Roadside socialising

Published February 2, 2018
The roadside tea-sellers had gone out of vogue in urban Pakistan about a couple of decades ago. Now they are back in business almost round the clock.
The roadside tea-sellers had gone out of vogue in urban Pakistan about a couple of decades ago. Now they are back in business almost round the clock.

THE craving for Doodhpatti is real; much more real than any other craving ever known to man – living or having once lived – in this part of the subcontinent. The Dhaba (tea stall) culture is pretty rich and strong across the country, and everywhere it bonds people from all walks of life. But Karachi takes this culture to a whole next level, probably because of the rich ethnic, religious and cultural diversity in the metropolis.

There are two things which you will find in every nook and corner of the city; one is a cabin serving Paan (betel leaf) and cigarettes; the other being a roadside tea stall or café. Most of the times these two things exist next to each other like wonderfully coexisting neighbours. There was a third thing as well, equally prominent, but then all those posters got removed following a court order — and the city breathed a sigh of relief.

It can be safely said that roadside cafés are among the first shops that open early in the morning, even before the denizens awake, and remain open late into the night. There are many cafés which serve people 24/7, just the staffers rotate shifts and the arrangement changes depending on what time of the day it is.

Often serving a limited menu, these cafés never run out of customers. In fact, as the day settles and it is evening time, it is hard to even find a chair at these cafés — which mostly have outdoor settings. People can be seen sitting at the pavements, or the stairs of the shops which eventually close as the night takes over. But for the café staff, the business has just started.

The argument remains debatable that whether it is the tea which draws so much audience or the discussion and bonding that accompanies it. But one thing quite compelling is that the two can’t be separated.

Journalist Umer Bin Ajmal said he likes sitting at these old-school Dhabas because “you can find the most politically aware lot here … People from diverse backgrounds frequent these tea-joints, so it is always a colourful experience and you get too much to observe even if you are having a cup of tea alone”.

Documentary filmmaker Haya Fatima Iqbal also prefers these roadside cafés for reasons somewhat similar to Umer’s. However, she has one very significant reason which she describes while taking a jibe at the newly envisioned cafés in posh neighbourhoods: “A ‘real’ Paratha is hundred times better than a Nutella Paratha.”

Karachiites have always seen this culture of roadside cafés, and they consider it a part of their lifestyles. Therefore, they might not be able to value it properly. But a journalist from Lahore highlighted a point that makes this café culture nothing less than a blessing.

Said Sarah Eleazar: “Karachi’s weather allows you to sit outdoors and have tea. There is mostly a breeze and the weather is pleasant. But in Lahore it is always too hot or too cold to be outdoors.”

“You won’t find much Dhabas here (for socialising) like you do in Karachi. People socialise over tea here (in Lahore) as well, but that is mostly indoors — either at work or at home.”

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