James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Tea in Old Delhi

Tea in Old Delhi

Chaikhana. Tea house. The place where tea is served. I sip the milk cooked with black tea and sugar at Muhammad Nissar’s Tea Stall in Old Delhi. Not too far from Turkman Gate entrance, the stall is so narrow it beckons one to drink and leave.

I sit, on the right side, cramped on a narrow wooden bench up against the vibrant blue wall. And I delay to watch the theatre of traditional Old Delhi tea preparation, while others gossip and engage in “time-pass” banter. At the entrance for all to see is Munawar, the skilled tea maker. I see him manage steaming milk, two large aluminum kettles, and another pot to boil the tea. With an apron wrapped around his waist, he pours the caramelized liquid from on high into elegant glass tumblers. It bubbles and froths. He tops it with more foamy milk.

Planted directly in front of me at his desk, Muhammad Nissar ticks off the tea delivered on his thick clipboard with a running list of neighborhood accounts. All the while, he firmly reprimands his team of young boys, with an occasional grin at their comebacks, as they frantically deliver over 500 cups of tea a day.

I am traveling the country for a year documenting the diverse stories of women farmers. In between jaunts, I land in Old Delhi to edit. And then I practice focused wandering. I am drawn to this place, over and over again. I think it is to affirm the kindness of strangers anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps, too, I will encounter versions of my father as a boy. And I will grow ever closer to my father’s family who once lived in Urdu Bazaar near the grand Jama’a Masjid, pre-partition.

Partitioned once, migrated twice. I carry those partings in me. The lingering tea, the kindness of strangers, and my lips on the hot glass on a cold winter morning all bring me closer, to one home.

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