Life Sense-ing Series

Decolonizing Sexualities Network’s ‘Life Sense-ing Series’ brings into focus feelings and memories through glimpses of personal narratives that make us who we are. Extending the concept of sensing (Anzaldúa, Lorde, Mignolo), at the DSN we regard sense-ing our worlds, our multiple ways of being and our realities as archives of knowledges. Emotioning about the meaning of things, remembering the intergenerational generative bonds and accessing our feelings calls forth a motion through which we sense our lives. The DSN Life Sense-ing Series captures such intangible knowledges that fall by the wayside on numerous occasions.

Sense-Intellect, Masala Chai, and Connected Moments

Harshad Keval

25 May 2020

“Fancy a brew?”, the linguistic and social equivalent of a hand, reaching out to forge, reinforce, and maintain a relationship, whether it’s offered to a relative stranger, a first-time visitor or an intimate other. But when translated through the prism of history, ‘alterity’, and the zones of affective ‘others’, this intimacy takes on multitudes of meaning, many of which cannot be comprehended without the being-in, and being-of, an ‘other’. Growing up in the North of England, one of the most welcome questions to be heard in our house, was “Has Dad made the tea?”. By tea, what was meant was ‘chai’. By Chai, what was meant was exclusively not the strange, perverted and commodified substance that can be found in multinational beverage chains that purport to provide you with some intimate glimpse of ‘safe otherness’ by sampling spiced powder and the odd addition of vanilla. No, the question meant had my father produced the magic that had somehow been handed down to him, over several continents, countries, decades, lives and struggles, and like a sorcerer working those processes and journeys into one productive, sensory container, masala chai. 

Such a coming together of, what so many modern cookbooks list as ‘spices’, is both a simple, pragmatic sequence, and one that symbolises nothing more special than any other ‘exotic’ indicator. But the chai I write about was both nothing special in its mundanity, and simultaneously everything in its journey from anticipation to reality, as it occupied a conscious acknowledgement that nothing could possibly taste this good. But it did something else – in the tradition of celebrating human culture, and the coming together of identities, histories, artefacts and belongings, it fulfilled a powerful need, and quenched a thirst that lay far beyond a simple need for caffeine and spices. The need is symbolised in the history of the spices that go into making chai, and one can easily research the historical, colonial legacies of how these spices even came to be part of European life.

 But beyond this in lives and social and political environments that persistently question not only ‘where we are from – no really’, but crucially demand to question ‘Why we are’ at all, it is also about how we make sense of heritage, belonging, space and place, when these things don’t necessarily fit together. For those of us, as Sivanandan wrote, ‘who wear our passports on our faces’, heritage, belonging and history, can be disconnected by virtue of the very life we lead every day, and myriad questions demanding an explanation for our existence in white, Western, colonial social order.  Every aspect of our lives, as brown visitors to this white planet – or so it seems – is imbued with an impactful discord, a disjuncture and fracture, that constantly requires processing, repairing, resisting, peace-making, and ultimately a synthesis that births the combined creativities of intellect and affect. Masala chai made in multitudes of varied ways across the Indian subcontinent and the diaspora is the connecting umbilical cord that never loosens its nurturing hold. It provides sustenance, warmth, fire, clarity, and requires no over-intellectualisation to proffer legitimacy. Its gestalt-like whole is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but each of its parts offers a history that connects the meaning of who I am, where I am, and Why I am. Such gravity! Such weight! Such a responsibility! But no such trophies or accolades are required when the ritual of chai is so totally integrated into the meaning making of everyday life within structures of living still echoing the ghosts of coloniality. 

For my  ‘sense-intellect’, the many levels on which one operates hyphenated identity – e.g. ‘British-other’, region, class, rather than clash and create hostile take-over bids of the personality, as much social science has in the past (and still does) characterise these complex interwoven networks are, actually comes together in many ways. And yet despite the apparent seamlessness of these socialities, the idea of heritage, memory, legacy and the feeling beyond the superficial layers of either belonging or unbelonging, there is a connection that transcends such dualisms. Masala chai, in my family was, is a routinised, sometimes twice daily family ritual, one of many, that allowed my family, as British, Asian, African, Indian, Saturday afternoon wrestling watching, Bollywood film loving, Spaghetti Western genre embedded Lancashire folk, to be. To be connected to not only an idea, but a taste and a feeling of belonging that reached back into all our collective ancestry, perhaps through time to the origins of ancient South Asia. The ‘origin’ story was not that important – because the constant striving to ‘get back to the origin’, is to borrow and modify Stuart Hall’s analytic, a ‘guarantee’ that cannot exist, despite society’s constant craving to find origin-solutions to racial, ethnic and national identity. 

