for the customary Rs. 20, while as many policemen on motorcycles stop for the customary Rs. 10. All in all, the tea vendors cough up anywhere between Rs. 150 and Rs. 200 a night, even though their average profit is no more than Rs. 500 on a good night.

Funnily enough, both Prabhu and Bob don’t have a problem paying bribes to stay in business, it’s the amount and the frequency with which they have to pay that bothers them.

But for all those auto drivers, pub-goers and others who depend on their services, being delivered a cup of piping hot tea can be comforting at a time of the night when even buying a bottle of water can be a daunting task.

Tea vendors in the city centre brave hostile policemen and belligerent customers to deliver the elixir