The eighty-sixth cup of nun chai

09.05.12

I met Suvaid and Abir at Ganga Dhaba on a very hot Delhi afternoon, and we soon had a small pot of nun chai brought to the boil on the chai walla’s gas stove.

Abir said his grandmother used to prepare nun chai the night before, creating a rich flavoured tea the following morning when she finally added the milk. Unfortunately, that day, our nun chai was made in a rush and it lacked that depth of flavour so characteristic of slow, carefully prepared nun chai. But nevertheless, living outside of Kashmir neither Suvaid nor Abir had tasted nun chai for sometime, and our conversation continued, as did the tea.

We spoke about the convivial nature of tea and the importance of sitting together and talking things through. Suvaid had earlier spoken with Abir about the project, and he happened to mention some of the difficulties I faced when first sounding out the idea. Someone had described the work as ‘cruel’ – akin to ‘eating biryani in the name of those who died at Babri Masjid’. At the time this comment had really upset me, but as Suvaid said again, just as he had almost 18 months ago in an email that eased my concerns, nun chai was relevant because it was so very much a part of daily life in Kashmir, for both the rich and the poor. Nun chai moved across most occasions in Kashmir from morning and afternoon, to celebration and bereavement. And it is the everyday-ness of this tea, and the space the project creates to sit and reflect and talk, to try to understand and to refuse to forget, that allows it to work.

Over nun chai we chatted about life, we laughed a little and we learnt a little more about each other. Abir spoke of his research into mysticism in medieval Kashmir and the tenuous relationship that such histories have with conceptions of Kashmiri identity today. And then Abir, who was searching for a flat to rent in Delhi, left.

Suvaid was one of the first people I sought advice from when I initially conceived this work in mid-2010, and it felt good to finally have nun chai together. Because everything was understood, because we both inherently knew the context that these cups of nun chai had emerged from, there was no need for explanations. Our conversation continued for quite sometime in a beautiful, light hearted manner that felt good because of its simple refusal to be anything otherwise.

As we spoke on it became more and more evident through our recollections, that our memories of 2010 had been marked not by dates, places, days or months, but by the number of dead at particular moments in time. I began speaking at one, then 17, then 30 something, Suvaid spoke of 40, I spoke of 69, and then as time passed, through what must have been a living nightmare for so many, that number reached 117. These are moments, memories from life not marked by dates or places or times but by the rising number of dead. Memory should not take place like this.

We spoke about life in Delhi’s student hostels. The inadequacies of ‘post-nationalism’ in practice. Journeys home. Kashmir. And Australia. Australia was a country built on around 180 years of continuous though geographically dispersed massacres. Words from the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali could not describe Australia any better, They make a desolation and call it peace.

Suvaid said that sometimes collective suffering can have the ability to bring people together. He began to speak in beautiful detail about the protests that took place in New Delhi at Jantar Mantar in 2010. There had been a fluidity of organisation. Support. Meaning. People came together. Mineral water arrived. Things happened.

No one is saying the movement in Kashmir is without its divisions, but what shone through in Suvaid’s stories was this sense of camaraderie that Kashmiris have developed in response to the conflict. And in the face of desolation what could be a more a beautiful and important response?

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