How men 'thithakofy' when they see me sitting alone in a chai stall sipping tea

Annie Zaidi
Annie ZaidiJan 07, 2015 | 17:07

How men 'thithakofy' when they see me sitting alone in a chai stall sipping tea

I have been searching online for the English translation of "thithak" – "baulk" comes closest but it does not quite capture the mix of emotions – hesitation, surprise, confusion, discomfort – represented by the Hindi word: "thithakna".

Thithakna is what happens to regulars at a roadside chai stall whenever I stop by for a cup of tea like the men do – alone, sipping slowly, looking at the passing traffic, street signs, posters pasted on walls. Men who frequent the stall inevitably thithakofy. Sometimes their eyes dart around me, as if sussing out some secret source of danger.


I first noticed it ten years ago, in Delhi, where I had just moved. There was no gas stove at my place, no way of making bed tea. So, I decided to go to the neighbourhood chai stall. 

It was a misty winter morning. Three or four men were already sitting there. A couple of wooden planks set upon bricks worked as benches; a few flat stones served as stools. I walked up to the stall and asked for a cup of tea. I was given a cup of tea. The men sat there, knees crossed, breathing out white wreaths, sniffing. In the cold silence, I stood, sipping my tea. 

Then I asked for a second cup and drank that too. I paid six rupees (for two cups), and went home. The next morning, I showed up again. This time, I took along my newspapers to read along with my "bed" tea. I reached the stall, asked for a chai. Then, I sat on a stone and began to read. 

Initially, I was too sleepy, too cold, or too naive to notice the "thithak". Besides, as a reporter, I was used to going into strangers' homes, drinking tea with strangers. I ate whenever and wherever I could. But I did notice that a silence engulfed the tea stall after I showed up. 


The men did not know what to do with this scenario: young woman, chai-ka-thela, newspaper. They shifted uneasily. They crossed their legs. They averted their faces. Conversation ground to a halt. A couple of men who wanted to come to the stall seemed to hang back, hesitating. 

The next morning, when I arrived with my newspapers, a new thing happened. All the men who were sitting on the wooden bench sprang up. Somebody said, “Sit here”. So I sat down. They all sat elsewhere. I drank my two cups of tea, read my papers, paid six rupees, and left. 

Slowly, they thawed. The men began to talk to each other, though they still vacated an entire bench when I arrived. After two weeks, a scruffy, bearded man asked to borrow my newspaper. He could read English, he said. After three weeks, the man who ran the stall asked me to write an application in English – a note aplogising for his son's absence, and seeking leave for family reasons. 

After about four weeks, my mother came visiting, and I had to buy a gas cylinder for the kitchen. My visits to the stall stopped. But those weeks of hanging out in peace and harmony at the chai stall are one of my most precious memories. Still, I haven't forgotten that in all those weeks, there was not a single woman at our chai stall, except the lady who swept the streets. She would come by some mornings, trailing her long-handled broom, but she always squatted on her haunches a few feet away. She sat with her back turned to the men. 


In recent years, I have rarely gone to a chai stall on my own. But I have noticed that I make the customers (almost all male) uncomfortable. They lapse into silence, or their eyes dart all around me, as if searching for another person – a friend, or family member perhaps? I also notice that there are all kinds of men who stop at roadside stalls – rickshaw drivers, bus conductors, police constables, office workers, courier boys, loaders. They are quite comfortable taking a tea break on their own. But even in 2015, even in Mumbai, I don't see women hanging out alone at chai stalls. 

 The writer at a chai stall in Bandra, Mumbai.

In recent months, I have been wondering about what happened to my own attitude to hanging out alone. I'm not averse to walking, or calmly waiting for friends in public spaces. But I find myself walking purposefully, or waiting in gender-neutral zones like bus stops, train platforms, shopping malls. My own heart thithakofied at the thought of being in a place where I'm the only woman, where I'm not really welcome. For all my solo travels, and despite volunteering for street "actions" with Blank Noise (http://blog.blanknoise.org/), I was struggling to just "be" in, rather than "occupy", public space. 

So, I have resolved to just be. When I had to kill time before a meeting, I went into a tiny restaurant – the sort of place where people expect to share tables with strangers. I saw other patrons (all men) thithakofy. They took in the sight of the lone woman occupying a table, hesitated, then moved to other tables. 

A few days ago, I hung out at a street side chai stall. I stood there, sipping my tea. From the corner of my eye, I saw some autorickshaw drivers approaching. I saw them thithakofy. I saw them glancing at me from the corners of their eyes. Two elderly gentlemen walked past, looked at me with very round eyes. I read the names of the buildings around. I read a notice on the wall across – a police warning to citizens, asking them not to park cars on this street since it was not safe. Well, that's encouraging, I said to myself and I took a picture. Then I paid six rupees (for one cup) and I left.

 Note the notice! Don't say we didn't warn you before.

Last updated: March 11, 2016 | 16:35
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