The fifty-seventh and fifty-eighth cups of nun chai

18.07.11

I remember speaking with my grandmother as she watched the nun chai simmer away and slowly turn a rusty red colour in a small pot on her stove. I shared the tenth cup of nun chai with her last October and my grandmother’s support and ability to sensitively understand and contribute to this work, in her own way, was special – particularly at that early stage.

Nine short months after our cup of nun chai, my grandmother passed away in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones.

The following day I sat with my cousins, Graham and Matthew, in our grandmother’s home. A printed copy of the photograph and story of our grandmother’s nun chai lay on the table between us. In the photo her right arm is broken and wrapped in a caste, while her left hand gently holds her cup of tea above a pale green napkin. Captured on that piece of paper, in image and text, my Grandmother’s story connected our loss and the many losses that ran through Kashmir last Summer.

Wherever it takes place in the world, death unceasingly confounds life. I don’t believe in creating hierarchies of pain or loss or grief, though differences do exist. My grandmother died a natural death, more or less of old age. Those who died in Kashmir last year died a death that was young.

Though sometimes it is easier to speak of things indirectly and the chapatti helped Matthew ease into the flavour of the tea and our conversation. He was amazed at the simplicity of the bread; how it began as just flour and water, was lightly kneaded and rolled and then cooked. Graham – who previously worked as a chef – began to speak of different breads, staple food types and the process of producing flour from grain. My grandmother would have known this well, as do many people in Kashmir. But for Matthew bread came from the aisle of a supermarket that had ceilings filled with the hum of fluorescent lights and self-service checkouts.

Matthew spoke in an abstract way about the processes of modernity and globalisation. He said he doubted if any of the high school students he taught geography to had any idea of what bread was really made from or how flour was produced. I wondered what his students might know of Kashmir and if Matthew might someday tell them about bread and about Kashmir.

Our conversation stayed with food and with Kashmir and with curfews and strikes. The nun chai was a little too milky for Graham. In an engrossing piece of writing titled Captive City, sociologist Wasim Bhat, writes of how the continuous curfews have forced milkmen in Kashmir to make their deliveries at twelve at night. I spoke of kehwa as an alternative tea without milk and Graham asked about saffron.

I didn’t mention it at the time – sometimes the moment isn’t right – but I was reminded of a saffron field that I once drove past on the southern outskirts of Srinagar. From inside the car someone pointed and told me about a notorious ikwani (pro-government militia) who had killed tens of people on that saffron field. The place passed by in a flash, though the moment and its image lingers in my mind. It is a story that is at once haunting and hazy.

In Captive City Wasim Bhat evokes the psychology of a world in which milkmen are forced to make their deliveries at night:

How many gun barrels stare at us? Enough to keep us anxious and edgy, always looking over our shoulders. We are the children of a war that has no scruples. The war that moves in the billion synapses of our brain, releasing chemicals that make us anxious and wary, tiring us and making us old. Catching us unaware, it has captured the rhythms of our being.

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