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28 November 2012

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?

By Ritwik Deo

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.

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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.