R Josei Canteen looks like a normal tea stall on the road connecting Chennai to the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, but its fame far outstrips both its small size and ordinary staple.
Ever since O Panneerselvam took over as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister following J Jayalalithaa’s death earlier this month, busloads of pilgrims have been stopping by at the stall in the town of Periyakulam of Theni district on the picturesque Western Ghats to take selfies.
Panneerselvam is perhaps the country’s second most famous ‘chai wallah.’ Like prime minister Narendra Modi who helped his father sell tea at a Gujarat railway station in his early years, OPS – as the new chief minister is popularly known – was a tea stall owner in his early life.
The word has spread that much before he had taken the plunge into politics, first becoming the chairman of the local municipality in 1996, OPS would spend hours at the tea stall that he had set up with his schoolmate S Vijayan. It is here where he socialized with locals and struck a strong bond with them that ultimately helped him to become a MLA in 2001 and never had to look back politically.
“The tea may be ordinary, but the stall is very special,” says R Pumalai, busy taking selfies along with his friends with the tea stall as the backdrop. Pumalai and his friends were on their way to Sabarimala but decided to halt at R Josie Canteen for a while.
As pictures are clicked, the friends engage in banter. “Am a student and not too sure yet what I will become in future,” says Pumalai. One of his friends is, however, quick to respond, saying to become big, one has to have some link with chai: either making it or selling it. Over hot cups of tea, everyone breaks out in laughter.
Modi’s chai wallah background is folklore. R Josie Canteen serves a physical reminder to the chief minister’s modest background.
“The tea here tastes different,” jokes a local who visits the stall regularly. “It is unique because where else in the country will you find a Mudalamaichar Tea kadai (Chief Minister’s Tea Shop)?” he asks.
Wedged between a temple and a residential building with giant cutouts of Jayalalithaa waving at passersby, the tea stall is just 20 metres away from OPS’s home inside a narrow adjacent lane. When OPS and his friend set it up in 1978, they had named it PV Canteen (P for Panneersevam and V for Vijayan). Its signboard has gone missing since and the fare that the stall offers is limited: tea, coffee, health drinks such as Horlicks and milk. Another vendor is using the space to sell samosas and vada.
Ever since OPS found his calling in electoral politics and rose up the ladder, the task of running the stall was handed over to his brother, Raja. He renamed it as R Josie Canteen after one of his daughters who tragically drowned.
The chief minister’s brother is now chairman of the Periyakulam municipality, but visits the stall often. “We had other businesses and my father was a rich financier,” he recollects. “We run this stall for sentimental reasons,” he points out.
Sixty-five-year-old Vijayan – the childhood friend of OPS – also turns sentimental while speaking about his ties with the chief minister. Vijayan has branched out, setting up his own Relax Canteen on the other side of the road which many of his customers say serves better tea than R Josie Canteen.
“If you see more crowds at the chief minister’s stall, it is because parking is easier in front of it rather than here, close to a bus stop,” points out one. Vijayan, however, refuses to speak ill of either the CM or his stall. “We are very good friends. Even though he has become a very big man, he stops here and spends time with me,” he says.
Vijayan says the chief minister’s tea stall has lessons for life. “He had talent and made it big. I went as far as becoming a local corporator,” he says. After all, not every chai wallah makes it big.