City Hangout – Surinder Tea Stall, Gurgaon
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The pavement chai stalls are often a storehouse of hard-luck stories. Some are suffused with the life of their customers. Others are permeated with the hopes and disappointments of their owners.
Surinder Tea Stall has been in Gurgaon’s Sadar Bazar in the Greater Delhi Region for only two years. Its history however goes back three decades when Surinder Mehto set up his roots in Delhi as an assistant in a “hardware sanitary” shop in the Capital’s Rama Market. He was then 20. For almost a decade he worked with “complete devotion” but was rudely jolted when his employer refused to urgently lend him 10,000 rupees following his father’s death in the village.
“Dil toot gaya (my heart broke)”, recalls Mr Mehto. He left the job and swore never to work for anybody ever again and started a tea stall in Delhi’s then-remote Rohini where “I would supply 300 glasses of chai daily to a factory nearby.”
The factory shut down 15 years later. Mr Mehto had to fold up his business. “Friends suggested me to move to Gurgaon.”
The gentleman’s Gurgaon establishment is modest, and sheltered from the sun and rain by an awning that was originally a mithai shop banner.
This afternoon Mr Mehto is serving chai to… well, himself—there’s nobody else. The paper cup filled with the steaming cardamom-flavoured tea is covered with a coconut biscuit. “So many years of working and still I have not been able to have a house of my own… I’m tired of paying rent.”
The tea seller’s wife lives back home in the village but one of his son drives an auto-rickshaw in the city.
“My other kids are studying in a government school. I’d actually got them into a private school but couldn’t pay the fees on time and naam kat gaya (names were struck off from the rolls),” says Mr Mehto in a lamenting tone.
He seems to have a melancholy soul but the impression is dispelled as a customer arrives. He is familiar enough for our tea man to liven up the mood with a hearty joke that has something to do with the city names of his native Bihar. And now he receives a call on his mobile. A shopkeeper is ordering “teen chai, kam meetha (3 tea, less sweet).”
This is followed by the arrival of a gruff-looking man who absent-mindedly sits down on a side bench. Mr Mehto wordlessly pats his head, placing a glass of chai in front of him. The entire atmosphere in the stall suddenly feels full of unspoken camaraderie, as if this is a landmark much older than its true age. Indeed, having tea and biscuits here gives one an opportunity (and privilege) to fleetingly become a part of an individual’s Big City struggle.
The tea stall’s epic