The twenty-third cup of nun chai


Kate was an old friend who had come to visit after a long time. I showed her the website and tried to explain some of the things I had been up to since we last met three years ago. She asked about Kashmir. And then she asked if she could have a nun chai. I answered her questions and put the chai on the stove.

She saw the leaves of the nun chai when they were dry. She smelt them. She asked what I would do when the leaves ran out. I wasn’t actually sure, the post was a bit of a worry in Kashmir, especially with the curfews. Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office, a collection of poems written when the conflict broke out in the early 1990’s came to mind:

Fire runs in waves. Should I cross that river?
Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver
parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?                                                                                                                                     Only silence can now trace my letters                                                                                                                                                             to him. Or in a dead office the dark pains.

We spoke while the tea simmered, while it turned red and then pink with the milk, and then we sat down to the twenty-third cup of nun chai.

We looked over some photos I had taken in Kashmir. Kate saw the landscape, the green, the snow-capped mountains, the river in Sopore, she saw beautiful houses high up on the side of a mountain and she saw some of my friend’s faces.

I started speaking of Kashmir’s borders, but she wanted to know, why these people, mostly young boys, had been killed. We ran through a kind of crash course in the modern history of Kashmir, until we came to the summer of 2010.

Kate said she had known nothing of Kashmir before this conversation. We looked down at the beautiful photos in front of us, and Kate asked, hesitatingly, if I had seen any of the violence, any of this occupation.

I had seen the security forces, thousands and thousands of them. On street corners, on top of buildings, in their barracks, in trucks, tanks and cars, in orchids, under trees and by the rivers.

I had seen the smashed windows of a home. And broken mirrors inside a bedroom.

I had seen bullet holes in the walls outside.

I had seen kilometres and kilometres of concertina barbed wire.

I had seen stones fill the ground of an almost empty street.

I had seen a line of security forces block that street; brown uniformed men with plastic shields.

I had seen stones thrown.

I had seen the shops close their shutters and the people clear the street.

I had seen unmarked graves. I had walked over them.

But I had not seen much in relation to what was actually taking place. Kate looked back at the photos and said she had known nothing of Kashmir before this conversation.


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