Instagram account 'Chiliya Chai' looks at the intersection of the Muslim community and modernity

Chiliya Chai is the name of a special brew of milky tea prepared by the orthodox Gujarati Muslim community, called the Chiliyas, at restaurants in Mumbai. Chiliya Chai is also the name of an Instagram account run by journalist Shaikh Ayaz, to speak about “Muslims, modernity and black humour in Bombay.”

He chose this particular name because it encapsulated the idea of a culture that is a melting pot. “Chiliya restaurants dot every Muslim mohalla where young and old alike hang out for their daily dose of tea, omelette, khari, keema and conversation. The title is symbolic of that bonding culture,” he explains.

He says that Chiliya Chai documents contemporary issues dominating much of the conversation around the Indian Muslim today: identity crisis, education, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, nationality, political marginalisation, poverty and poetry, among other subjects. He says that these are themes that one cannot escape if you are a Muslim in the modern world. “Chiliya Chai is like an observatory, where Muslims come in and you chat with them about their life and views, or you either eavesdrop or pick up random street conversations,” he adds. He says that above everything else, it is a love letter to the city.

'Holi was a childhood fascination. I was seven. Outside our house in Bareilly (UP), there was a lane with both Muslim and Hindu families living in it. Holi being a public holiday, the schools were shut. As a child, I was attracted to colours, the sound of music and noise. My mother was fine with it because she knew how much I enjoyed watching Holi celebrations in our neighbourhood. But my aunt was slightly orthodox who discouraged her three daughters from celebrating a “Hindu festival.” Then, one day, my mother gifted me a pichkari (water gun). In my excitement, I didn’t realise there was already green colour in it. I started splashing the green on whoever came my way – my dog, maid, cousins. I remember once I was playing Holi with friends in Bareilly and somebody threw me into a tub of coloured water. I was blue when I came out! Like a character from Avatar. I was taking a shower every half an hour to get the blue off my skin. Holi in Bareilly is special, just like in Banaras or any other small town in India. The other day, I was thinking about how Bollywood usually gets Holi wrong. In Sholay or Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, Holi celebrations look made-up and forced. In fact, Raanjhanaa reminded me of Holi in Bareilly. It was that authentic. They got the details, texture, the gullies, and colours right. Usmein lag raha tha ke yaar yeh toh Bareilly waala maahaul poora jama diya inhonein (It felt like they created the same festive atmosphere as Bareilly). When you are talking about Holi, how can you not drool over gujiya (a sweet Holi delicacy)? I love gujiya and part of the reason why I love Holi is gujiya! I demand a packet each from all my friends. People often ask me why I celebrate Holi despite being a Muslim. That’s because I don’t see Holi as a Muslim or Hindu festival. It’s an Indian festival. Most Muslim festivals are peaceful and usually, not very colourful. No offence, but shouldn’t there be some colour in life? There should be some halla-gulla and fun. Can we not drop the seriousness some time?’ – Sahar Quaze, television writer, Goregaon East. Photograph by: @photodev. #holi #writer #indianmuslim #secular #colour #chiliyachai #Bollywood #mumbai #mumbaikar

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The reasons Ayaz had in mind while creating the Instagram account are several. “There is no objective except to document a part of the city and its inhabitants who are often seen as a statistic. I want to show them as people. The objective is to tell stories you may not find elsewhere,” he says.As he began to spend more time in areas such as Agripada, Byculla, Dongri and other Muslim ghettos, he observed that there is a wind of change is blowing, and it’s the young generation that is driving this change. He says that they are educating themselves more, that their aspirations are the same as young non-Muslims, such as a better job, better homes and a liberal, cosmopolitan environment. “There’s greater a need for ‘mainstreaming',” he says. “I thought of documenting modernity seeping into the community and to capture this moment in the life of the city. There was modernity not just of outer appearance but of the mind,” he elucidates.He also explains why he thinks Chiliya Chai has the ability to make a political, economic and sociological points, but more importantly humanist and secular ones too. “In a post that’s all about a man ranting about the pathetic state of the gate of a Muslim cemetery versus the grandeur of the next door Gurudwara gate, I have added a throwaway Munnabhai-like line on his good-hearted Marathi neighbour, who lent him his auto to drive until he gets his own,” says Ayaz.Some of the people Ayaz features are well-known faces, while some are not. He says that the explanation for the choice of his subjects lies in the understanding that Chiliya Chai is a storytelling platform where literature, poetry, music, art, films and people converge. “That’s why you will see the long-dead Manto, Saeed Mirza, Muzaffar Ali and Salman Rushdie rubbing shoulders with a girl from Mumbra, a guide from Bombay Central, an auto driver and father of two from Four Bungalows, a girl who works at L’Oreal but wants to dance and a Bohra woman who designs jhabla for children – it’s a democratic space, free for all,” he explains.

