One Metre Chai
Conjurer of Calm
As the sun rises on verdant Thiruvananthapuram, Ravindran Nair gets ready to paint yet another day with the warmest shade of nostalgia. He begins with a ritual dip in the temple pond, its tolling bells and reverberating chants harmonising with the gentle ripple of water. He cycles through quiet bylanes to reach his nondescript, yet phenomenally well known shop, a local fixture for over fifty years.
The smell of dew drops still hangs fresh on the grass as he milks his cow, stokes his woodfire stove, and loads his giant boiler. The wheels are now set in motion. Between 5:30 and 6:30, his regular customers stream in. The radio crackles to life. Newspapers rustle and snap into place. Politics, trivia, and goings on in the neighbourhood: conversation flows freely over hot cups of chai.
Ravindran Nair’s shop is a humble shrine to a very special kind of tea. But before we unravel the mystique behind Nair’s signature chai, we must acquaint ourselves with the phenomenon of the tea shop or chai kada.
“Tea is a drink. Chai is an emotion.” proclaim bohemian T shirts, capturing in pithy prose the pride of place the beverage occupies in the flamboyantly chaotic country that is India. On a gruelling work day, chai offers versatile modes of repose. The morning chai is a transitional experience, a bridge of stillness that gently guides you towards the noisy demands of the day. A midday chai-break is a time to slow down, to reflect, to find solidarity with others who are on pause.
In the chai kada, the sweet, tart drink is like a warm embrace, eliciting sighs of contentment from its fond patrons. There is a variety of snacks to tantalise their taste buds. Appam, puttu, dosa, rasa vada, rava kanji, pazham pori – Nair’s menu is as inventive as it is varied, but it is his chappathi with onion curry is that is the certified crowd pleaser, its smoky tanginess earning him countless encore requests. With tea at Rs. 10 and snacks at Rs. 6, the lure of the chai kada is truly inclusive – offering warmth, conversation and camaraderie that cuts across social strata.