When in Mumbai, “cutting chai to banti hai bhai”

Mumbai monsoon was on the wane. It had a brief spell of rain early morning while I was getting ready for my morning walk. By the time I stepped out of the gate, it had reduced to the mildest of drizzle, something I always love as its droplets go brushing gently against the face, giving a cool, refreshing feeling.

Walking along the picturesque greenery of the Kalanagar road, which houses the elite literary and journalistic fraternity of the metropolis, watching vehicles moving about, carrying especially school kids, and some early office going commuters, I was suddenly reminded of inimitable Gulzar Sahab’s memorable lines in Gharaunda, “In umra se lambi sadakon ko manzil pe pahunchte dekha nahin/ bas duadti phirti rehti hain, humne to thaharte dekha nahin.”

Indeed, the Mumbai roads so aptly reflect the zooming pace and desperation of Mumbai life. But we are not just cement and concrete. We are humans, in flesh and blood and bones. We have a brain that races along with Mumbai pace but which cannot go interminably so. It needs to pause for a while, regain energy and move on again. That ‘pause’ we need so badly is offered by a dose of chai (tea) at some roadside stall. And in Mumbai, chai boley to – ‘cutting chai’. It seems to have become the tagline for middle and lower classes in the town.

I soon found myself passing a chai shop tucked on footpath, resting at the boundary wall of a big building. I have always passed it, watching people sipping their first glass of the day as a routine, but never stopping to join them. Today, my mood swung and I turned towards the shop buzzing with activity.

As I approached the counter, the owner politely asked, “Haan sahab?” “Ek chai, meethi kum rakhna.” I stated my taste. He asked, “Cheeni bilkul nahin?” I said, “Nahi, halki meethi.” And without another word, he got on to the job, pouring milk and water in a pan, putting it on the stove, adding sugar, giving a thorough boil, and finally, pouring out the ‘cutting’ in a small glass, he handed it to me.

I took the first sip cautiously lest I burn my tongue, it was superb, perfect to my taste. I told him so, and he took it with a mild, humble smile. After a few sips more, I said, “I am an outsider, people talk a lot about Mumbai ki ‘cutting chai’. “Ji sahib, yehaan cutting chai aut vada paav bahot chalta hai.” “Achha issme aur normal chai mein kuchh antar hai kya? (Well, is there any difference between this and the normal tea)? He fumbled for an answer, the smile still not leaving his lips. I suggested the most obvious quality, that it was about the small quantity. He nodded in affirmative.

After a few sips more, I asked, “loug cutting kyon letey hain, poori chai ke bajai? (“Why do people take the cutting …instead of the full measure?”) Again the puzzled look, and again my suggestion, “ Samay bachane ke liye. Log bahut jaldi mein rehte hain.” (“To save time. People are in great hurry.”) He agreed.

He asked me where I was from, and I told ‘Kanpur’. Then I questioned him about his gaon (village). He was from Rajasthan near Doongarpur. So this was the secret of the special flavor in his tea. I have been to far off places in Rajasthan, and I have found their tea making of very special quality. I also discovered that his name was Kishen.

I was also carrying my camera. I asked, “If I take a couple of photographs of you and your shop, would you have any objection?” He turned a bit shy, and said it was okay.

I took a couple of his shots, and of his shop from a distance, and finally, one of the glass (my own) that brings Mumbai to its morning cheer, the cutting chai. Incidentally, it was tea-time for Kishen too, and in the pictures, it was he who played the model for his own brand.

Then I got back to Kishen for a final word and payment. As I turned around to pick my glass for the final few sips, I discovered that it was gone, the waiter had already collected it for washing. When he looked at me, he realized his error and an embarrassed, meek look clouded his face. I did not react.

Making the payment, and thanking Kishen, I took my way, with of course, some sweetness and warmth left behind by the humble ‘cutting chai.’


Mumbai's famous cutting chai.

Mumbai’s famous cutting chai.

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——Ashok Misra





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