The Indian Railways is irrefutably the lifeline of India, when it comes to mass transit of people and goods. Standing at 115,000 km, it is one of the largest networks in the world and talking of volume, it transports 23 million passengers and a 100 million tonnes of cargo every single day!
Standing at a busy railway station in one of the larger cities in India could be overwhelming and mesmerizing at the same time. You can see people from all walks of life, different parts of the country, different attire and many times speaking different languages, which makes you wonder whether India is actually a continent disguised as a country.
Loud announcements on train schedules, people with expressions of joy when receiving their loved ones, other people with sad faces seeing off their family members hoping to see them soon, people rushing with a pile of luggages to make it JUST-IN-TIME (guess must have read too much of the Toyota Production System), numerous vendors selling fast food and snacks, ranging from chips to aloo paratha to batata vada, and the list goes on…
If you are by yourself waiting for a train to arrive and visualizing all this, at some point your five senses gets overloaded to the brink of…”I need a break!” you need to find a recluse.
That is when your scanning eyes will likely spot a chai stall in the corner! Talking of the raging “Green Revolution” around the world and the dire need to be more sustainable, guess the chai wallas had figured it long before we “self-declared intelligentsia and defenders of the planet” came to the stage and started blowing out trumpet!
In Hindi, a wallah is someone makes or sells a certain good. Chai means “Indian Tea” that is made fresh every time by slow brewing tea leaves with milk, sugar and sometimes spices. A chai wallah is a person who makes or sells chai—or both!
In most railway stations chai wallas serve the piping hot chai in an earthen clay pot called “Kulhar”. Somehow the smell of mother earth in the clay accentuates the flavor of the already delicious chai. To me, every time I have had that I have felt more relaxed, happy and close to nature than I have ever been. All of a sudden standing at the stall it seems your mind opens up and you start talking to fellow chai drinkers, who may be complete strangers, and then before you know stories emerge and new friendships begin to forge!
It gets even more interesting if you chose to experience the vast expanse of the Indian subcontinent, gushing through the veins and hitting every sensory and extra instrument embedded in you, through the Indian Railways. A lot of my friends and I too agree that road trips are a lot of fun, but the fun also comes with a baggage of hassles ¾ don’t agree? Ok let’s start with a flat tire, then add in brake failure, engine problems, stop-over planning, meal planning, night halts, etc. etc.
If you happen to be a trooper who takes every problem with a smile or a PMP ++ certified planner who has back-up plans ranging from A-2-Z, not a problem but for most other average joes, likely not very appealing.
The Indian Railways provides an excellent hassle-free option to travel across the sub-continent and experience the diversity of the cultures. The sound of the train running on the tracks is embedded in the memory of every Indian. The scenic beauty across the vast landscape and the specialty of the food at every station accentuate the experience of the diverse culture.
However, one thing that will always be distinctly reverberating on the mind is the sound of two continuously repeating words ¾ “garam chai” in multiple baritones almost like a nice melody as the train approaches the station. The word garam means “hot” and so garam chai is hot tea.
As a kid I would plead to my dad to try some but sadly was only allowed “garam doodh” or hot milk.
You don’t even need to get down in the station to trace the sounds and track the Chai Wallah. As soon as the train stops, the chai wallah would appear right in front of the window and never mind if in the rush you couldn’t pay and the train starts moving.
The Chai Wallah would somehow magically be able to get on the moving training and in the next moment standing before you asking for his moolaah! So keep sipping the hot Indian tea with the fragrance of the kullarh and enjoy the memorable journey in the Indian Railways.