Sunday, 14 September 2014

Reclaiming the chai tapri - Neha Singh

I had always been fascinated with chai tapris, whether in Bombay, Delhi or the ones in my hometown, Haldwani. Whenever my family went to Nainital, Ranikhet, Almorah or the other mountain towns, we always stopped at the beautiful mud sheds, with creaky old benches and breathtaking views of the hills for some chai and pakodas.
In Bombay, minus the breathtaking views, the chai tapris seemed welcoming and peaceful, with the sound of ginger being crushed and the vadas and samosas frying away in the large kadhais. I saw most of these tapris buzzing with people. Men in groups, men alone, men devouring four-five cups of chai with samosas and discussing topics as far and wide as politics, films, cricket, their own professional and personal lives. I saw these chai tapris come alive early in the morning, groggy eyed men sitting around in their shorts and flip flops, sipping that glorious first garam chai of the day, reading newspapers or quietly contemplating their day's to-do lists.
As evening approached, the tapris were abuzz again. I was fascinated with the amounts of chai that must come out of that one big pan in one day. A thousand cups? Five thousand, even? All consumed by people that were not there just for the chai, but also for the sense of brotherhood, of belonging, of having someone to talk with, or just being able to step out of the house for an activity as mundane or as beautiful, as having a cup of tea. The tapris shut shop only in the night, serving that last cup of chai to that customer who enjoys his tea past dinner time.
I wondered why I never saw any women at these tapris? I did see a woman or two in so many years, but never as a trend, never as a space that belonged to women as much as men, and definitely, never, a woman alone.
When I moved to Goregaon West, BEST colony, I discovered a beautiful chai tapri a stone's throw away from my home. Just a young man making chai on the pavement, right next to an old tree. Behind him was a staircase with about six long steps, and on these steps sat the customers. Young men, old men, middle aged men, devouring cups of chai. Whenever I crossed the tapri, I had an urge to go and park myself on the steps and have a cutting chai. It just seemed so inviting. But I never did so, because I never saw a woman sit on those steps for a chai.
Fortunately, I was in a relationship at that time, and I coaxed my boyfriend to accompany me to the tapri. He ordered two cups and we sat down on the steps, looking at the old tree and the road ahead, with all the vegetable vendors, tiny grocery shops, egg sellers, bakery go about their business as we sipped on the chai.
There is something very beautiful about this tapri. In a city always running from one place to another, always in a rush, this tapri seemed to help us slow down a bit. It, in a way, sent out the message that it is okay to just sit, look at the rest of the world go by, while you enjoy your chai and stare into nothingness right ahead of you.
It became a routine for us to go to the tapri in the evenings, and we also made friends with some of the other tapri-goers. I loved this daily outing more than anything.
And then, one fine day, my boyfriend and I broke up! And among all the other intense emotions my heart and mind were dealing with, there was this nagging question at the back of it all, who will accompany me to the chai tapri now? It's not a priority, I tried consoling myself, but I missed the tapri so much.
I stopped going, but one day as I was buying vegetables from the vendor, I saw some of the regular tapri-goers and they invited me to sit and have a cup. I accepted the invitation and tentatively sat down on those beautiful steps, devoured that cup that I had longed for, and left soon after. Why did I leave so soon? I wanted to stay and look at the old tree, the pavement, contemplate on things.
By now I had figured out the schedules of the tapri goers and would venture out on some pretext or the other at the perfect time. Someone or the other would invite me to come and have a cup and I would innocently accept the offer. Soon, my stays became longer, more chatty and I became friendly and comfortable with the tapri goers. Some of them were actors, some writers, theatre enthusiasts. I started spending most of my evenings at the tapri, chatting sometimes, quiet at other times, gently nursing my broken heart.
Then one day I came out of home, craving the chai and the time at the tapri, and to my horror, there were just some other random men sitting there, none of the tapri-goers. I headed home, disappointed.
I came up with a strategy. As soon as it would be tapri time, I would call up one of the regulars, and ask him if he was, by any chance, headed to the tapri. If he said yes, I would accompany him, if no, then I would call someone else and see if he was going. The strategy worked and I resumed my regular tapri outing.
Over the months I developed a strong sense of association with the tapri. It was healing me. It was helping me not feel so lonely. Sometimes I reflected upon my life, my goals, my dreams, staring at the old tree. Sometimes I laughed so much at the funny conversations that I felt refreshed and alive. Sometimes the tapri goers didn't let me pay for my chai, on other occasions I bought pakodas and offered those to everyone as an accompaniment with the chai. Everyone knew my name, I knew everyone's name, I also now knew the name of the person who made the chai. One day, I said 'Mukesh, ek cutting dena' and it felt so good that it became my opening line most evenings.
I sat up at night one day and thought, why do I need someone to be there at the tapri? Can't I go there, alone, just with myself?
I had a breakthrough. I decided to go to the tapri alone. I did. And none of the familiar faces were there. I hesitated for a moment, and then walked towards it with confidence, parked myself on the highest step and said 'Mukesh, ek cutting dena.' The skies didn't shower flowers, the traffic didn't stop, no one froze and looked at me, there wasn't an applause, but somewhere inside me, I had become my own, personal hero.
I sat and drank that chai, with a plate of pakodas. Some passersby stared, but I didn't care. But I didn't stay too long either. The next day, I repeated my heroism, sat a little longer, a little less tentatively. The day after, a little more confident, a little longer.
Months have gone by, its always great to hang out with the regular tapri goers, but its also a beautiful feeling to sit alone, early in the morning or late in the evening, sip on that cutting chai, contemplate on things, look at the world rush by, without a care in the world.
The tapri has now become an extension of my home. I don't worry about what I am wearing, how I sit, how long I sit for, whether my eyes seem vacant or purposeful, who is sitting besides me. No one stares at me anymore, they all know I am just another person who likes her chai at the tapri.

Inviting women friends to the tapri


  1. So heartwarming, simple and affirming. And an eye opener that so many things that I as a guy, take for granted are huge challenges for women in this country. So so sad, but unfortunately true.

    More power to you and your ilk

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  2. It's not easy being a woman, specially in a public space, putting oneself up for scrutiny, one's intentions being examined, movements being constantly monitored. Thank you for writing this and more power to you, Neha !

  3. Awesome read Neha! Great narrative and loved how you wove your thoughts with such simplicity. I could visualize it. I have never stopped at a chai tapri, but definitely at all vada pav thelas from Juhu to Vile-Parle until 25 years ago. Keep up the good work!

  4. even in a city like Mumbai, girls have to plan for a cutting chai at a tapri. well done Neha, you did it. now go for a movie alone or treat yourself at a nice restaurant, eat a paan after lunch if you like. all the best. you put it down really well.

  5. This was a beautiful read! I'm recommending it to another tapri lover friend of mine, knowing she will love it, too :)

  6. Thank you Poonam, Ashwini, Mrin and Gargi, for your encouraging words. :) and do write in to us with your own stories of claiming public spaces at

  7. I am from Sri Lanka. I was travelling in Bombay and Delhi recently. I used to take walks in the mornings and late evenings, specially in Bombay. Everytime I go on a walk, I stopped by a tapri chai place and tasted delicious chai.

  8. Love the narration, so much I can connect to myself. - Himadri