I met Suvaid and Abir at Ganga Dhaba inside the grounds of Jawaharlal Nehru University 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.
“My grandmother always prepared nun chai the night before. She’d let it sit and wouldn’t add milk until the morning. That’s how you get the richest flavour.” Unfortunately we didn’t have the luxury of time and space of Abir’s Kashmiri grandmother. Today in Delhi, our nun chai, like the lives of many Kashmiris living in Delhi, was make-shift. It lacked that unique depth of flavour Abir’s grandmother mastered. But nevertheless, Abir and Suvaid had been outside Kashmir for quite some time, and the flavour of nun chai still brought them home— to memories of good, long conversations over tea.
Suvaid had spoken with Abir about Cups of nun chai earlier, and he happened to mention some of the difficulties I faced when first sounding the idea out. An Indian friend had described the work as “cruel”—akin to “eating biryani in the name of those who died at Babri Masjid”. I almost didn’t start the project because of this, 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 the rich and the poor. Nun chai is everywhere—from morning to night, to celebration and bereavement. It is the everyday-ness of this tea and its relationship to conversation and community, to reflection and understanding that enables it to work.
Abir spoke of his research into mysticism in medieval Kashmir and the tenuous relationship that such histories have with certain politicised conceptions of identity in Kashmir today. And then Abir had to leave us—he was on the search for a flat to rent in Delhi.
Suvaid was one of the first people who supported my work in Kashmir, we’d shared many emails and it felt good to finally have nun chai together. Because we both knew the context that these cups of nun chai had emerged from, there was no need for explanations. Our conversation continued for quite some time in a beautiful, almost lighthearted manner that felt good because of its simple refusal to be anything else.
But it soon came to light that our shared 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 at one, then 17, then 30 something, Suvaid spoke of 40, I remembered where I was when I found out 69 people had died, and then as time passed, through what must have been a living nightmare for so many, that number reached over 118.
“Sometimes collective suffering brings people together,” Suvaid reminded me. He had been in Delhi during the summer of 2010. He told me, with a beautiful sense of hope, about the protests that took place in support of Kashmir at Jantar Mantar, an area specifically designated for protest in India’s political capital. At these protests there had been a fluidity of organisation. Support. Well-meaning. People came together. Mineral water arrived when it was needed. Things happened. Suvaid had written an inspiring piece on those protests, titled I see Kashmir from New Delhi, that captured the camaraderie that grows in times of injustice. In it he wrote:
On 7 August 2010, Kashmiris assembled at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for a night-long sit-in. Emotions were moulded into convention. In those weeks, Kashmir’s days were curfewed, so in the night people poured into the streets. Songs of freedom blared from the mosques’ loudspeakers. When they took away the day, people reclaimed the night. The night-long sit-in was in solidarity with those people awake back home, telling them that Kashmiris elsewhere were also awake with them.