The ninety-eighth cup of nun chai


Down a back lane in the old city of Srinagar a small silver haired poet named Zareef, meaning the happy one, welcomed us into his home. As he came to learn about Cups of nun chai, and also about an earlier work Paper txt msgs from Kashmir, Zareef smiled and said there were always alternative ways out. He then served us nun chai with pieces of pink Himalayan salt on the side.

Zareef asked his grandson to show us a translated collection of his poems that had been compiled on facebook. In Kashmiri he began to read Tch’er T’e be’, literally ‘the sparrow and me’, though translated from Kashmiri into English as The Sparrow’s Sorrow. Written towards the end of 2010, Uzma helped me follow the English translation, parts of which spoke so pertinently to what was also at the core of Cups of nun chai:

If the tongue dithers and nothing is said,

People of tomorrow can’t know our today.

Zareef continued reading. In this secluded corner of the old city there were birds outside his window, skirting across the roof of his home. Tch’er T’e be’ was based on a conversation between Zareef and a sparrow and I imagined Zareef sitting here in his home confounded yet seeking to confront the death and desecration of 2010 through an imagined conversation with a visiting sparrow.

Zareef spoke for more than two hours with us. His conversation was full of poetry and satirical criticisms of Kashmiri society at large. His charming wit enabled him to poke fun at the self as much as anyone else. I remember the phrase, Taaran garee, taaran garee. He repeated it again, Taaran garee, taaran garee. It was the title of a poem, and a Kashmiri phrase that referred to trickery, roguery and deception. Taaran garee, taaran garee.

Zareef spoke so much about the idea of occupation. He spoke about what it has meant historically in Kashmir and what it means today under Hindustan. And he spoke a lot about what he does with his qalam (pen) in response to this occupation.

Zareef wanted to mark history with his qalam. Kashmir’s history had always been distorted and controlled by others and he stressed the importance of writing one’s own story. Zareef wanted to capture the present and the past in his words so that the future would know and understand what had happened in his world. He explained that it was for these reasons that he wrote.

Zareef’s ancestors had been experts in the craft of shawl making, but under Dogra rule in the latter part of the 19th century his family were forced into exile, and made to move from Kashmir to Amritsar. Zareef said with a sense of pride that all his ancestors had given something of themselves to the idea of azadi (freedom). Today he was writing in Kashmir, using his qalam and analogies drawn from the natural environment of Kashmir to mark the desecration of life that surrounded him.

The Chinar tree, otherwise called Boe’n in Kashmiri, had special significance for Zareef. He not only wrote about them but spent a lot of time planting them. The physical act of this small silver haired poet planting a chinar on the streets of Srinagar, and elsewhere in the rolling valleys of Kashmir, felt like a poem in itself. Zareef’s own ode to the Boe’n, reads in part like this:

Dae’dwanan yawun yei yo’ud thaevehaen hamsai Boe’n

These desolate ruins will come back to life, if as thy neighbour you cultivate the Boe’n.

As we were leaving Zareef led us into the corner of his back garden where he pointed to the fort a top the Hari Parbat hill above his home. He pointed and said it had been an interrogation centre, a place of torture. Imagine having that above your home. The Indian army sat in that old Afghan fort and peered down at the city through binoculars. I hope they catch sight of Zareef with his hands in the soil at the base of a Boe’n, and I hope their binoculars are good enough to see the power of his poetry in action.


This conversation was made possible with the assistance of Uzma Falak as translator.

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