The fifty-third cup of nun chai


I was meeting Beatrice at the airport in Brussels but I had no idea how in the world I would prepare the nun chai after more than 24 hours of travel from Australia. I decided it would have to happen symbolically. I would give Beatrice the dry tea leaves and explain its preparation. But as I walked into the arrivals hall Beatrice was there carrying a small silver thermos filled with warm nun chai.

Beatrice is a performance artist who I first met in Jharkhand in early 2010 on an artist residency we were both a part of. Some months ago she emailed me about participating in this work, and it was only by a strange stroke of luck that we were able to eventually meet in person.

The day before I met Beatrice at the airport she had busied herself searching the internet for nun chai recipes, and the silver thermos she held in her hand contained the first nun chai she had ever made. We sat together with a small table between us on a train that was carrying us from the airport to the centre of the city. Beatrice poured the tea. But before we tasted it, she looked at me and said, Well, here’s to Kashmir.

Imagine. A lady in Europe searches the internet to learn how to make nun chai. She prepares it carefully, keeping in mind the special meaning of these cups of tea. She carries it in a small silver thermos to keep it warm. She also carries two cups. She travels to the airport to meet a girl she met briefly over a year ago in eastern India, whose work she deems important. As the city of Brussels passes by outside the train, they speak extensively of Kashmir over cups of what is almost-Kashmiri-nun-chai. I was amazed at the potential for compassion that exists in us; especially in Beatrice.

As we spoke about the lives that were lost in the summer of 2010 and the larger historical context of Kashmir, Beatrice’s own experiences in Jharkhand, a region at the heart of India’s Naxal belt, came to the fore, along with the French/Flemish conflict of the political scene in Belgium. After elections in mid-2010 literally split the country in two Belgium now holds the world’s longest record for time elapsed without an official government. Beatrice said it was a complicated set of politics. She seemed emotionally affected, but at the same time a little disinterested. Sometimes politics wear us down. I knew people with a similar attitude in Kashmir. It was not that one did not care, but that the political games were endless and people started looking for alternative paths.

The modern process of nation making has produced a deep and complex politics of language and identity in the world today. Yet all too often we forget how recent state structures are. In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott points out that until very recently self-governing peoples were the great majority of humankind.

As I spoke to people in Europe I was told about the formation of Slovenia as an independent state in the early 1990s. Someone else told me about the Basque country, a region that spans the border between France and Spain that was seeking independence too. Another person spoke of the discontent within what is now an independent Czech republic. I came to learn that Europe is not as stable as those from outside perceive it to be.

Beatrice wondered if the green tea she had used was the right kind. She was disappointed it wasn’t from Kashmir, but before saying farewell I gave her a small yellow envelope full of dry tea leaves from Sopore.


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