City Hangout – Kaley Tea Stall, Near Turkman Gate
A homey tea house.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The air is foggy. It’s not the pollution, but the steam from piping hot chai boiling in a pan.
This is an extremely buzzy tea house. And it’s extensive. Tables are dispersed across its corners and niches. The large counter is topped with rows of small plates, each with a buttered bun. Customers are trooping in, some are trooping out. Each new person seems to be habitual to the place, entering almost unconsciously, as if stepping inside their house.
Kaley Tea Stall does feel like home, even to a first-timer. The vibes are intimate. You feel some mysterious connection to these walls with their mosaic of faded multicoloured tiles, to the chippy blue tables, and to the tatty menu on the wall.
Just what is it about this tea house that puts one at ease? Is it the friendly Pervez quietly attending to the chai? Is it the homey sight of eggs and chopped pyaaz? A separate counter is dedicated to masala omelette under the supervision of cook Muhammed Habeeb. Or can it be the cashier at the counter — Virender Kumar — who chats with customers with such casual affection, as if we were his village cousins?
This tea house has been at Old Delhi’s Turkman Gate for more than 80 years. It is perhaps the only place in the conservative Walled City that is managed by a woman. Though this evening, Ms Nasreen is at her home in nearby Bulbuli Khana. The tea house was opened by her “sasur” Muhammed Hafeez. He named it after his son, now deceased.
To tell you the truth, the chai establishment looks like a hole in the wall from the street outside. Only upon entering, you get a sense of its labyrinthine scope. The front area is claimed by a bench. Deeper inside lie more tables, one of which is scooped into a cozy chamber. Sitting there gives a thrill of being incognito. As if you were the target of a James Bond-like chase in the Old Delhi alleys moment back, and are now safely hidden.
This moment, two men have taken over a corner table, their caps are placed beside their chai glasses. With a chuckle, they introduce themselves as best friends, saying, “Hum do hanso ke jode hain (we are a pair of swans).”
The shop remains open from 5am until late night (it closes early these days due to pandemic-related restrictions). Try to visit it on a winter morning. The place is packed even at that unfriendly hour, with everyone swaddled in shawls and blankets, and the steam from the chai making the entire setting look like a fantastical apparition.
An intimate chai