The eighty-second cup of nun chai

01.05.12

Varsha and I sat in an older local café in Bangkok. Earlier I had been preparing the nun chai on a gas burner at a small food stall down one of Bangkok’s busy lanes. It was a slightly odd request, but unlike the hotel’s administrative staff, the street side vendors were happy, and I suppose slightly curious, to accommodate me. When I poured the nun chai for Varsha, more than one hour after it had come off the gas it was still steaming hot.

Varsha placed a book on the table. Titled Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir it contained a series of photographs of Kashmiri women and their families. The images were black and white and must have been shot on 35mm film. There was the face of a lady, interspersed with text. Her eyes were full of stories. The shape of her mouth spoke of how war tore women. Her deep set  wrinkles were evocative of life under occupation. These were not easy pictures to look at. But Kashmir is not in any way easy. Varsha emphasised that women always bear the brunt of war.

As we tasted the nun chai Varsha spoke immediately of her memories of Kashmir. She had visited Kashmir once as a schoolgirl in the 1970’s. At that age she had not been aware of the political situation – though she imagined that since the time of Partition there must have been simmering tensions. She remembered snow, cold rosy cheeks and the slaughtering of sheep on the roadside.

She was also reminded of a Kashmiri trader who would come, each winter, to her home in Gujarat selling Kashmiri shawls and embroidered saris. He was the only Kashmiri trader in Gujarat at that time and he was always accompanied by his young son who Varsha remembers as an 8 or 9 year old boy. Last year she had been home during the winter, and after decades, happened to come across that same boy who was now a man carrying on his father’s trade. He called her ‘Baby’ just as he had done many years ago when she was a kid. Varsha had asked him how life was back home. It was less than one year after the Summer of 2010 and he simply shook his head and said, That is no way to live a life. These had been among his only words on the matter, and they had lingered in Varsha. That is no way to live a life.

Varsha commented on the personal component that is at the core of this work. But the personal is twofold, in the sense that it is not just my personal experience with Kashmir during the summer of 2010, but everyone who shares the nun chai comes to make sense of Kashmir by connecting it with their own stories. As we spoke about Kashmir Varsha remembered Sarajevo. She described her time there as a rollercoaster in which one moment was filled with laughter and the next with some of the saddest and most painful stories she had ever heard. My time in Kashmir was not so different.

One day in Sarajevo, Varsha’s friend asked her to meet for coffee earlier than expected reasoning that she wanted to take Varsha for a brief walk after. That afternoon she took Varsha to the spot where her father fell to the bullet of a sniper. It was just a normal sidewalk, but one that carried a deep, personal and yet very quiet history of loss. This was the first time Varsha’s friend had returned to the place where her father had died. Imagine how many places quietly carry similar histories of loss that we pass by each day. In Sarajevo. In Kashmir. And else where.

Before I ever went to Kashmir people told me that no one would talk. People from outside Kashmir told me that the experiences of the conflict has made Kashmiri people lacking in trust; life there is filled with fear and suspicion. But when I went to Kashmir it seemed all people wanted to do was to talk – to share and voice their stories. After a point fear is something one is forced to move beyond.

Varsha spoke of some female writers she was friends with in Iran and some of the issues they faced politically and socially where religious police intervene in everyone’s daily life, and then suddenly, part way through our conversation a song began to play loudly on the café’s crackly speaker system. I kept talking through the noise, and then realised people were standing. Varsha gently stopped me and said This is the national anthem, we have to stand. She smiled and said, We have our own kind of religious police here too. We’ll talk about it later. We stood there silent for the duration of Thailand’s national anthem that I soon learnt is played everyday at 6am and 6pm across the country.

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