Where Is My Chai? The Indian Street Vendor: Ultimate survivor, innovator, scapegoat and economic catalyst

Sanjeev Shankar

Sanjeev Shankar was born in Nilgiris, India. A traveler, provocateur and creator, Sanjeev's talent lies in fusing polar extremes and building bridges into the unknown. With a background in design, craft and architecture, Sanjeev attempts to merge traditional crafts based knowledge with contemporary and emerging cultural and technological tendencies. His recent works include the We all fly project in Toowoomba, Jugaad project in New Delhi, Silent rivers project in Brussels, WcCafe project in Singapore, Bi-cultural footwear project in Bombay and the Chai project in Delhi.

If I were to convey the experience of enjoying a cup of spiking hot masala chai in a cold Delhi winter with a group of strangers sitting crouched on the mud floor discussing the latest political developments, accompanied by Indian cinematic music playing in the backdrop, it would bring back memories of the entire north Indian belt and the vibrant energy on its streets. The idea of chai is greater than the image or sound of chai. Chai is synonymous with “goodness” and “gladness.” It builds relationships and erases boundaries and subtle biases beyond colour, caste or creed. Further, with the price pegged at Rs 2/- or Rs 3/-, money becomes irrelevant in a chai joint, with the service and product being affordable to anyone. Often, the extent of camaraderie is so infectious that the vendor willingly logs the tea in his “account book” or offers it “on the house,” the latter happening during festivals or on the rare occasion of the Indian cricket team doing well. I am often tempted to equate the dynamics of democracy in a nation to the number of chai joints on the streets.

Food is a great medium through which to go beyond time and space and meditate on one of the most sensuous pleasures of life. It helps us bond and reconnect with our past and with our childhood in a deeply holistic way. Words like garam and kadak are often directly associated with chai; chat patta or khatta meetha with gol gappas and bhel puri. Such words trigger innumerable variations in a single recipe and take customization and communication to a different level. These are the ultimate references for food and experience design and hold in their fold stories of India and its glorious heritage.

Steaming idlis with hot sambar and spicy coconut chutney laid out on fresh banana leaves. South Indian filter coffee, popularly known as kappi placed in traditional stainless steel tumblers. Classical Indian melody playing as a backdrop. Early morning office-goers, attired in traditional whites awaiting their turn at a popular roadside cafe in Kerala. Seven hundred miles away, Bombayites similarly have a wonderful range of delicacies to choose from as they return from a tiring day’s work. From fresh fruit salads to a riot of traditional recipes – vada pao, sev puri, aloo tikki, papri chaat, daal pakora and paani puri – the spirited theatrical display of the Indian street vendor has no culinary parallel.

Observing and investigating Indian street vendors led me to reflect on the changing values and economic dichotomies found in Indian cities today: conceptions of public space and ownership; definitions of “beauty” and “success”; the urge for growth, cleanliness, and efficiency. Indian street vendors and the food they sell came to highlight for me a shift in the pace of urban life; one that encompasses the clash of rich and poor, of rural and urban, of literate and semi-literate, and ultimately, stories of stark survival on the streets. It became a rediscovery of the numerous layers that make up urban India, of the relationship between its cities and the countryside, and above all the food and culture of its people.

Street vendors are essentially self-employed people who earn their living by selling products and services on the streets. Their service is characterised by the absence of fixed prices and brands. Here nothing is standardised. Often hailing from rural India, they remain firmly rooted in their tradition and culture and help create a theatre for the senses on the city roads. These vendors may be constantly on the move or they can be stationary, selling from a fixed place in a market or on the roadside. The social and economic dynamism which this informal sector creates within the wider system is indispensable. A highly flexible, informal and evolved group, they generate a melting pot on the streets.

A typical street vendor could be a traditionally-dressed lady selling vegetables on the street or a small girl selling flowers in a local train. He could be sharpening knives at a busy road crossing or giving a shave under a well-shaded tree. She could be selling homemade traditional sweets or singing folk songs on a packed local train in Bombay. He could be making fresh juices for tired pedestrians in Delhi or offering juicy melons at busy red light junctions in a hot summer. He could be a smart entrepreneur with innovative solutions for repairing old electronics or a palmist inspiring your next business decision. He could be any or all of these.

Vir Singh is 62 years old and has been selling dry fruits from the same spot in Fountain, Bombay for the last 42 years. He hails from Jaipur, Rajsthan. His day begins at seven in the morning at Kalyan and he reaches Victoria Terminus using the local train by nine. His wife joins him at four in the afternoon and they return home together at nine in the evening. He personifies the image of a larger-than-life figure: the wrinkled, weathered look, timeless, regionalised features, and mature expression. He has been following the same routine for all these years along with his wife and eight kids who are also in the same profession. He is content but misses home.

Rani is a 36-year-old traditional and respectful lady with a twelve-year-old son. She sells samosas in the labyrinthine streets of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. Her day begins at five in the morning when she spends two hours to prepare the filling and dough for the samosas in her fifteenth-century dilapidated room for which she pays Rs 5/- monthly rent. The entire day is spent away from home in the hot sun, selling samosas with green chatni. Her son joins her after school hours. Eviction threats are a constant occupational hazard. Her day finally ends at 9:30 p.m.

