Chai ki dukan: The Cafe where India lives

The shop that sells the national beverage may have had a dark past and a colonial up start, but the evolution has been shudh desi.

By Madhulika Dash

If you ever looked at a Chai Ki Tapdi/ adda/dukan or khatti (as they would call in Eastern India), and wondered what is about this rustic little place that is so welcoming? Even in a new city, a chai ki dukan and a chaiwala with his ‘bhai sab jante hain’ attitude can be your single source to getting settled. Come to think of it, it is in this rather small, informal place that one finds everything – from the best of houses to the finest of buddies.

No wonder that chai ki dukan is such an integral part of the weave and waft of our very existence. You find a shop everywhere – and even in the remotest of corners, it evokes the same sense of familiarity and easiness. Yet, fascinatingly, till about 1920s, tea, although produced in exceptionally large quantities, was nothing more than an aspirational object desired and enjoyed by the upper class and of course the colonial rulers. For most people who dealt with the trade under the British Tea Board and the Tea Cess Board (both of which merged to form the Tea Board of India today), it was yet another agriculture product that was for the Britishers and was headed by the Britishers- just like opium before.

What changed you may wonder? Another crisis. Much like the Opium War that led British to look towards the Indian soil for spaces to grow their favourite brew, this time it was the economic crash of the 1920s or as commonly known the Great Depression. Along with many European countries, the cash rich Britain and the up and coming superpower America too fell in the clasp of the bearish market. Britain, who by then thanks to its resource rich colony India, was ruling the tea trade suddenly had a good harvest but no market to sell. The enterprising board looked inward again for cut losses and found a generous population that could be coaxed into a new drinking habit. So began in all earnest a propaganda which gave India one of its first, low budget chains – the tea stalls.

Back then however, these were horse drawn carts that gave out free samples of freshly brewed tea to those willing to try under the aegis of Indian Tea Market Expansion Board (ITMEB). To ensure ROI on the free samples sold, the promoting board decided to use the national tone, void of any religious connotation. A campaign was designed where tea wasn’t just promoted as the beverage of the Indians but also as a product that promised a good life. Imperial calendars were shot with women enjoying a cup with the tea garden and a plush English bungalow in the background.

Indians, who have adopted tea both as a brew that needed an acquired taste as well as one of the flavourings that gave the masala milk a different taste note and colour, did get swayed by the ‘one nation, one drink’ rhetoric. What helped was tea companies like Brooke Bond who created special dusts to cater to the palate of the new drinkers of tea, who like their cup to be kadak with enough milk, sugar, ginger or mint. To complete the look, a special tea kettle was designed by the Carpenter Electrical Company, which supplied the Tea kettles to British establishments since 1891. These were the ones placed onto the horse-carts used for promotion. The campaign with its bone china cups and saucer, brass kettle and tea bags was a huge success. While the initial promotion did find a lot of takers – the transformation of the horse driven cart to the chai ki dukan we know today took some time as Indian business minds began experimenting on how to make it more effective.

The first thing to change was the tea bags. Indians, the makes of Brooke Bond realised, needed their tea brewed longer since we liked our masala milk piping hot, unlike the colonial rulers, with much more character in terms of taste, colour and mouthfeel. Special packets were made of dust and granules that could stand the long brew time and yet give that nice cream brown colour and the overpowering aroma of fresh ginger, cardamom or mint. The first chai walas were in fact the doodh walas and halwais who made a business selling hot piping milk to people. The next to change was the kettle. No more was the brass entrapment needed to keep milk warm but to go on the gas stove as well. And then came the snacks to go with the new brew. But with all this in place, tea sold at the speed of a snail – a sale of ten cups a day would be seen as a profitable day by the tea companies and board who resorted to every trick in the book to make it a success.

The masterstroke however came from the milk seller who eventually became the first tea seller when they decided to create more masala to appeal to the Indian audience, and created a make-shift sitting arrangement that allowed people to come together, sit, talk and enjoy a cup of tea and two. A free for advertising board and a newspaper stacker was the final touch given to create an ambience that was both informal and welcoming. Vested interest made the Crown overlook the little crowd on the tea stall, and soon the tea stall became the hangout where people could come, lounge with cups of tea and discuss.

Such was the transformation of the chai ki dukaan that were in itself a mini snack store that by the time Quit India movement reached its peak, this little establishment became the centre of much of the activities – which till 1928 the halwais of Chawri Bazars were, once the hangout of revolutionaries like Shahid Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad.

The chai ki dukaan had become the place where India came to socialise, share opinions and even stir a revolution – all over a cup of freshly brewed chai.