I live in Boulder too, and no, cafés aren’t going to sell very good chai. You know who might? A Desi friend, if she had one.
By Nami Thompson
On Bollywood sets, by train and bus stations, and beside nearly every masjid and temple in India, a chai-wallah, or chai-walli if they’re female-identifying, has a cart that goes unnoticed until needed. They sell cups of hot chai for 5-10 INR, or less than $0.15
When I read about Brook Eddy, described in a recent recent interview with Inc as, “America’s own 21st-century master chai-wallah,” I wondered what century she thinks all the Indian chai-walleh live in. I’m American, I’m Desi, and I make chai (which means tea, so y’all don’t have to say chai tea) as did my American citizen mom and grandmother, long before Eddy stepped foot in India, but we and our countless cups made for friends aren’t noteworthy. It’s because this brand and interview are a celebration of successful modern colonization.
Eddy’s company, Bhakti Chai, was founded after she listened to an NPR story on Swadhyay and moved to India. “Swadhyay seemed like this really cool movement that 20 million people were practicing but no one had heard of.”
As a no one whose humanity is obliterated by the above comment, I’d like to share a bit about Swadhyay, which is a Hindu socio-political movement founded by Pandurang Shastri Athavale at around the time of Independence. He was anti-Brahmin, pro-Dalit, and disagreed publicly with Gandhi. He was also pro-Hinduttva and anti-RSS, thus making him one of the most complex political figures in our recent history. What Brook Eddy heard on NPR as “a really cool movement,” is painful for Desis to articulate, and she likely heard of it as they reported Athavale’s death. It’s possible to learn about and listen to Desi scholars while they’re alive. White westerners approached Athavale in his time and asked him to bring his social models to the US. He always declined. Whatever Desis make of his political beliefs, Swadhyay is not for sale in the US.
The Inc article goes on, “Back home in Boulder, Colorado, [Eddy] formulated an original chai brew when she was unable to find an authentic version at her local cafés. In 2007, she began selling mason jars of her one-of-a-kind infusion out of the back of her car and soon gained a following.”
I live in Boulder too, and no, cafés aren’t going to sell very good chai. You know who might? A Desi friend, if she had one. Let’s get real about privilege. If Mr. Khanna the chai-wallah walked up to a white lady in Boulder and said “I have a speciality drink from India in this jar. Only $10,” he would be ticketed and in handcuffs. Food trucks only became legal here in 2011, but unlicensed tea in a jar just isn’t and never will be.
So Eddy broke the law, gained a following, and eventually raised a total of $10 million from investors. And we’re being sold an adorable story about the whole process: “I want customers to say, ‘Whatever Bhakti does it’s amazing because I trust them,’” she tells Inc. No one accidentally starts selling stuff out of their car to investor meetings. This company made deliberate choices. Fronting as “conscious capitalism,” the brand bypasses and gestures without addressing global systems of inequality and profiting off of an industry that was once run by enslaved people. She wants to buy trust through a well-placed interview, but it’s not working.
Bhakti’s tea leaves, coffee beans (because of course she’s bastardized it into a coffee product as well), and sugar are fair trade, according to the website. What she calls her “special sauce,” ginger from Peru, is not. So it’s Indian chai, Peruvian ginger, and sometimes it’s actually coffee.
ln keeping with the orientalizing of my culture by unnecessarily mashing together exotic sounding words from various Asian languages, Bhakti has launched the GITA (Give, Inspire, Take Action) giving movement, which claims to have thus far contributed $500,000 to various organizations. It’s unclear if this comes from her company revenue, as the website has a donation link and ideas to help school children raise funds. Equally as questionable are the chosen give back initiatives:
Bako Bags is another white person owned Colorado company and not a charity, but rather an importer who also claim to give back some of their profit to the people of Nigeria. They are not listed on Charity Navigator.
World Muse is a group, run by all white or white-coded people, describes themselves as a women’s empowerment camp. You have to buy a tax-deductible membership to join, and they organize yoga trips to Uganda and Zambia. They’ve filed with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) for “Remedial Reading, Reading Encouragement.”
I struggle to find a reason to trust Bhakti, but they sure trust India. “India continues to be Eddy’s muse and she returns frequently for fresh ideas,” says Inc. That’s an admission of exploitation. “She’s looking for ideas to transition from a drink line to a lifestyle brand. And maybe the pulse and the vibration of India will come through somehow. I want that to be the legacy.”
On behalf of every Desi American child who was teased by white children for the aroma of our vibrantly Indian food, may I suggest a hing bath?
For people who are interested in alternatives, Sherpa Chai is owned and operated by an actual sherpa, and most of their staff are people of color. Hanuman Chai is owned by a woman of color. But seriously, red label or a couple bags of Tetley are great.
Author Bio: Nami Thompson is a New York born artist, writer, and mother. She has a background in neurobiology and public policy and currently serves on the board of Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence. Nami also runs a group for race-conscious parents in Boulder, CO.