It is a balmy evening on a crowded Mumbai street. Some office-goers are headed home, while others are sipping steaming glasses of chai on the pavement near Paragon Centre, Lower Parel, and watching the action. Santosh, who is manning a large vat of boiling chai, tries to handle the attention directed towards him. And at the centre of it all are Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks — one is shooting pictures and the other questions.
Santosh may be embarrassed by the attention, but the couple are used to it. They have been doing this for a couple of months and are used to having people stare as they go about their job — documenting India’s chai-drinking culture.
Move over Koffee with Karan, it’s chai time with Resham and Zach.
It started innocently enough. Gellatly and Marks met when they were both in the Indian capital New Delhi for a year on Fulbright fellowships. “We travelled a lot during that time,” says Marks.
“Everywhere we went there was obviously chai and behind every cup was a chaiwallah and, if you probed further, a story.”
A trip to Zanzibar helped them finalise their plan. “We stumbled upon a chaiwallah there at night, he was selling masala chai. It was a highly populated Gujarati neighbourhood and it reminded us of India and chai and what it means when people come together at a chai stand,” says Gellatly, an American of Indian-origin who has grown up drinking masala chai her mother made for her.
After months of planning, the duo returned to India about two months ago. “We have our itinerary based on a book proposal that we have been writing,” says Marks.
They plan their trips to different places so they visit a place during a festival – a camel festival in Pushkar and Durga Puja in Amritsar, for instance.
Their itinerary isn’t too rigid though. Sometimes, they stumble upon a place — a huge crowd around the chaiwallah is usually indication enough — or count on people to direct them to their favourite chaiwallahs.
“In Calcutta, we stumbled upon this guy. He was only wearing a loin cloth and sitting cross-legged and looked like a grumpy old man but once he started talking, he turned out to be really funny,” says Marks. The man was a cowherd who would supply milk before he decided to get into the ‘chai business’. His son now handles the milk delivery.
Gellatly and Marks don’t have a fixed definition for a chaiwallah. “It is just anyone who makes chai,” says Gellatly. They were in Haryana when a villager invited them to their home and made them chai using freshly squeezed buffalo milk. “Chaiwallahs are often who bring people together but it is just as interesting to explore how chai is consumed at home,” she adds.
Marks and Gellatly love their masala chai but have found themselves tasting different kinds of chai during their visits to Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar. They’ve had a condensed milk version and one using kala namak, Hajmola and lime in Calcutta, a mint and lemon grass black tea in Orissa, a camel-milk version in Rajasthan and the milky versions in Delhi. They have even tried milking cows and buffaloes but not camels because “they are too scary”.
The chaiwallahs they encounter are eager to talk. “For a lot of people, this is routine, we see them every day and it’s hard to stop, take out time and get their background and life stories,” says Gellatly,
The chaiwallahs who are hesitant to talk are usually told about the chai culture in America, how people drink more coffee than chai, how the chai available is usually made from a syrup or a pre-packaged mixture and how there are no chaiwallahs abroad. “That last bit usually gets everyone’s attention,” says Mark.
Marks and Gellatly’s chai journey will take them to Goa and then the south where they will explore the popularity of coffee.
The future beyond the book? “I wanted to start a chai food truck. There is a demand, not just from Indian or NRIs but red-blooded Americans who want a taste of the exotic,” says Gellatly.