The tenth cup of nun chai


I reached my father’s mother’s home (literally matamaal in Kashmir) and began to prepare some nun chai on the stove.

A year before my grandmother had lost her husband, and I my grandfather. We went into the room where the computer that he used to work on lived and I began to show my grandmother the Cups of nun chai website. As I spoke of the 2010 summer in Kashmir, she listened intently and then asked, “What is really at the heart of it all?”

Maharaja Hari Singh. Self-determination. Democracy thwarted. An armed uprising. Military occupation. More than 70,000 dead. Our conversation was interrupted by the simmering nun chai in the kitchen. I added milk, a little salt and we continued to speak over the pot of nun chai as it boiled.

“What about poverty? How do people make an income with all this going on?” Government jobs provided security; teachers, policeman, doctors. I knew that private enterprise was strong in Sopore; my friend’s father had a plastic piping business and before that he sold sweets and before that it was fabric. But surprisingly Kashmir, commonly known as a land of apples and walnuts, is categorised as a food deficit state; apparently it consumes more than it produces. This is surprising because most of the homes I knew had abundant vegetable gardens. The Agricultural Department of Kashmir says this deficit is largely “because of mono-cropping and the predominance of small fragmented land holdings that minimize the scope of mechanization and other scientific practices”. In 1950 significant land reforms in Kashmir abolished feudal institutions and transferred land to ‘cultivating peasants’. I wonder what India would look like had the whole country undergone the same land reforms as those that took place in Kashmir? Kashmiris are proud of the contemporary legacy of those land reforms, yet it seems to sit at odds with the industrialised agricultural practices the government want to move towards.

The Agricultural Department of Kashmir fails to mention the impact of the military occupation on food growth. Today most orchards are dotted with uniformed men, holding their guns loosely and leering at those who pass. Perhaps their presence makes the fruit apprehensive, just as it does the people.

My Grandmother was piecing it all together, by a logic of her own, “Do tourists visit Kashmir?” The beauty and romance of Kashmir captures everyone from the Mughal emperor Jehangir to Bollywood. With the violence of the 1990’s most travellers stopped coming and locals who had worked in tourism for generations lost their livelihoods. In much of the world’s popular imagination Kashmir swings like a pendulum between apples and terrorists, between a heavenly fertile abode and a region full to the brim with violence. But this imagining overlooks the millions and trillions of other things – the lives and shapes and experiences that actually make up Kashmir each day.

“English isn’t really a very good name for the English language any more because it is spoken by so much of the world – not just the English. What language do they speak and teach with in Kashmir?” There is a beautiful linguistic diversity in Kashmir including Kashmiri, Pahari, Dogri, Ladakhi, Gojri and Punjabi, but it is at serious risk of being lost to the homogenising processes of modernity, colonisation and the political manipulation of language. Some of the old people I met in the mountains around Uri were truly multilingual and could speak many of these languages while also being fluent in Arabic and Persian. Yet often the younger more educated crowds I met in the capital of Srinagar had a hard time writing Kashmiri let alone understanding something like Gojri or Persian. Urdu is the official language of Jammu and Kashmir. Along with English it has become a class marker, tied to mobility and power, while the languages of the soil, their unique forms of expression and the world views they forge are often deemed ‘rustic’ and obsolete.

The nun chai was ready and we sat down together. My grandmother had a frail broken arm, so I tore her some bread to dip in the tea. She liked it. She sipped the nun chai with purpose and asked, “What time would it be right now in Kashmir?” It was around 10:30am. She really thought about this. She made a small personal connection to a distant place through time and tea. As she neared the end of her nun chai, my grandmother raised her cup and said in a fragile way, “Well, here’s to Kashmir.”

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