The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 26, 2014 |


A hot brew

Narendra Modi's chaiwallah antecedents may have been milked dry by the Bharatiya Janata Party, but he's not the first chaiwallah to gain fame. One's an author of 24 books, another's tea business is a case study at IIM, a third is a karate expert, Reena Martins points out

Balwant Singh Negi is no Narendra Modi. A life devoted to making tea on film sets — 30 years for Subhash Ghai's Mukta Arts alone — may have brought Negi not a modicum of NaMo-vian fame. But the tea seller, affectionately called Bahadur, is happy, though he does miss those days when actors did not fuss about their brew.

"They did not want their tea black, green or laal-peela," he says. "And nowadays everybody wants his tea without sugar," he laughs.

Modi's chaiwallah antecedents may have been milked dry by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to garner votes, but it leaves the men behind real life tea parties, like Negi, shaken, not stirred. Negi, for one, is not greatly bothered about the recent storm in the political tea cup, sparked by Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyar's prediction that Modi would not become Prime Minister but was free to sell tea at a Congress meeting.

"Jo hoga, so hoga (what will be, will be)," he says.

But then Negi is a star in his own right. He's been serving tea to Bollywood's biggies right from the days when the action lay mainly in the studio — "it could change from a bungalow to the Himalayas" — to days of traipsing around the globe with the stars, and his tea-making paraphernalia.

On Saturday, it will be Modi and his men who'll do some traipsing — but this time around tea stalls across the country. BJP leaders plan to address voters in tea stalls and restaurants. If they stop by at Negi's, they may hear his story.

In the early Seventies, when he was 20, the man from Garhwal had trekked to Mumbai to chase his silver screen dreams. He'd never imagined he would end up making tea for the stars, debuting on the sets of the 1975 blockbuster Jai Santoshi Maa.

Negi misses the days when he had a nodding acquaintance with actors, producers and directors and even some of their families. "Dharmendra's mother never sent you back from their house in Juhu without feeding you," he says.

Cut to today's cast and it's a very different kettle of fish. "Nowadays, the actor and villain don't even know each other," he laughs. And worse still, "you can't tell an actor from his bodyguard, they all look alike."

  • FROM THE TEA STABLE: Laxman Rao Shirhate with one of his books. Picture by Rupinder Sharma

Unlike the Gujarat chief minister — who started out as a helper in his father's tea stall and proudly refers to himself as a chaiwallah — the average Indian chaiwallah is seen, but not heard. He serves but is never toasted to. But the ubiquitous tea man, sitting by a steaming kettle, has his own story to tell. And, sometimes, somebody else's tale, too.

Laxman Rao Shirhate is Delhi's author-chaiwallah, who has written 24 books. Most of the books have spawned from discussions at his tea corner at Vishnu Digambar Marg in central Delhi, the city's political hub.

The plot for his 1999 bestseller, Renu, thickened over endless rounds of tea, when a group of male customers discussed a woman by that name, and one day pointed her out to a by-then curious Shirhate.

He was floored by her English and "heroine" like looks as she stepped out of her car, and lost no time in penning a novel around her rags to riches story. On his Facebook page (it has 1,733 likes), his profile picture shows him holding the novel, and flanked by former President Pratibha Patil.

Shirhate's own story began on a ragged note. In 1975, he left home in Amravati's Talegaon Dasheswar village to pursue a career in writing. But to cut a long and painful story short, he ended up as a casual labourer, first in Bhopal, and then Delhi. Soon he started selling paan and bidis in the capital.

"I never expected to stay here so long," says Shirhate, also addressed respectfully as Raosaheb by many of his customers.

He brews some 200 cups a day, and ploughs back a portion of his earnings into publishing his next book. His fame as a writer has spared him police extortion and the dismantling of his stall by municipal authorities. A few police officers even touch his feet in respect.

Shirhate has lost count of the interviews he's given, and airing his views has become second nature. So who will be the next Prime Minister? "Not Narendra Modi — he doesn't have the Muslim vote; and not Rahul Gandhi — he's a boy," says Shirhate. "We need a wise and peaceful prime minister."

The stories of many of India's tea sellers are being compiled by American journalists Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly through their site The two are street tea experts, and have tasted new decoctions that hint at crushed Hajmola tablets and jaljeera, for digestion.

"It's a bit like eating paani puri (phuchka)," Marks says.

Among India's famed tea men is Rambhai Kori, whose successful tea business outside the gate of the IIM, Ahmedabad, made it to the institute's curriculum as a case study. But being talked about, he rues, does not always mean good business. "Fame doesn't pay bills," he says.

Rambhai ki kitlee (Rambhai's kettle), which used to pour out up to 1,500 cups a day through a literal hole in the institute's boundary wall, has been feeling the heat of neighbouring stalls serving tea and snacks such as mota poha (spicy puffed rice), not to mention dust from a road widening project.

But there's one chai corner that is lucky not to be bothered by any grave digging issues. Lucky Tea Stall, which started as a tiny joint in the early Seventies near a Muslim graveyard in Ahmedabad's walled city area, ended up shrouding the graveyard itself, over time.

The stall, which stays open from 5pm to midnight, is a popular haunt of everybody from the aam aadmi to politicians who appear for the late night bun-maska and chai. Lucky sells an estimated 1,000 cups of tea a day.

Insiders divulge the secret of its novel chai — it apparently includes a pinch of cocoa and Bournvita. But its manager and oldest employee, Siddiqi Ansari, credits the ambience — a Husain painting gifted by the painter, who was a regular patron — and those resting in their graves beneath for brisk business.

"We decorate their graves with flowers and incense sticks and they help us in return," Ansari says.

Rajendran Chelliah's USP is not a secret recipe but a lunch that he's added to his menu, to keep the fires blazing. Now, along with his tea and the traditional biscuit and bhajia (pakoras), he serves hot sambhar-rice and chicken and mutton curry meals. The history graduate runs ANL tea stall (named after his daughters, Abhinaya, Nivethika and Latika) in Chennai's MGR Filmcity, and is helped by his wife and karate champ daughters.

Chaiwallahs, indeed, have a life beyond tea. Chelliah is a karate expert too. "Karate is great for self-defence and also the brain," says the tea man who as a black belt taught the martial art in Saudi Arabia from 1992-97, and conducts tri-weekly classes at Chennai's Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Clearly, his tea has quite a kick to it.