Things are different in India: Starbucks vs the chai-wallah

How could something so bland and corporate ever compete with the muzzein-like call of the friendly chai-wallah?

In October, around the same time that Starbucks faced the tar and feathers treatment over tax-avoidance in the UK, it opened shop in India. Pressure groups like UK Uncut vowed to take the protest to the tills. Censured and pilloried, a YouGov poll put Starbucks at a very low "buzz" score.

Things are different in India.

A blind lascivious beggar sings a bhojpuri ditty. Pregnant clouds over Bombay monsoon raindrops like the breasts of Khajuraho; heavy and laden.

It is an overcast afternoon and the sun is no more. Humidity and sweat tugs at the will to go on. A long line of India’s young and trendy in Converse, in UCB, all Adidas and iPhonery wait for their turn at the recently opened Starbucks. Growing up in India, I remember queuing up outside the very first McDonalds in New Delhi for an hour to have a seven-rupee ice cream. KFC took us to giddy heights of rapture. A chicken wing in hand and a glass of frothy Coke in the other, we had arrived. We were no longer Indians any more. We were cosmopolitan Americans.

It didn’t last that long. We fell out of love with the Golden Arches and the Colonel and reverted back to our cuisine. The scales fell and we realised that tandoori chicken, a bit of chilli and a pickled onion on the side was timeless. It was forever.

Similarly, this is still a nation of roadside and railway station chai-wallahs. City workers, students and manual labourers all frequent little shacks by the roadside for a spot of tea dust in hot milk. Corpulent politicians in spotless tunics, world-weary swamis and lecherous vagabonds squat under flimsy tarpaulins with a kulhad of cardamom chai and a slice of wheat rusk; a rare egalitarianism in a country riven by class and caste.The friendly chai-wallah with his muzzein-like call in the morning is a constant in an ever-changing India. Starbucks and a host other shiny coffee-wallahs will never equal the pavement camaraderie.

For now, as the rainwater from the gutter turns from a trickle to a creek and then a river, eunuchs in garish red and green saris huddle together at the chai-wallah's not that far away from the new swish Starbucks in the fashionable Horniman’s Circle. Moments before the downpour they had been collecting bakshish, stopping motorbikes, manhandling pedestrians and molesting the office-wallahs A Sikh auto driver is filing his nails while a showman shares a biscuit with his pet monkey. Under his plastic sheet, the chai-wallah has a harem, his own court. He is a maharajah.

The tea-boy is to Delhi what the cab-driver is to New York and the whistling lothario is to the streets of Rome. Compare his humble tools of the trade to a fancy coffee house; a blackened kettle, a blue sheet of plastic for shelter, watered-down milk in a steel cylinder and jute sacks of spices and tea all strung together on an ancient bicycle. A Starbucks is born out of sharp-suited businessmen deliberating over pre-tax profits and demographics, the soft glow of the interior, the crisp, swirling aroma all scientifically calibrated; the chai-wallahs sprout up at street corners like toadstools with a lust for life.

For now, I can see a steady stream of patrons come out around the corner - from within the dim lights, the swooshing of the espresso machines; european expats in loose trousers, well-scrubbed teenage boys with spiky hair, Bob Marley t-shirts and smart chinos.

For now, I am getting my ear de-waxed by a wandering mendicant in the shelter of the chaiwallah’s tarapaulin and looking over towards Starbucks.

Starbucks, you boring monochrome bag of excrescence.

A chai-wallah makes a brew in the Jari Mari slum, next to Mumbai Airport. Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times