Four years ago when I moved from Delhi to Mumbai, the city of dreams, I did not really imagine what life would be like or how it would change. Although I had stayed in hostels and was well-travelled, this was definitely uncharted territory. Living away from home meant being the ‘man of the house’. And boy, it wasn’t easy!
I had moved to the city of dreams with a meagre salary of Rs 26,000. While most of it went in rent, basic amenities and essentials, a large chunk also went into eating out with friends and colleagues. I’ve never been a cook, not even a mediocre one, so stepping out for all meals was the only option. With odd working hours, my eating and sleeping patterns also took a toll. To make up for the lack of home-cooked food, I, like thousands of single and independent men and women who live alone, got a local Marathi cook.
Needless to say, our cook made sure to feed us good home-cooked food but for a North-Indian eating food cooked majorly in a Marathi way was not satisfying enough. Sometimes there was too much oil, sometimes too much spice and sometimes it was just not North-Indian enough.
After struggling with food for almost 3 months, I had to let go of the cook. First it was about finding a suitable home, now the hunt began for a suitable place to eat at least two meals a day. I did find a good home and then I found two most promising eating joints in the entire city. Yes, I’m making that claim because I survived, made memories of a lifetime, and even managed to satisfy the North-Indian in me.
First was a tiny dhaba right across my house which I had failed to notice somehow. It was a place where people from all walks of life, even the locality’s press walah went to eat. Second was this tiny eating joint called ‘Chai Pe Charcha’, two streets down from my home. I wish I could talk about the food but let’s just skip to the chai.
True to its name, ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ offered a scrumptious meal, packed with mouth-watering food and of course, a chai in an earthen pot. The best part? Everything there was pocket-friendly. I came to love the place so much that I stopped making chai at home.
In the coming months till the time I moved into a different home (miles away from my first apartment), ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ became my second home. It was the place I went to when I wanted to be alone and enjoy it. During such days, I’d order infinite cups of chai, along with bun maska. This was the place where I had long and unending discussions with my first cousin about everything and anything under the sun -- politics, personal and professional life, social issues, relations, family drama and what not. While we waited for our order to arrive, he and I would almost start a game of either ludo or snakes and ladder, cursing and yelling our way to victory. The tables at the restaurant had these games printed on them. To top off these discussions and a ludo face-off, he and I would order cups of chai along with stuffed paranthas, dahi, achaar and another chai as dessert.
When friends came visiting from other states or parts of the city, this is where we’d sit and catch up on each other’s lives. We’d share moments and emotions and stories over several cups of chai. We’d end up sitting there for hours, reliving good old days, talking about our future and ultimately only breaking to eat. We ended our meet with chai paired with extra masala maggi and some bun maskas before saying goodbye and parting, sometimes even without saying a single word to each other for months. Those are the best kind of friendships though, aren’t they?
Sometimes, I’d even take my colleagues to ‘Chai Pe Charcha’. We’d sit and start bitching about our bosses and stop only to order or to breathe or for those satisfying sips of delicious chai. We were all underpaid and always low on cash. So we split our chai, like the city’s famous ‘cutting’ and then split the bill. On good days, chai was accompanied with stuffed paranthas. After all, we were all budding journalists.
And unbeknownst to me, sometimes I just wondered and found myself walking towards the tiny bubble of joy I had found in that maddening city. Exhausted, both mentally and physically, I’d take respite in that corner I had designated for myself. The corner was by the window, overlooking the street with sunlight pouring in during the day and streetlight during the night. I’d watch people walk by, customers come and leave, and couples on dates talking in whispers in the tiny chai joint, all while taking in small sips, savouring each one like my life depended on it.
The staff at ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ eagerly waited for me to walk in everyday and order my usual. They were warm, did not ask too many questions, let me sit there for as long I wanted, and always greeted me with huge smiles. Most of all, they were special. My server knew what I liked on most days but sometimes took the liberty of recommending some variety. Once, he asked if I wanted to try their special masala chai. I answered yes in a second. He didn’t have to convince me. The excitement on his face and his beaming smile had said it all. Take note, half of the restaurant’s staff was specially-abled. They used sign language to communicate. And before I even realised it, ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ had become my second home.
But like one needs to leave their home someday or the other, I had to leave too. That was the day I realised how special some bonds are, regardless of whether they are with a person, a living being or even a place. In my case, a chai joint.
Weeks later, after I had successfully moved into a different apartment, I heard someone at work ask, “Who wants to order chai?” Immediately, like a reflex, I jumped up and said, “I want and I’ll order.” Thirty minutes later, bun maskas and cardboard cans of chai arrived for everyone in the team. The boxes had a note which said, “Enjoy your chai like you always did. Hope to see you again soon.” And then, a different love story with ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ began.