Reflecting rural India, street vendors bring with them a core system of trust and interdependence – essential qualities for a city to survive. They constitute a motivated and sophisticated group with an informal and natural approach to their work, demonstrating a high degree of innovation and professionalism with a wonderful personal touch. As such they encourage an atmosphere of easy human bonding. I have closely witnessed these relationships and value them for their spontaneity and genuineness. Street vendors create their own employment and reduce poverty. They trigger economic growth, reflect the culture and tradition of rural India and through this create a differentiated urban identity. Seen as representative of social interaction as a whole in urban India, they symbolise an active link between the modern and traditional, formal and informal, public and private, trade and production. These interactions manifest in different ways: often fertile and meaningful, they occasionally turn confrontational. Street vendors are constantly used as scapegoats by city forces as sources of chaos, filth and pollution. Subjected to eviction threats, their legal status and very existence is constantly being questioned by almost all the pressure groups within the city – the police, municipality, politicians, real estate agents, private shop owners, vehicle owners and modern mall developers.

Broken eggs, cracked ribs, flowing milk, angry blood, silence and more silence.

I stand naked in the middle of New Delhi, surrounded by desolation all around. No longer do I see a splash of colour, the tinkle of myriad sounds, a mix of attires, and the extremes of taste. No longer do I see people idyllically playing marbles by the bus stop or discussing politics next to the paan vendor. There are no “chilled out” cows, overzealous monkeys or curious dogs on the streets. Where is the balloon vendor outside the school? Where is the fresh lime juice vendor outside the bus stop? Where is the sweet seller inside the train? Where is my beloved chaiwalla? They have all gone, in a single stroke: purged for creating discomfort and being detrimental to the pace of “growth” which we eagerly want and are getting accustomed to.

Today I witnessed a municipality truck with five officials in South Delhi, picking up vendor carts at random. They took away the utensils and the stock. Other officials decided to use their sticks to beat up vendors and break their eggs. They finally drove away with apparent glee. I had been acquainted for several weeks with one of the vendors they attacked. Many say that Delhi is only going to be for the rich from now on. My barber tells me how everyone wants to rid Delhi of its “ills” and make it like Europe. Others say this with a sense of pride: this is “progress”, they say; “we will soon be like the West”. They all say this – politicians, transport authorities, municipal bodies and the police.

I am not recounting a nightmare. If all goes as planned by the authorities, Indian cities will soon be as sterile and desolate as they are in the West, and our obsession with cleansing – our persistence to rid the system of its variables – will be at the core of this. Since when did India become so intolerant? Since when did India so acutely want to run at a pace which is detrimental to its own diversity and sustenance? Isn't this a colonial hang-up? Our colonisers associated higher social status with the “progressive and superior” colonial cultural practices, labelling the traditional practices as “native.” While the gap between the Westernised faction and the natives was showing clearly before 1947, it is more wide than ever in the current situation. Along with growing monetary clout the western section of India comprises the educated middle and upper middle class. They have the voice and the medium to spread their voice. Their convictions are heard and often accepted as a rule. I have to acknowledge that Delhi is by no means representative of India, but it certainly drives national opinion along with other major cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Chennai, and recently Bangalore, Poona, Hyderabad and Chandigarh.

Meanwhile, my vendor is back the next morning. I am impressed and inquire how many times this has happened, and he says with defiance, “three times in the last two months.” I ask him, “Don't you pay money to the cops and the authorities?” He answers, “of course, we even pay in kind, but there is still no guarantee.” The cart is from his friend, a fresh juice vendor. The fresh juice business is not very popular in winters. I am told the municipality truck picked up 12 carts yesterday. There are no eggs today since all were broken in the clash. I am told that the eggs will arrive soon. Meanwhile he lights a fire with the waste paper lying around to warm up the place for everyone. This attracts students, construction workers, security guards, house maids and soon the greetings give way to top news stories – from discussions about the cheapest car in the world to the most economical place to stay in Delhi. People are enjoying their early morning masala chai again. Suddenly a brilliantly dressed doctor comes from the hospital behind and orders the vendor to bring 10 cups of hot tea and three omelettes into the conference room. I look at the doctor, while the vendor is furiously working on the order. He later gives me the honour of making my own omelet. I am grateful, and realise there is a wonderful method on these streets, a system in place and a deep sense of balance. Street Vendors live in the present and thrive amidst contradictions and complexities. We, the people, love them and value them.


Provide link to pdf file on groworld – urban permaculture?

Boil 3 cups water

Add 2 tsp tea leaves and 4 tsp sugar

2 crushed cardamoms and 2 cloves

½ inch slice of crushed fresh ginger

4 leaves of fresh basil

Bring to a boil and add 1 cup milk

Boil a few times till the right fragrance and colour is achieved

Strain and serve in earthen cups for four people

  • luminous/shankar_where_is_my_chai.txt
  • Last modified: 2010-02-06 04:38
  • by alkan