For most of his 73 years, Shivnat Rai Jadav tended a herd of cows and buffaloes in Bara Bazaar, Kolkata. When forced to move his herd outside of the city, ten years ago, Jadhav took up a new profession, using his milk to brew thick masala chai, which has now become a staple for many in the area. This is just one of the many interesting stories that Zach Marks (26) and Resham Gellatly (25) have been encountering ever since they have been charting the length and breadth of India to bring forth stories of chaiwallahs from the country’s many distinct regions.
“We lived in India from 2010-2011 on Fulbright Fellowships. While Zach and I were based in Delhi, we travelled extensively across India, and were able to experience the diversity that this country offers. During our trips, we realised that even though India is so diverse, the one factor that unifies all regions is the love for tea. We found this to be very fascinating,” says Indian-American Gellatly, specifying that a lot has been written about the different teas emerging from India, but not much has been documented about the tea makers, hence, they decided to focus their research on that aspect.
Marks and Gellatly have been collecting stories from chaiwallahs from around the country and aim to convert the information and the tales into a book. Till now, their research has covered Delhi, a few villages in Haryana, Kolkata and Bodh Gaya.
The two were in Patna when we connected with them. They recounted how they were at the same venue that was rocked by eight serial blasts on October 27. “We arrived in Patna for our research, and to attend Narendra Modi’s rally where he mentioned that he, too, was a chaiwallah, selling tea at a railway
platform during his early days in Gujarat. Thankfully, we managed to leave from there unscathed,” recalls Gellatly.
Voices behind the chai
Taking us through the process of garnering information from the tea vendors, Gellatly reveals that till now, they haven’t faced any resistance from any chaiwallahs; in fact, she feels that most were more interested to speak to them than others. “We always try to get a sense of their personalities before we ask them questions; and then decide to spend time with the chaiwallahs who enjoy talking to us,” she shares.
The Honolulu born-and-bred researcher adds that they approach people casually because they prefer organic interactions. Also, they intend to visit places that have an interesting connect with the chai being served there. For example, they will attend the Pushkar Mela because tea in these parts is prepared from camel milk. “We plan to cover every state and hopefully, we should complete our project by April 2014,” says the scouter, whose favourite chai experience till now has been in Kolkata.