Coffee and Tea has become an essential part of life and we grow up drinking either one of the other, depending on our lifestyle or taste buds; some take regularly or occasionally for refreshment and at the occasions of meetings and events, they becomes a treat. I know some who don’t drink coffee or tea, thinking it’s not good for health, but gulp bottles of soft drinks! There isn’t certain facts how much good or not taking coffee or tea, but in my opinion there’s a limit for everything. I enjoy both coffee and tea according to my desire at that moment, but my most favorite is coffee.
Coming to the post, I just thought to share some of my memories related to Tea Urns (can) and the vendors carrying it on their bicycles to make life out of selling tea or coffee. Since my grandparents have done dairy business and owning a tea shop then, I grown up watching their day-to-day activities but the Tea Urns are seldom used by them. They make coffee or tea using the milk that kept heated in a vessel directly on the stove and being a crowded residential area, theirs was the only tea shop to open from early morning to night and they work hard to keep up customers.
My initial memory of Tea Urn was in 1991! During the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, all the shops were closed in Chennai or perhaps because of Bandh (a form of protest used by political activists in India) to mourn his death. Since the bomb blasts (in which he was killed) occurred close to Chennai (Sriperumbudur is 40km from here), there was a situation of anxiety everywhere and I still remember how uproar my grandfather’s house street was, where the tea shop also lies, where people standing together here and there, and discussing about the matters…
My grandparent’s house is situated in one of the crowded or congested street in south Chennai and getting in and out of it is an adventure and taking a car means stickers in scratches. The people here don’t need a reason to engage in street fights and it used to be an entertainment for the residents here, to come leaning on the wall and watching the scene. So, in a situation like this, the turmoil has been in its full swing related to the assassination. My grandparent’s does not only run a tea shop, but also reared dozen of milch buffalos and couple of cows in the backyard. So shutting down the tea shop means, lose of liters of milk.
To avoid the situation, they sold the milk in black (market) through the side entrance of the house and the Tea Urn was filled and put on the street side to deliver tea. I accompanied my uncle while he took care of the Tea Urn, open and closing the tap filling the little tumblers with tea. Every time I see a vendor pedaling with Tea Urn in the streets, I remember that moment and my grandparent’s use on Tea Urn is rarity and I have seen it only left ideal on the loft. Apart this, there was also a ginger coffee vendor who later joined the neighborhood of my grandparents.
He come from a very poor family and stayed at a rented hut, adjacent to my grandparent’s house along with his wife and an infant. His only source of income was selling ginger coffee in the Tea Urn carried on his only bicycle. Since they rented hut at our neighbor’s friendly house, I used to go to their house while playing around and have witnessed him filling the Tea Urn with ginger coffee. But with my bad memory I couldn’t recollect the procedure he handled in making the ginger coffee. (Couple of years back I happen to taste the ginger coffee while visiting marina beach, from one of the Tea Urn vendors and it was such hot and spicy to hurt my throat, and then I decided not to taste it anymore.)
It was also a period where the plastic or paper cups weren’t prevailed; so he used to take two small pails of water along with him, which used to hang on both sides of his bicycle’s rear carrier. He also put hang a wire basket on the handlebar with few dozens of steel tumblers, pressed one inside another, and once the customers sipped off he wash away the tumblers with the pails of water immediately, for another round of service. It was also interested to watch him tying the Tea Urn in his bicycle carrier, making sure it doesn’t fall off while pedaling on streets.
In early 20s, there was a bicycle vendor who used to visit my uncle’s workshop regularly to supply tea and coffee to the employees. My uncle runs a Maruti (car) workshop at the ground floor of our native house in Adyar and while I am quite out of the school then, I used to watch his (bicycle vendor’s) activates from our balcony. He used to put stand his bicycle in front of the workshop, which means getting a good sight on his from the balcony and unlike the ginger coffee vendor, who sold only ginger coffee, he was capable of selling 4 in one (bicycle).
He was such an active young person, and his hands used to play while he makes anything out of milk. With one Tea Urn (filled with milk) tied to his bicycle carrier, he satisfies four kinds of taste buds with sufficient use of coffee and ginger powders, hot teas brew and spice ingredient. He used to come hanging two wire baskets on the handlebar, one had two vacuum flasks of hot milk and teas brew and the other with three cylindrical boxes containing powders of coffee, ginger and spice for making masala milk! It’s another great entertainment for me, then, watching his series exchanges made between the beverages according to the customer’s request.
If it is for coffee, he picks up a little plastic cup (from a packet of series of cups that hang on the side of the Tea Urn) and drops a little spoon of coffee power and fills it with milk by opening the Tea Urn tap. Before he serves anybody, he make two long pours using another steel tumble he separately handled for this purpose. And for making tea, he opens of the flask and pours few mm of teas brew in the cup and makes another long pour after filled with milk. He maintained this act for every other beverage.
Many a time I had taken coffee from him and those days the quality of content used to be somehow fine… but these days they are just hot water Tea Urns. Except hotels, restaurants and homes, coffee or tea has gone so bad in taste and thickness at tea shops and bicycle vendors. Once, the tea shops at countryside used to be excellent in beverage, with the use of direct cow or buffalo milk, but now, they also seems well spoiled by making use of packet milk. I really feel regret how well have we gone down in quality and quantity compared to early days. Not only beverage, anything u takes lacks quality today.
P.S. Both the pictures were captured at Chennai Marina beach at various moments, and what inspired me to write this post.