This cafe by the river in Srinagar is inspired by the tea rooms in Cotswalds, England, and brings a local Kashmiri flavour to an otherwise English concept. But it’s much more than a chai place. It’s a place many girls come, to ‘breathe in’ and stay safe from staring eyes. It’s also where cultural conversations happen. It’s where people, art, sugar, opinions and tea all seamlessly mix with each other to give richness to conversation

SheThePeople.TV spoke to Roohi Nazki, founder of Srinagar’s famous tea room, Chai Jaai on being an entrepreneur in Kashmir and her journey.

The beginning:

Though Roohi grew up in Kashmir, she had to leave the state in the 90s because of the growing political turbulence. She lived in Mumbai throughout the 90s, where she had a job in administrative services, and then in the field of online content. She worked at e-learning company, Tata Interactive Services, as a learning designer.

It is not just a tea room, we want to make it a space where we can hold cultural conversations.”

The move back to Kashmir: 

She moved back home in 2015. “It was a personal decision,” she says. Her son had left home to attend the United World College in Wales, and she didn’t want to stay in Mumbai without him. Her husband also had to shift back, and besides she wanted to spend time with her parents who still lived in Kashmir.

So she quit her job and moved back thinking that she would open an e-learning company.

But Chai Jaai happened instead: 

“While I was working on the e-learning company, I realised how much I had missed Kashmir while I had been away. When I got back, I saw Kashmir from a different perspective. I was part local, part traveller or part tourist,” she says.

In those early days, she would often go have breakfast on her own. One day, she came across a beautiful photo shop called Mahatta, run by a Mr Jagdish Mehta. They got talking and  Nazki was moved by how much Mehta loved Kashmir. He had never left his home, even in the worst of times. Nazki had tears in her eyes as she listened to how passionate he was about the place. The idea of the tea room struck then, and there was no looking back from that moment on.

Inspired by a solo trip she had taken to the Cotswolds in England, and by the English architecture of Mr Mehta’s building, Nazki decided that the tea room would be a fusion of Kashmiri and English culture.

Setting up and the challenges she faced:  

Setting up was a huge challenge, she says. She could not get a proper designer, and nobody had time in their schedule to come to Srinagar.

So she designed the entire place herself. “I focused on customer experiences,” she says. Her challenges included finding the right people, and finding people who had a high sense of quality consciousness. She was used to working in a corporate setting in Mumbai, but found that in her hometown, it was difficult to get people to stick to a plan. So she changed her attitude, went with the flow and things got done.

“Many girls have thanked me. They say that Chai Jaai is a place they can finally breathe in. Nobody is ogling at us, they say. We can just be. They feel it is a safe space, where they don’t feel what they usually feel.”

She says that the political situation in Kashmir is the biggest hurdle for business.

On being a woman entrepreneur:

She says that in all her promotions for the tea room, she doesn’t specify who runs it. She has deliberately kept herself away. She finds it ironic that customers will often send messages to Chai Jaai on social media with statements such as “Can you put my picture up, sir?”.

She says that some people can get vicious, and that some even come and disturb her at the tea room. But she says that she has a lovely team that is very supportive and that’s a huge plus, she says.

A local hangout: 

She says that her first focus is on the local market. “The response has been wonderful. There is nothing happening here, no places to hang out, nothing to do, so this has become a good hangout place for locals.”

At the cafe, she says, Kashmir is presented in a way that is contemporary and beautiful.

 A safe space for women:

A lot of girls come here, she says. “Many girls have thanked me. They say that Chai Jaai is a place they can finally breathe in. Nobody is ogling at us, they say. We can just be. They feel it is a safe space, where they don’t feel what they usually feel.”

“The feeling of seeing Kashmir expressed in that way was cathartic. The key mission is to make the tea room inclusive, to revive what we have lost, and to celebrate Kashmir.”

She says that she trains her waiters to show their customers respect, and says that the space is also done up in a comfortable way. “It is done up like a house, and has a feminine angle, given that I have designed it personally,” she says.

“But that doesn’t mean that men don’t love the space as well!” she adds.

An inclusive Kashmir:

“It is not just a tea room, we want to make it a space where we can hold cultural conversations.”

Chai Jaai has just hosted its spring festival where conversations centered around reviving memories of how Kashmir used to be, before the turmoil. They had live art installations, street food popups, cultural shows and talks.

“The feeling of seeing Kashmir expressed in that way was cathartic. The key mission is to make the tea room inclusive, to revive what we have lost, and to celebrate Kashmir.”

In keeping with the spirit of inclusivity, the tea room celebrates every major festival in a big way, right from Maha Shivratri to Christmas. “In fact, our Christmas celebration was so popular, that we had to turn people away!” Nazki says.

Also Read: Zuni Chopra Shows There Is More To Kashmir Than Turmoil In Her Debut Novel