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In 5 Sips Of Chai, A Student Shows How Engaging Dhabha Conversations Are At AMU

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By Mohammad Rafay Qadri:

Enter Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), what strikes you first, is the bustle at roadside tea joints, locally known as ‘dhabas’. Hordes of students are seen, sitting and chatting at these dhabas in Shamshad Market, Chungi, Zakariya Market and Dodhpur — the areas adjacent to campus and known as student hangout zones. These tea-sipping and chatting sessions run from early morning to late in the night. And this dhaba culture is said to be as old as the establishment of the university as Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College in 1875. Memorials written by AMU alumni recall lively evenings at ‘Cafe De Laila’ and ‘Cafe De Phoos’, two of the most famous tea joints in the campus. Cafe De Phoos, which recently completed its 100 years of service, has now been shifted to Shamshad Market.

View of the Aligarh Muslim University Campus in Uttar Pradesh, India
AMU. Source: Hemant Chawla/Getty

Perhaps it were evenings at these cafes that inspired poet Majaz to compose, ‘Har Sham Hai Sham e Misr Yahan (Every Evening Here Is Like An Evening In Egypt)’ in his famous tribute to his alma mater. This tribute is now sung as the anthem of the university. Famous writer and poet Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza, in one of his novels, ‘Topi Shukla’, describes such evenings in great details. Actually, one of the main characters of the novel, is an Urdu poetry-loving canteen owner.

This dhaba culture has been a sine qua non of AMU campus life. AMU alumni, more colloquially known as ‘Old Boys’, often reminisce about their time spent in these dhabas. Their memoirs published in university magazines, alumni-networked websites and on social media, are full of their nostalgic memories about Aligarh’s tea and time spent conversing with friends at dhabas. Actually, one such memoir, titled, ‘Chotu Chai Lao (Chotu, Bring The Tea)’, written by Islam Lashkar, says that tea can be expanded as ‘TEA = Timepass and Entertainment at Aligarh’ and that the most memorable words heard by an ‘Alig’ are “Chotu chai lao” which is how students order tea at these dhabas.

Aligarh is known for its taste of Urdu poetry. And poetry recitals at these tea gatherings is the most common sight. Besides poetry, students discuss all issues under the sun, but more notably, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the university founder, the Vice Chancellor, campus politics and the condition of Muslims in India, remain major topics.

But these days, the university library canteen has emerged as a bustling rendezvous of studious students, who unwind after a lengthy reading session in the library over a sip of tea and engage in discussions over the issues which are hot in the campus. A new coinage — sweetheart time — is circulating in the campus to describe such leisure and learning sessions. Most of such tea sessions at the library canteen are spearheaded by research scholars and other senior students. Undergraduate students join them as patient listeners to peep into the intellectual prowess of their seniors and to learn from their experiences and exploits in the campus.

amu dhaba culture
Image Credit: Mohammad Rafay Qadri

One afternoon, during the annual exam period, I took a break from my study at the library and strolled towards the canteen. There, some seniors were already engaged in a dhaba debate. Some juniors were also there as their audience and companions. Spotting me, one of them called me. I couldn’t resist, as seniors are traditionally respected in AMU. Besides, being a BA freshie, I, myself, used to wait for opportunities to listen to seniors. I noticed how engrossing such sessions are and with every sip of tea, new topics, new ideas, new arguments and new vistas of learning for juniors like us, open. I counted five such sips, and they were followed by these following discussions:

Sip 1: A discussion starts about an evergreen topic in AMU: its founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. A research scholar paints Sir Syed as somewhat regressive. “Sir Syed’s politics was weak and his political views were stale and jaundiced. He advocated for separate Muslim politics. Though he was a visionary, he didn’t promote women education,” he asserted. Juniors and undergraduates, listening attentively, nod in agreement. Then suddenly, another senior rebuts this argument: “Sir Syed taught Indians, especially Muslims, how to stand with dignity before the rulers (British at that time) and negotiate for their rights. He was a man of pure scientific temperament. He advocated use of chlorine to purify well-water and called for government arrangement for vaccination against small pox. He even established a journal and a society to translate modern scientific theories and concepts into Urdu language,” he points out. Juniors agree more this time, and proceed to have another sip of their tea.

Sip 2: After Sir Syed, the pet topic for discussion among AMU students, is said to be the incumbent Vice Chancellor of the university. Some seniors say, Lt. Gen. Zameeruddin Shah is a retired army general and thus highly incapable of running the university. “He has damaged students politics and is hated by almost all student lobbies in the campus,” is the opinion of one senior. But some seniors say that Shah is good for the university and is busy developing the varsity and roping in its alumni to contribute in constructing new buildings for the institution and that he must be given credit for that. Juniors look perplexed at this and agree with both points of view, and keep sipping their tea.

Sip 3: Students politics is perhaps discussed in almost all university campuses of the world. AMU is no exception. Students in AMU not only discuss campus politics, they take excessive interest in national issues regarding Muslims. Enthusiastic seniors say that student politics should restart at the campus. “So that, future leaders of Muslims of India may be prepared,” is an argument of one such senior. Another says that it might ruin the environment of the campus. “Haven’t we witnessed in the past that whenever a student union comes into existence, the campus witnesses some serious violent incident and the university is forced to close down? Serious students suffer enormously because of this. And there have been many student leaders after the 80s. Barring one or two, has anyone else become a leader of some significance, let alone leader of Muslims?” emphatically argues another senior. This topic stops here and all turn to their tea.

AMU library
Maulana Azad Library. Source: Hemant Chawla/Getty

Sip 4: As every participant takes another sip of hot tea, someone raises the issue of AMU library. Some say that the library is unequipped to cater to the demands of students as it is short of modern and quality books. Some feel proud of Maulana Azad Library’s collection of rare and classical books and manuscripts, but they rue the fact that research scholars of the university don’t take required interest in this treasure trove of knowledge thus the library remains insufficiently utilised. “Even AMU teachers don’t visit the library often and their reading abilities are very limited. They are not only ruining the overall quality of the varsity, they are also jeopardising chances of excellence of their students by setting an ill example,” worries a senior student. Listeners listen pensively, and take to their cup of tea before moving on to another topic.

Sip 5: Now, tea drinkers are debating Facebook. A senior says that Facebook posts lack an element of originality as most of them are written arbitrarily, without much care and discretion. “Mostly they are for fun, self-exhibition or just to pass time,” says one senior. But others say that Facebook is an important and almost integral part of modern ways of communication. “While it connects people and maintains sociability digitally, it helps us to be aware of happenings, similar to the function of mainstream media. People get updated information about the latest happenings as soon as they take place. Important information and circulars get circulated through Facebook all around the globe. Even campus issues like a notice from the administration or any other student-related happenings can be communicated via Facebook from anywhere and at any time. Many student campaigns are run and managed through Facebook making it almost indispensable and a very effective tool of communication, albeit, being addictive and a time-waster at the same time. Juniors must be tutored about the careful use of Facebook,” said a senior, whose popularity in campus is entirely because of his Facebook posts. Juniors seem in total agreement with him.

As the discussion comes to a halt, everyone realises that their tea cups have emptied too. They stand up to disperse. Juniors seek permission to leave. And some new group of tea drinkers gets ready to take their seats.

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