Tea stalls in India are ubiquitous. You will find them on busy roads, sometimes more than one on a road; outside theatres, outside office complexes, near the vegetable market, everywhere.
Most of them serve coffee, tea, hot milk and a limited menu of yummy snacks that vary depending on the time of day.
The beverages are served in small cups made of thick glass. I am yet to see a tea stall that is not doing brisk business throughout the day.
Some of them play the latest Bollywood hit numbers. The owners of all these tea stalls know their regular customers and their unique preferences – less sugar, black coffee etc.
They laugh and joke, their hands boiling, sieving and serving, without missing a beat. Nerve centres in people’s days, where they come to recharge or unwind.
I remember one such tea stall near my parents’ home. Every evening, my Dad and I would stop by to have a cup of tea, laced with fresh ginger and cardamom, when my kids and I stayed with them during the holidays.
And when we sipped our teas and chit-chatted, many regulars would also be there. A man, whose wife was in hospital, who would come there, with a thermos to buy coffee to take with him to the hospital, after work. There was a group of sales executives, with their ties loosened, discussing their sales calls over a cuppa. They joked with the tea stall owner and went on their way. There were two nurses who stopped by to buy snacks for their children on their way home.
There was an old woman, who would also visit the tea stall at the same time. Her wizened face bore the grooves of many wrinkles, wrinkles that had witnessed her hard life. She did odd jobs in the area and from what we knew, she lived alone. Making ends meet would have been a challenge. But, every evening, she would come to the stall, neatly dressed, with a string of jasmine adorning her loosely tied chignon, and a big red bindi on her forehead. She had bright eyes and a mouth that looked like it had smiled a lot despite the difficult journey.
On one such day, as we sipped our tea, the old woman walked to the stall and placed her coins on the counter, asking for her usual tea and bajji. She proceeded to enjoy this with relish, slurping the tea in an almost musical way. She would nibble into the bajji and then sip. We watched her, enthralled. This was probably an important part of her day. Her eyes stared into the distance, as we wondered what thoughts visited her mind.
And after she finished her tea, the stall owner called out to her, “Amma (Mom), do you want another cup?”
She replied, “Don’t have change.”
The owner said, “There’s an offer today, buy one get one free.”
Her eyes appreciated his generosity and kindness, but her shoulders stiffened proudly, as she smiled and walked away, nodding her head to say no.
The tea stall was a world unto itself. People dropping in to unwind, stopping to catch up with friends, sometimes relaxed, sometimes in a hurry to get to their next appointment, sometimes happy, sometimes sad.
So many stories in a cup of tea!