In Munnar, a small hill station in Kerala, began my tryst with endless cups of steaming hot chai. Of the many gems which dot the Indian landscape, the chayakada or the local tea shop is the one you’re bound to find in every corner you turn. And that’s how I met masala chai…in a small glass tumbler, on a rickety old bench of a chayakada.
Memories of my first cup of chai come back to me, when I meet the dynamic Mohanettan in the Vasundhara Sarovar Resort in Kerala. On the edge of a lake, he produces cup after cup of steaming hot tea, in his quaint chayakada. Supported by the resort, this little tea shop is modelled on the typical chayakada of Kerala, and run singlehandedly by Mohanettan — quite a feat for a man his age.
Let me tell you a few things I discovered about chayakadas over the years. One, they are small and unassuming. Two, that’s something which makes them even more charming. Three, they have a constant flow of two kinds of visitors — the ‘wanderers’ who stumble upon it, and the ‘regulars’ who are permanent fixtures, both brought together by a cup of chai.
I sit in Mohanettan’s chayakada and discuss everything from global warming to Onam sadya with him. He also tells me about himself and his family — how he was a fisherman from Vayalar before his job at Vasundhara. He speaks of a nephew in the gulf and a cousin in Delhi. I smiled and thought of how back in university, in the heart of north India, I came across a chayakada! They say there is a Malayalee chayakada in any part of the world you go to — Timbuktu or Tokyo — and probably even on the moon!
Biting into a soft, warm pazham pori, a banana fritter, that Mohanettan serves me, my mind goes back to Munnar, where I had my first cup of tea. The little shop was made of wooden planks, and covered by an asbestos roof. Mist clung to the sylvan hills surrounding us, and a light drizzle fell continuously — leaking right through the roof at some points. I, a “wanderer”, sat waiting for my tea, in the company of the “regulars”, a band of local men, who were vehemently discussing the day’s front page. Lungis folded up, and cups in hand, the group argued in voices loud enough to give prime time TV debates a run for their money. The day’s special, parippu vada, would come free with your glass of chai, said a small blackboard in Malayalam. As the water for my chai bubbled, the chayakada owner added a healthy sprinkle of tea leaves to it, and within minutes I had before me, a cup of masala tea spiced with cardamom and cinnamon — one sip and I knew I could easily become a ‘regular’.
As I asked for another cup, the men had moved to a new and unexpected topic: me. Where are your from, what do you do, how old are you, do you think the Mars Orbiter will make it back to earth successfully? What is your view on the present political scenario? Questions hit me from all sides, and I smiled, thinking to myself: step one to becoming a ‘regular’.
chai : tea
chayakada : teashop
masala chai : spiced tea
ettan : elder brother
sadya : traditional feast
lungi : a traditional garment worn by men in South India
parippu vada : daal or pulse fritter