The twenty-third cup of nun chai


Kate saw the leaves of nun chai when they were dry. She smelt them and asked, “What will you do when you run out of tea?” I wasn’t actually sure. People say the post is unreliable in Kashmir. Reliably unreliable, like most of the state apparatus. During the violence of the early 1990s, the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote an influential collection of poetry on his homeland, aptly titled The Country Without a Post Office:

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.

Kate and I spoke while the tea simmered. We watched it turn a rusty red colour. Then pink as it mixed with milk. Finally we sat down to the twenty-third cup of nun chai.

We looked at photos I had taken in Kashmir. Kate saw the landscape, the green, the snow-capped mountains. She saw 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 about 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. “I knew nothing about Kashmir before this conversation.” We gazed at the photos of a seemingly beautiful place that lay before us, and Kate hesitatingly asked, “Have you actually seen any of the violence? Did you see the occupation?”

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

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

I had seen bullet holes in the walls outside.

I had seen kilometres and 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 flying through the air.

I had seen the shops close their shutters and the people clear the street. I heard gun shots and tear gas explode.

I had seen anonymous mass graves. I had walked over them.

But I had really only glimpsed what was actually taking place. Kate looked at the photos again, “I really knew nothing about Kashmir before this.”


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