What Chai Stalls in Ahmedabad Taught Me About ‘Gendered’ Spaces

I was raised in Ahmedabad. But the city was a mere backdrop to where I actually grew up.

My society or house was disconnected from the reality of public spaces.

I grew up on a campus – a large, gated and beautiful campus. I had an incredible childhood; I watched bands like Indian Ocean from front-row seats, watched plays almost every weekend and I always felt protected.

My home only felt important when friends came over and marvelled at everything in sight. I never wondered what happened behind the brick walls or the homes my friends came from. And I never felt the need to explore my city.

To this date, I can’t tell you the names of the streets, and I always tell people, “everything in Ahmedabad is fifteen minutes away” – mostly because I wouldn’t know if there were places beyond. I don’t know Ahmedabad through its history, neither can I direct you to your destination.

But what I do know of the city and what I have experienced of it, is the chai stalls.

Until high school, I had a bus picking me up from campus and dropping me back everyday. Then I changed schools, and the new school bent my reality completely out of shape. For the first time in my life I had to travel in a rickshaw by myself to a location right in the middle of the city.

I remember thinking on the first day that this was going to be easy, just like riding in the bus everyday, and I could listen to music and tune out.

But it was on the first day that I realised how intimate rickshaw rides can be, how they compel you to associate with the city because in a rickshaw you are not protected by a door. You become one with the city as you hear it and breathe it in.

That first day inspired many other rickshaw rides, and eventually I started traveling on my own accord.

At school, we were motivated from day one to physically assert ourselves, to get out of the classroom. There were no restrictions and we navigated boundaries by ourselves. There were no uniforms either; you could not dissociate yourself from the identity of every body and the history they brought with them.

My school was evidently eclectic, and another kind of home – a home that built itself as a part of the city. It didn’t hide from it but opened itself up to it. There was really no security, just a very friendly uncle who greeted you every time you entered.

This school was a space that urged you to face difference, to stand in front of diversity and acknowledge it but also critique it. I took my first steps in Ahmedabad when I joined this school. I witnessed, on walks, the cultural layers the streets hustled around.

Different side of the city

I had reached out to an old friend who introduced me to a childhood very different from mine.

She grew up in the city and how she understood its history or its ‘heritage’ was almost a world away from how I did. She took me to a cafe that I could only assume was her oasis – with its turquoise coloured walls, silence that invited you and an atmosphere that felt like it was meant to escape to.

I understood her more as she explained to me with every conversation the many ways in which she escaped from the city, and how she found queerness in the most unexpected of spaces. I learnt from her so much of what I engage with today, but a lesson more superior was that I learnt from her the disparities in how people associated to the city.

She took me to my first chai stall and she knew where the best chai could be found in most areas. I passed these streets every day, but had never noticed how traditional and normal chai-wallahs were to the city. We would spend evenings after school in an abandoned rickshaw having chai, come rain or shine.

I quickly became fond of this practice. It became my own, and a huge part of my identity. But what I was reminded of, constantly, was that I was navigating the public as a woman. Every time I stopped at a chai-wallah, I couldn’t say I was in the company of other women. Tracing the public, I realised, was an assigned practice.

Also read: Meet the Young Women Taking Bharatnatyam to Delhi’s Streets

I had never thought of how gendered these experiences can be, until I had to make myself visible.

Behind the brick walls we rarely thought of our genders. At least, not each others’. It never occurred to us that our genders brought with them separate experiences and entirely separate lives.

To each other, we were just pals. We played games together, and we all exerted physically the same strength.

When I was reminded of my gender, it was through abuse. It left me traumatised but it was an experience I felt in private.

I think it was the violation of my body that gave a glimpse into the complexities of the walls I was used to. Thereon, not only did I suppress the memory, but I took refuge in hiding from the city.

It was when I was confronted with my gender, day in and out, that I revisited the trauma. I don’t know when it was that I did, but somewhere I suppressed the trauma like it was a familiar practice for my gender.

Masculine spaces

It almost felt subversive, then, to go to a space like a chai stall – a space so masculine. The masculinity of public spaces is so normalised that as a woman you are just an addition, and perhaps that is why when women trace the public they are ‘loitering’; causing an obstruction to the structure.

In all my time as an adult, even after moving to Mumbai, walking on the streets and hanging out at a chai stall was not only a routine but an important statement. There is a soft renaissance in how women share relationships with each other – it is a silent protest and a dissonance from structures that disallow female expression.

Also read: A Feminist Guide to Delhi

I have always been the ‘different’ woman, the one who wears chappals and earrings bought from street shopping, who enjoys a chai-sutta combo as much as any uncle during his office break does, who doesn’t hide from judgemental aunty stares but stares back instead, and who has always found solitude in these silent, subtle responses to patriarchy.

I think every woman reclaims public spaces as she fights through structures that are masculine, and as she battles the performances of femininity.

It is in the loitering that we feel as though we have a voice, however silent that may be. The point perhaps is to not to prove that ‘women can do everything a man can’, but it is to (re)claim gendered spaces and to allow the possibility of defining one’s own masculinity/femininity/gender-neutrality.

It is to mobilise expression that is tethered, and to de-politicise simple, personal acts of gender expression.

Saachi D’souza is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty