TEETOTALER: The most famous villain of Bollywood Amjad Khan, who acted in the role of Gabbar Singh in ‘Sholay,” drank 40 cups of tea every day and did not take any daru

By Ali Peter John

It is not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi who started life as chaiwaala! The veteran film journalist Ali Peter John was taught to make tea by his mother at a very early stage.

MY MOTHER taught me many things about life and one of the first things I learned from her was how to make tea the way she made tea for the family. She showed me how much of tea leaves should be put in boiling water for how many people, and how much sugar to put together with the boiling water and the tea leaves.
She also showed me how to make dal and rice, grind the masala on a round grinding stone with a hole in the centre to hold the spices, coconut and other essential items like onions. She always wanted me to be her daughter and this was one of her ways to make herself happy in spite of not having a daughter.
I was interested in learning how to cook, but I enjoyed the art of making tea (chai) the best. We had tea only twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening if we were at home. I was 12 years old when I made friends with BEST bus conductors and sometimes spent my holidays and my summer vacations and Diwali vacations traveling with them while they were on duty. I sometimes even called out the names of the bus stops and even rang the bell for the bus to move ahead.
It was during my travels with the conductors that I got to know about a kind of rule among the drivers and the conductors. They used to have a cup of tea after every round during their duty hours. They shared a cup of tea among two of them and sometimes even three of them. I too joined in this ceremony and by the time I was 14 and had lost my mother, I had got addicted to tea, but I rarely had the money to indulge in my addiction.


THE first time I asked for a cup of tea in an Udipi hotel, the price for a cup was one “anna” ( equivalent to six naya paise). There was something called “special chai” which cost “chaar anna” (25 naya paisa). My addiction grew stronger as I grew up. I had to have at least three or four glasses of tea a day and I had them even if I had to miss out on breakfast or lunch.
I had a friend called Shantaram who was the manager of a small and dingy hotel inside an industrial estate, who gave me glasses of tea on credit, which I couldn’t honour at the end of the month, and Shantaram was so kind that he served me the tea I needed without asking for any money till I left the village.
In the early 70s there was a chain of hotels where only different kinds of tea were served. The chain of hotels was called Laxmi Vilas and it specialized in preparing and serving tea the way it was made in Gujarat; my choice was the “Ahmedabadi chai” which was more of milk than tea or water. Then I got addicted to the Irani cup with bread-butter or bun-maska with it. The tea the Iranis made was heavenly and everything served in these Irani restaurants had something very special about it.
From the Irani restaurants I graduated to the hotels run by Muslims whose hotels were called “Chilliya hotels” and enjoyed a good and heavy lunch at these hotels, followed by one or two cups of their special brand of tea and that was enough to live through the day .


TIME changed and with time the quality and price of the tea served in different hotels also changed, but nothing could make me give up my addiction. Some of the restaurants in Bombay were the “adda” of writers, journalists and poets of different languages, who did most of their thinking and writing over cups of the cheapest tea. My favourite was the Firdous hotel in Dadar where I met renowned Marathi poets like Narayan Surve, Dilip Chitre and Sadanand Rege and these poets became my excuse to visit Firdous more often.
The canteen at the University of Bombay continued to serve quality tea for 25 paise only, which was perhaps the reason why students spent more time in the canteen than in their classes. As I started earning some money, I started spending more money on tea and a time came when I was spending half my salary on tea and biscuits.
I have had the privilege of having lovers of tea like MF Husain, Sanjeev Kumar (he used to have his tea after he poured it into a saucer, put his legs up on a chair and enjoyed every sip and slurp of tea).
And if I could call any one the badshah of chai it would be my friend Amjad Khan who used to say, “accha huva chai hai, nahi toh zindagi mein koi chaahat nahi rehti” (Amjad used to have at least a 100 glasses of tea which were specifically prepared for him by a man called Ashok, whose only job was to see that glasses of tea were ready for Amjad. Amjad, who never drank alcohol, often said that tea gave him a greater kick than any alcohol.
My guru KA Abbas also loved tea made according to his own taste, he had a unique combination of tea and a single banana for his breakfast. And if there is one place I will always remember for its tea, it will always be Rajneesh Refreshments where Shantaram gave me the kind of tea that could inspire me to write and even walk after Molly while she was on her way to her office.
And look at how the times have changed. I still have several rounds of black tea, which my caretaker Pushpa who serves me even if I just make a sign, and it is this black tea that others say is dangerous for my health, that keeps me alive. I am so addicted to Pushpa’s tea that I even feel like having my rice and chapatis with it.
And just before the second wave stopped all the good things of life, I was having what is called “regular chai” in a cafe called Chaayos and paid a
Rs100 for a mini glass of tea. Rs100 was the amount my mother who first taught me the value of tea, spent on running her home with herself and her three sons in 1963. And that was such a long time ago. And as I finish writing this tribute to tea, I can hear my soul, heart, tongue feeling the urge to ask Pushpa for another round of black tea made her way and now at 71 years, I can only feel my love for tea growing beyond my control.
So what if will give me trouble in the future, but right now, which is the only time that matters to me, life is what tea makes it. Suna hai aaj kal chaiwalle pradhan mantra aur sevak bhi ban jaate hai. Aisa hai aur agar ye baat sach hai, toh mujhe sabse pahela pradhan mantra aur pradhan sevak ban jaana chaaiye tha. Jo bhi ho, uss chaiwalle ko Mubarak. Lekin mera jaisa chai ka sevak phir kabhi milega nahi.

(Ali Peter John is a veteran film journalist who was the Editor of the Screen, a broad sheet film weekly brought out by the Indian Express Group)

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