Indelible impressions of a picture postcard took her two decades to rediscover the British village and felt inspired in bringing the Tea Party home. Saima Bhat meets Chai Jaai promoter Roohi Nazki to understand the essence of her rebellious struggle that eventually fetched Wazwaan country a space linking Jhelum bund with the Victorian Cashmere and triggering a trend of cultural rediscovery, heritage revival and modern retail.
UNDER a sweltering sun, a stroll over the bund on Jhelum in Srinagar has remained soothing through ages. From Kashmir’s Resident Days to the frequent Nehru visits, walks on the bund have remained memorable moments of travelers: a distinct cold breeze, slivers of an amphibious life in the scenic houseboats tucked with ropes on the banks, iconic British era buildings and ambience of its own class.
For many decades now, the aroma of the Wazwaan country had dominated this trek. Off late, it has a fragrance; the rich aroma of brewing tea, engulfing the environs. A Chai Jaai has emerged. Now it is an unending tea party that one can join and flaunt about it. Unveil the choice, and the Samovar brews it.
First of its kind, Chai Jaai is a niche market conceptualized and implemented by Roohi Nazki, a former administrator and a TCS executive. “The idea is not to sell the Chai but to make a serious attempt to bring Kashmir’s past glory back,” says Roohi. “It is getting Cotswolds to Kashmir and making it local.”
Housed atop iconic Mahatta & Co, Kashmir’s historic photography studio, Chai Jaai offers a breathtaking view of the Bund, the Jhelum and beyond. Blend of culture and heritage, its interiors are designed in such a way that visitors are taken decades back into the Victorian England. The premises have the original British architecture.
From the queued hanging flower pots outside main entrance to the checkered flooring, Roohi has personally supervised the minutest details when artisans were working on this exquisite team room. “I ensured that I do not miss even a single detail when the drawings were converting into reality,” Roohi said. “I did not skip even a minute.”
She was peculiarly choosy in picking up the right wall hangings and pictures. Showing respect to Kashmiri women, Roohi has preferred to put beautiful photos of decades old Kashmiri women on the left walls leading upstairs. The rich collection of Mahatta’s photographs is being showcased in the art gallery, annexed to the tea-room but yet to be made public.
AN ENGLISH concept of serving different types of tea, Roohi has ensured to be local in presentation. As the guest enters, the beautifully placed traditional small samovars, tea pots and tea cups designed with papier machie and bakery put in crystal clear jars and the big rack up to ceiling filled with different varieties of tea leads the customers to sitting area. The idea is to showcase almost everything that is associated with the making and serving of tea in Kashmir, a place that has historically remained dependent on tea imports on Silk Route till 1947 and on mainland India post partition.
Sitting area is a different world. The English motif of papier machie, Gul-e-Wilayat is the first thing that attracts the eyes. Roohi said it took the artist around five months to draw and decorate it in bright colours of blue, orange and white, the colours normally used in shrines. The lamp shades, china plates and the quirky tea poster were all selected by Roohi.
CREATING Chai Jaai took its own time. Many things combined and conspired to inspire Roohi to have this in Kashmir, the place of her birth and upbringing. Since childhood, she was in love with a picture of a tiny village Castle Combe. In 2013 when she travelled to England, that indelible frame, imprinted on her mind, tempted her to an extent that she visited that place.
“When I saw Castle Combe in person, I could feel that it was just not a frame only. It still was a living being – that bridge, row of houses and a hotel,” Roohi said. “My first impression was ‘Ah we too have this’, it was just like Kashmir. But then that despair took over – how they have maintained it and what we have done to ours?”
Castle Combe encouraged Roohi to rediscover many more hamlets of the country that once saw the sun skipping dusk over the territory controlled. She ended up visiting 13 more villages, including the one where Prince Charles has his farm. But one place which attracted her most and was the best among all was a small place in Cotswolds. It is called ‘Stow on the wall’ and is full of tea rooms, the Chai Khanas of the Mughal era.
