You can’t go more than half a block without passing a chai wallah, seated under a tree or up against a wall, selling India’s signature brew at three or four rupees per cup. Milk, tea dust, sugar, spices, boiled over a gas flame; it’s one of the few street delicacies that even tourists feel comfortable with, as they can watch it boiled to sanitary perfection right in front of them.
Halfway down the street from our office sits a chai wallah named Lakshan. My company used to contract him to dispense fresh chai throughout the office four or five times a day. But then HR bought a chai machine, and Lakshan’s contract was cancelled in favor of lukewarm, powdered goop. So instead of Lakshan coming to us, we go to him.
He sits on the sidewalk a few buildings down, surrounded by bags of cigarette singles, gutka packets, fried sandwiches, biscuits, and other bits and bobs. He obviously has some agreement with the management of that building, because he’s got a little cement alcove for his stove, and he’s constantly going in and out of the building’s courtyard to get water.
It’s not a one-man operation; his twelve-year-old son, whom I’m told is named Raju, works with him. We calculate that Lakshan clears maybe 400 rupees a day after expenses—$240 a month. With that money he has to support his wife and at least one child, feed them, clothe them, put a roof over his head; he probably can’t afford an employee that would allow his son to go to school.
Watching him make tea is watching an expert at work. His hands move automatically, measuring tea and sugar in his palms, crunching cardamom and sometimes ginger with a rock, boiling it, and pouring it into the little plastic cups, through a sieve, without spilling a drop.
Lakshan is at his station before I get to work and is still there when I leave. It’s possible he lives nearby; more likely, he and his son sleep right there on the sidewalk during the week and, on Sunday, when the offices in the area are closed, go home and enjoy a day of well-deserved rest.