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Home Chote... ek chai la

Chote... ek chai la

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Hyderabadi chai alias ‘Irani chai’. A unique kind of tea which is so extremely popular here and everywhere that it is as big and entity as Charminar is to Hyderabad! Nothing is more synonymous with Hyderabad, than its very special ‘Irani Chai’. This city of minars and modern buildings; tombs and domes; palaces and pearls; haleem and arches; sherwani and biryani; Nawabs and kababs, is unbelievably inundated with more than over 25,000 cafes, small, medium and large. This number, probably no other city in the country can boast of. They are on the main road, in the narrow gallis and are found just about everywhere. There is hardly any place left that doesn’t have a tea stall.

The hot cup of tea that brings cheers is considered as an ‘any time and everybody’s drink’. Tea is like an occasion for every Hyderabadi to unwind and relax (well, that is a perpetual state of affairs down here). Twin cities are always ready to greet a family member or a guest with a hot cup of delicious Irani tea. In fact it has become a custom since ages, to greet people with tea. Like in western countries where a guest is welcomed with wine, here they are treated with tea. Many occasions are made up to go for a hot sip of tea. Whenever two people, a few friends or acquaintances meet, they head to the nearest tea point. Also when tired or having a headache, they prefer to take tea. To sum it up, a typical Hyderabadi treats it as a panacea! It is believed that a hot cup of tea makes one alert, and gives lot of relief due to some of its stimulants like caffeine, tannin. It is believed that it was used as a medicinal tonic in China until the third century B.C.

For many in Twin cities, tea is an addiction. Without consuming it they can’t start their daily routine work. In fact, it has become India’s national drink. By birth, many Andhrites, like other Indians, consume lot of tea. But it is more so in twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. This is evident from the fact that they have the largest number of tea stalls and cafes in the country.

Going back, Tea was originally called ‘Tu’ when it was invented in China in 4th century BC. Later it become popular and spread all over the world and is called with different names in different countries, It is called ‘Cha’ in China, ‘Ta’ in Korea, ‘The’ in French, ‘Shai’ in Saudi Arabia, ‘Chey’ in Turkey, ‘Chai’ in Russia and ‘Ja’ in Tibet. Today there are 3000 types of Tea all over the world, derived from six basic types viz - white, green, oolong, black, scented and compressed. Realising from its growing popularity, the enterprising farmers in China, began cultivating it as a commercial crop. During this period they developed black and scented teas. Dengyo Daishi, a Japanese monk who was in China for two years studying there, introduced tea to Japanese on his return to his native country. Few years later, tea is believed to have spread to Portugal, Macao, Dutch and Europe.

Around that time Qutb Shahis were ruling this part of the country with Golconda as their capital. As the Qutb Shahis came to India via Iran, a large number of Iranis came along with them and settled in the city in 1591 A.D. Along with them they brought their customs, culture and traditions. They were very powerful in Qutb Shahi’s reign and held very important administrative positions. They established a number of institutions and buildings. They constructed mosques and laid beautiful gardens. The glazed tiling ornamentation of Chaminar, the incised stucco work of the tombs was Iranian contribution. Apart from these, they introduced their national drink – tea, to the locals. Tea is a warm beverage and thirst quencher to them. Their hot favourites, green and black teas were introduced to local people in 16th century itself. Whereas tea came to rest of the parts in India only in 1840. Britishers, when they invaded this country brought in tea along with them into the country. The discovery of native tea in Assam and Northern India helped to spread the tea cult in the country.

However, the black and green tea introduced by Iranians which was later on called as ‘Irani-Chai’ was totally different from the tea available in other parts of the country. The basic difference was the way Iranis prepared the tea. While the tea powder used in other parts of the country was of a different kind. It differed in its process after plucking. The Itani tea was adopted by Qutb Shahis, but their other recipes were largely ignored. The other drinks and liquor popular at the time were white and red wines. They were served in accordance with the seasons. But ‘tea’ was one thing which was consumed as an all time drink and transformed to the present shape in the modern society. Today this Chai is as popular as Pearls, Biryani and Minars to the Hyderabadis and to the rest of the world.

Though the exact number of ‘tea joints’ which are popularly called as cafes’ are not known, the popular guesstimate indicates that the number may be anywhere around 25,000. A half-kilometer stretch from Narayanguda cross roads to RTC cross roads alone has over 12 cafes. Hyderabad with an area of 217 sq.kms, one can easily guess what the possible number could be. These tea points come in different sizes, shapes and hues. Their names are as funny as the names of our modern fast food centres. You have Turning Point, Zingthing Cafe, Tea Den, Lovely Tea Den, 11’O Clock, Rio Point, Cafe Subah Shyam, Café Bahar, Crazy Point, Blue Sea, Red Rose, Alpha, Sohanlal’s Tea Time, Nimra, Shadab etc. The hotels belong to Iranis have ‘Al’ as prefix. But that is no more in vogue. The most popular among them are Alpha near Secunderabad Railway Staiton; Blue Sea at Key’s High School, Secunderabad; Red Rose at Somajiguda; President Café at RTC Cross Roads; Moghul Darbar at Liberty; Madina Hotel at Madina; Embassy Café at Basheerbagh Cross Roads; Sohanlal’s Tea Time at Ramakrishna Theatre; Nimra at Chairminar; Café Bahar at Hyderguda; Ali Café at Dabeerpura; Hilton Café at AMS College, O.U.; Azizia Café at Nampally; Wilson Café at Dilsukhnagar; Garden Restaurant at Clock Tower, Secunderabad; and Akbar Hotel at Paradise, etc. Sherton is one name that has a chain of hotels all over the city.

Some hotels like Alpha, Blue Sea, Ali Café, Akbar, Madina have become an intrinsic part of the psyche and are considered as Landmarks. Sohanlal’s Tea Time’s UPS is ‘any time is tea time’. Gulzar Hotel at Nallakunta keeps all the newspapers for the benefit of its customers. Tea Den is considered as the best meeting place and favourite time-pass centre for the youth in the neighbouring colonies. One cafe at Vidyanagar seems to be playing the choicest songs of its customers. Nowadays, portable TVs are common in some of these hotels.

No doubt ‘Chai’ is a very big business in the twin cities. As one put it, “it has become a lucrative business for several unemployed to jump in the queue”. A café like Alpha which was ‘numero uno’ in this business till recently, today faces lot of competition from all quarters. The business which once was prerogative of Iranians and other Muslims, today faces challenges with several Hindus who started venturing into this business. Nevertheless, Alpha sells not less than 10,000 cups of tea a day, and tea here is a hot favourite to many even till today. Their ‘formula’ is still a mystery to its competitors. Other players like Blue Sea also sell the same number. While an average tea centre like Tea Den at Achayyanagar sells around 1,500 teas a day. Given these statistics it can be anybody’s guess work to know how big this business is. Just for inquisitiveness, let us look into the details of this business. The findings are mind boggling. The volume of business the tea generates is any time on par with any popular regional brands in terms of sales, volume and employment generation. In fact it’s a small cottage industry in its own rights, which perhaps many people in the city may not be aware of.

The average number of teas sold a day in an average hotel are anywhere around 1,000. The 25,000 and odd cafes in twin cities sell roughly about 2.5 crore teas in 16 hours (i.e. between 6.00 am to 10.00 pm) in the day. And the cost of each tea, even if we put at Rs. 2/- per cup, the business thus generated is to the tune of Rs.150 crores a month. And prevailing situation of unemployment it is no more a worrisome area. The hygienic conditions are almost all nonexistent in most cases. That’s because these are busy with customers all through the day. And there is lack of will as well. One industry source informed that 80 per cent of their customers are smokers, who spend about 20 minutes to consume a cup of tea. May be because of this reason almost all cafes are attached with a Pan Shop or viceversa.

The types of tea offered to several thousands of customers who frequent these places every day are Tea, Pauna, Masala Chai, Kashmiri tea, Golden tea, Special tea, etc. In places like Barkas and King Koti, Ghava tea, which is like black tea is available. The additives used in making these teas are anybody’s guess but largely they comprise of milk powder, milkmaid, chocolate, biscuit flavour, elaichi (Cardamom), adrak (Ginger), Lemon slices, etc. Pauna is a tea with more milk, which is usually offered at a higher price per cup.
Usually a cup of tea is shared by two. So they order for ‘one by two’ or ‘ek chai, ek empty’. Friends of hotel owners demand ‘pani cum chai’. Of late to discourage sharing tea some cages started displaying posters of ‘no empty tea cups’. There are a variety of pin-ups and posters that are displayed in these places. Most common among them are the ‘tender exact change’, ‘make seat for others’, ‘time is precious’, ‘no empty cup’, ‘outside food not allowed’, ‘don’t give more than Rs.10/- note to suppliers’, etc., etc. The match box game is a favourite table sport for many time-killers. Hence posters like ‘match box games are not allowed inside’ are found on the walls. This is a cash and carry business. So one can find posters saying ‘aaj nagad, kal udhaar’.

Mostly people in groups frequent these places. The favourite subjects of discussion are movies and politics. Girls, fashion, sex and anything that comes to mind like even philosophy figure in the tete-a-tete of youth. Most hotels keep an English daily, Deccan Chronicle. The film page is read and referred by many and at the end of the day is in tatters which the rest of the chronicle is quite intact! It is an adda(meeting place) for friends and different groups. Cafes adjacent to women’s colleges attract more college going youth and do brisk business. One such example is Raja Rani Café at Himayathnagar. Normally peak hours for brisk business are 6 to 10 am and 6 to 10 pm. Afternoons are dull and they wear a deserted look.

There is no hype or media blitzkrieg, except a name board, to promote this business. The customers are the best advertisers. The inaugurations are done with much fanfare. An MLA or a local leader is invited for inauguration. The ribbon cutting photographs are prominently displayed at the counter. With inflation at its best, escalation in milk, tea powder, sugar and pagdi amount, the tea which was sold at 25 paise in late seventies, 40 paise in early eighties, it has sky rocketed to present level of Rs. 2.50/- per cup.

Gentlemen of all ages and from all walks of life frequent these places at least once everyday. Veteran thespian like Kantha Rao is believed to frequent Tea Den Cafe. Akbaruddin Owaisi, the youngest son of MIM leader and parliamentarian Salauddin Owaisi visits Fancy Café in King Koti regularly. A photo was published quite some time back of the famous painter MF Hussian relishing a cup of Chai at the Garden restaurant in Secunderabad.

All in all, it is not an exaggeration to state that for around 200 Hyderabadis there is one café. Incredible and unbelievable isn’t it. But given the way with which these are mushrooming day in and day out, that seems to be a convincing number to many.

(The author is a freelance journalist, publisher of books and managing partner of Solus Media. This article is a part of the ‘Best of 9 years’ series, and is reproduced from the original which appeared in the April 1998 issue of Primetime Prism. All facts and figures are as on the original date of publication.)

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Bhai chai ke saath biscuut osmania bhi kafi mashuur hai. Thode jagah me to biryani, puri saag, khana bhi mil jata. Shero-shairi bhi ubad ke aa jata hai. Wah janab. Kya yadaan dilai ji.
Dr Ramana G M , December 10, 2010

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