“Tea rooms in England give a sophisticated English look but those in Cotswols were different because I could feel homey there,” Roohi, then an employee with Tata Interactive Systems, said. “That feeling was an inspiration.”
First, Roohi thought of writing about Cotswolds. That idea slipped her mind till 2015, when she was in Kashmir. One day she was busy working on a laptop at Peerzo restaurant, on the same bund, incidentally, she read an article about Mahattas, a piece on the history of the bund, how it used to be. The irresistible urge led her, the same moment, to visit Mahattas, just a few footsteps away.
“First day they were not there but I got some photographs,” remembers Roohi. “I went there again and met Jagadish Mehta, owner of the studio and his wife, Anita Mehta. We talked about many things but I don’t know how the conversation ended up at having a joint venture tea room.”
This studio was started by self taught photographers Amaranth Mehta and his younger brother Ram Chander Mehta, who came to Kashmir from Rawalpindi in 1918. In twenties, it was renamed Mahattas from the erstwhile ‘Mehta and Co.’.
Grandson of Amaranth, Jagadish continued to run this studio till he died at the age of 72, in Srinagar on June 30, 2016.
After lot of discussions, Mahattas agreed of having the Tea Room upstairs. She wished of creating a place in Kashmir where people can have the same feeling as she had in Cotswolds. “I know it can’t be of that standard yet but still I am trying. It is at least better than saying we have nothing,” feels Roohi.
For her, priority was to bring back the past glory within that setup. Chai Jaai was never at the top of her mind but Mahattas collection was: old negatives, archaic photographs, the cabinet, and the furniture, which was looking like a dump. But then Roohi started working with Mrs Mahatta and both took it easy for six months. Then Roohi had to fly back to Mumbai and then to England with her son. The idea got into slow slumber till December 2015.
“In December, Mahattas called me for selection of tiles for the path,” Roohi said about reviving the idea. “But then they had to move out to Delhi, where they are residing now and I completely took over. I hired a big team and in May we were ready.” But the cultural hub is still a work in progress. Now Mehta’s two sons Hemant and Dushyant, who are settled in Delhi, are keen to convert the cultural hub to a museum.
BORN to Nazkis’ from Kathi Darwaz in Shehr-e-Khaas, Roohi is daughter of Farooq Nazki. Middle child of her parents, her elder sister is a filmmaker and is settled in Mumbai. Her younger brother is a Delhi based doctor.
She is self claimed rebel. As a kid, she remembers how she used to fight with most of her relatives, on issues dare to her. “I have always fought for equality,” Roohi said, “This question of equality has defined me and my individuality.” She would even pick a battle with her mother when she used to compare her with other children. “Everybody has individuality and then I being a woman means there can’t be any compromise with equality.”
Roohi’s battle for equality started from her home. Close to her grandfather, late Ghulam Rasool Nazki, Roohi feels influenced by him and considers him as best example of a ‘right person’ in her life. But the Nazki Sr was a strict disciplinarian. Though both the sisters shared a special relationship with him, she admits they were scared of him, at the same time.
School initially locally in the old city, Roohi joined Presentation Convent later. She enrolled in M A Road Women’s College in 11th. Post-graduation, she went to Kashmir University and graduated in Psychology and Literature. Those were the twilight years of tension and soon after their batch completed their degrees, turmoil hit Kashmir.
One day, Nazki, then director Radio Kashmir, was taken away from home minutes after Doordarshan Director Lassa Koul was assassinated by JKLF. Till then, they were residing at their grandfather’s Kathi Darwaza house. “Ours was a respectable middle class family but then we could sense change after my father was taken away by police for security reasons.” Roohi says. “Soon, my family was taken away to Delhi’s Kashmir House where we spent three months.”
“We were uprooted. Initially we didn’t even have the plates to eat in,” Roohi said. “I was desperate to come back, unlike my sister. She started doing her work there and I returned home.”
