A Tea-Hued Existential Crisis in Kolkata

What happens when a two-decade old tea stall has to make way for real estate ambitions?

For several years now, ever since my family and I have relocated to Kolkata, the makeshift tea stall at the corner where our street meets the key city artery, eastern bypass connector, has become an important part of my life. At the end of my early morning walk I spend around half an hour there sipping down with enormous relish not one but two glasses of near divine tea priced at an unbelievable (considering the quality) Rs 6 per glass.

The tea stall is my ear to the ground. While I down my tea I have a free access to what moves, mostly men, at the ground level – petty operatives of all kind of micro businesses, cycle rickshaw pullers, do-nothing hangers on and the odd retired folk like me. I have realised how important a role IPL or any kind of top competitive cricket or football plays in their lives, brought to virtually every doorstep by dish TV.

There is also a steady dose of readily formed opinion, freely dished out, on the latest scandal or local or state level political development currently agitating them. Over time I have found that this dipstick opinion sampling of mine did quite well compared to formal opinion or exit polls whose fare newspapers and TV news channels dished out.

Then one day this placid life was shaken by the sound of workmen’s hammers breaking down the sturdy home behind the boundary wall against which rested out a tea stall, a barber’s two-seater shop and a little corner one selling cigarettes, cheaper biscuits and packaged snacks which FMCG firms take such pains to peddle.

The home, built well over a decade ago, had been sold and the developer was obviously going to build something which would encash the value of the location – a corner plot on a key city artery that linked with the airport. Up in the air was the future of all those unauthorised stalls like the one that sold tea, omelettes made the local way, with or without toast buttered and sprinkled with sugar, and ghugni (can’t translate that) with muri (murmura).

The tea stall, in particular, had become a local institution, having been around for maybe two decades and witness to the transformation of the area – from low semi jungle that was the hangout of the riff-raff and petty criminals to planned urban development. The government at some point realised the value of its land lying idle, put up apartment blocks which brought in folks like me whose means put them a peg or two below the level catered to by private developers. Also came the kothiwalas who put up impressive homes on individual plots.

The fortunes of the middle-aged tea stall owner had grown over the years, largely because he knew how to deal with whom. He was contemptuous of the lowly, just about tolerant to the Hindustani speaking, respectful to the bhadralok and absolutely ingratiating to any policeman, irrespective of rank, who happened to come by.

Initially no one talked about the impending existential crisis, but slowly, I picked up what I knew was bound to happen. The local young men with the right political association had dropped by. For background, a one-room CPI(M) party office down our street had a few years ago changed colours to those of Trinamool Congress but the boys who hung out there remained the same. Except that with every passing year the number and price tags of the motorbikes parked before the party office kept rising.

The shops knew they had to relocate as the developer who was putting up a commercial structure had asked the young men to help out. For this is how encumbrances on land in the city are removed, a city that otherwise swore by its hawkers who has long ago gobbled up pavements and in key shopping areas like the New Market threatened to swallow up the carriageway too.

In a city and state where proper jobs are difficult to come by hawkers have over decades gained their own legitimacy, helped by the value system of the earlier Left-inclined rulers. The middle class complained in newspapers but hawker eviction got nowhere because the bottomline was: if you push away the stall of a successful hawker, then that will take one more family straight into destitution. My own position has been equally ambivalent. I loved my tea and my people connect but realised this is no way to run a city or solve its problem of thousands and thousands of squatting hawkers.

Then, as the old building was demolished and an elaborate concrete framework of columns quickly came up in its place, one fine morning the cigarette shop was gone, banished to the other side of the city artery to rest against the boundary wall of a large government tax office. And the tea shop? Reduced to a shadow of its former self, it was having to make do on the narrow pavement on the other side of the street that, with the big road, made up the street corner.

How long it would remain perched against the boundary wall of the government promoted apartment block (like the one we lived in) I did not know. Only, often there was no place to sit on the two little benches even very early in the morning. The smoothness with which custom flowed, bringing with it all the issues that made tongues wag, was gone. My listening post was almost destroyed. And worst of all, the tea now came in a khullar, not a glass as there was barely any water to wash used glasses.

The last to go will be the barber’s shop, to be relocated next to the cigarette shop on the other side of the big road. I will miss the young barber the most. He was my window to the world of semi urban Bengal. He lives half an hour’s commuter train journey away and the game between us is, whoever comes first has the right to tell the other in mock seriousness, ‘You overslept’.

The day before the tea stall crossed the smaller road the local corporation councillor came by, inspected the new configuration and presumably gave his blessings. He has the ownership rights to the pavements and has, in his own way, had the right approach. A couple of years ago the open drains on either side of the entire connector were covered up and nice tiled pavements laid out. The hawkers’ shops that had fully gobbled up the entire pavement were pushed back, thus rescuing for walkers a small strip of the pavement. Not that you can really walk there but it is the thought that counts.

If there is a redeeming feature to the councillor the local boys are another matter. The developer must have paid them off handsomely to get rid of the hawkers impeding the view of the shops that would come up at the street level in the new construction. The boys would have in turn paid off the hawkers far more modestly. They are the true rent seekers, with an astronomical hourly wage rate.

Through all that has happened at out street corner, no policeman has showed his face. In this scheme of things there is the obvious rule by power and money but hardly any rule of law.

Subir Roy is a senior journalist and the author of Made in India: A study of emerging competitiveness (Tata Mcgraw Hill, 2005) and Ujjivan: Transforming With Technology (OUP, 2018).