In the summer of 2012, Resham Gellatly (27) and Zach Marks (28) decided to give their jobs in the US a break and move to India to explore the culture of chai or tea. They spent the next 10 months travelling to 18 states across the length and breadth of the country, documenting stories of people who make, serve and love tea, in a project titled “Chai Wallahs of India.” Their work, which can be viewed on www.thechailwallahsofindia, will now be complied into a book. Speaking to The News Minute over email, Resham and Zach discussed why they chose the humble tea as the subject for their project. “Chai wallahs are essential characters in Indian life, and they provide a lens through which to explore the society. We wanted to capture their stories, especially since India is developing so rapidly. Who knows what street food culture will look like in 20 years?” they said. Of the countless cups of tea they tasted during the project, there were some variations they never expected to encounter. "We have visited about 1,000 chai stands in 18 states. If you count the cups of chai we’ve had at people’s homes and offices, we probably each drank about 3,000 cups of chai over the course of the project!" Apart from the common sweet and milky chai, they drank lebu cha, which is made with lemon, kala namak (black salt), black pepper, and jaljeera and tea made with lemongrass, mint and ginger in rural Odisha. There was also tea made by camel herders in Rajasthan which is prepared using camel milk and the extra creamy buffalo milk tea in Punjab. Ravi has been making chai at the main bus terminal in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, for fifteen years. He has memorised the bus schedule and often gives directions to confused travelers, then provides them with his special blend of AVT and Mazaa teas to caffeinate their journey. Ravi’s three children study in English-medium schools. He said he hopes they do not follow in his line of work. Photograph by Resham Gellatly. Their favourite roadside chai in India is in Kolkata in West Bengal, because of the earthenware pots or bhar in which tea is usually served in stalls. "These clay cups give the chai a nice warm, earthy taste," the duo said. They met a political candidate in Odisha who had a tea kettle as her symbol. "She is a very inspiring figure – an adivasi woman who left school after 5thgrade, fighting to improve everyday life in her community through the panchayat system. She said she uses the tea kettle as her symbol because tea is an essential element of everyday life for common people," they said. Talking of politics and tea in India in one thread means one cannot but mention the journey of a former tea seller to the position of the Prime Minister of India. Narrating one particular incident they wrote, "We were in Patna for his (Narendra Modi) rally because the BJP had encouraged chai wallahs to put up posters branding themselves as “NaMo Tea Stalls.” We just happened to be there when the bomb blasts happened. It’s crazy to think of all the places this journey has taken us." "In a society that can otherwise be very stratified, chai wallahs bring people together." Though retail tea and coffee joints are mushrooming across the country, it is unlikely that they can ever take the place of chai wallahs who offer to society much more than just tea. Like Zach and Resham point out, "Chai wallahs provide a space for people from all walks of life to come together. At 5 rupees a cup, everyone can afford chai, which is why you'll find a mix of people at the chai stand." Resham Gellatly is based in Philadelphia, where she conducts psychology research at the University of Pennsylvania. Zach Marks is based in New York, where he is the co-founder of an HR technology company. They continue to work on the project even now. You can view their work on their website, and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
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