The nun chai reminded Victoria of seawater. She found it difficult to drink at first, but by the end of our conversation, without either of us really realising, her cup of nun chai was empty.
Thinking of Kashmir over the tea – Victoria said she didn’t know where to begin or what to say. It seemed she was searching for a ‘proper’ way to approach this. We sat chatting of other things for some time until, without either of us really realising, Kashmir came to the fore.
Victoria asked if nun chai was consumed across all of India. While I told her it was common only in Kashmir, I spoke of my first cup of nun chai in early 2008 at my friend Inder Salim’s home in New Delhi. In speaking of this, I had to explain how a Kashmiri Pandit came to live in New Delhi and not in Kashmir. As we spoke of the exodus of the Pandits in the early 1990’s we were confronted immediately with one of the most complicated aspects of the conflict in Kashmir; the politicisation of religious identities.
Victoria asked if there were Catholics in India and Kashmir. We began speaking of the caste system and how over time there has been a tendency for low-caste Hindus to convert to alternative religions in search for equality, whether that be within Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. However, in India today, caste identities still linger – so that a Christian convert becomes known not as a “Christian” but as a “Dalit (untouchable) Christian”.
We spoke of the way that Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity have all had a significant presence in Kashmir over time; from Kashmiri Shaivism, to the early Buddhist councils, through to the arrival of Islam, the emergence of a unique kind of Kashmiri Sufism and even the rumour that Jesus himself spent time in the valley.
Victoria recalled how she knew of Kashmir as a popular tourist destination, before the conflict began. She spoke of a famous lake she had heard of, with beautiful houseboats; it was Dal Lake in the summer capital of Srinagar. We spoke of the impact of the conflict on Kashmir’s tourism industry and how the loss of tourism drastically affected some peoples’ means of income. With the decline of violence in recent years tourism has gradually and nominally returned. Today visitors from India and abroad frequent popular destinations like Srinagar and Gulmarg. But while some Kashmiri’s rely on tourism for their income, India also requires Kashmir’s tourism industry to function smoothly as a means of projecting a state of ‘normalcy’ under the abnormal conditions that exist in the most densely militarised region of the world.
Victoria thought of the drug trade in Afghanistan and she asked me if this filtered into Kashmiri society, if it affected young people coping with the conflict. I didn’t know enough about this, but I was reminded of all the empty alcohol bottles I had seen hanging over the barbed wire fencing that surround India’s military cantonments in the valley. The empty alcohol bottles rattled when the fence moved, but they also paint a haunting picture of a drunken military.