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


I began brewing the nun chai on the stove when John was in the kitchen. While the tea simmered and slowly turned red we discussed in detail how this work came about. He was thinking deeply about what these cups of nun chai meant, but he wanted to wait till we were actually drinking the tea to begin the discussion properly.

Sometime later John, Carli and I sat together with the nun chai. John had put on a heavy turquoise necklace to acknowledge the occasion in his own way. Carli asked what made the tea so pink. We spoke about the bi-carb soda and John had a lot to say about its benefits as an alkaline, particularly in terms of preventing cancer. Earlier Carli mentioned that John was born in India, so I asked him about that.

As if pulled from the pages of a novel John described his first few months of life inside his mother’s womb in Shimla and then to his birth in the modern hospitals of Calcutta. He showed me a birthmark that resembled a ragged, over grown, empty piercing on his left earlobe. He said it came from a painting of a Tibetan couple his mother had commissioned while he was in her womb, but somehow the artist had forgotten to paint their jewellery – and so this birth mark had appeared on his ear. John told me how his family moved from Shimla to Karachi and the period of his life as a boy 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 to dance for and entertain his father’s guests. During Partition this tailor had decided to go to Pakistan and left their locality. One day John’s father said their tailor had been killed on his way to Pakistan – his throat slit. After the tailor died John remembers being made to dance in that costume. He danced the hardest he had ever danced in his life; rage and anger exploding into the force of each movement.

I asked if John knew, as a boy, who he was angry at. John said it was the people who killed his tailor – Hindu or Muslim he didn’t care or know. He was simply angry at the injustice of it all. For John, injustice lies at the heart of most experiences of anger and frustration. Whether it is a child in a school being wrongly accused of stealing a pen or someone’s premature death – like those in Kashmir – this sense of injustice, John thought, lies at the root of anger.

The relationship between injustice and anger led us to the act of stone throwing in Kashmir. Carli raised her arm back as if throwing a stone and she imagined the release of anger one might feel while throwing a stone at a soldier in Kashmir.

As we spoke about last Summer, Carli asked how I first went to Kashmir and John wanted to know what it was about Kashmir that captured me. I wasn’t entirely sure, but one thing did come to mind. In so many respects Kashmir embodies a childhood fantasy that still lies deep in my heart. It is a fairy tale landscape filled with the warmth of people’s homes and chickens running at your front door and green trees in summer and snow in winter, fresh clean water running down the mountain and comfortable clothes and scrumptious food. But it is a fairy tale landscape 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.

“Unnatural” and “absurd” were words John used to describe the Partition of South Asia, and from here we touched upon the modern history of Kashmir. John spoke of the bifurcation of the subcontinent into what were apparently Islamic and Secular parts. With the events of the Summer of 2010 in mind Carli wondered what Gandhi would say, what he might mean today. We spoke about the complexities of his life – Gandhi the politician and his approach to caste, celibacy and modernity. But it was Gandhi’s haunting remark, that Kashmir would prove to be the true test of India’s secularism, which brought things full circle.


share on tumblrrss feed