The eighty-seventh cup of nun chai

19.05.12

In these mountains the days pass quickly. It was already late afternoon when Rupin re-heated two left over chapattis from the previous evening’s meal to share with our nun chai. “Is it common in Kashmir to have nun chai with yesterday’s chapatti?” she asked. Her question led to a conversation about all the fantastic kinds of bread in Kashmir—bread that people have everyday with nun chai. Unlike most of India where breads like chapatti and parantha are made at home, the bakery is a central part of life in Kashmir. It is where they day begins.

I was soon recollecting the intimate rhythms of a friend’s home in a small village in the mountains of Kashmir. Because it was such a small village, and the bakery was a fair walk from home, my friend’s sister made their morning bread herself from a coarse flour on a wood fired stove in the kitchen. She was always the first to rise in the house, getting to work before dawn broke. She worked hard, but when the rest of the family went to work for the day the house became hers. She had chores to do, but she also had time that was solely hers. She slept, listened to music, chatted over tea with neighbourhood visitors—and entertained me with cheeky jokes and community gossip, much of which was lost in translation between her broken English and my terribly fragmented Urdu and Kashmiri. But their house certainly had different flavours from other places in Kashmir.

These small stories—personal, almost irrelevant—are in a sense what Cups of nun chai is made of. They are a means of understanding. This everyday has meaning. They are the very things that enable us to move past the headlines and start to understand the shape that life takes under occupation in Kashmir and the pieces of life that persist defiantly beyond that occupation.

Rupin gently probes. She has a tendency to move into the essence of things with a sensitivity that is rare in most people. She does not shy away from complication; in fact she thrives on it. This made our conversation long and spirited. The nun chai tasted good, and for someone not familiar with its flavour it was telling when she asked for a second cup. We spoke about Kashmir until the room became dark and the disappearing sun had turned the afternoon into night.

“Do you think it would have been possible to make this work without the tea?” Rupin asked without waiting for an answer, “Do you remember, a few years ago you told me about an artist who made art with food? But this doesn’t feel like art about food. It’s something more. So, do you think you could have done this without the tea?” In turn I asked Rupin to imagine the nature of our conversation right now, if it had been devoid of tea. It didn’t work. Nun chai is the anchor. It is a catalyst. It welcomes. It gives flavour. It provides a spatial and temporal context. It is symbolic yet also material. Nun chai accumulates. It grows memories. Here it ties everything together. Drinking and speaking with these cups of nun chai is a refusal to accept, a refusal to be silent about, and a refusal to forget the summer of 2010 and the injustice it is symbolic of. It is a small attempt to ask questions and try to join the dots, so as to create a bigger picture of the political narrative that is really at play.

“It’s vulnerable. You’re doing something that is really open to ridicule.” Rupin spoke softly, “But somehow that vulnerability is its strength. There is a certain force in this, a vulnerable force.” She was right. There is fragility. And this is not something I have embarked upon without hesitation or mountains of doubt. Cups of nun chai embodies a tenuous relationship between something very meaningful and something absolutely meaning-less. As I have said before, it is at once a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd, and an absurd gesture when meaning becomes too much to bear.

Rupin was also concerned about how this force could be felt by those not part of the process directly—those who didn’t taste these cups of nun chai. Finding a language through which to do this was the role of art. “I think this whole process is a kind of language in its self. Writing about what this ‘language’ is, is important. I wonder, as one would follow a flock of birds to water, how does one move with this?”

 

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