The thirty-third and thirty-fourth cups of nun chai

07.01.11

John watched me prepare the tea as it simmered and slowly turned red. He stood in the kitchen contemplating the purpose of our gathering, but didn’t say much at all. He wanted to wait until the tea was ready. John wanted to begin this memorial ‘properly’. He wore a heavy turquoise necklace to acknowledge the occasion that reminded me of Afghanistan. Soon we joined Carli in the living room with three cups of hot nun chai.

Carli mentioned that John was born in India, and, as if reading direct from the pages of a novel, he started to describe his early life. “It all started in Shimla, in my mother’s womb.” He spoke of those first few months and his birth in a ‘modern’ hospital in Calcutta as though he actually remembered it. “See this birthmark,” John pointed to something that resembled a ragged, over grown, empty piercing on his left earlobe. “My mother commissioned the portrait of a Tibetan couple just before I was born. But for some reason the artist forgot to paint their jewellery – and instead they say it found a way to appear in my ear.”

When John was a boy his family moved from Shimla to Karachi and he spoke nostalgically about life in British India before partition. John’s Russian mother had a special costume made for him by a local Muslim tailor, which John would wear when dancing for his father’s guests. During Partition this tailor decided to go to Pakistan and suddenly left their locality. One day John heard his father telling someone else their tailor had died on his way to Pakistan – his throat slit. After learning of the tailor’s death John remembers being made to dance in the costume the tailor made him. “I remember dancing, the rage and anger I felt almost exploding with every move.”

“Do you remember who you were angry at?” I asked John.

“It was simply the injustice of it. Hindu or Muslim, I didn’t care or know who killed him. I just knew he was gone. Injustice is a powerful thing. Whether it’s a child at school who has been wrongly accused of stealing a pen or someone’s premature death – like those in Kashmir – injustice usually lies at the heart of anger.” Injustice and anger brought our conversation to the act of stone throwing in Kashmir. Carli raised her arm back as if throwing a stone in the middle of the living room. She imagined the feeling of release it could bring. It seemed to present a moment of power in the face of immense powerlessness.

“How did you first end up in Kashmir?” asked Carli.

“Yes,” John continued, “What was it about the place that captured you? Why are you still talking about it now?” In one way Kashmir embodies a childhood fantasy that still pulsates with life. The mountains, the rivers, the wooden houses, are all akin to a fairy tale landscape filled with the warmth of people and chickens running at your front door. Green trees in summer and snow in winter. Fresh cold drinkable streams running down the mountain. Cosy clothes and scrumptious food. But it is a fairy tale that has been tragically betrayed, burnt and bloodied. That is something difficult to walk away from. Perhaps John was right – maybe it was the injustice of it all that held me there. Perhaps that is what keeps many people there, struggling with hope.

‘Unnatural’ and ‘absurd’ were words John used to describe the partition of South Asia. “What would Gandhi say about Kashmir today?” Carli ruminated, “What would he mean in Kashmir?” We spoke about the complexities, contradictions and compromises that gave shape to Gandhi’s life. There is much more to Gandhi than the image of non-violent civil disobedience the West hold. He was first and foremost a political strategist, with questionable beliefs in caste, gender and celibacy, and a politically motivated refusal of modernity. But it was Gandhi’s revelatory remark, that Kashmir would prove to be the true test of India’s secularism, which seemed most pertinent today.

 

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