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The Tyranny of Chai on Indian Trains

“Chai! Chai! Chai!” came the strangled wail that jolted me from my early morning slumber. It sounded like the painful cry of a scalded cat, but it wasn’t. It could be only one thing – swarms of Indian Railways chai-sellers, laden with pots and urns. It was five in the morning, and I was travelling from some place to some other place – I can’t quite recall – in second-class sleeper. At that point, I wished that I wasn’t. I would have given almost anything to be lying in the comfort of my own bed rather than on an upper berth surrounded by countless strangers and chai-sellers.

I could have quite easily been left in peace for another four hours, but this was an Indian train. As was usual, people were coming to life early and by about six, were out of their berths and sitting, eating or just glaring out of the window. I can’t understand why most people arise so early and then sit bored witless for hours when they could pass the time by sleeping. Maybe the chai-sellers have a lot to do with it. They prowl the corridors shouting and screaming as if their particular chai is the last available chai on the planet, and instil a sense of urgency by making everyone feel that they must order some before it runs out. Unfortunately, it never does. There is always an endless supply of chai and chai-sellers – all day and half of the night – no matter what. If there is ever a nuclear holocaust I am convinced that an Indian Railways employee will emerge somehow from the rubbled landscape with a shiny urn and the cry of “Chai! Chai! Chai!” will be the only sound to be heard.

There used to be a British comedy programme on TV during the late 1960s/early 1970s called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Much of it consisted of sketches bordering on the surreal. Every time I am subjected to the chai selling farce on Indian trains, I am reminded of it. John Cleese was one of the main actors in Python. He went on to do another programme in the mid-70s called Fawlty Towers. It was based around a guesthouse where Cleese played the ill-tempered owner who ran the place. The hotel was run for the benefit of Cleese’s character, Basil Fawlty. I am convinced that whoever thought of Fawlty and Python, must have got their inspiration from spending a lot of time in India – on trains.

It wasn’t unusual for me to be annoyed by the early morning chai-sellers. I am used to them appearing en masse at some un-Godly hour, but that has never made me any more accepting of them. This journey was like one hundred others I had taken before. They arrive on the scene just at the precise moment I am beginning to doze-off. The whole night is always spent tossing from side-to-side, trying to ignore the noisy clattering of wheels on track and the whirring sound of the fans. The train continues to slam sideways and up and down as it goes along and I become increasingly paranoid and preoccupied with thoughts of imminent derailment. I can never sleep – well not until around five or six in the morning. It is then that after a sleepless night I begin to feel mentally jaded and sleep kicks-in. Alas, the chai-sellers soon put a stop to that.
I decided to order a coffee, working on the basis that if you can’t beat them, then you’d better join them. I wanted coffee even though the chai-seller only appeared to have tea. But to my surprise he smiled and pulled out some coffee powder. “Fantastic”, I thought. Then, astonishingly, he puts a spoonful of coffee into a cup of tea! He has no hot water – only hot chai. I look at him, giving one of my “Are you stupid?” stares. He doesn’t understand. I give him five rupees, shake my head and make a deliberate expulsion of air – a sigh of complete and utter disbelief and resignation. India has made me an expert in the art of head shaking and sighing with complete and utter disbelief and resignation. Before I set foot in the place I was a novice. I’ve come a long way after years of frustration – a very long way.

I suppose that in one way the chai-sellers represent the hyperactive part of India that visitors can find both fascinating and infuriating. A sense of urgency often prevails and makes the place exciting and electric. Walk along any main street and you will feel it in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Vehicles from auto-rickshaws to mopeds dodge and weave in the latest jam and accelerate at pace just to get into the most unlikely gap in the traffic. And walk along any street shoulder to shoulder in a mass of humanity only to have someone slither into a space in front of you where no place appeared to exist.

