The chai phenomenon

Mysticism, exoticism and Pakistani poetry

© Shutterstock.

I remember when the chai phenomenon became widespread. I was living in America at the time and started hearing the word bandied about often, in beverage-centred conversations. I wasn’t sure what it was, because in the Urdu language, chai means literally ‘tea’; plain and simple black tea leaves with milk and possibly sugar.

The phenomenon of chai ‘tea’ (tea tea), however, took on this other-worldly, esoteric character ostensibly like the Indian guru archetype outside of India. It became a drink symbolic of all things unavailable and perhaps unattainable in the West. In fact, my assessment of chai tea is that it is a variation on the pink tea of Kashmir called Kashmiri chai (or Kashmiri tea), and like everything else, it has been cleverly marketed to become chai.
So far, I have avoided the use of the word ‘exotic,’ where it could easily have slipped into my discourse on chai tea. This is because the word offends me – I believe it should be blacklisted. I for one have blacklisted it. This may well be from years of being told I was ‘exotic’; looked ‘exotic’; represented the ‘exotic’; my work was ‘exotic’, when to my mind exotic is a word co-opted by an Imperialist lexicon whose traces unfortunately do remain in contemporary Western society. Exotic denotes anything that is ‘other,’ inexplicable, not easily contained in those neat boxes that we like to place things in. This is also the hue that the word ‘mystical’ has begun to take on. It is a one-stop word for all kinds of ‘non-rational’ world-views, and basically a synonym for ‘weirdness’.
I think perhaps the key lies in the word ‘non-rational’. In Christopher Shackle’s article, he introduces some key figures in the tradition of poetry of the subcontinent popularly known as Sufi poets. Strictly speaking, there were no such distinctions as ‘mystical poetry’ and ‘non-mystical poetry’. Verse was a vehicle for the expression of transcendental experience, and this was not considered ‘non-rational’. It was the norm. Emily Dickinson, a non-Eastern poet, would not disagree with this:

By intuition, Mighty Things
Assert themselves – and not by terms –
“I’m Midnight” – need the Midnight say –
“I’m Sunrise” – Need the Majesty?
Omnipotence – had not a Tongue –
His lisp – is lightning – and the sun –
His Conversation– with Sea –
“How shall you know”?
Consult your eye!

Her body of work could for all intents and purposes be labeled ‘mystical’ (and indeed has). Certainly, her themes and concerns were of a transcendental nature. What is startling, however, is how these concerns, such as the Lover and Eternity, are identical to the concerns of those officially anointed as mystics centuries earlier from various cultures.
What becomes clear to me is that there is and always has been a kind of experience to be had and that too a very grounded, human experience that has been expressed in a similar kind of language, using a similar set of symbols, words (whether in Sanskrit, Germanic, Persian, or Old English) and expressions for centuries by both men and women.
There is no doubt that Khwaja Farid, Bulleh Shah and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai were and are considered Sufi poets, and Shackle presents them in terms of the folk legends that they utilised symbolically in their verse. I do not want to pigeonhole them as only that, however, and present them as some portal to an exotic experience to be had. I am not questioning their status as Sufi poets, but I would like to free them up a little and present them as fields for further research. For example, in the case of Shah Abdul Latif Bhithai, some of his most famous lines are:

It were well to practise Namaz and Fast
But Love’s vision needs a separate Art.
There is also an anecdote about when he was asked once whether he was a Sunni Muslim or a Shia. He said he was neither, he was in between. And when the questioner(s) replied: “There is nothing in between,” he said, “Then I am Nothing”. To me this sounds very logical. Another might consider it mystical. Like Emily Dickinson, Shah Abdul Latif Bhithai refused to be labeled. He refused to be affiliated with religion. Sensible chap if you ask me. He was not the one going around saying “I’m a Sufi poet”. This title was bestowed upon him by his many fans. He was and is also considered a saint, and you can actually visit his shrines in many different places. That’s what I call respect for a poet.

One of my concerns, then, in compiling this Pakistan edition has been under-representation. For instance, Bulleh Shah, who is widely revered in Pakistan and who wrote in a local Pakistani dialect (Punjabi), has not been widely studied in English. The same is the case for Khwaja Farid and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. The possibility that Christopher Shackle’s wonderful introduction with history and context to the works of these three might lead to even one curious scholar deciding to trace Bulleh Shah is exciting.
I have also been concerned with how certain symbols and expressions common to this experience to be had have prevailed over the centuries into the poetry of modern female poets of Pakistan, and how these symbols and concerns may have evolved (or not). Take the moon for example, which is often used to illustrate terrible poetry. However, lets face it, humans have always been fascinated by the moon and continue to be so. It is also considered a mystical symbol, which it certainly is, but it is also a symbol of human existence, of yearning and of the beautiful. In choosing the female poets Kishwar Naheed, Ishrat Afreen, Sara Shagufta and Zehra Nigah, none of which are considered ‘mystical poets,’ I saw that mystical symbols and expressions nevertheless prevailed in various guises in their work. I felt it important to highlight this, particularly in the poetry of these women of Pakistan.
I find in many instances that the assignation of the labels mysticism, surrealism, symbolism, absurdism, and often postmodernism is quite arbitrary, both now and especially in the case of the work of long-dead poets. To me they are different aspects of the same faceted, organic structure – facets which aren’t always necessarily related to being ‘illuminated’ or communicating with the Universe, but are vast perceptions of the same existence we are all having.
Back in the day, God was mentioned in poetry that seemed to make the mystical legitimate, but God is now ‘dead’ in the secular space of Western writing, so who’s to say? Is Aamer Hussein postmodern, mystical, surreal, symbolist or absurd? From his vast corpus, I would say all of the above. The same is the case with the liminal works of Sophia Pandeya.
So here it is, tea not chai, and in the words of Emily Dickinson again:

Let not Revelation
By theses be detained

Masala chai image © nanka on Shutterstock

© Sascha Aurora Akhtar  
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