Chai Chahiye!

  • Shadman Dou Number Market, North Karachi
  • Duaa Sameer

Silent night, the door to your abode closes shut. The clash of metal to metal blares through the air for a short sharp second until the realisation hits: there is no going back. There is no easy way out, not that it was what was being aspired to, you tell yourself. The spirits soar high and just the second there is the first step taken, a breeze comes with its cool greetings and a warmer urging: it shall not remain the stuff of dreams any longer – if it is chai you desire, it is precisely what you shall get.

So the journey is made, along gravel roads breaking up in multiple places, evidence in themselves of the withering of a place once so carefully curated. The musty smell of wet dirt that lines the pavements permeates as there is struggle to make it up a climb. The shrill scream of a girl in play goes up from the houses that line the road on the right and it is directly succeeded by just as loud a beckoning of the mother. Things may seem to be dwindling down elsewhere, but some places remain most alive all through the night. There is quiet for a second when the smell of roasted corn makes it way to you and then a racket ensues: from motorcycles with barely functioning silencers and run down Suzukis with their easily recognizable burps. The source of the beautiful smoke suddenly becomes rather questionable.

What is for sure is that the town, not at all quaint, is breathing its dying Friday night breath. Shopkeepers now huddle outside their workplaces, lounging, making lazy conversation with their peers. Young men in groups of three returning from their own workplaces or schools make light chat beneath their common, wilting apartment complexes. A man stands, definite as ever, making a solemn request for the good of her daughter, right there with him.

The road that leads to the main street is sleepy and waiting. The clear brown sky embodies the mood – dreary but expansive and comforting in how it blankets the night.

The scenes at the junction change almost instantly. The street, housing the main bazaar in the midst of towering houses, seems to have found its own footing. There is a push back happening: where just around the corner sleep has taken over, the street dares to resist for just that long. The stark contrast between the two is overwhelming if not downright unsettling. Just at the corner of the street, there sit men on a flimsy metallic meat stall-cum-socialising spot, right in the arm of a drinks vendor whose display of rainbow squashes is elusive only in the case when a blind motorcycle plunges on without warning – and even then the fluorescence of the bulbs that dangle from the stall manage to sway the attention. The man at the stall, in his concentration and the swift movement of his hand, jolts a realisation of just what keeps the spark of the night crackling.

The bazaar in its rebellion inculcates a phenomenon of conflict where everything and nothing keeps the attention. In what seems like the valley of chaos, there are the apartments, at the feet of which are the shops. Cars line along the length of the establishment which merge into oncoming traffic, separating the flow of which is the partition. Standing there, I see the destination of my imaginations. The place just calls to me.

The dhaba is quaint and minimal. That is what dhabas are: stripped of the embellishments, raw to the core, there is no pretending. The booth seesaws as we settle on it. It takes a while to register your right to the place while chai is ordered. The booth to the left and the one right in front are all occupied by men. The seating on the partition of the road invites only males. The mobile credit shop, the paan stall, the tyre repair shop, and the general store, too, are run and frequented by men for the most part. It feels like the one thing only you notice until a bearded man in a worn jersey, wearing a suncap, humming a Bollywood song that blares in his ears, too, stops short for just a second when the sight of a woman, sat at the booths he has got so familiar with seeing only men on, catches him. And then he moves on. And so does everyone else after a quick glance, I notice. The matters being discussed at each individual booth and each individual table are too pressing or too amusing to be fazed by the presence of a member from an intersection of the populace usually barred from enjoying a cup of doodhpatti alongside them. On the table in front, one of the three men ask for their own order and the jolly Pathan waiter chirps, “ladies first!”

The smiles grow twofold as, right after, the waiter brings us two steaming cups of tea in signature china cups and saucers. After just a couple sips of the drink, the world seems a little lighter and less overbearing. It is coming to show how all the motorcycles whizzing, horns blaring, and the clatter of the cutlery paint the sound canvas of the bazaar. They remain no longer fragmented but become blended pieces of a whole.

The Pathan waiter has started to hurriedly have his dinner too. Meanwhile, two siblings of five walk through the hotel engaged in careful conversation about what to do when they get back home. I notice the old man sat on the booth next to ours carefully, for the first time completely: he has been sat here since the time we got here, his neck hung low and an indiscernible expression on his face. Before a theory could come up as to why, a man from the back exclaims, “salam! kya haal chaal hain?”, to another as he steadies himself on his motorcycle and whirrs away. In the distance, the men at the roadside tables of all age groups talk away – some look sullen as they listen to their friends while the younger ones roar with laughter at a curious joke someone cracked. My brother, too, tells me about his day – these times are rare.

One big gulp and the tea is over. We pay and start moving back home. On the way back through the somber street, which has grown quieter an hour later, munching on the masala fries and savoring the tang, I reflect. Being out in the street, it is clear to see the monopoly of one gender over not only the physical but also the mental space. It becomes daunting and a challenge. The only way to navigate through the minutiae of the paving roads is to squeeze through – or so we have been taught. The fear and hesitation has been ingrained and so the threat seems real. And maybe it is. There is, however, a flip side to the argument that dictates why restricting ourselves to close, sheltered circles is the best way to be. Public spaces are not just places where men go to buy necessities in urgency. When they walk it is a paced stroll, they do not rush to be inside shops, they look around and observe. If they run into a neighbour on the way, they take their time greeting them. Once off school, they will go to the park and off work, they will sit at hotels and unwind over chai.

The fact that ‘public’ spaces connotes a curb on freedoms for women and they are not regarded in most cases as a realm for casual interactions and relaxation out of immediate home environments as they do for men – and in view of today’s excursion – a question begs to be asked. How does this impede us? Social integration starts early, peculiarly around the time girls are pulled back inside, and it is not a surprise then that by the time of young adulthood, boys are much more skilled at meandering through the wide arenas open to them. In a knowledge economy that requires efficiency and independence for upward economic and social mobility, this is an enormous systematic disadvantage. The problem is only grave because it has a tendency to become pronounced as time goes by – this has to do with the psychology of the demographic concerned and shaping thinking patterns.

Changing societal ways is a tough task because of the same reasons. Patterns of thought are cemented more deeply than physical constructions. Positive change takes time and is gradual. However, it has to start somewhere. Mass concentrated efforts are key but subtle individual initiatives, too, make an impact. There is thus reason to hope the next time Apna Karachi Hotel hosts a woman, it would not just be me.