Why all the urgency when really there is no call for it? India exhibits a frenzy that, if transferred to the West, would be a recipe for stress and bad-temperedness likely to cause coronary overload. I often feel like telling people to chill-out – but surprisingly people are chilled-out in the midst of it all. Indians seem unfazed by all of the hyperactivity and exude an inner calm that we westerners tend to lack. So it is to be expected that the non-stop chai-selling often irritates someone like me, and the wailing and bellowing that accompanies it. But there is another explanation: I am British!

A lot of people have come to regard complaining as a British art form. If this is so, then I’m a bit of a late developer and India merely happened to bring out the best of me in the complaining stakes. I tend to do a lot of it these days.

Australians condemn us Brits by asking, “What’s the difference between a 747 and a pom (Brit)? The 747 stops whining when it gets to Sydney airport!” I think they say this because many of us Brits are brought up to search for a place called Wit’s End. I have scoured many a map looking for it, but have never found it. It took me some time to realise that it is not a mountain peak or far flung point on a peninsula. Wit’s End is the pinnacle of a metaphorical journey: the end product of an inner quest for self-realisation.

The journey to Wit’s End is peppered with frustration whereby you say to yourself things like – this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, why doesn’t it work, why can’t things be different. After years of this you finally reach the point of realisation: the world is a pain in the backside and will never be how you would like it to be. Wit’s End – the point of self-realisation – a kind of British version of “enlightenment”.

Anyhow, I lie down once more, nursing my hybrid chai-coffee drink, and become conscious of the swollen bags beneath my eyes and a clanging headache, resulting from sleep deprivation. The dawn was breaking. I caught a glimpse of the ugly, scorched landscape from the window. I wanted to be somewhere else; anywhere but where I was.

I began to question my stupidity. What was I doing on this train? Why was I punishing myself so? Why couldn’t I take the easy option for once and be lying on a beach in Australia or France, or be in a soft bed in a decent hotel? Why did I yet again have to be in India on some hellish train-ride? There was only one escape. I blocked out my surroundings and imagined that I was somewhere else.

The beauty of imagination is that it is free and you do not need a ticket. It can take you anywhere. My mind was transported elsewhere – to Sydney Harbour Bridge, looking at the cruise liners as they passed the imposing Opera House. “Ah, yes” I recalled, free and easy-going Australia where deserted beaches stretch forever; a place of rain forests, deserts and blue ocean scenes. And across some delightful blue ocean scene is New Zealand with its South Island glaciers, jagged mountains and rolling fields.

New Zealand – I was there in 1994 and I remembered the town square in Christchurch. There was a man dressed in black; he was known as the “Wizard of Christchurch”. He featured on the city’s tourist leaflets and was quite a famous character. He had even appeared on national TV at some point. No one knew much about his background – except that he was British-born and stood in the town square for half of the year, giving anyone who would listen the benefit of his wisdom.

His logic was so warped that is was funny. He churned out anti-women rants, anti-northern hemisphere rants and any other rant about every issue that irritated him. He was so one-sided that he was beyond help. He gave ignorance a bad name. You had to take him with a pinch of salt. And everyone did. They laughed as he stood on top of his stepladder, sporting his black pointy hat, grey pointy beard, and complaining about the world in particular and the universe in general. Of course, being British, he was an expert complainer.

That was the Wizard. And that was Christchurch. He was out of time and out of place in his views (and his dress-sense). But “out of time and out of place” is the essence of imagination. It is increasingly what people want to experience. The real world can sometimes be a little too harsh or mundane and imagination at least allows for some sort of escape.

The great tourist sites of the world stimulate our imagination. I once stood inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, surrounded by crowds of Chinese tourists (not so forbidden these days). I imagined former emperors and concubines of times long gone. It was a world away from the tourist attraction that the place has now become. At that very instant, I was somewhere else – in another time, at a different place. Hundreds of other sites and monuments across the globe inspire us to engage in imaginary time-travel. We stand, gaze and soak in the atmosphere, imagining their time and place within history.

