The eighty-eighth and eighty-ninth cups of nun chai

03.06.12

Malika, Theo and I sat outside over looking steep, close, tall mountains that hid behind a low hanging veil of dust clouds. The nun chai I prepared reminded Theo of the Tibetan tea consumed locally by the Bhotia traders of Munsiyari.

Malika asked me to talk a little more about those who died in Kashmir in 2010. I did not know these people and I cannot speak of them as individuals. But I did speak of the situation that surrounded their death, how I personally came into contact with this world and how this has lead to the three of us sitting on the edge of a mountain with three cups of nun chai.

In 1988, only a year before Kashmir rose in arms against India’s occupation, Malika and Theo had visited Kashmir on a motorbike. Malika said things had felt peaceful at that time, and beautiful. Theo recalled the heavy presence of military checkpoints within the valley, something he said felt more intense than the usual border regions of North India.

From where we sit today, after more than two decades of violence and more than 70,000 dead, it is haunting to think of this Kashmir in 1988. It is a Kashmir unbeknownst of its future, sitting on the cusp of something now so irrevocable, yet still so inconceivable.

Malika had a Punjabi friend whose family had settled in Srinagar. They had been forced to leave their home when the violence began, and eventually lost it all with the death of their Kashmiri friend who was taking care of their home in their absence. Despite loosing their family home Malika’s Punjabi friend believed there had been a need for political change in Kashmir at that time.

We spoke of the Pandits and the complexity of Kashmir’s recent history. I have an older friend who describes his youth as being characterised by a real sense of fluidity between the Muslim and the Pandit communities of the valley – though this, he often laments, is now all but lost. In early 2010 I had travelled with a Pandit friend to his village, after what had been for him a twenty year absence. As we walked over the burnt posts of where his home once stood he spoke to me in great detail about leaving this place, and the persistent dream to return. Today, that man is quietly settling into life in this village and back into the home where he hopes to spend the rest of his days. If one looks around, amidst all the grime of life, there are many such quiet glimmers of hope.

Malika said remembering was important. Both she and Theo were from minority communities, something Malika became acutely conscious of in 1984 in Delhi during the riotous persecution of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. For three days Malika, her mother and her father did not know whether they would live or die. They sat it out in their home on the north eastern outskirts of Delhi, and waited. They survived, Delhi soon returned to normal. With its city streets so quickly functioning at full speed despite the carnage, Malika described a disjuncture in what she felt and the rhythm of the city that surrounded her. She came to realise that things like this happen so often, in so many places and life simply goes on.

On the twentieth anniversary of 1984 someone had strung a sign up across the ITO in Delhi that simply said, We Remember. Malika said it felt good to know that someone else had bothered to remember – someone other than herself and someone who was not Sikh. Although it was an incredibly small gesture, she said these cups of nun chai moved in the same direction as that sign.

I looked around at the landscape that surrounded us. It had reminded me all day of Kashmir. Though the mountains felt bigger and the architecture was slightly different I felt sad to realise that the absence of men in uniform holding guns in the forest was the most striking difference.

Our conversation felt slow, though rich and filled with periods of silence that functioned like still moments in a memorial that didn’t necessitate words to think.

Night soon fell, the mountain wind became cold and we moved inside.

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