My Name Is Khan

Thursday, 1st March 2018

By Deepka Ratra

There were only a couple of days left till I had to jump back on a plane to Australia. I had been wanting to talk to a chaiwalla (male tea maker) during my trip, but I had been feeling a little nervous about it. So, I downed my cup of chai one morning, distracted myself from nervous thoughts, found the local chaiwalla and marched up to him.

I’m so glad I did it. Khan’s chai stall was a humble old reri (wheel cart) only just holding itself together. He had an assortment of ingredients laid out in plastic containers, and a little gas stove in the corner covered by metal sheets shielding the chai.

Firstly, I asked him for a couple of cups of chai for my friend and myself. I watched him brew the chai and asked if I could take a few photos, to which he responded with a stunned, confused face. ‘Ahh, yeah, okay.’ Then, as I sipped his strong, delicious, gingery chai, I built up the courage to walk around to the wooden crate he was sitting on, and say hello.

He told me that he used to work for a housing construction company many years ago. They didn’t pay him fairly, and kept six thousand rupees from him (enough to feed a big family for about two weeks). After finally realising that the company was never going to repay him or treat him fairly, he was desperate to think of another way to work. That’s when he left them and started his chai stall. He’s been brewing chai in the same town for about sixteen years now (Bahadurgarh, for any of you who might be familiar with the area). Khan brews his chai with cardamom in the warmer days, and ginger in the cooler days. He said these spices compliment the weather, as they have a cooling or heating effect. These ideas have been part of the Ayurvedic tradition for years now; an important and integral part of Indian medicinal history.

Khan has two married sons and a seventeen year old daughter who is yet to be married. Marriage in India is a very crucial part of life as it is seen as a compulsory step for survival and cultural tradition; earning money and continuing the family line. After asking him whether selling chai paid the bills, he said that it didn't, mainly because of the two other competing chai stalls in the same area. What helps, is that both his sons live at home and chip in to the daily expenses. Khan and his family live ten minutes away, and he stores his reri at a nearby shop. He also prepares chai orders with fresh milk from the same shop to ensure the milk doesn't spoil. Surprisingly, Khan himself only has two cups of chai a day, while his friend (pictured on the left) has closer to four or five cups a day - that’s more like it! Keeping the Indian spirit alive.

My guess is that Khan didn’t start the chai stall because he was passionate about it, but because he was desperate. It's easy to say that this desperation is a pretty strong reality across India, but I'd be willing to argue that this is happening in western countries as well. In India, the majority of the population isn’t working in a field that they actually enjoy - they’re working either because it makes them a lot of money, or because they had a limited amount of choices. There are too many people and not enough jobs; it's a race for survival. While the average passerby mightn't think Khan's running a hot-shot business, I honestly believe he’s one of the people who are better off in India; it's an incredibly tough life in that poverty-rich country.

I'm glad I put my nerves aside and went up to this chaiwalla. It was so lovely to be able to talk about something as simple and important as chai with an Islamic tea maker in the middle of India. Thanks, Khan, for the chai and the chat.