Of tea, talks and tapris

Struggles & survival of tapri culture in India

Culture

January 4, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Of tea, talks and tapris

The tapri culture is quite popular in India especially outside offices and colleges (MIG photos/ Richa Nigam)

While sipping tea has become more than a morning ritual, tea stalls have become hubs of discussions & meetings in India. Though the Covid-19 pandemic threatened its survival in many ways, tea sellers and customers hope for a quick comeback of the tapri (stall) culture very soon.

“The kulhars (clay cups) at my stall have heard it all. From students discussing their syllabus to employees cribbing about their jobs and from teenagers discussing their crushes to middle aged ones discussing politics, my shop has heard everything over past 20 years,” says Madan Verma, owner of a small tapri (roadside stall/shop), named Verma tea stall, just opposite Indian Institute of Mass Communication in national capital Delhi.

Verma’s make-shift tea stall, which also sells light snacks like peanuts, biscuits and different varieties of cigarettes, has been a hangout spot for students, office employees, auto-rickshaw drivers and many more for more than two decades now. He says that chai (tea) always goes along with charcha (discussion) here. “Each cup or kulhar (clay cup) at my stall that has heard customers’ conversations over everything under the sun,” he adds.

Verma’s experience at his tea stall over the years summarises the tapri chai culture in India. It refers to the practice of sipping tea at tea stalls, usually smaller and temporary ones, while having a chit-chat. Often paired with fritters and some snacks to go with the tea, this culture of small breaks at tea stalls has been in India since ages and in almost all places, be it metropolitan cities, small towns or villages.

Carriers of the tapri culture

“I have been visiting this tea stall since past three years now. The tea here tastes ordinary but the conversations I have made here with my friends make this place memorable. It is not just about sipping a piping hot cup of tea at this stall, this stall is about a feeling of relaxation and refreshment for me,” says Sahil Gupta, a student of immunology at Indian Institute of Immunology, located a few steps from Verma’s tea stall.

Similar to what Gupta says, Arjun Kishore, a senior manager at a healthcare company in the city Gurugram, about 30km from Delhi, describes sipping tea at a tapri near his office as a ritual.

“I moved to this company a few months ago, and that’s how you get to know people,” says Kishore, “the informal chat about who we are outside of work, happens here. We also talk about stress and our experiences. This is also a place to know about someone’s personal life.”

“Pre-coronavirus, I would take five tea breaks each day. There was a row of street-food hawkers outside this building, where crowds would congregate at any time of the day. Though a few are still here, most have closed down forever,” he adds.

tea stall

Many tales flow over a cup of tea in India

Declining culture of tapris

Extremely popular among all age groups and genders, the tapris have suffered immensely since the outbreak of the pandemic as there has been a decline in the number of customers that visit small stalls due to social distancing and hygiene concerns. As a result, many of them have been forced shut as they mainly survive on their daily earnings.

“One could find a roadside tea stall at every nook and corner of the city before the pandemic. Even the smallest of the shops would be crowded with people drinking tea and eating fritters. Since the pandemic, as all colleges and offices closed, the shops found themselves with no customers and were forced to shut. Even I had to temporarily shut down my stall for the first time in past twenty years,” says Verma.

He further explains that while the office-goes and auto drivers are back at his stall, students – who were the main source of earning for him, remain absent as colleges are still not functional offline.

He also adds that the number of customers have also decreased due to the pandemic as people are more careful about hygiene now and only buy packed snacks from him. They refuse to drink tea in a glass that has been used by others before.

Arjun Kishore of Gurugram also recalls Raju’s corner, a tea and food stall in Gurugram, owned by Raju Chaudhary whose business could not survive the pandemic.  “Chaudhary was not allowed to open during the lockdown. Most of his fellow shop owners left for their villages. Earning INR 30,000 a month, he used to get an influx of around 500 customers a day as his shop was well located near lots of offices. When the lockdown was eased at the end of May, nearly two months after it was imposed, he went back to his spot, but the days were long and lingering with just two or three customers. He decided to shut his shop unable to sustain his business,” he adds.

While the pandemic continues to cast its shadow on the tapri culture and business, tea stall owners and sellers remain confident that they will survive this phase as they have survived through other hurdles in the past.

Kishore says that the need for social interaction and human connections have made tapris an indelible part of the city’s culture. So when the students come back to colleges and offices start in full strength, many will once again find comfort in a hot cup of tea with colleagues.

“Indians are resilient and resourceful, and will find new and creative ways to get by. In 2016 too we were hit hard by the demonetisation initially but we rose to the challenge and started accepting digital payments. Just like that, we will survive this too. We will try out best to make sure that this practice of conversation over tea survives,” says Verma.

“I have been a part of many conversations that my customers engage in here, from politics to personal relationships. I believe I will be a part of those conversations too in which customers will refer to this pandemic as a thing of the past and mention how much they missed sitting and sipping chai (tea) at my stall,” as he pours boiling tea from kettle to glass and then back into the kettle, with almost a touch of artistry in his tea making skills.

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