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
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.