Back home, she joined Vishwa Bharati College in Rainawari as a lecturer. Half of that college had been blown up in a bomb blast and students were taught in the other half. But it could continue for a week only as the college principle received a message: “If she continues to teach there, then we will blow out the other part of building as well.”
She gave up her teaching job. By then, her family was housed in a government accommodation in Jawahar Nagar. Threat perception led the family to another home near Post office and eventually to Shivpora, a place Roohi said they found it somewhat safe. They made Shivpora their permanent residence finally.
Those were the days of her idleness at home, nothing much to work. Soon, governor’s government appointed her as an under-secretary in the government, a gazetted position.
“It was a political posting and bureaucracy resented it. Problems started because I wanted to work but they didn’t allow me to work,” admits Roohi. “I was there for six years. They treated me badly, harassed me,” says Roohi. She was posted in Delhi, the Prithvi Raj Road, Kashmir House. But she was given no work.
Around that time, Roohi was married to Dr Haseeb Drabu, an economist and a journalist. That marked the beginning of another struggle. “One day I came to know that he had written something against government as a result of which my office door was locked,” she said. “It was aimed at threaten me.”
One day, Roohi remembers, she met Ashok Jaitley, then J&K’s chief secretary. She complained about not being given any work. Jaitley told her she would be shifted to social welfare department or Kashmir Arts emporium. “That is a good place for women,” she remembers Jaitely telling her. The idea did not go well with Roohi. A rebel, she quit her job right there and left the room.
IT WAS A peculiar situation. “I was getting the wrong end of the stick, first because of my father and then because of husband,” Roohi said. “But I never complained to either of them because I knew they were doing their jobs. That was their individuality I believed in. Then suffering seemed all right.”
Jobless, Roohi wanted to prove that she could enter state bureaucracy on her own. She sat in the state level administrative examination (KAS) in 1996 that happened for the first time post militancy, and qualified it. “I wanted to remove that taint attached to my name that I was a political appointee,” said Roohi. “I knew I can do it of my own, too.” She qualified the examination but decided against joining the service. That was her way of rebelling to keep her head high.
WORKING outside J&K, Drabu got his workplace shifted to Delhi and then to Bombay, where they decided to stay for two years. Within a month Roohi got a job in a corporate house. That was where she got into learning industry, where she developed expertise in knowledge tools, online content, client collaboration and sales, SME management, stakeholder engagement, organizational process and quality improvement, systems training, vendor management, and operational efficiency. She was perhaps one of the few Kashmiris who evolved with a sunrise sector.
With years of experience in design and development of e-learning courseware, Roohi as a senior consultant at Tata Interactive Systems, which she she joined in 2001, designed and led the development for the ADN Nursing Degree course for Excelsior College, New York, which won the Brandon Hall Gold award for custom learning in 2014. Once, she was handling 13 e-market companies at a time. After that she changed many companies.
The course of her life changed when Mavahib Nazki Drabu was born. Her decision of staying in Bombay was only because of his education.
She admitted her son in an alternative education school, first of its kind in India. Not a fancy teaching shop, this school has value driven education system, where children are brought up as good human beings. No books or writing till class seventh and after that they go for mainstream education.
“I faced lot of criticism for experiment with my son,” she giggles to remember. “But that stopped only after Mavahib scored distinction.” He was supposed to go to United World College in Pune, but he managed to get admission in Wales, England where he is presently studying.
A dedicated mom, she tailored her career to her son’s needs, “I quit a number of jobs because I found my son talking more like our helper, who used to take care of him unlike his parents,” Roohi said. “I always wanted to be there as an independent woman achiever and yet I wanted to be a perfect mother as well.”
IN BETWEEN, Roohi started experimenting with business which started from Mumbai and were all revolved round Kashmir where she felt rooted always. Firstly, she started Kasheer, where she used to contemporize Kashmiri crafts and was supplying her art to Bombay store and some local boutiques. It closed in 2009.
Then she started Spice Restaurant with her mother, in Kashmir but that too had its shutters closed after three years.
She went back to Mumbai and resumed a full time job with Tata and then with an Australian company till 2015.
