In October 2016, a tea seller (chaiwalla) caught the fancy of South Asian social media for his remarkable looks. And it was not Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tends to flaunt his chaiwalla past, but a beautiful, blue-eyed 17-year-old tea seller from Islamabad.
Arshad Khan was photographed by Javeria “Jiah” Ali at a Sunday Bazaar in Pakistan’s capital city. She posted his photo on Instagram at night and by the next morning thousands of lovestruck women had shared the picture of Khan looking into the camera with his piercing eyes while making doodh patti (tea). “#ChaiWala” began trending across social media and that is the name by which Khan has been lovingly called ever since.
Khan quickly took social media in Pakistan by storm and landed several modeling and video offers. But just as suddenly, he vanished. Recently, however, when Pakistan had almost forgotten about the popular Chaiwala, he has resurfaced as an entrepreneur who has just launched a café in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan.
Overlooking the Margallah Hills is his new rooftop café, “Café Chaiwala”. As I walk in, people look up at me expectantly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the blue-eyed boy, but are clearly disappointed when they see that it’s just me.
Khan’s family hails from Mardan, a city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but he was born in Islamabad.
“I was selling tea as a daily wager and earning PKR 200 to 400 a day ($1.24–$2.47),” said the visibly tired and unassuming Khan. As he entered the café, a young girl got up from her chair, greeted him and requested a photo with him. He obliged with a smile and was quick to pose for the picture.
“The photo taken by Jiah Ali has changed the life of a Chaiwala completely,” he said. He said that was doing his job of selling tea and did not even know when he was clicked. “Sunday Bazaar is not exactly a place where one can think of changing one’s life, but Jiah changed mine.”
“I did not know that I was being photographed while Jiah did not know that this was not a mere storm in a teacup.”
Jiah Ali said that she had no idea that she would make him a sensation.
“I take many photos and quite a few are portraits,” Ali said. “I had some of Khan making tea but I was undecided about what to do with his photos. I then decided to post one on Instagram with the caption ‘hot-tea’ with a wink emoji.”
The next day when Khan woke up, the photo was all over social media and people were tagging her.
Overnight fame was a little too hard for the teenager to handle, and he was suddenly surrounded by a posse of “friends” and “managers.”
“I was an uneducated young man who did know if he was speaking Punjabi or Pashtu,” said Khan. “For the first few months, I zoned out and had no clue about what was happening. I was trying to understand the sudden attention and deal with the deluge of modeling offers. Then some ‘friends’ told me that they would handle the business side of the fame. They started getting me modeling offers and so it continued for over a year.”
He said that he was still naïve and trying hard to understand what was going on around him, but by the time he realized it, it was quite late.
“I have been working on my language skills;I have learned Urdu,” said Khan explaining his sudden disappearance. “I am learning more about modeling and working on how to improve. I am also trying to reinvent myself as an entrepreneur, and my brand “Chaiwala” is a result of that endeavor.”
“I did one video during my hiatus and the clip that was posted on Tik Tok gave the impression that I had failed and was back to where I started from.”
It was not easy for me to interview Khan. Not because he wasn’t ready for one but because he was available for his fans to come to him and ask for a photograph. For instance, while we were speaking, a group of four told a waiter that they were waiting to talk to Khan. He left the interview and went to the table for a brief chat.
“This café is a franchise and I come here to spend time with the guests and, if someone insists, I make tea for them as well,” said Khan. “We will be opening another café in Islamabad soon.”
“I can have tea at any other place in Islamabad,” said Zeeshan Ali, 24, who was at the café with his friends. “It has only been a week since this café opened and I have already come here thrice with my friends to have ‘Arshad Khan’s karak chai’ in the company of the man the tea is named after,” he said.
Talking about his modeling career, Khan said shyly that photographers had told him that he was a natural. Hailing from a conservative family, Khan said that his modeling career was booming when he had to take a break.
“My family asked me not to do modeling after a I did a shoot where I was hugging a model,” he said. “But after I explained that this would not happen again, they allowed me.”
He said that his one regret in life is that he is not educated.
“I have started studying now. At the same time I am working with an organization that helps intelligent children who do not have the means to continue studies or the right connections to move ahead in life,” Khan said.
Café Chaiwala’s décor theme is Pakistan’s famous colorful and kitschy truck art.
“People ask me why I call my brand Chaiwala. Well, this title gave me an identity and it’s something I will always cherish,” said Khan.
(Edited by Uttaran Dasgupta and Gaurab Dasgupta)