Karim Umar Khan works as an electrician at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai. For over fifteen years, this Kurla resident's job is to be in the gallery from "switching on the lights in the morning to switching it off in the night" and to be around at all times till the exhibiting artists are in the premises. Islam prohibits painting of images and yet, Mr Khan who wears his religion on his sleeve is surrounded by hand-painted artworks all day long. Does he see a religious conflict there, I asked him. "It's my job," he said. Then, he added, "I have met a lot of artists and love their work. I make it a point to see all exhibitions. But I would never paint myself." #Art #Mumbai #JehangirArtGallery #ArtGallery #Muslim #ChiliyaChai A post shared by Chiliya Chai (@chiliyachai) on

He talks about how Muslims in the city who live in old and historic areas are economically deprived, but that if they were to receive opportunities, they could compete with just about anyone in the city. He likens them to Mumbai before it became a big city – a stardom that he feels was thrust upon it. “They are society’s underdogs, and as a writer, their stories are far more fascinating than that of the privileged kid sitting somewhere in Malabar Hill,” he explains.

He speaks of the humour and style of speaking that Muslims employ. He has always found them to be darkly comic, with a deep sense of buried tragedy in their jokes. “I wanted to capture this aspect. Unfortunately, the Muslims don’t have their own Coen brothers to chronicle this black humour. So, somebody has to do the dirty job,” he jokes.

Despite the obvious religious connotation of the subject matter, Ayaz insists that it isn’t an Instagram account “for Muslims”. “The page may be about Muslims, but it tells us something about the city and about the human condition… Just because it’s a page on Muslims doesn’t mean it’s only for the Muslims. It’s for everyone. Many readers are non-Muslims,” he explains.

"I love to dance. Switch on the music and sorry, I will not be able to control my body,” says Sofia Hussain, an HR professional at L’Oreal by day and a dancer-choreographer by night. Sofia, who lived in different parts of India including Agartala and Dehradun, has finally settled down in Mumbai. She lives in Jogeshwari (West) and travels to downtown Mumbai every day for work. "Actually, the credit for my dance goes to my husband,” laughs Sofia. “Because he comes home late. So, that gives me some hours of ‘dance’ time, which is more like my ‘me’ time.” Sofia has recently registered with UrbanClap, a mobile market for local services. Through the App, she has got some local weddings as a choreographer. Recalling her first dance memory, she says, “I was maybe 4 or 5 and it was on Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai.” #india #chiliyachai #bombaydiaries #instagram #MarineDrive #Dance #indianmuslim #indialove #india

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Ayaz strongly believes that the Muslim community in India is at a churning. He says that there are several issues that they must sort out, such as population and identity crisis. He asserts that most of the Muslims he has met are conservative but secular, generous and open to discussion, and that India is home for them. According to him, it is ironic that a community which has been politically margininalised in terms of reservation and jobs can be so political. “At a Muslim home, the discussion will always be politics or society. And of course, how to tell a good biryani from bad; we are foodies,” he says.When asked about how he thinks people outside the community view Muslims, Ayaz says that he does not like the word “outsiders”. “Yes, we do have religious and other kinds of differences but I think non-Muslims look at Muslims with curiosity. Those who don’t interact much with Muslims view us differently, but those who have been brought up in cosmopolitan setups think generously of Muslims,” he says.

Jumana Abedin is a designer of jhabla and izaar, traditional clothing that Dawoodi Bohra girls wear on sacred occasions or their weekly outings to jamaat-khana, a community mosque. She follows the cartoon trends closely for fashion inspiration. “Girls equally love Doraemon, cupcakes and Teddy bear prints,” says Abedin, 34. She works from her Andheri (East) home and her seven-year-old daughter and ten-year-old niece are her muses. “I keep them in mind while designing.” Dawoodi Bohra children from the age of 3-14 wear jhabla-izaar. Girls are expected to switch to ridas (a two-piece outer garment) after their “misaq” – an initiation ceremony like bar mitzvah. Once a royal garment of the Syedna family, rida and jhabla are now common sight. It has given the Bohras a linear sartorial identity – “uniform” as some call it. To ‘burkha or not to burkha’ is a hotly contested global debate. This modest garment intended to cover a woman’s modesty attracts, for some reason, more attention than public nudity. Many, including feminists who thrive on free will, choice and short skirts, have argued that the burkha offends public decency in a world that’s increasingly heading the ‘less is more’ way. Still, in the age of burkini, there are others who insist that the bikini and burkha can go hand in hand. For the Bohra women, meanwhile, a rida is a source of empowerment, dignity, tradition and adds a whiff of floral colour and fashion to the drudgery of life. #Mumbai #BombayDiaries #ChiliyaChai #IndianMuslim #Rida #Burkha #india #indialove A post shared by Chiliya Chai (@chiliyachai) on

Ayaz’s favourite posts include the one about Anwar Damani, the girl from Mumbra learning Japanese, the Bombay Central guide who surprised him with her maturity and incredible life story and the ones featuring Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain. He also mentions an Instagram story where he used pictures of God tiles on public streets meant to dissuade Indians from urinating in the open. “I called the slides Amar (next to Ganpati), Akbar (next to an image of a Quran) and Anthony (next to Christ) followed by these lines: Public Urinal – The last refuge of the secular,” he explains.

Has this project changed the way he perceives his own community? He replies by saying that as he spends more time meeting and talking to people, he is realising that India as a culture is extremely vast, and when Islam blended with the Indian culture, it developed a different and distinct flavour. “I have met Muslims around the world and there’s no better place than India and Indian Muslims are very aware of it. We don’t realise it but it’s a miracle how a country like India is working at all – it’s a mega corporate,” he opines.

Follow Chiliya Chai here.


Published Date: Mar 19, 2017 08:49 am | Updated Date: Mar 19, 2017 08:49 am