By Sadia Khatri
It begins, I think, at Eliot House at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, my all-women college’s religious and spiritual life centre. Its glass doors open into a lobby, usually empty, tinged with the kind of silence one associates with sites of prayer. A corridor on the right leading to the Japanese tea garden (our campus was no stranger to exotic luxuries), and a staircase on the left going downstairs, to the basement and heart of Eliot House: a self-titled, multi-faith lounge. This is where we turn always, our feet seeking the comfort of the level below.
Eliot House welcomed everyone through its doors, even if you (like me) were neither religious nor spiritual. The multi-faith lounge hosted all sorts of religious dinners and discussions, so if you went in for Sabbath, no one asked you if you were Jewish; if you attended the weekly interfaith lunch, you weren’t required to disclose an affiliation with any faith. In between slotted activities, the lounge was a makeshift space for students who came to study, gather, unwind, or even spend some time alone.
Eliot House lounge is an assault of familiar trinkets and smells. There’s mismatched, brightly-upholstered furniture set in a circle around a low table (this is where we gather for interfaith discussions). Along the curtained glass wall: rectangular tables with wooden chairs (this is where we eat). Lamps with shades dotted all over. Bulletin boards with schedules, name tags, inspirational quotes. One stretch of wall opens into smaller rooms — an admin office, a Hindu temple, the Jewish chaplain’s den. Between the temple-room and the chaplain’s office, a shiny, black piano is set against the wall. Atop its surface, drawings on card-paper from some activity last week. Hardly any surface of the walls is visible, left untacked by religious hangings or strings of flags stamped with symbols from Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and faiths I do not yet know of.
The glass wall slides open onto a small terrace, furnished with a round table and a few chairs when there’s no snow. It’s a cramped landing, adjoining the mammoth amphitheater’s grassy steps; before or after an event, you are likely to find some smokers here. The conversation you walk into could be anything, really — lingering thoughts from a Quran/Bible study group, a heated discussion of a math problem, someone’s analysis of her friend’s relationship. Indoors too, I have seen all sorts of activities and procrastinations unravel among Eliot House’s furniture: pre-exam marathons, stoned movie nights, bonding days. Multipurpose space.
A third storey beneath us holds a curtained, prayer room for Muslims, the Dean of Spiritual Life’s warm office, a bathroom equipped with a lota and a backdoor, opening onto a stretch of green opposite Lower Lake.
These are days I do not hold any kind of a belief, nor am I curious. But Jumma lunch is a gathering I don’t dare miss — John, the resident cook at Eliot House, occasionally serves a desi curry, in anticipation of which a disproportionately South Asian crowd is sure to gather.
It isn’t the prospect of karhai that draws me to Jumma lunches, it is the presence of the South Asian crowd. My newly-made friends from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka. For 19-year-old me, revelling in her newfound freedoms abroad, Jumma lunches provide what I lack in my days otherwise: a fixed node of sorts, some semblance of belonging. These women — who look like me, talk like me — they have become my node.
At 12.45 pm, I begin my trek through the snow. I reach Eliot House shortly before 1 pm, and the lunch is well-past over. The more dutiful among the Muslim attendees are shuffling downstairs for their communal prayer, and John is stowing away the leftovers, serving extra-large helpings to latecomers.
On luckier days, Sara has already begun making chai. If not, I walk into an-almost empty lounge to find her taking count. The reason for my late arrival is selfish: I don’t have to interact with everyone else, I hate the small-talk and quick life-updates, but I don’t want to miss out on John’s stew either.
How many cups? Hands go up around the room. We must account for the ones on their way. One of the chaplains decides to stick around — Oh, Sara’s making chai? I might as well — and the rest of the girls (most of whom I know), have already begun to congregate to one corner of the lounge. We will end up glued here — I am sure of this — for at least the next couple of hours.
For if there is a first round of chai, there must be a second. The first few months it happens spontaneously, without any one of us prompting it. Sara makes her way to the kitchen, and time begins to stretch. We resign our bodies to at least half an hour of unwinding in each other’s company. Coats are taken off. Laptops are pushed aside. The sugar tray brought out and passed around the almost-circle we have formed. By the time the steaming chai is brought out, we are already knee-deep in some conversation, or many strands of one.
Soon, someone volunteers to make a second round of chai. Except for that one desi friend, none of us refuse. In Massachusetts cold, there’s nothing better to warm the body with. But then one round becomes two, half-an-hour becomes two hours, and so on. One by one we have re-adjusted our plans for the day, we are looking for excuses to make each other stay. You don’t really need to visit that professor. Come on, ek aur cup.
More women join us, (some always came after the chai is ready) and our circle widens. We slip in and out of each other’s conversations and rants, joining this friend here passionately, just listening to this other one with pride. Sometimes, it is one topic of discussion that has engaged all our attentions fully (like the racist comment hurled at M only two hours ago), or something far petty (the latest viral ad that’s not feminist at all). Sometimes the circle breaks off into two or three different conversations, two of us step out for a smoke, someone runs for a quick errand, another is off on the side on the phone… the faces and positions around our circle shift and repeat, but they always return; we come back from our separate conversations and time-outs to join the larger circle, to become whole again, to slide back into that sacred space we have — without realising — created together.
All we are doing, really, is talking and filling ourselves up with caffeine. Still, I begin to consider this space sacred, because I have rarely encountered anything of the sort in my life. The company of women outside the beat routine of our days, the company of women outside the gaze of social judgements and expectations.
As our Friday chai sessions expand and shrink, as people come and go and graduate, it becomes a ritual (a conscious one, I believe). Several of us learn to how to brew chai, everyone knows what brand of cigarettes the other smokes, and come Friday, we are ready to stretch our cups and conversations into the day’s waning.
