Comrade, give me a cup!
Yet, the tiny, yellow-walled tea stall attracts customers like bees to flowers. "Comrade, give me a cup," is how they ask for tea.
The man behind the counter is comrade Yeasin Swapan -- a tea vendor like no other. For his rebellious nature and left-wing political alignment, he has had a reasonable number of adventures and tragedies in his life.
Always optimistic and smiling, Swapan makes his tea with love.
"I sell only 300 cups a day and not a cup more. My customers need to be polite and respectful of my ideology and pay first for the tea. I boil 30 litres of milk every day and brew 10 cups with one litre of milk," he says.
"Biplobi der Cha" is Tk 20 a cup where a dollop of brewed frothy, thick milk, a spoon of sugar, and dark black tea, made by steeping the tea leaves, is stirred in. This divine tea is served in paper cups inscribed with the stall's name on it, which is an added attraction.
Swapan had a chequered life. He ran away from home for the lack of food and fear of starvation during the devastating famine of 1974 and never returned home to his loved ones till today. From pulling a rickshaw to visiting South America, he has done it all!
He spent his wayward youth, visiting Agartala, the capital of the Indian State of Tripura by the day and returning home by night in the mid-70s with his friends. There he met an old man, an expert teamaker, at the bus depot and learned the tricks of making a cup of milk tea, gourmet coffee, buttermilk like ghol or mattha, curds, etc from him, who was almost like his adopted father.
Swapan is a well-read man having read memoirs of Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, and guerrilla leader, and books by Karl Marx and other writers of that genre. He studied till Grade II only and was later self-taught. He did many odd jobs in life from pulling a rickshaw to being a driver at Transparency International Bangladesh.
In his later years, he joined an uncle of his, who was involved in the practice of bringing goods into the country and this business took him to Singapore for assignments. Following his uncle's ventures, Swapan landed in Peru working in his uncle's new snack bar as a tea barista. His cup of frothy milk tea won many hearts.
In his wild hay days, he rode the motorcycle to Brazil, Chile, and other exotic countries, but he fondly remembers his visits to Che's house in Argentina, which is open to the public in the form of a museum, housing a collection of his paraphernalia.
Luck was never on his side, however, and following his uncle's death in the late-70s he returned home and had gone through a series of ups and downs. Currently, he has let go of his high-octane adventurous life and is stationed for the moment in making tea at his stall for the last 15 to 17 years.
"I am active in politics and sometimes go to gatherings and talk about my ideology and the life of the underdogs. People always greet me with 'Comrade Lal Salam' or red salute, which is a greeting used by communists in South Asia. They even come to my tea stand to listen to my adventures," says Swapan, a lanky man now in his late fifties.
So, the next time you are in the vicinity of Shantinagar, look for the comrade who sells tea.