City Food - Bhai Subhan's Chai Stall, Turkman Gate

City Food – Bhai Subhan’s Chai Stall, Turkman Gate

City Food - Bhai Subhan's Chai Stall, Turkman Gate

Exploring the city in the time sof extreme heat.

[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Perched across the road from one of the very few surviving stone gateways of the Walled City, this modest 44-year-old tea stall commands reverence for successfully surviving through these furiously changing times, when far more muscular Old Delhi institutions couldn’t.

The gentle Bhai Subhan, who talks so softly that you have to strain your ears to hear him, arrived from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, and, by accident of circumstances, chose this site to set up his establishment. This evening, he recalls those long-ago days.

“A patri bazar existed here… a stall for khameeri rotiyan, a stall for biryani, a stall for halwa-paratha… mine too was one of those, except that I had no cart then and I would sit on the ground.”

At this point in his narration, Bhai Subhan is interrupted by a 6pm loyalist–“Make me a chai as beautiful as your looks.”

The chai man blushes.

In the mid-1980s, Bhai Subhan says, the authorities put an end to the patri bazar; the stalls were forced to move elsewhere. Somehow he not only managed to stay, but also thrived enough to acquire this cart.

By now, a bunch of chai stall patrons have gathered around the cart, attentively listening to the stall owner. The talk soon turns to the season’s unusually extreme heat: “No matter how hot the mausam be, Dilli’s chai stalls get their chai drinkers”—remarks a grinning auto rickshaw driver. Bhai Subhan looks thoughtful, saying, “For the first time in many summers , I’m facing a significant drop in my day earnings.” Even so, he says, this trying season too shall pass and… suddenly a few of the men around the cart exclaim together that “Bhai Subhan will keep giving us chai.” The stall serves daily from 7am to midnight, punctuated only by a brief break for Bhai Subhan’s midday meal, prepared by wife Zubeidaa Khatoon at their home in Khazoori Khas.

As the evening deepens and the sky over Turkman Gate darwaza turns dark blue, more regulars crowd around the cart. Some men are carrying their paper glasses—along with snacky mathhi/fen—to a muddy slope behind the stall, where they have sat down on their haunches, to consume their chai in quietude.

Meanwhile, Bhai Subhan is busy, his roadside establishment conveying an impression of infinite longevity, as if it stands outside the limitations of time, and will continue to function long after we are no more.