The ninth cup of nun chai


We sat by the side of a small artificial lake in the Auburn Botanical Gardens. I poured the nun chai and began speaking of those who lost their lives in Kashmir in the summer of 2010. Jacqueline had seen the Kashmiri bread in the picture on the invitation card, so she’d bought something similar from a place called the Iraqi Kebab Association on her way to meet me. It was lighter and fluffier than the breads in Kashmir – but it soaked up the nun chai and tasted fantastic.

Jacqueline was reminded of a meal a distant aunt had prepared for her in Italy. Having grown up in Australia this was the first time Jacqueline had met her Italian aunt. But Jacqueline didn’t speak much Italian and her aunt didn’t speak much English. Their conversation was limited but the warmth of family made up for the lack of talk. Not knowing that Jacqueline was a vegetarian her aunt had lovingly prepared a meal of veal and potatoes. Vegetarian Jacqueline still remembers it as one of the most beautiful meals of her life.

I explained to Jacqueline that I first visited Kashmir as an intern with an NGO working in human rights and education. For days we travelled from one home to another, documenting human rights violations and deaths in Kashmir over the last 20 years. We met with families who had lost those they loved. We gathered information on a piece of paper. And we wrote about:

Who had died.
When they died.
How they died.
What age they were when they died.
Their monthly income before they died.
If they had been married before they died.
And how many children were left behind after they died.

Inside one home we were given tea with cookies and cake, while an elderly mother wailed for her dead son. Fifteen years after his death her pain felt fresh.

Often it seems that everyone in Kashmir has lost someone.

Jacqueline and I spoke of bi-carb soda’s role in the preparation of nun chai. I explained how it helped to turn the tea red, but that each family had their own specific ways of putting it to use. Some claim it heals the stomach while the salt soothes the throat. Others believe it actually damages the stomach and make nun chai without soda. Jacqueline was interested in the experiences that lay behind these suggestions. She started imagining peoples’ stories and how they shaped their nun chai habits: My father used to have…(something or other)…so he always had his nun chai with…(this or that).

Jacqueline was interested in bi-carb soda’s ability to change things. It changed the colour of tea, it made some things fizz and bubble, it made others rise and it cleaned things. Bi-carb soda, or phull as it is called in Kashmir, provided a metaphor that resonated well with the situation in Kashmir today. Phull is central to every kitchen in Kashmir; it is a fine white powder that has the capacity to make things rise.



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