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KARACHI NOTEBOOK: Chaiwallahs of Karachi

KARACHI NOTEBOOK: Chaiwallahs of Karachi

THEY are present in every corner of the city: the ubiquitous dhabas. Hangouts that offer tea — the most popular beverage of the nation — and some place to sit, unwind after a hectic day’s work. And there seems no end to the popularity of these places.

Tea hangouts have been popular for a long time. Cafes once used to be popular. They have disappeared. However it is a fact that many tea stalls are unhygienic. The open manhole and the garbage heap right outside don’t help. An alternative is the modern-day coffee shops. Though sterile, their price list discourages many. Lo and behold, a safe substitute was discovered in the chaiwallahs, offering a small set-up that served tea and had a cleaner and better regulated open-air seating. But the real novelty or the catch was the local cuisine on offer. All of a sudden parathas with a difference, ones with cheese, chocolate and chicken fillings, started to tickle the fancy. And the crowds started coming in.

The price was still high compared to the old tea hangouts, but lesser than many other comparable outlets. The trend started in the upscale locality of Defence. And while it spread to equally affluent areas, such establishments can now be found all across the city. The cost of setting up a chai shop is minimal. There are no frills attached. Just good tea, some light snacks and God’s given sky to assemble five plastic foldable tables along with plastic chairs under. This is indeed a good mix of austere fine dining!

A lot of people, usually young as well as professional men and at times families with children, visit these hangouts. The purpose is to relax, chill out, catch up with your friends and plan the next day. Children have an area to run around, have fries and a drink and call it a day. From an economic point of view, it has spurred fresh business.

It has also encouraged street art of a new kind, one that celebrates the local culture. Youngsters bring board games while ludo, chess and cards encourage great competition. Foreigners have also started trickling in, sharing their experience through social media. Smokers — desperate to enjoy a good cigar under the moonlit sky — have found a place of their liking. All in all, a fresh flavour to the local culture has been added.

In Defence, thanks to the vacant plots in the commercial areas, the locality has witnessed a mushroom growth of chaiwallahs. It’s more of an encroachment on somebody’s unused piece of land than anything else. The DHA initially did try to combat it, but its attempts appear to have mellowed. The result has been that DHA’s commercial areas have seen a proliferation of tea hangouts.

In all great metropolises of the world, places to relax and enjoy the evenings contribute to a colourful lifestyle. In absence of any structured attempts to establish such places in Karachi, the chai hangouts in the city have contributed to a new vibrancy, absent for more than a generation. It has brought in entrepreneurs — students from local universities wanting to prove a point. All in all it’s a good thing. Hopefully it isn’t merely a fad and will last for a long time.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2017

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