This chaiwallah has served the best tea I have had over last twenty years.
Every journey at New Delhi railway station starts with a stop at his corner. A corner that somehow gives a semblance of peace and organization in this place, the Paharganj side entrance, that is otherwise a cacophony of loud noises and chaos.
If you can walk a few hundred meters while carrying your luggage, it is best to get down from the cab in front of the railway reservation center, the public urinals on the right – yes that’s it - about fifty meters before the traffic lights that greet you at gate #1 of the station. The short walk is anyways faster than the crawl of traffic and it allows a compulsive tea drinker like me a chance at the best cup Delhi has to offer.
He sits atop a stool, layered with cushions, with a large pot of tea brewing in front of him. The gas stove and the stool are placed over a large wooden bench, about two feet above the ground level. There are layers of bricks and tiles between the board and the stove. On his right is an even larger pot full of milk, the cover of the pot partially pushed back for easy access. Plastic jars containing sugar, tea leaves, and cardamom are on his left on the bench. A knife lies on a pile of ginger next to the jars.
He adjusts the flame as the tea rises to a boil, his face a picture of concentration. He grabs two large tea strainers, one placed atop the other, assembled like a double strainer, and stirs tea in a quick circular motion, stopping for a moment at the center of the pan and bringing the strainers out vertically with a trail of tea falling through the strainers as his arm reaches upwards. Then with an expert flick at the edge of the pan, with the strainers turned upside down, he deposits the contents of the strainer back in the pan into the boiling tea. He adjusts the flame again and starts the dance of the strainers again.
While he works on brewing that perfect work of art, the connoisseurs gather around. They extend their notes and coins towards him, mostly tens, and with his free left hand he places them in the box sitting between his legs, occasionally returning the change as required, and keep adding a disposable paper cup to the tray for each of the ten rupees. He stops collecting notes and coins once he has the tray full – about twenty cups.
When he is happy with what the boil of tea tells him, he reduces the flame to minimum and starts pouring. Almost in the sequence they deposited the money, the hands pick their cups and step back. The last drops from the pan fill the last of the cups in the tray.
The system works.
And before the last cup leaves the tray, he is busy pouring water into the pan and creating his art all over again.
I stand there watching him for a while. He does not speak much. He gives an instruction to a chotu every now and then, other than that he is focused on creating joyful of cups. Twenty or so at a time.
With my cup of joy in one hand, I walk across the road, competing with rickshaws, autos, cars, taxis, and keeping my luggage secure from the visible hands of coolies, who want me to hand my bag to them, and from the invisible hands, who want me to relieve me of the bags.
They have scanning machines now at the entrance. No choice but to feed the bags to the x-ray machine. I walk through the body scanner, which has not worked forever, with my cup.
The train is on the platform. I walk in the direction of my compartment.
At the door I wait. There are a few sips of joy still left in the cup.