The thirty-fifth cup of nun chai

18.01.11

Meg had prepared a place for us to sit in her backyard, with incense burning to repel the mosquitoes.

She tasted the nun chai curiously, but after sitting in the thermos for some time it had become luke warm. I asked Meg what the nun chai reminded her of. She moved the tea through her mouth. Tasting. Absorbing. Thinking. She said it reminded her of something human, something bodily, tear drops perhaps. Salty.

Tear drops in Kashmir? Tear drops from Kashmir? Tear drops for Kashmir? The past summer ran through my mind.

But then Meg said no. No it was actually more like a mother’s breast milk. Not tears, but breast milk at a nourishing bodily temperature. Nourishment in Kashmir. Nourishment from Kashmir. Nourishment for Kashmir.

Once I was served a cup of warm milk in a friend’s home in North Kashmir. This was because their mother had believed that two kinds of relations existed between people; one was a blood relation while the other formed when someone shared the same mother’s milk. We were served the warm milk so we could symbolically share the same milk. It was all about being closer.

Meg spoke of her two sisters who had recently given birth, and she told me about all the breast-feeding secrets one only learns after actually having a baby. I spoke of the ease at which a lady I knew in Kashmir fed her child from her breast in front of her family and friends. It was beautiful that no one looked twice as she pulled her kurta up and over to one side, putting the baby’s mouth comfortably on the end of her breast.

Meg asked how big Kashmir was. I tried to piece together the fragments that Kashmir had become across the orange tablecloth that sat between us. We spoke about the conflict’s history through geography.  We spoke about the past Summer and the cups of nun chai. Meg asked if I had known all about Kashmir before going there and she wanted to know what it was that had struck me about the place so much.

I remembered my first or second day in the valley. We had driven for sometime – across an expansive river, over a few hills and onto the peak of a gentle mountain. Rolling mounds, smooth grass, worn but clean dirt tracks were shadowed by trees that gently filtered the sun. A collection of A frame homes with open doors and chickens running loosely between them. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.

We entered a home. They served us chai. The social workers began to ask a series of questions about the conflict related death of a family member. After a short time an older woman entered the room. She looked at us through broken eyes. She began to wail and her pain was almost like a song:

Oh my son where have you gone? Why did you leave me? I am still here. I am still here. Why did you have to go?

She became quite loud. Behind her a quiet young girl had tears welling up in her eyes. Some other senior family members tried to calm the older lady.

Though her pain was fresh, I was told later that her son had died fifteen years back. Fifteen years and the enduring nourishment of a mother continues; from milk to tears.

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