In her career with corporate India, Roohi has handled clients from mid-size to Fortune 500: P&G, BA, Vodafone, McGraw Hill, University of Maryland, and Excelsior College, Carnegie Learning, Nelson Thornes, Kaplan, FLVS, Skillsoft, ASK Learning, Bespoke Solutions, SmartChem, and TCS.
Though spending most of the time with her son, Roohi didn’t let her desire of being independent die. She implemented Haseeb’s idea by starting an e-learning company, Kahnov (11 named) e-learning. “We haven’t done much work under this name so far but we have freelancers from Pune and Mumbai,” she said. “Then Chai Jaai took over and she spent most of her time on that.”
CHAI JAAI is part of a locally registered company, Gulkand Hue (like Gulkand). She says that Kashmiris should take their cultural identity forward with some integration, without compromising its essence.
“Our samovar should not be kept as a showcase, which means its death,” Roohi believes.”It should be like it is in Chai Jaai on the best table in the best surrounding.” Rediscovering cultural past apart, she wants to break all stereotypes associated with Kashmiri women. She wants to trigger a trend.
“Chai Jaai has something to do with that,” she insists. “It is about how the rest of the world views us. We don’t need patronizing attitude as if we need a lot of encouragement. We are Kashmiris and we can bring the change.”
She believes the youth in 25-35 age group are courageous to do that and that is the reason Kashmir is seen a bloom of different restaurants like Goodfellas, 14th Avenue, Juice Box and now Thinkpod for techno people.
Throughout her life, Roohi has always been Indian to core of her heart. Off late, however, she is ‘ashamed of being Indian’. “I can’t believe what my country has done to my state,” Roohi said. “I cannot be blind and say my country’s doing in my state is all right, there are too many things….”
WITH influential and biggies frequenting the Chai Jaai, Roohi will find it an ideal place to talk it out. She does not want it to remain a place where only tea is served. Across India there are only two such places where only tea is served. “I want it to be social art and literature related thing, where we can provide a platform for local artists like poets to read their poetry for guests, locals and outsiders, and then have interactive sessions, where they will be able to define their poetry and what he stands as a Kashmiri,” she said.
So far they Chai Jaai has 32 types of tea on its menu: 25 global and rest nine are Kashmiri variations like Nun Chai, Kahwa, Gulkand Chai, Gunufshah, and Roohi is discovering more varieties like Dum Toeth and Qadri Chai.
Besides that Chai Jaai serves Kashmiri bakery Shermaal, Kulchas, Tchoechwoer, Sout, Makai Tchoet, with locally made French bakery.
Popular food critic Marryam H Reshi, who recently visited Chai Jaai, is already in love with the place. She sees it as the tea room that puts all the others in the shade. “In a heritage building, complete with wooden rafters and a view of the Jehlum, it is a timeless blend of English cream teas, French patisserie and Kashmiri breads with a long list of salted teas,” Marryam wrote on her website Marryam. “..go to enjoy surroundings that are somewhere on the continuum between heritage Kashmir and countryside in the Cotswolds.” Kashmir’s Goan daughter-in-law is a keen Kashmir watcher and sees the “real papier machie wall” as the only modern one in Kashmir.
The Tea Party is already in progress. Tea lovers from mainland India and from abroad have sipped the slat tea. Dr Karan Singh, Bollywood bigwig Subhas Gai and even the Chief Minister Ms Mehbooba Mufti have already visited the happening place, which has attracted attention of social media. Roohi is managing equally the virtual world as she deals with the physical world.
On Chai Jaai depends Roohi’s future plans: another tea place in the old city, may be near Khankah-e-Muala shrine. With six helpers, she has decided to add on Kashmiri street food to her menu.
With long days of fasting in scorching heat over, Chai Jaai is open. Soon, they will be exhibiting Mahattas photographs, taking visitors a century back. With Nun Chai and Makie Sout, the Dogra era frames will transport back to the days where nowadays pains are rooted.