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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.