Cuppa chai, and a tale of two steaming Dollys

Amul is known for its wide range of products – and for its witty ads featuring the iconic Amul Girl. Last week, it came up with another smashing one that got us chortling – ‘Chaicrosoft!’ with the tagline ‘Gatesway to taste!’ It showed an Amul-ised Bill Gates and by-now celebrity roadside tea-seller from Nagpur, Sunil Patil, a.k.a. Dolly Chaiwala.

Gates crossed paths with Dolly during his recent visit to India to attend the pre-wedding festivities of Anant Ambani. Passing through Nagpur, he was taken to the best-known chai cart on Ravindra Nath Tagore Marg. With his signature style of brewing and vending tea from his mobile unit, his funky glasses, chains and accessories – not to mention his style-bhai enthusiasm for his craft – Dolly has some 1.5 mn followers on Instagram. He must have added at least a few thousands more to his kitty after Bill from Washington state shared the by-now famous video of his visit to Dolly Ki Tapri last week.

Dolly’s chai is reportedly a concoction of tea leaves, milk, cardamom, and crushed ginger. Nothing too special about that – except the stylish way he serves it. He pours the milk into the saucepan with a flourish and then shuffles cups before handing them to customers. His fashion sense and antics seem to be inspired by Turkish meat artist superstar Salt Bae (born Nusret Gokce), whose technique for preparing, seasoning and serving meat in his restaurants across the world wowed the likes of Maradona and Devid Beckham. And it clearly works for Dolly.

‘I realised the next day whom I had served tea,’ said Dolly later about his meeting with Gates. Gates was overwhelmed – or so he exclaimed to the media, adding that he saw innovation in India ‘even in the preparation of a simple cup of tea’. (Side note: What else would he have said? That he found the tea, ‘Um, nice’?)

Curiously, the words ‘Dolly’, ‘tea’, and ‘innovation’ took me back in time and elsewhere in space – to a tea shop in Kolkata, to be precise. Dolly’s: The Tea Shop, in Dakshinapan Shopping Complex in south Kolkata, was particularly significant to our generation because it birthed many a tea snob. While VG Siddhartha’s CCD – Cafe Coffee Day — may have introduced Indians of a particular generation to ‘Americano’, Dolly’s taught us ‘First Flush’.

Dolly’s was established in 1988 and became a cultural hub on the lines of, say, New York’s Cafe Wha? – minus the clientele of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Allen Ginsberg, of course. Dolly Roy, who passed away last year, was India’s first female tea-taster and auctioneer. She combined her expertise and passion and created a new subculture. As a trendsetter, she established a ‘posher’ tradition of tea drinking. Others quickly followed. Whether it was First Flush – a light, bright, aromatic tea from Darjeeling – from March, or Second Flush – a mellow, sweet muscatel from the second foliage in May – there was always a personal touch in every cuppa. The shop reminded me of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who always reminded his staff, ‘We are not in the coffee business serving people. We are in the people business serving coffee.’ In his 1999 book, The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase ‘third place’, referring to a wide variety of public places that host regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work. Cafes have become the perfect ‘third place’ in our cities. Dolly’s was a precursor to all that – with tea.

I just wish that along with Dolly ki Tapri, Gates could have also dropped by at Dolly’s: The Tea Shop.

The writer is professor of statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata