The forty-fifth cup of nun chai


The night before I met with Cath, I read a work in progress by Gowhar Fazili titled Grieving as a Medium. It was a text that very sensitively considered the articulation of grief in contemporary Kashmir through the pain and sense of loss expressed by two mothers whose young sons had died in 2010.

Cath is my Aunt. As we spoke, her 5 month old baby, my little cousin Theo, slept soundly in the other room.

Despite the heat of Sydney’s Summer I asked Cath to imagine having the salty tea on a cool Himalayan mountain. She asked if this was where I first tasted nun chai myself. My first cup of nun chai was actually in the late April heat of Delhi in 2008. While at first the flavour surprised me, by the end of the cup I had asked my friend for a second. I eventually visited Kashmir in mid-2009 and returned to Delhi carrying a big bag of tea leaves from Sopore. I used to prepare nun chai during winters in Delhi. I tried so foten to persuade other friends to share it with me – but the saltiness was a bit too much for those usually accustomed to sweet sugary tea. But there is a man named Salim, who has a chai stall at Nizamuddin Dargah, who started requesting my nun chai each week. I would carry the tea to him in a thermos from my university hostel on Thursday nights. It was winter when I returned to Australia in mid-2010, and again I was making nun chai and sharing it with friends and family, and again I was speaking of Kashmir.

On a cold winter morning in Sydney, while reading through reports and newspaper articles online, I came to learn that the death toll in Kashmir had suddenly reached 69. Somehow I came to make sense, to make real that loss of life through nun chai. Those 69 people were gone and like them the cups of nun chai they would have drunk daily wouldn’t exist anymore in the valley of Kashmir. The tea wouldn’t need to be prepared. Their cups would not be filled. Instead they’d remain empty on the shelf. It is from this moment that the project took shape. As we held the cups of nun chai in our hands Cath and I rested with this thought for a moment.

She asked when the most recent killings had taken place – if it was still happening now. I tried to put the Summer in context by explaining what had come before and all that was still continuing. Cath said she remembered hearing about Kashmir in the news in the early 1990’s. She had just completed high school at this time, and although the media tried to present an “objective” view Cath remembered reports about the Indian state’s brutality towards the civilian population in Kashmir. But she had never been clear about what lay behind it all.

Cath asked more questions about Kashmir and we spoke further of its history and how this history has shaped the present. In the next room baby Theo woke from his sleep and begun crying. Cath brought him out, and said perhaps he could also take part in the work. As I looked at Theo in his mother’s arms began to speak about Gowhar’s essay Grieving as a Medium.

Gowhar’s piece explored the relationship between the private and public and the personal and political nature of grief in Kashmir through the stories of two mourning mothers. In their expression of grief both mother’s had placed huge emphasis on the character of their respective sons; describing their individual physique, personality, demeanour, idiosyncrasies and role in the wider community in the minutest of details. As Gowhar writes:

I had not expected her to talk about her dead son so easily. She began instantaneously to describe her son’s nature and personality, while at the same time she tried to place before us the exact circumstances that preceded his departure on the day of his final outing.

As I spoke of the death of a twelve year old boy, shot by Indian security forces this past Summer, my grandmother, shocked at the idea of a man shooting a boy – piped up from the other room. The conversation continued for sometime between myself, my Grandmother and my Aunt with baby Theo sitting in her arms. In this little room in Sydney our voices merged with the stories of women’s loss that were voiced in Gowhar’s piece.


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