The eighth cup of nun chai


I left Kashmir early in the summer of 2010, and from a distance I watched the death toll rise. 1. 6. 11. 18. 56. 69. 89. 111. The numbers confronted Jay and her voice began to drift, “Loss of life seems to happen everywhere in this world.” Jay had been a young girl in Sydney during WWII and her experiences fuelled our conversation. “There seems to be a certain timing all of us have – a time when it is time for us to leave. It’s the only way I can make sense of it.” She reminded me of a consolation I heard, time and time again, in Kashmir – it is Allah’s wish. “The tragedy,” she continued, “was when that time arrived while people were still young.” Jay sipped the nun chai slowly. She seemed to enjoy it.

The deaths in Kashmir that summer were mostly of young men, in their late teens and early twenties, some even as young as 8 years old. Jay asked, with a haunting simplicity, ‘Why are they killing the children?’ Why are the Indian armed forces killing children in Kashmir? It is not enough to explain that Milad Ahmad Dar (8 years) and Sameer Ahmad Rah (9 years) were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were shot or beaten to death by the Central Reserve Police Force?

Jay has a friend named Ruth who cannot be in the presence of a German. Ruth lost her family in the gas chambers during WWII. While she recognises that at an individual level Germans could be good people, Ruth still can’t find it in herself to give them the time of day. When Ruth nears a German she simply walks away. Jay is one of Ruth’s only ‘Aryan’ friends, and she explained, “If you are a mother and someone kills your child, what else can you be expected to do?”

Hatred and violence are cyclical. They grow like a vicious snowball on the run. Gathering speed and mass, they cause irrevocable damage. Jay spoke a lot of the warmth of Ruth’s Jewish family and friends. But Ruth often complained privately to Jay, that while people were civil to Jews after the war she still sensed an underlying prejudice. Today Israel’s forceful settlement of Palestine, in the name of a Jewish homeland, is responsible for manifesting more cycles of hatred and violence, only this time against Palestinian Muslims. This is part of the cycle. It’s a cycle where the oppressed quickly becomes the oppressor. Jewish and Palestinian suffering and displacement mirror each other more than one might first expect.

I recently read about two young stone pelters in Kashmir whose fingernails were torn out by India’s Central Reserve Police Force. One of these boys was 16 years old and the other was 19 years old. Not a single nail was left on their hands and feet. I have a friend who lives in their locality. He said, “It was helpfully explained to the boys that their nails had been removed so they would not be able to walk in protest or pelt stones for the next few months.”

In Kashmir, in Palestine and for the Jewish during WWII, horrible, oppressive and personalised deeds like this one mark people’s collective memories. These memories gather like an informal archive that has been compiled over many years, many experiences and many stories. It is an archive near impossible to fully erase, because it travels with the urgency and swiftness of breath. These archives have the capacity to feed resistance and understanding, but more commonly they feed cycles of hatred and violence that justify one kind of cruelty against another. However, at this moment in Kashmir there seems to be a concerted effort to direct the pain and anger of these to the state and not its people. This was echoed in Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s evocation of insaaniyat (humanity) when he spoke of the bonds that tied the people of India and Kashmir during a recent seminar in New Delhi, aptly titled Azadi: The Only Way.

Jay recalled the anxiety that pervaded her life as a child in Sydney during WWII. She thought it might be similar to what people in Kashmir were experiencing now. In the post-war London of her youth Jay spoke of Kashmiri and Indian people interchangeably and I reiterated that Kashmir was not India, and she asked me why. I went on to explain – linguistically, historically, culturally… But then I questioned the criteria I was using to produce an argument that would somehow define a “nation” and its citizens? Inversely I was defining ‘India’ through a largely north Indian upper-caste Hindu identity, which excluded most of the population of the sub-continent anyway. I stopped myself and instead tried to explain that this nun chai was specifically Kashmiri and that it wasn’t drunk in India. I think she began to understand.

Jay imagined the journey of her sweater – the wool travelling from Kashmir to Scotland where it was crafted into a piece of clothing whose label now reads: 100% Cashmere wool. Made in Scotland. The multiplicity of Agha Shahid Ali’s words came to mind: Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Casmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?

Jay put the left over milky tea leaves from the nun chai on the soil outside her back door, “Just in case it grows into something.”


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