City Hangout – Chacha Chaiwale, Haveli Bakhtavar Street
A hyperlocal tea house.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He can easily pass off as a barista serving the poetic world of ghazals and nazms. Seated beside his coffee machine, the gracious-seeming man in long beard is wearing a small skull cap, a loose flowing shalwar suit, and looks like a figure from a world peopled with poets like Ghalib and Zauq.
Some places are so marked with distinct character, their ambiance so transportive that they immediate plunge the visitor into a setting totally different from the rest of the surroundings.
Chacha Chaiwale’s, or tea man uncle’s, establishment in Old Delhi is one of these dreamlands.
Tucked into the narrow Haveli Bakhtavar lane, the stall is only a few steps away from the historic Jama Masjid, and its vibes are as confident as that of the red sandstone monument.
Facing the hole-in-the-wall Rafiouddin Qureshi Meat Shop, the chai destination consists of a raised metal slab, planked across the pavement, on which Chacha Chaiwale sits. His real name is Hajji Waziruddin. “I acquired the title of Hajji after performing the hajj in 1992,” he says in a most polite tone. That was also the year when he started this tea stall. Earlier, this same spot hosted his family-run ice-selling trade. “That line was started by my father before 1947,” says the gentleman.
The fact that the origins of this pavement landmark goes back to such a long-ago time infuses it with venerable dignity. Even an ignorant person, accidentally passing through the cramped alley, can easily sense the stall’s rootedness to the area — as if it had sprung from the very soil of the street. Just like two of the street’s other equally distinguished landmarks—the aforementioned meat shop (born 40 years ago) and Hilal Hotel (35 years ago).
Hajji Waziruddin’s personality also plays a role in making the mood of his establishment so unforgettable. His face glows in utmost calmness. He speaks in flawless Urdu—it is hard to hear such diction in Old Delhi these days (Chacha is equally adept in Old Delhi’s present-day colourful street lingo). You also have to look at his hands. The fingers are decked with shining rings—“each concerns a mannat (prayer) that has been fulfilled.” And this morning his long beard is tied by a band, as if it were a pony tail.
Being a pious man, Hajji Waziruddin is often seen holding his tasbih, the chain of prayer beads. Though right now it is hanging off a hook on the coffee machine. “I serve (butter) coffee in the winter… there’s no demand for it these days… so I make only chai.”
The stall’s side wall is also an important character in the silent theatricality of the place. It unfolds to the viewer like a work of art. The wall is cluttered with all sorts of knickknacks gathered by Chacha Chaiwale over the years: shop license, prayer calendar, a clock, a teeny-weeny fan, a set of rusting keys, a metal stand to stack white thermacol glasses… even the wall color is something to sing about. It must have been painted blue in some other era, but now it has a shade you might not find in any sophisticated painting catalogue.
Additionally, a long metal bench is laid out beside the stall, presumably for customers to sit. One could spend hours on it, gazing at the alley life of passersby — that include timid goats and brazen rats.
One day, whenever possible, do drop by Chacha Chaiwale’s. The stall opens daily at 5 am. “It closes at 1 am but these days I shut off at 9 pm due to the pandemic.”
And yes, the chai is tasty. But in a place crammed with so many exquisite details, the quality of the chai frankly doesn’t matter.