Friday, September 9, 2011

Tea Time in Karol Bag

A few weeks ago, I was in Delhi.

I was staying in a seedy hotel, a short walk away from the one street "Boulevard" of the famous Karol Bag market. It is a really curious place to hang out at. I have been lately complaining about the disappearance of the old India, that I miss so much. If you ever go to Karol Bag, you will see a strange sight. A street-side temple of the Hindu god Ram, replete with marble tiles, and bright colors, is located next to a few juice stalls, and an open drain. Located right across the street from this homage to the old hero of Indian culture, is an ATM, perhaps, the only one in the market. To say hello to God, you just need to walk in. To withdraw money from the cash machine, you need to first stand in a line, and then, walk up a short flight of stairs. Just like you would do, in the old days of the old India, when you wanted to say hello to God.

In most Indian cities, it almost seems like the grand lady of old India was a little careless, bathing at the pond. And, a hungry crocodile didn't want to miss out on the great opportunity of a free meal. If Bangalore is the city, where it looks like the crocodile had a hearty meal, Karol Bag in Delhi, is the place where you will see most of the torso still  hanging outside the crocodile's jaws. But the head and the shoulders, alas, have fallen, to the crocodile of development.

Macabre comparisons aside, it is quite an interesting place. Really.

There are rows after rows of stores that sell the same thing. If they ever taught you about product differentiation in a kick-ass business school, Karol Bag is not the place to try it.  There are big shops, really big ones, that stock spices to make Punjabi pickles. Row after row, shelf after shelf, shop after shop. That's all they sell -- spices to make Punjabi pickles. And, if you pause in front of the door for a few minutes, wondering who in the world would buy that stuff, you might get trampled by a healthy looking family of Sikh ladies and gentlemen -- on their way to pickle heaven. I almost got away with my limbs intact. And then, I decided to look for tea.

It was quite interesting, walking up and down the Boulevard, like the Chicanos used to, with no tea in sight. Most shopkeepers didn't seem to have a clue about where to find tea in Karol Bag. There was a Starbucks like phenomenon close to where I was standing, but I wouldn't be caught dead drinking tea in a place like that. And, pay close to a hundred bucks for that nefarious concoction they like to call tea. I was almost beginning to wonder if the people in Delhi didn't drink any tea. Or if they did, perhaps, they didn't care much about the quality. Or the price.

And then, I thought about asking a street-side vendor, about where I could find tea. Real Desi tea, with lots of milk and sugar.  The guy casually pointed me to a narrow alleyway between two rows of shops and said, "Ask for pundit, he makes the best tea in Karol Bag. Remember to ask for the Aam Aadmi ki Chai (common man's tea)"

Now that, got me curious. Common man's tea?

If the sun has already set for the day in the great city of Delhi, that alleyway, is a place you simply don't want to step into. Trust me on that one. But then, at the end of a row of shops, I discovered a small hole in the wall, where Mr. Pundit had a nifty little arrangement going on. He had two kerosene stoves, with pans full of boiling liquids in them. One was close to where the customers would stand, the other was a little away. Both, seemed to have tea in them. When I asked him for tea, he asked very casually, "Aam chai, ya khas chai? (Common tea, or special tea?)".

Now, Delhi, is a city of common people and special people. The Mughals, in their famous courts, had a Diwan-e-aam (Court for the common people) and a Diwan-e-khas (Court for the special people). So, I thought, why should Mr. Pundit's tea shop be any different? But then, in the past, I have drunk special things, mixed in common drinks. Perhaps, you have read my past post on Bhang (crushed cannabis leaves mixed in a sweet drink), during Holi, when I almost attained seventh heaven, albeit, for a few seconds. So, I asked Mr. Pundit, what the difference was. Between common tea, and special tea. The man is very reticent, and I don't think he felt it was worth the effort taxing his vocal cords, for a commoner like me. So, for seven bucks, he poured me a cup of the common man's tea, and that, would have been the end of it.

But then, a few of his customers walked in, after I did, and all of them asked for the special tea. They all had one thing in common -- they weren't exactly the kind of people, that you would invite home for tea. Some had red eyes and unshaven faces, and some, complained about life and wife, in no particular order --  in the famous street language of Delhi. With multiple references to the sisters and mothers of people I didn't know, in ways, that I wouldn't call too kind. So, I assumed that these were special people -- with special needs for special tea. And by now, I was not sure if I really wanted a cup of the special tea.

After I finished my cup, I tried to poke Mr. Pundit again. One last time. So, I asked him about the difference between the common tea and the special tea.

"Pundit jee, hamara desh to aam aadmion ka desh hai,  phir aap khas chai kyon bechte hain? (Mr. Pundit, ours is a country of common people, then, why do you sell special tea?)"

Without batting an eyelid, the reticent Mr. Pundit said, "Yeh Dehli hai saab, yahan bahut khas aadmi rahte hain. (Sir, this is Delhi. A lot of special people live here)."


  1. //And, pay close to a hundred bucks for that nefarious concoction they like to call tea. //

    Couldnt agree more ! :D I mean why would they waste so much money on that venomous drink *wonders*

  2. Dear Pathfinder: Not all tea is venomous. And we do get to pick our poison from time to time, don't we? :-)