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The Chai Wallahs of Shahpur Jat

Zach posted on 27 November

By Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly

Chai piyenge?

Since arriving in India two months ago, we have heard these words countless times. We have been spending our days with chai wallahs in cities and villages across the country as part of our project, chronicling communities through the lens of chai and the people who make it. We have consumed more caffeine and sugar than we would like, but what we have lost in dental health, we have gained in insight about the places we have visited. Sipping sweet masala chai, we meet people from all walks of life – indeed, the chai stand is perhaps the greatest leveler in a society increasingly stratified by socioeconomic status.

The idea of researching chai wallahs came to us when we lived in Delhi several years ago, since everywhere we went in this incredibly diverse country, there were chai wallahs bringing people together with their unique preparations and personalities. When we returned to Delhi this September, we were excited to discover once quiet enclaves alive with new shops and creative people. Shahpur Jat village had not even been a blip on our radar when we lived here, but now it is an epicenter of Delhi’s vibrant fashion culture, with hip boutiques and designer workshops.

In the past few years, upscale tea salons and coffee shops have sprung up to provide weary customers a place to take a break from shopping. But these trendy cafes aren’t the only ones serving a caffeine kick in Shahpur Jat. Behind the glamour of the shopping district are the people who keep salesmen alert and garment workshops churning - the chai wallahs of Shahpur Jat.

Whether running flasks of chai to shopkeepers, pouring cup after cup for businessmen on their afternoon tea break, or dishing out Maggi to hungry shoppers, Shahpur Jat’s chai wallahs – there are at least 15 of them in the village – work around the clock to fuel the area’s rise to popularity. Curious to hear what these chai wallahs felt about the drastic transformation Shahpur Jat has undergone in the past years, we decided to tag along with a few of them for a day, learning the rhythm of the village through their eyes – and their cups.

Shyam's stand sits at a corner near the entrance of Shahpur Jat. Three floors above him, The Pot Belly boasts upscale Bihari food and a rooftop with a stunning view, attracting crowds of foodies and hipsters looking for a hangout. Long before The Pot Belly and similar establishments opened, Shyam's father worked at the same chai stall, serving cups to customers in the village.

Shyam-chai-wallah-shahpur-jat{Shyam, a chai wallah in Shahpur Jat, fills a to-go bag for one of his regular customers.}

“I’ve seen the place change quite a bit,” he said, describing Shahpur Jat’s modern history. The area had been a mostly quiet farming village until 1978, when the government purchased parcels of land to build facilities for the 1982 Asian Games. After that, the neighborhood began to bustle with garment workshops. In the past ten years, designers have opened boutiques. “The changes are good,” Shyam said. “I like having more people around.

Shyam took over his father’s chai stand years ago. Even though he sells upwards of 300 cups a day, he has no plans to pass on the family business to his four children: "They are all studying and will get a better job. I start at 8 in the morning and work until 8:30 at night. It's not easy."

Unlike some of the other chai wallahs in Shahpur Jat, Shyam operates solo. Several times an hour, he fills up his largest kettle with fresh chai and personally delivers it to nearby shops. In his absence, thirsty customers stop by his empty stall and ask after him. Those in a hurry leave, but the ones who know him hang around.

Shyam-chai-wallah-shahpur-jat{Shyam's cash box is filled with receipts and adorned with portraits of Hindu gods.}

“His chai is worth the wait,” said Jatinder, a frequent customer who is also the landlord of the building that shelters Shyam’s stand. When asked what he would do if an upscale coffee shop wanted to rent Shyam’s nook for the pretty penny that Shahpur Jat flats fetch these days, Jatinder looks offended: “Shyam is kafi close friend. Like family.” No, he will not entertain the idea of kicking Shyam out for more money from a new tenant.

Not all chai wallahs in Shahpur Jat are fortunate enough to have such an understanding landlord. Sandeep has seen the rent for his small tea stall double to Rs. 10,000 per month over the past few years. “All the fancy shops coming here makes things more expensive,” he said. “But you know, everything in India is more expensive now.”

Sandeep’s brother and business partner Vinod chimed in that despite the rise in rent, he was happy to have more foot traffic in front of the shop and liked his new neighbors. “I like walking past the boutiques and going in to see the nice things they are selling. They make for good daydreams, even if I can’t buy anything,” he chuckled.

Perhaps no one knows the ins and outs of Shahpur Jat better than the chai wallahs who deliver tea to businesses. For the past seven years, Ashok Gupta has spent his days walking down narrow lanes and up winding staircases to serve sweet masala chai to shopkeepers, tailors and seamstresses. He estimates that on an average day, he visits 50 businesses – “those are my regular customers,” he said – and sells 400 cups of tea.

“The job requires you to walk a lot,” Ashok said as he carried an empty thermos back to the stall where his wife Kiran makes tea. Kiran refilled the thermos, smiled and said, “It’s nice to run the business together.”

kiran-chai-wallah-shahpur-jat{Kiran Gupta prepares cardamom for her next pot of chai, which husband Ashok will deliver to shops around Shahpur Jat village.}

ashok-chaiwallah-delhi-shahpurjat{At home among the neon signs and carefully curated storefronts of Shahpur Jat, Ashok brings chai to longtime residents and new shopkeepers alike.}

While walking back through Shapur Jat’s lanes en route to his next round of customers, Ashok passed four different chai wallahs with their own stack of plastic cups, heading to different businesses. “They have their customers. I have my customers,” he explained. “There’s no competition between us.”

Perhaps this is easy for Ashok to say since he has a loyal customer base. Shruti Dudani, owner of the boutique D-Closet, said Ashok’s tea has had a special place in her heart since she opened her shop in 2010. “When we were moving in here, Ashok came around to serve chai and it was the perfect way to welcome us,” Shruti said. “He really makes the best chai. One time he was not around so we called another guy, but it just wasn’t as good. Ashok’s tea suits our taste and we always look forward to him coming every day at the same time.”

Ashok’s tea does not keep only the street-level retail boutiques buzzing – it fuels the whole fashion supply chain. Twice a day, Ashok climbs to the third-floor workshop of Anupama Creations, where the hum of sewing machines greets him. The tailors look relieved to see Ashok and take a break from their intricate handwork to drink some of his chai. One of the tailors took a sip and said: “Without Ashok, no work would get done here.”