“I don’t really know how to begin. Or what to say.” Victoria was searching for a ‘proper’ way to approach this cup of nun chai, “I really don’t know much about Kashmir.” The nun chai reminded her of seawater. She found it difficult to drink, but by the end of our conversation, without either of us realising, her cup of nun chai was empty.
“Do people drink this chai all over India?” Although nun chai was distinct to Kashmir, I had my first cup of in early 2008 at my Kashmiri Pandit friend Inder Salim’s home in New Delhi. In the early 1990’s many Hindus fled the valley when violence broke out. Almost immediately Victoria and I encountered one of the most complicated and contested moments in Kashmir’s recent history. The exodus of the Pandit community is a moment shaped by and continually shaping the politicisation of religious identities in the region.
Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity have all had a significant presence in Kashmir over time: from the earliest animist beliefs, the fourth Buddhist councils, the Brahmin revival and rise of Kashmiri Shaivism, through to the arrival of Islam, the formation of a unique kind of Kashmiri Sufism and even the rumour that Jesus himself spent time in the valley. “Are there Catholics in Kashmir, and India?” Victoria asked. Buddhism and Hinduism are among the oldest religions found in the sub-continent. Partly because of the caste system that gives Hinduism its structure, there is a tendency for low-caste Hindus to convert to alternative religions in search of equality, whether that be Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. However, in much of South Asia today caste is still very pervasive. So much so that it is common for a Christian convert to be referred to not as a Christian but as a Dalit (untouchable) Christian, even if that conversion happened generations ago.
“I’ve only really heard of Kashmir as a tourist destination. Isn’t there a lake with beautiful houseboats somewhere.” Victoria was speaking about Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. The violence of the 1990’s saw a dramatic decline in tourism, which severely affected the industry. With violence waning in recent years, tourism has gradually started returning, with visitors from India and other countries travelling to iconic tourist destinations like Srinagar and Gulmarg. But while some Kashmiris rely on tourism for a livelihood, the Indian state also needs Kashmir’s tourism to appear picturesque in order to project a state of ‘normalcy’ in the region they militarily occupy.
“Is the drug trade in places like Afghanistan finding its way into Kashmir?” Victoria worried it might be affecting young people trying to cope with the violence. I didn’t know much about this, but I was reminded of the empty alcohol bottles that hang over the barbed wire fencing that surround many of India’s military cantonments in the valley. Those empty alcohol bottles, which rattle when the fences move, paint a haunting picture of a drunken military.