The twenty-ninth cup of nun chai

29.12.10

It was almost three years ago when I sat with Tanya in New Delhi, at the home of Inder Salim, where we had our first taste of nun chai. And today in an outer Sydney suburb Tanya would have nun chai for the second time.

She had often thought of that warm salty tea from Inder’s home and tried to describe its unique flavour to others. I wanted to recall what Tanya and I had understood of Kashmir that day in Delhi almost three years ago. Tanya was clear that she knew of Kashmir as a place engulfed by conflict and war before she knew it was a place that was also characterised by an out of this world beauty. I felt the order of that understanding said something about our generation. For my parents generation Kashmir was always first and foremost a place of beauty – an idyllic and romantic tourist destination – and the conflict came second.

It is hard to know precisely where and how I began to encounter Kashmir and its stories. It was gradual, though there are definitely significant moments. The writing of Arundhati Roy would have been first. My friendship with Inder. In 2008 I met Yasin Malik, Chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, at a film screening and discussion related to a peaceful march he had embarked upon in Kashmir in 2007 called Safar-i-Azadi (Journey to Freedom). Outside the venue a right wing Kashmiri Pandit organisation was handing out photocopied pieces of paper declaring Malik a rapist and a terrorist. They repeat this at all pro-azadi related events in New Delhi.  I also came to learn of Kashmir through the legal case of the 13 December attack on the Indian Parliament. That day I was briefly introduced to SAR Geelani, a Delhi University Professor who was falsely convicted and then later acquitted of any involvement in the attack. But it wasn’t until I actually visited Kashmir, when I saw the broken windows, walked through what felt like endless unmarked graves, when people shared their stories with me over cups of nun chai that Kashmir went deeper.

In relation to the 13th December attack on the Indian Parliament, I tried to explain to Tanya the farcical media trial that influenced the Supreme Court’s final decision to sentence Afzal Guru to death, on circumstantial evidence alone, so that, as the judgement stated, “the collective conscience of the (Indian) society will be satisfied.” Almost ten years later Afzal Guru sits in a prison cell while his life hangs on a whim. I have a friend from north Kashmir whose voice is always changes when he speaks of Afzal Guru. He tells me that if Afzal is eventually executed Kashmir will go up in flames.

We spoke more of the very recent sentencing of the public health specialist and human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen. He has been sent to prison for life after being convicted of sedition only days ago. There are similar charges against writers and public intellectuals like Arundhati Roy. Kashmir university lecturer Noor Mohammad Bhat has also been arrested for politicising exam papers and inciting “anti-establishment” sentiment.

Tanya asked when I was last in Kashmir. I spoke of the day I left the valley and the day a 17 year old boy named Tufail Ashraf Mattoo was killed when a tear gas canister fired by the Indian state collided with his head. His death was followed by more than 110 Kashmiri civilians in almost as many days. A newspaper report recently stated that Tufail’s family were being taunted by security forces who told them to keep quiet and accept the state’s compensation. Tufail’s father said there was no price for his son’s life. Newspaper reports said they were now hoping to seek asylum elsewhere.

Tanya asked if it was common for more than a hundred people to die like this in Kashmir. The events of the past Summer are part of a much larger continuum of conflict that has seen more than 70,000 dead in the last two decades and more than 60 years of life under foreign occupation. But this past summer is significant; somehow the power dynamics have shifted a little, things have been shaken.

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