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The men, the women and a beverage craving

Like every quintessential office-goer in a city, I like to go down the road from my office for an evening cup of tea sometimes. This is something every office-goer does, despite perfectly good tea that is available within the office, often supplied at subsidised rates. It probably has to do with the intangibly distinct flavour of a road-side tea, unlike the sanitised indoor tea.

The teashop down the road is a standard one that primarily services the “tea requirements” of people in offices around it. It serves all kinds of delicious tea and badaam milk, with snacks. So it is no wonder that people from offices around push themselves out of their glued positions in their chairs, for a stroll towards the teashop. In fact, it is probably the only incentive to do so. (No one would be motivated enough to come out for just the fresh air. A tangible snack is always more motivating!)

Mostly when the “evening tea” craving sets in, it happens collectively. So the visit to the teashop is almost always a group outing with colleagues. But there are times when the craving sets in when I am leaving work. The first time such a craving occurred, I decided to stop at the teashop on the way home by myself. The owner of the shop who knows me, gave me a quizzical look when I walked in and asked for tea. He asked if it was to be a “takeaway” or for having it there. I confirmed that I wanted to have it there, to which he was again surprised. Initially, I was startled by this response of the owner. But as I was sipping my tea and standing at the shop looking around, I realised that it was not only the owner; a few others (including some women) had similar responses. It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only lone woman at the shop having tea. Other women around the teashop were part of groups. This explained the unusual looks.

I would like to clarify that the expressions from people around were not at all threatening or uncomfortable. It was rather surprise or amusement on seeing a woman in a dress having tea at a roadside shop all by herself, possibly something that does not happen often. So their reaction also had a mirroring effect on me, that of amusement and not of discomfort. I finished my tea and left.

The craving set in again a few days later when I was leaving work, and I decided to go there forgetting my previous experience. The second time around, the owner and a few other regulars did not bother with me and were in fact friendly. The quizzical expressions were only from very few people. But this time I consciously observed my surroundings to gauge the reason for such a reaction in the first place.

It was not because of the lack of women around or because the place was unsafe. It was because no woman comes to the teashop for a break all by herself. I noticed that when women did come alone, they bought snacks and left immediately, unlike me who had tea at the shop.

I also observed that some women who came with a large group, refused to come near the shop and had their male friend get their tea for them while they stood aside.

While I obviously figured out the reason for the initial reaction towards me, I was completely taken aback by the women around. The area around the teashop is extremely safe and bustling with people and does not warrant such ‘precautions’.

This became clear from the fact that once I started going there alone regularly, such reactions stopped. Now the owner always greets me with a friendly ‘hello’ and asks how I’m doing.

It is acknowledged (although we may not admit it openly) that people do not consider it ‘normal’ to see a woman eating alone, let alone having tea at a roadside shop. But I also do not understand why that shouldn’t change.

A two-way street

I am no expert on gender politics and norms on gender in the country. I also understand that it is probably my ‘upper class’ urban privilege that is even allowing me to talk about this.

But in light of my experience at the teashop, I can say that changing notions on gender in the society is a two-way street. Besides having academic discussions and awareness about bringing about a change in gender norms, it can also start with small gestures and actions from both sides to develop a better understanding at a more humane level, and an eventual change.

anjanaravinarayan@gmail.com

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 4:43:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-men-the-women-and-a-beverage-craving/article24360675.ece

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