In my journey with tea, I have particularly enjoyed the stories of people, be it planters, tea sellers, marketers, activists. And of these, it’s the stories of tea sellers and chaiwallahs that are the most heartwarming. Like this one from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand.
Some weeks ago, I spoke to Avinash Dugar, who runs a tea-room there called La Gravitea. Dugar, who gave up corporate life in 2015 and set out to explore the world, believed his heart lay in adventure sports—till tea came his way. A chance stop at a tea bar in Hong Kong introduced him to the concept of a tea bar, so very different from the chai stops back home. That a tea bar could be so much more, and offer so much more choice, stayed with him.
Now Jamshedpur, famous for its steel industry, is hardly a town that figures on the tea map. But Dugar was a man on a mission: He started trying different teas, sourcing them, making them, refining his brewing skills. Then he set up a kiosk with 70 teas on the menu. He wanted to do for tea what Café Coffee Day had done for coffee, he says.
The initial plan was to open kiosks across the country to popularise tea in all its forms and flavours. One day, however, he got talking with a customer whose sister, accompanying him, was hearing impaired. The challenges of hearing-impaired youth finding employment came up. On the spur of the moment, Dugar decided to expand his kiosk to a café and employ hearing-impaired youth. It took time and effort, even convincing the parents of these young people was not easy. In 2016, Dugar started with six of them, training them in food service. Today, 11 hearing-impaired and orphaned youth make up his La Gravitea family.
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The tea-room sells a mind-boggling range of 150 teas, from local specialities to imported teas like sencha and matcha (12 countries, says Dugar). The growing collection of teaware is hard to miss even on the small phone screen when we are conversing. There’s a wall clock shaped like a teapot. I spy a Victorian-era moustache cup that he bought in Kolkata, and a great many teapots, including fabulously retro ones shaped like old sewing machines, typewriters and a stack of books. The pride of his collection, however, is his newest acquisition, a porcelain teapot from Cambodia that’s 4ft wide, 3ft tall and weighs 250kg. He acquired this on a trip to Phnom Penh last year but it has just arrived. Not only is this teapot a photo op for La Gravitea’s guests, it takes his teapot collection to a marvellous 115 pieces, not counting the one tattooed on his arm. He hopes it’s the start of what will be India’s first teapot museum, offering visitors one more reason to pop in for a cup of tea.
Tea, it would seem, brews many a story. For there are other heartwarming tales like Dugar’s. Like Laxman Rao from Delhi, who runs a tea stall but has also authored novels and non-fiction that he self-publishes and sells online. Or Padma Shri awardee Prakash Rao in Bhopal, who uses his tea-sale earnings to fund a school for less privileged children. Or the couple in Kochi, Kerala, who use their earnings from tea to fulfil their love of travelling around the world. Just like the tea they make and sell, theirs too is a story to be told.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.