From the faded Indian Coffee House to the popular Lala Sheikh, tea has always fuelled discussions in Srinagar cafeterias. But in times of shut shops, a street stall on the Bund is filling the void.
Telegrams have long ceased to come, but tea is still brewing some warm response at the guarded gates of the General Post Office. Standing on the legendary Bund just opposite the ‘desolated address’ of the ‘witness’ on the other side of the river Jhelum, the waning signpost of Srinagar is now bustling with the new-age creative harbingers brimming with depth and dispatch.
They arrive in twos and threes, for the Bund tea party, and end up stirring a storm in a teacup. They call it a day at sundown, when they walk away to return to their weary world, leaving silhouettes of ideals and ideas behind.
Their host, Mushtaq Dar, remains an endowed brew-maker serving tastes for last 13 years now.
Back in the thawed summer of 2007, the 34-year-old tea-seller would first arrive on the scene, only to be written off as another street-side staller—who just couldn’t match the taste of some roaming tea aficionados around. Some of those malcontent souls would simply throw his cups in disgust with a single sip.
Just like that initial struggling phase in his life, Mushtaq’s tea did taste bitter.
But he was resilient enough to rise above his shortcomings. Since his hardships had forced him on the street for his family survival, including his two little daughters, he had no option of going back.
13 summers later, Mushtaq has already become a popular tea-maker in town.
“I don’t make it any different,” he says, with an unpretentious face. “I just take care of hygiene and ingredients while making tea.”
His regulars include idlers, dreamers, wanderers, observers, scribes and some cryptic characters stopping by for a cup of tea.
“Although the very comparison might sound fanciful, Mushtaq’s stall does remind us about the iconic Pak Tea House [an intellectual tea–café located in Lahore],” says Saaliq Mohammad, a wannabe writer who discusses books over tea and smoke at Mushtaq’s place.
“Such places are rare in our part of the world. You can come and discuss life and literature and forget about the harsh reality of our lives for a while. We otherwise have nowhere to go in this lockdown. This stall accepts us and brings out that freewheeling creative side in most of us.”
Last summer when the entire Srinagar witnessed a strict lockdown, many tea-lovers would arrive on the Bund in search of some desperate sign of life. Mushtaq’s presence during one of the harshest clampdowns in Kashmir was itself a sight of resilience for existence in the city.
“I remember visiting his stall last year,” says Gowher Majeed, an artist from Downtown, Srinagar. “The city, as usual, was battling the interloping of the glistening barbwires, stern troopers and enforced desolation. In the name of life, there was Mushtaq crowded by some overworked scribes on the Bund. In the hopeless desert that Srinagar had become last summer, the tea-seller’s stall felt like an oasis.”
Besides scribes and wordsmiths, techies discussing some pressing project and brokers trying to strike some deal turn up at the tea-point. These talking heads have made it an open space for brainstorming.
“Government employees, bankers, doctors, contractors, brokers, journalists, techies and salespersons come here for tea,” says Mushtaq while cracking jokes with his regulars. “They find some sense of belongingness here.”
With daybreak, the easygoing tea-seller walks on the poised Bund, and begins his day by attending some eager early-risers. He remains mindful of their taste. Some like it very strong, and others like to ruin Mushtaq’s perfect cup of tea by adding extra sugar, which writer George Orwell believes “takes the taste of tea away”.
“All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong,” Orwell writes in his essay, A nice cup of tea, “but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.”
Even Mushtaq has come to sense that there’s some strange connection between the literary people and tea.
“We consider this stall as our real-life library,” says Adil Bhat, a scribe in Srinagar. “It’s one of those places where tea, the fading post office, striking Jhelum and the ghat of the beloved bard’s home nearby create some surreal confluence. There’s a strange longing and a poetic feeling attached with this place.”
The tea-stall ambience equally suits those who want to stay obscure, yet desire for the company of their likeminded. “I feel stranger in some swanky tea-rooms around Lal Chowk,” says Sameer Ahmed, a lawyer. “But at Mushtaq’s tea-stall, there’s a feeling of belongingness. And yes, tea is fantastic!”
Even Mushtaq has developed brotherly relations with his customers. He talks about his regular customer, Hilal Parray, now settled in the Prague. “He still calls twice a month and misses my tea,” the tea-maker says, with a faint smile. And then there’s this doctor from Himachal Pradesh who keeps calling and craving for his tea.
Apart from some dreamy wanderers on the Bund—the fabled British-era stretch, now grappling with boisterous motors, concrete crowding and ugly touches—some commoners struggling for living frequent Mushtaq’s tea-point for some daytime refreshment.
“The stall is located far away from the noisy city centre and is quite calm to make you feel at ease,” Saleem, a salesman in an automobile company, says. “At the same time, Mushtaq’s special tea acts as a transient escape route for us.”
But mainly, it’s the literary group crowding the place for Mushtaq’s adrak wajen chai. The popular notion among them is that the tea-maker’s ginger tea cures their severe headache and clears what they call “writer’s block” in their heavy heads.
However, the fairytale tea-point might fade away soon, just like other public hangout spots of Srinagar, as the government’s bund “beautifying” drive has already reached near Mushtaq’s tea stall. “I’ve not planned anything but I’m worried about it,” the tea-seller says.
In the past, Mushtaq was ordered by authorities to shut down but “I convinced and requested them not to do so, as I’ve little kids to feed and this is my only source of income”.
Even as his official plea is yet to see the light of the day, the contractor laying footpath on the Bund has assured him that “nobody will force me to shut down my stall”.
With that assurance, and the support of his swelling customer-base, Mushtaq continues serving a nice cup of tea on Srinagar’s iconic Bund.
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Adil Amin Akhoon is the Managing Editor at The Mountain Ink.