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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder