Julia and I spent a long time talking of the idiosyncratic ways different families prepare nun chai. Some people make nun chai creamy with extra milk and butter. Others prefer less salt. Some people simmer it with phull (Kashmiri for bi-carb soda). Some refuse to use phull for fear it causes stomach pains, while others claim it is a cure.
“Did you carry this salt back from Kashmir?” Julia asked.
“No. The tea leaves were bought from an elderly man in Sopore in the north of Kashmir, who carefully wrapped the phull in a small piece of used newspaper that I still have. But the salt is from my kitchen cupboard in Sydney.”
Julia is an artist and last year she made a series of sculptures out of rock salt from the Himalayas. “I still carry the salty residue from those sculptures in my lungs. The flavour of this tea reminds me of that time.”
We paused to drink.
“This work demands that we slow down. Drinking tea is a way of stopping. In most cities we don’t do this enough.” Julia had recently visited a small town in Western Australia, “Only two hundred people live there and they have five churches of five different denominations. I spent a lot of time drinking tea and talking in people’s homes. I’m curious, does the flavour of nun chai take you back to Kashmir?”
Over tea, local histories and everyday politics play out with the ease of a radio broadcast. It’s through tea and conversation, not newspapers or books, that I learnt most about Kashmir.
Surprisingly it was on the eastern outskirts of Delhi, not Kashmir, that I first tasted nun chai. I was in the home of my friend Inder Salim, who had migrated from his home, a large village named Yejbeor in Islamabad district in the south of the valley to Jammu and from there to Delhi in the early 1990s. The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley is a complicated, charged and blurry moment of Kashmir’s recent history. Inder is best known as a performance artist. He is the kind of person who enjoys talking about things others shy from. He’s made art out of shit and often employs his own naked body in performance pieces. But knowing him personally and speaking with him privately I saw the grave seriousness that befalls his whole being when he recalls leaving the valley.
Today, many right-wing Kashmiri Pandits are using their own pain to justify the pain of others and ignite communal tensions. Inder has channelled his personal experiences into something else. His very name, incorporating both Hindu and Muslim traits, is itself part of a long running performance piece that emerged gradually, as a pen name, in the mid-1980s, in an attempt to move away from an identity that was marked by religion; ‘Salim’ is a recognisably Muslim name, and ‘Inder’ is Hindu. Much of Inder’s work today deals in productive ways with social injustice and communal violence in both Kashmir and certain places in India like Gujarat.
And so it was with Inder that I had my first taste of nun chai, and I liked it. But it was another year until I would taste it again.
Julia asked about the fighting in Kashmir, but at that moment, in 2010, ‘fighting’ was not really the right word; people were struggling against a hegemonic military occupation. There had been an armed struggle for almost two decades, which had subsided and people developed all sorts of different ways to resist the full military power of the Indian state. They were protesting on the streets, throwing stones, becoming journalists, composing songs, making theatre productions, writing short fictions and articulating their own histories in their own words. People started expressing everyday life on social networking sites. But the government response was more repression. People were killed and imprisoned. Many warned that if the state ignored the demands and sentiments expressed so fervently via words, songs, stones and protests in 2010, armed resistance would be revived.
“One of the most powerful photos I have ever seen is from Palestine.” Julia described an image of a Palestinian child throwing stones at an Israeli tank. “But in the background you can see this boy’s mother bringing him lunch. The photo never left me. It made me rethink the whole situation of their lives. I know it’s terrible, but I just can’t imagine an end to it all. Maybe we need to think about lots of possible endings.”
I thought of lots of different beginnings.