City Hangout – Muhammed Irfan’s Chai Stall, Outside Jama Masjid
Chai with a view.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The sun is rising behind the distant Red Fort. Its grainy golden shine is falling softly on the centuries-old stone steps of Jama Masjid (gate no. 3). Oblivious to the new daylight, scores of homeless people continue to sleep on the vast ground beneath the great mosque. The world still seems to be at rest. Except for Muhammed Irfan’s chai shop. It opens at 5 in the morning and has already served several rounds of chai to the early birds.
This has to be Delhi’s most idyllic tea stall, in terms of its location. It consists of a plain counter with two wooden benches facing the Jama Masjid, which stands a few steps away. The stall itself is nestled into the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shahid, the Sufi mystic who was executed by Emperor Aurangzeb. One of Hazrat Sarmad’s great devotees was freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. His garden tomb is partly visible from the stall.
There’s another remarkable aspect of the chai place. The wall behind the counter has a pair of mashaks—goatskin bags of yesteryears—hanging from the hooks. They belong to two elderly brothers who frequently fill the bags with water, drawn the old-fashioned way from a well inside the aforementioned shrine. The brothers then wear the mashak around their shoulder, like a pithu bag, and spray the dusty ground in front of the tea stall with the dargah’s cool water. This morning one of the brothers is sitting behind the counter, sewing a torn mashak. Here’s a scene straight out of 17th century Delhi.
And then there’s the tea man, Irfan Khan, who with his long white beard, endearing smile, and a worn out hookah is himself a sight. Founded 40 years ago by his father, Bashir Ahmad, the stall teems with customers throughout the day. The extreme nearness to the imposing Jama Masjid often stuns the tea drinkers into silence.
Soon the winter will arrive and patrons to the stall will be draped in shawls and blankets, their cold hands gratefully holding on to the steaming hot chai. The stall stays open till midnight, glowing in the dark like a lighthouse in the sea.
The mother of all tea stalls