Sense and Sensibility

Supriya Newar is a Kolkata-based author, poet, music aficionado and communications consultant

Sense and Sensibility

A ‘chaiwala’ literally caused quite a storm in a teacup last week. Dolly bhai (who was born Sunil Patel), was caught serving a cutting ‘chai’ to billionaire Bill Gates on the streets of Nagpur. His oeuvre and panache in preparing and serving the humble beverage drew much applause and admiration from Gates and as expected, their video went viral instantly.

I happen to be a coffee drinker primarily and when I do opt for the odd cup of tea, it’s minus milk and all the other fuss that goes into the drink. Hence, my cup of tea never fails to draw flak from connoisseurs. And it makes me a minority in a city that continues to have a long, well-brewed love affair with tea or ‘cha’.

Most strangely, though, this love affair is also a street affair. Barring a few cafes that do serve or are known for their teas, Kolkata likes its ‘cha’ - freshly brewed over a burning stove that hisses its way to a boil and often sits in the middle of cacophonous streets.

While the connoisseur is utterly alive to every tiny sip that he savours from precariously held ‘bhanrs’ or earthen cups, he is Zen-like and oblivious to all else that rages around him. Barking dogs, incessant pedestrians, mind-numbing humidity or the honk of motor cars - he is unfazed by it all.

If you thought that consumers of such street-side ‘chaiwalas’ were a heterogenous lot, belonging to a particular stratum of society, think again. These stalls attract people of the most divergent senses and sensibilities. From morning walkers to the last remaining Marxists, from pen pushers to scribes, from the hoi polloi to the who’s who and from the retired to the jet setters, the city loves congregating at its numerous tea stalls for its everyday cuppa. Or ‘bhanr’.

Along with a good cup of tea, this is also where the thickest, meanest gossip brews. Where everything from elections to ‘ilish’ is torn down to its last bone. The rest of the country may choose to have its cup of tea with toast, biscuits or ‘WhatsApp’ forwards and jokes. But Kolkata savours its ‘cha’ with ‘adda’. That one buoyant energy and catalyst that brings together, the ‘bania’, ‘babu’ and the activist. And nothing quite equals the combo of ‘cha’ and ‘adda’.

While the Calcutta Stock Exchange stopped making any sense many summers ago, its eponymous ‘chai’, cleverly called the ‘Share Market chai’, continues to be well traded and has a highly sought-after sensibility.

Regulars seat themselves comfortably on roadside wooden benches while newbies and Instagrammers lens around, trying to capture the master’s sleight of hand every time he makes a long, unrelenting pour. To a particularly old but no longer regular patron who doesn’t alight from his car, the ‘chaiwala’ may come around and greet with a ‘Ram-Ram’. Pull out a special, cushioned stool for him to be seated on. Not too many words are exchanged between them, but much is understood. Each marks the other’s continuing presence.

My request for coffee at these stalls is sometimes silenced, sometimes tolerated and on rare occasions accommodated. On days and places when it’s accommodated, my cup of tea comes with a minor, unspoken suggestion. The next time around, I should have the sense to savour and succumb to the sensibility of tea.

Author Supriya Newar may be reached at, Instagram: @supriyanewar, Facebook: supriya.newar and LinkedIn:

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