But imagination is not confined to the past. The Statue of Liberty, with its ideals of freedom and a better tomorrow, conjures visions of a new society – of a time and place where few have ventured before. Many have tried to coerce humanity toward a new tomorrow but have failed dismally. Yet monuments that look to the future and light the way with a hand held torch offer a new hope, an image of what may be, and a belief in what could be. Problems begin however when imagination, someone else’s imagination, merely results in deeds that bury decency and hope – all performed in the name of decency and hope. Some sites may seem macabre. Indeed, they are not meant to be tourist sites as such. But they should at least be visited, if only to appreciate how things can go so terribly wrong resulting in shattered illusions and splintered dreams.

I once stood in a field not far from Phnom Pen in Cambodia, staring into a glass-fronted monument that housed thousands of human skulls. It was the end product of someone’s warped imagination. It was the result of some power crazed tyrant and his attempts to coerce people into what they were not supposed to be – what they couldn’t be – all done in the name of his vision. It was a monument to Cambodia’s recent history – a monument to what is and what should never be: wasted lives in pursuit of a false dawn.

There are many such-like sites across the world. Northern France is littered with cemeteries of thousands upon thousands of symmetrical white crosses; each one representing some young man from Britain or America who died while trying to curb the excesses of Hitler’s Germany. I have never visited those cemeteries, but have met many who have. They tell me you cannot imagine it until you have visited in person. I guess that some things are unimaginable.

Eventually, my train pulled into the final station and a thousand passengers alighted (or should that be a thousand chai-sellers?). On the adjacent platform another train was about to begin its journey. It was jam-packed with passengers and, of course, bursting to the seams with – yes – chai-sellers.

As I checked into my hotel and entered my room, I was greeted by swarming mosquitoes and an overflowing waste bin. I switched on the ceiling fan and the mosquitoes fled to the far corners of the room. The fan was the noisy type: it was a highly effective mosquito repellent but made a constant rattling sound, which kept me awake for half of the night. It was either that or switch it off, leaving the way open for the mosquitoes to swarm. Anyone who has ever slept in a mosquito-ridden room will know that it is no fun whatsoever having mosquitoes annoyingly hum past your ears all through the night. In my case, when this happens I start to think that I’ve been bitten here, there and everywhere and spend too much time scratching imaginary bites and itches. Paranoia sets-in. So on this occasion the rattling fan is a necessity. The journey’s end is often more hard-bitten than what we ever imagined or hoped for. Compared to my hotel room, Indian trains aren’t so bad after all.

So perhaps “what is” should be treasured because it can be a whole lot better than what may be. The new tomorrow can be worse than the old yesterday. You don’t have to end up in a third rate hotel room or go to Cambodia to appreciate this. But we all keep on trying for and believing in a better tomorrow. Where will it all end? Surely not with more of the same: a future of tyranny and monuments to the murdered. I hope not
I guess that coping with mosquitoes, ceiling fans and chai-sellers is a small price to pay, considering what others have been forced to sacrifice. Maybe my future is destined to be one consisting of endless dreary hotel rooms, noisy ceiling fans and sleeper trains. I suppose it’s not so bad. But, then again, all of our futures are intertwined. There is not so much that I or anyone else can do about that. So hold-on tight – we could be in for a bumpy ride.

One day, someone may build a monument to world-travellers. If they do, I hope it is modelled on, of all things, a ceiling fan. Then all travellers who visit the site will be transported in thought to a hot night in Asia lying in bed, tormented by the sound of some noisy fan, pesky mosquitoes or the cry of “Chai! Chai! Chai!”. Then, at that point, they will get the inexplicable urge to do it all again and hit the road; the human desire to keep striving; to keep moving on; to keep journeying. Itchy feet and wandering minds. Or should that be itchy minds and wandering feet? It doesn’t really matter. It’s all about travelling through life, scratching those imaginary itches, and hoping they will get better – imagining another time, a different place where the tomorrow is better than the yesterday. Just because things never seem right, doesn’t mean they’ll always be wrong. More chai anyone?

Colin Todhunter is the author of ‘Chasing Rainbows in Chennai’. For further details – and reviews – check out your local Amazon website. The book’s webpage is at and there is a competition currently running to win copies of the book at

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