Photo feature

What do you think of when you hear the word 'chai'?

American couple starts website to chronicle lives of chaiwallahs, who are an integral part of the Indian streetscape, they say.

Like so many visitors, Fulbright-Nehru Fellows Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly were struck by India’s astonishing range of cultures and communities. But as they travelled through the subcontinent in 2010-’11, they realised that one thing was constant: chai.

The beverage, they discovered, was “an integral part of the rhythm of life, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the seaside megacity of Mumbai to the call centres and factories driving India’s economic rise”.

They also had another insight: “Behind each cup of Indian chai, whether served in a flimsy plastic cup, earthenware clay pot or silver-plated kettle, is a chaiwallah. The same way New York cab drivers might be able to tell the story of the city through their interactions with customers, chaiwallahs can tell the story of India in all its complexity.”

Gellatly and Marks decided to return to India in 2012 to collect the stories of chaiwallahs and tea drinking. The result is Chaiwallahs of India, a website that aims to highlight “the variations in chai culture and the role chaiwallahs play in different communities” in order to “depict a culture that epitomises India’s diversity and unity”.

In addition to a blog about tea vendors and a selection of stories about tea drinking, the website has a section called ‘Ek Shabd’, a photo project by Gellatly featuring people from around India holding up a board inscribed with the one word that comes to their minds at the mention of tea. Over 500 people have been photographed across 17 states.

“Looking at the photos side by side, you get a real picture of India’s diversity,” said Marks. “For example, a camel herder in Rajasthan might write camel in Marwari, a tea plucker in Kerala might write leaf in Malayalam, and a rickshaw puller in Kolkata might write energy in Bengali."

With the 2014 elections, chai has taken on a political hue. As a former tea vendor, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is using ‘chai pe charcha’ discussions over tea at street corners across India part of his campaign.

“We were in Patna [in October 2013] for his rally because the BJP had encouraged chaiwallahs to put up posters branding themselves as ‘NaMo Tea Stalls'", said Marks. “We just happened to be there last year when the bomb blasts happened.”

Last month, Gellatly and Marks organised their own ‘chai pe charcha’ at the American Centre in New Delhi to kick off an exhibition of their photos. There was free chai and stimulating conversation about their project and much else.

Said Marks: “Chaiwallahs provide a lens through which to explore society. Who knows what street food culture will look like in 20 years?”


Chai vendors are to be found everywhere in India.



Every person photographed for the project had a unique take on chai.


'Ek Shabd' showcases a potpourri of people, landscapes, languages and words.


Resham Gellatly and Zach Marks, the founders of Chaiwallahs of India.

 
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.