A small and humble tea shop run by a Rajinder Grover who sells just chai and coca cola.
A Lota (or Bodna in Bengali) is one of the most common vessels in India and a few other parts of South Asia. In one of the India Report’s article, both Charles and Ray Eames say in praise of this vessel, “of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the Lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful”. Traditionally, lota used to be a copper vessel and which gradually consecrated in India.
One such lota, I encountered at a small tea shop near my house in Malviya Nagar, which also became the reason for this anecdote. Raju Bhai’s shop is opposite the Hanuman Mandir, outside which you will find a never-ending row of believers. On Tuesdays, the mandir has a special aarti followed by a small Bhandara. Raju Bhai’s shop is in the main market but there is a high chance of missing it. A first look at this tea shop may not leave an impression as it is not one of the most well-lit places on the outside, and the furniture used is old and none-matching. Inside, there are two old fans on the ceiling, dating back to the time before air conditioners. You could probably spot these fans in the vintage photographs of your grandparents. The four table like structures placed inside the shop are basically hard wooden planks resting on soft drink bottles’ crates, made of plastic. The walls have graffiti of the old Pepsi logo, a random poster of a tour company and another of a beauty salon. The place is strewn with bottle caps that lie on broken wooden tables. An old entry door is being used as shelves on both the sides of the wall. One shelf is empty while the other one has a radio and a few other things kept in a haywire. A gas stove, chai Patti, and other equipment and ingredients are also seen.
They say, there is a beauty in chaos, and this shop brings life to this phrase very aptly. It’s like most of the jazz music, where everyone plays different notes and instruments, yet the notes come together as one of the most beautiful and soulful creations.
I started frequenting this tea shop. I would see a medium height old timer standing with that time-worn face and aged eyes, wearing a scruffy kurta pyjama holding an amiable smile on his face, every day. His chai would taste different every day, and for me, that was the beauty. It varied from no sugar to a heap of it, from strong to light and from slightly-too-milky to a perfect tea. It was a constant work in progress. But this difference in flavours seems not to be a problem for regulars. People come, sit, light up their cigarettes and talk at length—romance would spring over cups of tea, people in suits would sit there to discuss their office work or wrap deals over the phone. All this and a lot more can be witnessed here at this tea shop. I wonder what all secrets have those walls endured for this long!
So one warm evening I reached the shop with a purpose in my mind. I wanted to know his story and introduce him to the rest of the world. It began with his name; he was everyone’s ‘Raju Bhai’. Raju Bhai’s shyness and reluctance to engage in a dialogue made me realize that the ice hadn’t broken yet.
The next day, I went to meet him without any structure in my head, hoping he would tell me things he was thinking of. I was looking forward to a conversation just like his shop, chaotic and yet in complete order.
He began by telling that the shop was started in 1950 by his father BD Grover who was initially an inhabitant of undivided India. With family, friends and property uprooted, his father moved to India post-partition. He was from a small town, Deraganijigkha (now in Pakistan). He used to work in an army canteen there, and hence when he came to Delhi, he set up a small shop where he started selling tea, laddu, biscuits and two or three other kinds of snacks to go with tea. He never hired any helper to run around and serve while he prepares. His son Rajendra Grover, born in India, is now famous in Malviya Nagar as Raju Bhai. Forty-five years old, unmarried and running his father’s chai shop. The lota with which this story started was about 100 years old, brought to Delhi by his father. He told me there must be other old artefacts lying around as well, but he’d have to dig through the old trunks lying somewhere under a pile of dust. Perhaps those trunks remind him of his youth and early years in Delhi, and hence he was a little apprehensive to look for them. As the conversation smoothened, I inquired about the reason behind not selling anything other than tea. To which he answered innocently, “I only know how to make tea”. His lines reminded me of the times when my mother used to tell me to do just one thing but do it the best way possible, with honesty and dignity.
I was in no mood to leave him and hence continued asking more about stories and his experience, realizing this Raju Bhai started unfolding some of the fanciest stories. Apparently, Kailash Kher was his father’s one of the regular visitors with whom Raju Bhai often used to visit Siri Fort. In those days, Kher was struggling to get a foothold in the Industry and Raju Bhai is imbued with reverence for the singer. No wonder, Kher is one of the most modest singers in the Industry! Nandita Das also happened to be one of his father’s customers during her University days. He did mention that there have been a few other big names who visited his father’s shop, but he has forgotten most of them.
Raju Bhai is also interested in old music, Bollywood and art films, and disrelishes the new-age Bollywood movies. In fact, he often used to visit Siri Fort to catch art movies exhibited, during the film festivals. One thing which was common between the two of us was our mutual love and admiration for the legendary actress Madhubala.
Going retrospective about the period of Emergency, Raju Bhai narrated about how the shop served as the hot-spot for all the political debates and discussions. His father even once received a government order to shut the shop at 11 pm instead of 2 am original schedule which has become the new norm now. Nowadays, the shop open at 10 am and shuts at 11.30 pm, post which he cooks food for himself.
While I was listening to his stories, I sensed a certain discomfort in his voice. It felt as though he had some regrets, perhaps his life went on a tangent which didn’t bring him anything. Although, he didn’t share this with me, he kept reiterating that how it’s been so many years and his life has been the same, has come to a standstill. It is not that he cannot get the tables fixed or the shop painted but he just doesn’t feel like it. This is not to be confused with a lack of care as it is quite evident from his sentiments towards his work and the shop. He is dragging his life out, for better or worse. As I said, he didn’t share this with me, and he is clearly good at hiding his ordeal behind that pleasant smile and I do not want to assume things about which I could be totally wrong.
The conversation ended with his request to call him ‘Raju Bhai’ instead of uncle. He says people who know him call him bhai and he prefers that. That night I left his shop on the promise to cook him his favorite; mutton curry. But my pursuit to know him better is not over yet.
So, if you are Kailash Kher (and reading this), maybe you want to meet your old friend. If you are a graffiti artist, go ahead and draw some nice art on his walls, and if you are a tea lover, then go and say hello to this old man and order a cup of chai for just Rs.15 or a bottle of coca cola.