The ethnography of chai, or an anthropology of waiting

I walked into the community centre one day in August to find the team engaged in a meeting with the accounting and finance team of the NGO.

One of the things being discussed was how there were several problems in the way the community organisers were filling out reimbursement vouchers, or finding vendors who would be willing to take payments in cheques (a relatively new policy in the NGO).

Several small vendors in Dharavi, and elsewhere, work informally – they may not have stamps, or visiting cards. And many wouldn’t take cheques, preferring cash instead.

These are the vendors the team buys tea and snacks from during sessions with the community-based volunteers – a very commonplace practice, if not strategic one, in working with communities. A very basic practice in reciprocity, perhaps; but as the meeting progressed, I realised it was a contested one as well.

Given the increasing constraints and guidelines from funding agencies and the finance staff within the NGO, the front-line staff has had to be more ‘accountable’ in their expenses during their community sessions. This includes noting the names, phone numbers, and areas of the women who attend meetings, and the details of the staff members, which is then correlated with the invoice from the vendor (x number of samosas for x number of people, give or take a couple, perhaps).

“People in the community are reluctant to give their names and numbers,” said Pankaj.* They tend to ask questions like ‘do you not trust us?’ which puts the front-line team in an awkward spot: managing the increasingly bureaucratised work cultures of NGOs, but also building and maintaining rapport with the people in the bastis.

Dinesh-ji, the programme’s coordinator, explained that since most of the people in the community work on a voluntary basis they say things like, ‘If we have to sign our names, we don’t want your vada pav!’

Prakash added, “Aur chai toh pilana hi padta hain.” We also have to give them tea.

“Sometimes if we meet 5-10 people in the basti, and stop to have a chat with them, they buy chai for us. So the next time, we need to do that for them as well,” he explained.

Towards the end, the finance team did understand the nuances, but reiterated their concern: budgetary allocations. Perhaps, it was suggested, that the team’s budget could include something for achanak meetings – sudden, or spontaneous, meetings – in the basti.

Dinesh-ji and the team agreed that they would think about this in their next meeting.

***

So far, one of my biggest regrets during this time’s fieldwork is that I’ve not been able to go to a chai shop in Transit Camp, where I had had the best chai in Dharavi last year.

Pranav, a coordinator, had even woken up one of the shopkeepers from his afternoon siesta so that he could make his ‘special chai.’ “The other guy doesn’t make the tea that well,” he said (which is true, as we found out once the hard way – his assistant’s chai was rubbish).

The lane on Dharavi cross road where the community centre and Nagori tea shop are located
The lane on Dharavi Cross Road where the community centre and Nagori tea shop are located. (Photo by author)

In the mornings we usually order chai from a Nagori tea shop located on the same street as the community centre (the NGO’s office in the municipal hospital is equipped with a kitchen – so they have chai nearly all day long). But despite a glass of Nagori cutting chai being 6 rupees, it is not the best service. They’re often late in bringing the tea, do not make sugarless tea, and often mix old tea in the afternoons (the team is currently contemplating moving to another vendor).

Usually, chai is sold in ‘cutting’ glasses – originally attributed to the practice of splitting a cup of tea between two or more people. Drinking chai from a cup and saucer is sophisticated, expensive, and inconvenient for the daily wage worker, the building watchman, the shopkeeper, vegetable vendor, the front-line worker, and the ethnographer.

Many times, chai is also served in unattractive white plastic cups instead of the clear glass – when the chai wallah delivers the tea in a flask to people along the street.

Photo: Jinymystery (Wikimedia Commons)
Cutting chai served in plastic cup (Photo: Jinymystery, Wikimedia Commons)

Nagori chai, however, in itself is deliciously sweet and milky, especially in the rainy mornings (which were few and far between this time), and there’s several other places in Dharavi that serve much better Nagori chai (etymologically, Nagori may refer to a breed of cow, a region in Gujarat, and a former artisanal caste – or so Wikipedia says. But I suspect the Nagori in Nagori chai may probably refer to the milk or the region. Unfortunately, Quora hasn’t answered that question yet).

The chai Pranav and I had last year, I think, was made by a Rajasthani guy. Most chai you find in roadside shops or stalls are pretty generic: sweet, milky, and with spices like elaichi (cardamom) and ginger, but this chai was phenomenally different. And god, I do regret not waking up the shop keeper this time.

***

As I write, I am quite taken aback by my profound lack of knowledge on chai. Because drinking chai is a quintessential part of fieldwork in Mumbai, and perhaps most places in India, it certainly does deserve ethnographic attention (chai has received a lot of historical attention, especially how it was popularised by the British colonial government in India).

One of the more academic accounts on chai that I did find was an article by Philip Lutgenford, who describes his first experiences of drinking chai during travelling in India as thus:

This beverage seemed to be everywhere I traveled – Delhi, Agra, Banaras, Bombay, Pune, and tourist towns in the Himalayan foothills – and was sold in small shops and stalls as well as by itinerant vendors with large aluminum kettles and baskets of tiny, unglazed clay cups […] Indeed, my difficulty in imagining an India without chai – the essential lubricant of nearly all social occasions and commercial transactions, and the quotidian ‘fuel’ of countless rickshaw-wallahs, artisans, and laborers in the ‘casual economy’ – is shared by many Indians today.

In fact, I would say that any account of fieldwork is incomplete without the role caffeinated beverages play in mediating social encounters. We drink chai even when it is 34° C. outside. Or, at times, I prefer south Indian filter coffee (the only shop I’ve had it in Dharavi is at a restaurant in Matunga Labour Camp – and one time, they made it was Nescafe instant). But filter coffee is priced at least four times more than the average cutting chai – and very rarely do you find them across Mumbai (this time on field, though, I did have good filter coffee at the homes of one of the women in the community, where we had taken refuge from the pouring rains, who lives in the Tamil and Kannada-dominated area of Rajabali chawl).

Chai is extremely useful during fieldwork: it helps you stay awake during sessions held in the afternoons (drowsiness is one of the side effects of eating a full lunch); it is a great mediator in building relations with people in the basti – as Pankaj and Dinesh-ji explained during the meeting I started this post with; it is a great way to do ‘timepass’ or loitering (which happens quite a lot during fieldwork, where waiting for something to begin often occupies a lot of time); and finally, it really feels nice, sipping on a hot, milky, sweet and slightly spiced beverage when you’re looking over your field notes.

***

Drinking chai and waiting, then, are two of the most ubiquitous practices that I have observed, and partaken in, during field research – occasionally with a cigarette or bidi, for those who do smoke.

And an ethnographic focus on both can be particularly illuminating: on waiting because it takes up significant time during fieldwork, but not so in a negative way. I have often found moments of waiting to be contemplative: scribbling down reflexive notes, doodling, making sense of older entries, or even outlining possible blog post topics. Or even because that’s one space of have conversations with one’s colleagues about work, asking questions about topics other than those concerned with the research, learning more about them, as they do about you.

As for the focus on chai, well, it makes all of the above even more pleasurable. Or if one is unfortunate, sometimes chai can also be shitty (let’s be honest here). In which case, we just try moving on to the places that do serve good chai.

***

 *I have changed the names of my colleagues to protect their anonymity.

Works Cited

Mridula Chari. 2014. The glorious history of India’s passion for tea, in eight images. Scroll.in. (Link)

Philip Lutgendorf. 2012. Making tea in India: Chai, capitalism, culture. Thesis Eleven.

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