“I feel an obligation and a responsibility to pass on to my children everything that has been passed on to me,” Fatema says. “Going to the markets, grinding our spices, building a business, and what that process means to me … I want to be a great business woman, a great mother, a great human – it’s a struggle and I feel a lot of pressure, but it is worth it.”

– Fatema Khanbhai

Like so many of the women we talk to at Made My Many Hands, Fatema Khanbhai seems to be naively unaware of her impact. With her thriving venture – The Chai Room – Fatema has been in business for over seven years, has been featured in media outlets across the country, has more than ten incredible products, runs workshops and events, but tells us that her dream is to make a difference. Little does Fatema know, she is already doing just that. Not only for her children – who are witnessing their mother building the company of her dreams – but for every customer who indulges in one of her delicious blends. “It’s a moment for them, it’s quiet enjoyment, it’s all about peace and wellbeing,” says Fatema. In other words? She’s making a difference one cup of chai at a time. 

Born in London to East African parents with Indian heritage, Fatema remembers her childhood fondly. “We held on to our culture through food and tea,” she tells us. “One of my most amazing memories is of our Sunday mornings. Every Sunday, we would sit in front of the TV and watch the only Indian program that came on all week. We all sat there silently, on the floor on our African tablecloth, eating African pastries my mum had made, and drinking chai. It was a really special, enriching time.”

It comes as no surprise then, that chai ultimately became Fatema’s life calling. But this wasn’t immediate, but came after an illustrious career in fashion design. “Living in London, I was young and confident, had a great job in fashion, and really felt like I was on top of the world,” Fatema says. “I had been to a great art and fashion school, had so many opportunities and had travelled the world – working in New York, Italy and Paris – all following my passion. It was a really amazing time to be in London as it felt very accepting and vibrant – even as an Indian girl working in fashion – it was phenomenal.”

Just as the time came when Fatema felt she’d achieved all she wanted to, she fell in love, and followed that love story to Australia. “We first settled in Lismore and it was the best place,” Fatema says. “The smell of coffee plantations and macadamia trees, it was an incredibly lush hinterland, and I was amazed by how everything was so exceptionally green and prolific. The smell was intoxicating, as was the humidity and the awesomeness of space.” But it wasn’t all coffee and macadamias. Despite seeming to be a very similar culture, settling in Australia – particularly ultimately in suburban Sydney – was quite a challenge for Fatema. “Of course, my husband’s family is here, but I felt that I lost myself,” says Fatema. “I loved the journey but I needed a purpose. I was so far away from everything that was familiar to me, and there were times when I would cry all weekend. In London, I had been really independent and free, and I hadn’t expected that in Australia, I wouldn’t be able to be who I wanted to be.”

So in order to find herself here, and in a move that will undoubtedly elicit gasps from all Australian fashion lovers, Fatema secured a role with Collette Dinnigan. “It was really amazing,” she says. “And following Collette, I went on to work for Sportscraft, before having my daughter.” 

As impressive as that career was, Fatema realised that she wanted desperately to be with her daughter, and that involved a step back. “Then after I had my son, I realised I needed some help. I was in a space of confusion,” says Fatema. So she reached out to the Benevolent Society, who sent a “godsend” of a volunteer – Maureen – who visited Fatema for a few hours each week. “Every time Maureen came over, I would naturally make her a tea,” says Fatema. “She was really taken by this chai, and I was so surprised and delighted at how much she enjoyed it! She talked about it in ways I’d never thought of before, and said I should do something about it. So I got a bee in my bonnet and thought, ‘yes I do!’” 

And so it was, that the fateful intersection of an encouraging volunteer and the enormity of motherhood, that Fatema returned to her passion for chai.

“I did a Business 101 course in the city and couldn’t believe how exciting it was to be back in the city after years with my children. Surrounded by businesspeople in suits, there I was in my printed dresses!” Fatema laughs. It wasn’t far in to that course that Fatema launched her website, set up her insurance, and applied for a market stall. “It all went from there. It was really hard work because the children were so little, but when you’re driven by something you love, there is nothing like that force. It was so messy, it was so hard, but it was so enjoyable.”

That enjoyment? It came from the way her customers would enjoy their chai, and the raving feedback she received (and continues to receive to this day – Made By Many Hands team included!). Along the way, she has also shown her children – now 12 and 9 – what it means to start a business from scratch. “I feel an obligation and a responsibility to pass on to my children everything that has been passed on to me,” Fatema says. “Going to the markets, grinding our spices, building a business, and what that process means to me … I want to be a great business woman, a great mother, a great human – it’s a struggle and I feel a lot of pressure, but it is worth it.”

We have to agree. With a range of delicious blends, Fatema has made The Chai Room into a true tea destination that tells a story of her heritage. “Chai is a celebration of all the cultures within me,” she says. “All my blends tell my story. From the traditional Indian blend, to more creative blends with native ingredients, I realise been tracking my journey. There’s the English rosemary and fennel that pay homage to my mother’s love of English herbs. There’s the lemon myrtle which is one of my first memories of Australia, and was ultimately my way of feeling that I was settled and had found a home. It has been so exciting exploring these different herbs and spices, learning about the cultures and countries that they’re from, what the land is able to provide, and what that tells us about ourselves as well.”

If you’re ready to dive right in, you’re not alone. And so Fatema leaves us with a final drinking tip. “Feel the pleasure and the deliciousness of it. Immerse yourself in it and feel the indulgence, the lack of guilt and that moment which is really unique and independent of any other thought.”

On that note, we’re off to brew a cup.

Published by Amy Malpass-Hahn, Freelance writer