I remember the alchemy involved in making a doodhpatti for my mother. She’s picky: too little time on the heat and it’s kacha. Too much? Sargaya. There’s a basic patience involved in a good chai that I never possessed, but there were a few times when I made a really perfect cup, like I really nailed it. She wouldn’t say anything, that’s how you could tell.
But the alchemy involved in navigating a public cross-examination never results in silence. For the chai-wala, everything is scrutinised. The collective fixation on the figure of the chai-wala is fascinating because it betrays our requirement for dreaming. The fairytale of the chai-wala is not just a nice thing that happens, but rather a necessary component that allows the system to function. Essentially, the chai-wala is the pressure valve, the sacrificial lamb, so we can continue to believe class mobility still exists.
Patari’s latest series ‘Tabeer’ (meaning dream) brings together six unknown talents, mostly from impoverished neighbourhoods, with some of the country’s most popular electronic producers. The project rides on the cusp. It’s inspirational to see these talented artists being brought into public conversation and discourse. Art is one of the few ways in which representations of the working class can be reconfigured, and Patari’s efforts to do this can be of paramount importance in the struggle.
And yet, it is also despairing. Adam Smith’s vision of the market’s ‘invisible hand’ has morphed into a cosmic one, which plucks out members of the working class like the claw at an arcade.
The real danger, here, is that this selection process can be unconsciously interpreted into narratives of meritocracy. The ‘selection’ of the chai-wala works to reassure us that ‘equality of opportunity’ is not a ridiculous myth under neoliberal capitalism, but a real, actual possibility. Talent rises to the top, we are told again and again. Even in the case of Arshad Khan, where ‘talent’ isn’t necessarily applicable, the credit is shifted to God, who works in mysterious ways and has a plan for us all. ‘It’s all within reach’ is the ultimate message. The system is meritocratic. The cosmic hand twitches.
We should be careful not to be lulled into a false consciousness, to use a Marxist phrase, that conceals the true relationship between classes. In the society of spectacle, we have a phrase on the cusp of our lips: ‘even a chai-wala…even a chai-wala’.
Meanwhile, income inequality continues to widen. Literacy rates drop. 8 men own 50% of the world’s wealth.
If you’re thinking ‘so what, would you rather they didn’t have their talent showcased you no-good kanjar with no friends’, you’d only be right about the second part. Patari’s role in exposing the talent of a chai-wala should be applauded, and every effort they continue to make to nurture it should be too. They are also aware of the dangers this kind of initiative can create, and taking steps to ensure the artists are not exploited for their class, but supported as artists. Only time will tell how successful they will be.
But just one thing. Look at the comments beneath this video of an interview with chai-wala Arshad Khan. All of them are fiercely critical of the host’s attitude towards him. I can’t disagree. It’s hard not to feel repulsed by the infantilisation and class disdain seeping though every question. But was our ‘liberal’ response to the multiple apparitions of the chai-wala really that much different? For a start, we never stopped calling them chai-wala (irony intentional). Our collective patronisation – the labelling of the chai-wala as the next Tupac – and fetishisation of their lack of literacy, betrays a similar bourgeois mentality as the host above. They allow us to keep sleeping.
Patari’s initiative is a necessary one in the constant struggle against the neoliberal machine. But we should always be vigilant that these initiatives themselves do not get subsumed into the system, and used as a way of maintaining the status quo. Acknowledging the neoliberal apparatus and the continued class disparity is a necessary and essential step in and of itself to avoid these traps. And perhaps even having an honest discourse about the brutal nature of capitalism over a chai is a start. It’s a little kacha, but it’ll keep us awake.
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