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  • Madiha Tariq

The Poetics and Politics of Chai

Shhh, shhh, shhh, it's time; it's about time; run, you must run… oh, no, it's done… I am late. If only I had made it two seconds earlier… There is something inherently familiar and rebellious in this act of motion: the collective suspense of witnessing the boiling chai embrace the defenceless edges of the pot is both a visual and a cognitive delight for those who prefer to dwell in metaphors. All imagery described and all things said, however, my association with chai was never any special, or nothing that would make for an exclusive. It was a part of many other experiences at home, experiences of the ‘present’ that had not yet demanded to be transcribed into memories of yesterday until I experienced something very bizarre here at Ashoka University.

As a freshman, the first few months here were wrapped in confusion — allow me to correct — disastrous confusion. The culture embodied by the meandering hallways and the tall maze of red bricks was divorced from any imagination of a university I had engaged with thus far. Beneath contrasting political opinions and a mammoth of individualities, most people here seemed to be a part of some sort of abstract, intangible, but invincible one. The alphabets of Malayalam, Bengali, English, and Hindi had something in common here, and it wasn’t a celebratory merry of their diversity but an acknowledgement of some greater homogeneity that defied all bounds of language, politics, and geography. This nature of homogeneity inspired and was, in turn, fuelled by a standard of day-to-day lifestyle choices on the residential campus echoed by the repeated chanting of coffees: lattes and mochas, to be specific.

I did not know how I was to express my personal sense of loss and homelessness in the face of this unexplainable alienation. It was a political crisis that I had walked into, one that could not be consoled by reassurances like “it gets better,” or “it happens to everyone in college.” Very often, the closest I could get to expressing this crisis was, “There is something here that does not let me sleep at night.” I did not miss home. I mourned the possibility of belonging — belonging here. In a space where protests mean three hundred pages of critique but never three minutes of music, poetry, and Dafli-led lung-drum processions, how was I to imagine a home?

All my hitherto imaginations of a university life inspired by the likes of Delhi University and Jawahar Lal Nehru University consumed most of my high school. How was I, a self-proclaimed child of a public university culture, then supposed to construct a home of my own in a fundamentally exclusive bubble, as students like to call it, where every verb is accompanied by an Ashoka-style adverb, where only coffee counts for a hot beverage, and over-priced croissants replace nerve-wracking, hot, spicy, freshly fried samosas? I was also gradually drowning in the fear of the university’s determinism: maybe somewhere down the line, I would give up to it, permit myself to be diluted, and be reborn into myself, but Ashoka-style. I was afraid and in despair, all until one fine day…

While shopping for some essentials in the mall of the university tuck shop where one can find anything from a pin to an aeroplane (hyperbole, very intended), I spotted the inviting visuals of a lean, cuboidal biscuit pack, yellow in colour with shades of red and green. In bold letters was printed "Parle-G." Better still, there followed an even bigger surprise: in a space where even chewing gums are sold in packs of ten and consumers are more calorie-conscious than price-conscious, the biscuit pack cost only five rupees.

The next thing I knew, I was in the community dining hall, with a cup of masala chai in a steel glass in one hand and my greatest discovery, the Parle-G biscuit, in another. I found myself infused with this sudden, committed confidence to savour every part of this act, even if it meant launching a disaster-management operation every fifteen seconds to rescue yet another drowned biscuit. The surprise had gradually settled into excitement — heavy, mad, and boundless. It was not only the joy of experiencing something familiar but one of having found a means of slow and soft rebellion. Every dip of the biscuit in the chai and every gesture my hands indulged in were testimonies to not conforming or surrendering to the homogenous normal. It was the triumph of choosing chai over tea and coffee, and in that process, not just defying the norms but changing them and creating, at least, a space for a new normal. The new normal is a sociological imagination that is inclusive, equitable, and broad; thus, an imagination that is truly imaginative, cultivating possibilities at every front. 

On protracted thought, the act of feasting over a cup of chai and a few biscuits was also fragrant of an innate sense of belonging, not necessarily due to its familiarity but because it made it possible for me to situate myself; to be and be myself simultaneously, without the conflict of authenticity and conformation. It was also an act of reclaiming not only the university space but also my right to belong to the university the way I want to without having to lose my sense of being rooted deep in the history of who I was yesterday. Memories, then, are not simply passive events of the past buried deep into history, but the beads in the string of who we are today. We are extensions of our memories, both literal and metaphorical. Chai, in fact, follows the collective memory of the country at large too. From the elitist breweries of the British to the rebellious chai-wallahs whose spices were acts of public rebellion, chai has layered symbolic connotations.

Chai is a fluid (quite literally, too) confluence of all things poetic and political, of rebellion and belonging, one that transcends all boundaries of time and space. The memory of chai as an anti-colonial instrument adds significance to our lives even today. But it signifies something else too — the power of the ordinary. Banal, trivial, everyday rituals assume a momentous role in forming and forging the identities of both individuals and collectives. It is only through such seemingly minuscule efforts that one can attempt to create an alternative faculty of existence in the university, facilitating the construction of a new narrative. 

Through the convenience of leaving memories of belonging in apparently exclusive public spaces like these, inclusivity can be fostered even within the constricted red-bricked walls in the middle of nowhere in Sonipat. Sometimes it looks like a solitary feast in the mess at dusk, and sometimes it assumes the face of three people enjoying the Dhaba’s kulhad chai with Jagjit Singh Ji’s melodies in the background, engulfed by the smog of a November night. It may also look like a short walk to Saroj Aunty’s tapri just outside the campus, which, now you know, is not so short after all. I, for now, am both navigating and negotiating with my life here at Ashoka, one sip at a time, one biscuit at a time.

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