In Hindi, a wallah is someone makes or sells a certain good. Chai means tea. A chai wallah is person who makes or sells tea—or both! But in India, chai isn’t simply tea, a hot drink made with water and leaves. Nor is it a “chai tea latte,” the popular beverage sold at coffee chains that is often made from a concentrate. Chai wallahs in India brew their chai fresh all day, every day, using tea, ginger root, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and many other spices depending on the region. Since the British helped popularize tea in India, chai wallahs have been setting up stands throughout the country and caffeinating the population, one small cup at a time.
A decade ago, chai was barely known to Western consumers. Today, millions order chai lattes at coffee shops, and ready-made mixes line the shelves of supermarkets. But in India, chai is more than a trend. It is an integral part of the rhythm of life, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the seaside megacity of Mumbai to the call centers and factories driving India’s economic rise — a constant, unifying presence in a profoundly diverse country. And behind each cup of Indian chai, whether served in a flimsy plastic cup, earthenware clay pot or silver-plated kettle, is a chai wallah. The same way New York cab drivers might be able to tell the story of the city through their interactions with customers, chai wallahs can tell the story of India in all its complexity.