If walls have memory, the ones encasing the Eliot House lounge could tell you our lives’ stories. Our childhoods and college years, our loves and losses. The stories we shared with each other until our stomachs burst. The things that turn us on. The people who break us. How we unlearned love and learned jargon. The hours lazed away, talking about nothing, watching re-runs of Pakistani dramas. Who among us didn’t get along on music choices. The fervour with which we could spend an entire night comforting a friend. The time we collectively skipped our morning classes after 7 am breakfast. How we found ourselves opening up in ways we never thought possible.
Eliot house soon facilitated a range of experiences — we laughed, fooled around, finished assignments, studied for quizzes, watched terrible soap operas, spent all night like we were in some never-ending sleepover. With increasing frequency we were hauling ourselves there for a few hours every day. And what was initially slotted for Friday afternoons, now spilled over to weeknights, weekends, and entire semester breaks (Sara got us permission, somehow, from the Dean to use it during Thanksgiving and Spring breaks).
Nights passed with books, movies, conversations, chai stirring steadily on stove, and a ready stock of snacks in John’s cupboards. When it snowed, we stayed indoors, pulled back the curtains and watched the grass turn white. On warmer days, we found ourselves on the jutting terrace more often. Then there were days when I wanted the comfort of my friends’ presence, but also had readings to finish. So I’d sit on the amphitheater steps, a quick wall-hop away from the landing, knowing I could step back into Eliot House for a break when I needed to find a therapeutic friend or a silly distraction. And a cup of chai, sent by a caring comrade, would find its way to me in my seclusion.
In this comfort of brown women, I touched upon an experience I had never allowed myself before: The power of an intimate, all-women space. I began to think of my politics differently.
On the one hand, I had classes, professors, a whole range of electives and readings helping me grow intellectually. I could finally articulate my beliefs and experiences in a sophisticated language — oh god, all the jargon, all the sanitised social justice language! I could now name the workings of power, its hold on me, cite theories to back up my statements, quote this feminist and that.
But here, in a corner of Eliot House, where brown women were gathering and affecting each other’s learning, a different kind of politics was making its mark on me. In the classroom, I learned to theorise on feminism for hours, but it was in Eliot House, among these women, that I finally claimed the term. It was here, the first time I told a woman, aside from my sister, that I had survived child abuse. Here it was that my friends had a sort of intervention, helped me see that perhaps my boyfriend’s behaviour was emotionally abusive.
Here is where we gave each other courage: To tell that professor his Islamophobic remark was not okay, to go back home this summer (maybe it won’t be so bad), to write that collective e-mail to the Dean regarding racist attacks on the Confessional. Here is where we once spent ruinous hours in silence, not knowing what to do when our friend broke down, wheezing like a child, because another friend had dumped her.
Until my time at an all-women’s college, until Eliot House and these chai circles, I had not allowed myself to own the power created by a women-only space. I had automatically assumed that a closed space — one that excludes men — is hostile, uninviting and contrary to our movements. But in a patriarchal world, anywhere in this world, women are so rarely given a space to dissociate, breathe, laugh and learn in a space untethered by insecurities and preconditions, that I had never paused to think perhaps a women-only space isn’t a contrary space at all. That in fact, it is essential: Before we tackle the rest of the world, we must first build from within.
The building from within is not simply a matter of ideology or theory. It is also the assurance that we are not alone, the reminder that our experiences are valid and important, the learning to care for each other as fervently as we do with our causes. And that’s what we were doing at Eliot House.
There was the obvious building, the obvious political act of brown women talking about gender, sexuality, feminism, coming from cultures where it was not our place to talk — let alone philosophise over such things! But now, we were debating the gender politics of Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun. How our education here contributed to an already-existing class privilege at home. Extended narratives on beauty parlour spaces, ‘feminine’ spaces, women-only spaces. Discomfort with classes and readings that orientalised the fuck out of our cultures. The latest roadblocks in our writing or art. From a distance, what you saw was brown women sitting together for hours, sharing their common struggles, coming together to form a support system despite the systems that sought to keep them apart.
But what you couldn’t see from a distance, was the less obvious building: The hours talking about our lives, our confusions, our values. Family dilemmas, relationship pressures. The thoughts we learn so masterfully to avoid and disguise. The ridiculous dreams and silly pleasures and our triumphs and victories too. But it takes a lot more courage to be vulnerable, and we were exposing our skins to each other.
While our reasons for delaying our time spent in Eliot House often varied, I think the excuses were always superficial. What we really sought, but perhaps could not explain then, was the comfort we had created. Here was a group of women who were all from some part of South Asia, and so, did not cringe if you switched into your mother tongue, did not struggle to grasp the context of your rant, did not — unlike the largely American populace of our campus — demand an explanation for your experiences.
Patriarchy wins because it stops women from coming together. So if our coming together is grounded in the kind of relationships and spaces where we can divulge our greatest fears and regrets, where we can let ourselves be silly till morning, where we are willing to stay up with a heartbroken friend all night, how much more powerful will that make the rest of our politics?
This sounds so simple, but it is the most radical lesson I have learned.
The first night I slept on the orange couch in Eliot House’s lounge, I woke up to watch sunrise from the terrace. I didn’t know this at the time, but that spot, place and time would become my safe haven, and my touchstone for solidarity.
Many years later, I think it is instructive that this solidarity began with shared cups of chai.
Sadia Khatri is a writer and a freelance journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan, and writes on gender, public space and chai. She also helps run the feminist collective Girls at Dhabas which is based in Pakistan.