Chai wallah — brewing as an art form

The following account is extracted from an early draft of The Novice.

Next morning I ventured out for breakfast and took chai and chapatti at the smallest shop I’d ever been in – a literal hole in the wall. Two benches were wedged against the rounded walls, each seating two people, and a tiny, energetic fire burned in a hollow in the floor. The chai wallah had the air of a maître d’art, his instrument a long-handled pan and his materials two jugs, of water and milk, and two tins, of tea and sugar, and a small glass of cardamom seeds. Sitting straight-backed and haughty on his haunches he watched the tea and water come to a boil, added milk and sugar and threw in a pinch of cardamom. He twirled the pan constantly, shifting the handle from one practised wrist to the other while reaching forward, sideways and sometimes backwards for a jug, can or glass. His eyes moved away from the pan only to fix a customer in fleeting acknowledgement of an order, or payment. He added fuel constantly to the flames, keeping them contained and steady. Holding a pan in each hand, he poured the mixture from one to the other in long, sweeping arcs until the tea was scalding and frothy, then placed the steaming glass grudgingly before the unworthy customer.

Intrigued by this unsmiling da Vinci of the chai shop, I remained absorbed for several minutes. Eventually I looked up at the other customers, who chattered and sipped their chai indifferently, ignorant of the lowly vendor who held them in silent contempt. In them I saw myself, sitting in a Gloucester café, eyes glazed over, inured to the mundane – a Stephen who’d succeeded with flying colours, who fell into the mould and was rewarded with a job, wife and mortgage, who became contentedly ignorant of the mysterious world and the universe of possibilities and sank into the soft pleasures of life.


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