Being in love with tea is the most committed relationship I have ever been in. I have been accused of romanticizing tea by the whole world and I am not shy to admit that I am indeed, guilty as charged. Each cup of tea brings a sense of tranquillity that awakens all my senses together. I admiringly gaze at the transforming colour of the water when it infuses with the spoonful of tea leaves, I assimilate the aroma of the added spices of ginger and elaichi, I await the sound of the piping hot tea boiling in my saucepan and then I let my cup of addiction perform its show on my taste buds. My morning is never a ‘good morning’ without tea, and my body clock tells me it is 5 pm when it starts craving for tea.
If you are an ardent and genuine tea-lover as I am, you would agree that the best places to have tea are at the small tea-stalls or tea-sheds (also known as kitli, thhela, lhaari, bandi, etc. in various parts of the country) which of course, comes after the comfort of your balcony while you are reading a book on your bean-bag. And although, the world has a million things to complain about these tea-stalls like that of the stained glasses, the hovering mosquitoes, and the over-cooked tea; what disturbs me about these stalls is a little different. What bothers me the most is the gendered state of affairs of these tea stalls that never fail to ruin the most soulful and romantic moments of my day.
One of my early encounters with tea was at Rambhai’s tea stall outside IIM-Ahmedabad. Many journalists have written about Rambhai and the secretive brick window on the IIM wall through which he passes the tea glasses from outside. I have always witnessed how tea is a non-discriminatory drink at Rambhai’s where I see daily wagers in ragged clothes, office-goers in their formals and the college students in their cheeky Star Wars tees; drinking from the same typical chai glass. If tea transcends class, I wonder why it can not blur the boundaries of gender.
There are some gendered patterns that I have often witnessed and experienced at Rambhai’s and the numerous other tea stalls I have been to. I have noticed that for every 10 men at a stall; there are probably only two women which is a despairing ratio, if you ask me. Girls hardly come by themselves and are almost always accompanied by men or boys. Whenever the customers drive in with a car, the girls are always seated inside and the men carry the tea glasses to them. In fact, even the boys in my circle never allow me to go order for tea and the usual comment is, “Do not go there. All the men are standing there.” And god forbade, if I ever happen to go to these kitlis by myself. I would be stared at and judged because I, as a woman, do not belong to this space – a space that is historically and traditionally perceived as male-dominated.
The easy presumption that, men can claim and own these public spaces simply by standing around it, always made me uneasy. I think the male community has usurped a great deal of power if they have managed to make you feel uncomfortable about something as innocuous as having a cup of tea. There is an unsaid authority and power they exert through their actions of brazenly smoking into your faces, laughing and talking loudly or simply by having a tete-a-tete with the tea vendor. At times like these I feel like giving them a reality check that this is not their bedroom where they can openly adjust their pants or yawn with their arms wide open. Even the slightest of such movements speak a great deal about how narrow-minded we are, as a society.
Maybe this is a good point to talk about the girls from Karachi who started the initiative called #girlsatdhaba. Girls and women visited male-dominated spaces such as tea stalls and dhaba, and posted their pictures on social media with the tag #girlsatdhaba. The pioneers urged other women to carry on the movement by occupying and thus claiming access and mobility into public spaces. This movement, albeit small-scale, goes on to prove that we need something revolutionary even for gaining access to spaces as tiny as a tea stall. The different waves of feminism have ushered in a range of rights from that of voting to standing for elections, from driving cars to trucks, from female labour rights to leading huge companies. But it is as important to keep count of the trees as we make way into the forest because battles of access to public spaces and freedom of sheer mobility are as important as the others.
Motivation lectures and self-help books often harp about holding the key to happiness in your own hands. Tea has the strength to charge me and set my mood but it is the gendered space of these tea stalls that rob me of this bliss. So, if you are a man and are at a tea-stall, do not stare at a woman who is all by herself and asking for tea because, believe it or not, you are discouraging her from an innocent act of drinking tea. And if you are a woman, do not think twice before visiting a tea stall because if the world is not handing you the space you deserve; just grab it!
Research Associate, CBPS