03/365 – A Cup of Chai
I photographed the man in this picture as he squatted on a busy street corner with a small, plastic cup full of chai in his hand. There was chaos around him with various cars and yellow and black tuk-tuks covered in dust, honking and trying to get past each other as throngs of people and a handful of street dogs meandered through the traffic to get to where they needed to be. Life was bustling all around him, but the man squatted there, one hand casually resting on his knee, oblivious of the noise or the people or anything else, ready for his mid-morning cup of chai.
On various street corners in India one can see chai stalls with a large pot sitting over a single gas burner, simmering all day. When a customer approaches, the chaiwallah will take some chai from the large pot into two small steel vessels and start the process of quickly pouring the hot liquid back and forth from one vessel into the other. Depending on what area of town one is in, this can be quite a show, with the chaiwallah stretching one arm as high as it will go to pour the concoction in a thin stream into the small vessel resting in his other hand held down low. After being transferred back and forth for the amount of time deemed necessary by the chaiwallah, the chai, now creamy and frothy, is poured into small red earthenware or clear plastic cups, and handed over to the customer who eagerly awaits his fix.
In India chai is a central part of life regardless of how hot or cold it is, regardless of social status or wealth, and regardless of where you are or what you happen to be doing. It is the common thread that pulls together various pieces of this complex patchwork quilt that is India.
Chai in India is very different from the powdered stuff added to hot water that one gets at coffee shops back home. Real chai, is made of black tea boiled together with creamy whole milk and infused with whole or crushed spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and ginger, and loaded with good old fashioned white sugar. Of course times have changed and people may now use brown sugar or agave instead of white sugar and skim or low-fat milk instead of whole milk, but the actual ritual of stopping what you’re doing and and having a cup of chai, even if it is squatting on a street corner, is alive and well.