The forty-first cup of nun chai

20.02.11

I looked up and realised that Amity and I were surrounded by a tree that seemed to be identical to the famous Chinar trees of Kashmir. Most of the leaves were green, though some had begun to colour, falling occasionally to the ground as we spoke. Looking up at the canopy shading us from the Summer heat of Sydney, for a moment I could see Kashmir.

This was the forty-first cup of nun chai. Amity asked how far the project would go and where it would end? It all began when I left the valley in June last year. Tufail died and the following tragedy of those summer months unfolded. I couldn’t really say where it would finish. That will depend on the speed at which I am able to have these cups of nun chai and the way the situation unfolds in Kashmir.

We spoke briefly of Kashmir’s history. Amity asked how my friends in the region had been affected during the past Summer. For many the violence was outside their front door. Brutality was in their face. Curfews were continuous. The curfew meant the markets were closed and people lost access to even the most basic supplies. For months no one could leave their home for work or school. People lost their income. The postal service was disrupted. Phone connections and the internet were intermittently cut, when ever the state deemed it necessary. Hospitals were full and under staffed. Reports circulated that Indian security forces had actually raided some hospitals. As the extent of the occupation emerged, Amity sighed. She said she had been so naïve when she visited the region, some years ago.

In 2005 Amity and her friend had visited India, and after being told about the must-see-beauty of Kashmir they had decided to go to Srinagar. I asked Amity what her impressions of the place had been. She said they caught a plane to the Summer capital – and immediately after landing they had been overwhelmed by the presence of the military. There were a lot of guns, but no one had really explained why. Amity and her friend stayed in a house boat on Dal Lake towards the end of winter. She said it was beautiful, but she knew the landscape would only come into full bloom once Summer arrived. Amity didn’t recall an official curfew at that time, but the houseboat owners had told them to be home before dark. She said the streets were desolate apart from a lot of men in uniforms with guns. They didn’t see any other foreigners on their trip. In the late winter cold a tension hung in the air. There was hostility. But she remembers being given a basket of hot coals, a kanger, while sitting in a shikara on the Dal Lake. That must have been beautiful.

While being told about the beauty of Kashmir, while booking a plane ticket to Srinagar, while staying on the Dal Lake, while moving through the city’s streets, visiting Gulmarg and then returning to North India, it interesting that no one had properly discussed or moved towards explaining the situation in Kashmir to Amity or her friend. There was a significant and gaping silence.

Amity told me about an experience that summed up a lot of the uneasiness that underlay her travels within the subcontinent. She was at Gulmarg, in the snow, sitting on a sled while another man pulled her up the hill. The idea of another person pulling her own body’s weight made Amity feel uncomfortable – so she tried to reverse the dynamics by offering to pull the man up the hill instead. But she said this only confused things more. Amity’s experience reminded me of a scene from Sanjay Kak’s documentary film Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), only in this film the tourists don’t get off the sled to help. This particular sequence in Kak’s film juxtaposes three scenes; the dead body of a young boy held by his mother while cries for azadi (freedom) echo in the background; Indian tourists sitting on the back of a sled in the snow pulled up hill by an elderly Kashmiri man in a pheran; and the rich rolling green colour of a newly developed golf course. The narration states: As an enforced normality is dressed up as triumph, economic opportunism arrives – disguised as peace. Perhaps it was this “economic opportunism” that fuelled the silence surrounding Amity’s trip to Kashmir in 2005.

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