Rather, the chai, in its own way, performed a silent rendering of all that needed to be known, and poked fun at the western notion of ‘knowledge’. Chai, in its production, as it comes into being, by the hand of its maker in any given moment, fundamentally disrobes the colonial Emperor, and reveals the absurdity of epistemic, westernised knowledge hierarchies.  It allows, for a moment, one to dethrone the Western hegemonies of epistemic privilege, which prioritise structures of legitimacy in thinking about heritage and belonging. It mobilises an emptying of one’s intellectual clutter, for how can one receive and process when one is so full of ‘knowledge’. Little surprise then at the Zen saying, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few’. Through the simple, everyday ritual of chai, one is immediately connected in ways that cannot be made sense of through intellect alone. 

As my children grow up in a society that constantly reflects back at them what they are not, what their history is not, what their language is not, what their ancestry is not, and often what their value is not – regardless of platitudes about liberal democratic ‘tolerance’ that I can ironically no longer tolerate, I find there are connecting threads in the simplest icons of everydayness, usually food and language. These connecting threads become part of a fabric, a tapestry of words, tastes, sounds, that allow one to become part of a heritage that is never reflected back at us, but which we reflect back at society. Museums, antiques, images, songs, histories, myths, stories, languages – none of these can provide a complete, holistic sense of identity. Though for many, the recourse to origin-myths, flags, and purity of belonging is now more than ever on the rise, and as dangerous as ever. In the midst of this, what I call ‘sense-intellect’, the dethroning of all-powerful ‘knowledge’, in favour of informed feeling, buttressed by the active re-assemblage of those things that connect us with each other, across time and space can provide the most powerful of decolonial activations. 

Chai can be the most routine, mundane, simplistic act, but can also mobilise those histories, legacies and memories that ferment the feeling of belonging. Just as a word spoken in a mother tongue, perhaps defined as swearing, delivered at a specific moment and specific intonation, can speak volumes about a situation, and even solve a puzzling, frustrating situation, masala chai solves, and resolves the feeling of connected histories time and again. The connection is between the past, present and possibilities of futures untold. Given that the same recipe more or less, has been used for centuries by people’s occupying so many different parts of the globe over history, chai becomes an annunciatory portal, hailing the moment of being.  With each annunciation, masala chai is punctuating and forging a new affective grammar of belonging in a time when heritage and belonging is insular and closed off to ‘others’. This was the case in the 1970s and 1980s but is also the case now.

It is not therefore the intellectual understanding of spice trade routes through the British East Indian company, or the race-sociology analytics of enduring colonial power – as important as these are – that provide the richness I speak to here. The constant over intellectualisation of experience, funnily enough by writers who have little or no experience of being a dark subject of the Empire – does nothing but strip meaning away, until we are left with nothing but empty knowledge, occupying the spaces left behind, when feeling, affect, has ceased to be felt. These are hidden narratives, barely acknowledged in our everyday moments of ‘passing’ in institutional life, unacknowledged therefore existential impossibilities in imaginations. While the multiple layers and complexities of legitimate whiteness bearers is bread and butter to social science and critical work in the academy, these narratives and complexities with all their richness, cannot even be imagined. If as Lisa Lowe writes (1998) culture is the repository of memory and history, and it is through culture that alternative forms of subjectivity and collectivity are imagined, then what happens when the parameters of imagined possibilities of culture, memory, heritage, are already predefined? My own experience as a BrAsianAfrican academic, carving my way through institutional life is that all that is inconvenient about the ‘other’ melts away, and you are often left with a fractured, disjointed bricolage, where selective, legitimate shards gain legitimate prominence. The ‘other’ rhythms of your narrative are constantly erased leaving you to increase your emotional labour to manage the powerful expectations of whiteness. There is then always a need for a salve, which is cultivated in many forms, including recipes for a masala chai.

By using my own practice of ‘sense-intellect’, I suppose I am mobilising those ideas within decoloniality frameworks that embrace feeling, emotion, compassion, solidarity, as well as knowledge produced from the ground up. In conjunction I am also exploring my own developmental journey in areas that appear outside of the academy – in Daoist philosophy and martial arts, as transcendence beyond the limitations of thinking. Intellectualisation of these rich fabrics of life ignore what goes into the weaving of that fabric, and both how easily the threads can be undone, but also just how hard wearing, hardy and versatile this fabric is. I de-privilege thinking that happens at the expense of feeling. You can’t think a masala chai, or a connection with someone in solidarity, or a sudden memory of things told to you long ago that arrive in your consciousness just at the moment you need in a present battle. You can only feel it. In the spirit of solidarity, connection, and fighting for justice across different boards, isn’t this connection what decoloniality aims for? 

In the words of Lee Jun Fan, “Don’t think, feel.” Masala chai is the feeling of being whole, for one moment at a time. 

Harshad Keval is a writer, educator and currently Senior Lecturer in Sociology, with specialisms in Race, Postcolonial and Decolonial Theory at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. His interests are in equality and social justice in all sections and levels of society. He specialises in exploring racisms, race-thinking, and the role that certain types of knowledge and social theory play in perpetuating racism. He has a particular interest in cross-over creative spaces in intellectual, spiritual and academic arenas, and aims at troubling and disrupting conventional demarcations. He writes firstly from himself as a centre and site of outward-bound connections and hopes to connect with constellations of other hopeful people and ideas.