Nine short months after sharing the tenth cup of nun chai with my grandmother, she passed away in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones. I remember our conversation well. I remember the support and sensitivity she brought to the early stages of this work. I remember the way she tried to understand in her own special way.
Now I was sitting in her home with my cousins, Graham and Matthew, and our grandmother was no longer there. 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 cast, while her left hand gently holds her cup of tea above a pale green napkin. The image speaks of the fragility of old age, which contrasted starkly with the quiet strength of her life. My grandmother’s absence—embodied in her house, this photograph, and the words that documented our conversation—connected our loss today with the many losses that ran through Kashmir in the summer of 2010. Yet my grandmother died a natural death, more or less of old age. Those who died in Kashmir last year died a death that was simply too young.
When things are difficult, it is often easier to speak indirectly. The chapatti helped Matthew ease into the flavour of the tea, and in turn our conversation. He spoke in amazement at the simplicity of bread; how it began as just flour and water, was lightly kneaded and rolled, and then cooked. Graham—who previously worked as a chef—spoke knowingly 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—a young man growing up in urban Australia—bread came from the aisle of a supermarket that had ceilings filled with the hum of fluorescent lights and self-service checkouts. “I doubt any of the students I teach geography to understand how bread is actually produced, or where flour comes from.” Matthew went on, “I suppose, in that sense, they would know very little of Kashmir too.”
Graham found the tea too milky for his liking. He wanted to know about kehwa and saffron. I didn’t mention it at the time, but his questions brought to mind a saffron field I once passed on the southern outskirts of Srinagar. As we passed, someone in the car pointed and described a notorious ikwani (pro-government militia) who had killed tens of people in that saffron field. The place passed us in a flash, though its history lingered.
If you listen, every street corner in Kashmir seems to have a story to tell about the occupation and the struggle for azadi. In Captive City sociologist Wasim Bhat writes of the psychology of the war in Kashmir, a war whose continuous curfews have forced milkmen to make their deliveries at midnight. He writes:
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.