The ninety-second cup of nun chai


It was exactly two years to the day that seventeen year old Tufail Ashraf Mattoo was killed on his way home from maths tuition in Kashmir. Kasturi and I had been in Kashmir together in the month prior to Tufail’s death, and today, on the second anniversary, we sat together in a small hostel room in New Delhi with two cups of nun chai.

Kasturi and I were friends, and the formality of this nun chai coupled with the fact that we had debated and contested in great detail the meaning of this work when it was coming into form in mid-2010, made me nervous.

I started talking about when it all began. In New Delhi, on the 12th of June 2010, I met a mutual friend on the roadside. She told me that a boy had been killed in Kashmir, though I did not immediately connect with her exasperation. Having just returned from Kashmir, death had become familiar. The Machil fake encounter had surfaced; a local media practitioner had been shot at home in front of his family; a politician assassinated one morning at the local market. As life goes on, in the only way it can, it is haunting to realise how fast death becomes normal.

Someone had recently spoken to me about their visit to Kashmir in 1988 – a year before the war began. I longed to freeze Kashmir in that moment; to hold onto a world that was not yet full of mass graves, a world that was not yet familiar with torture, nor embedded with violence and loss. But it was impossible; the mass graves, the torture, the violence and the loss were all here now, all too real, and unable to disappear.

But later Arif, a young writer from Anantnag, also known as Islamabad, reminded me that it was not this simple. The ‘loudness’ of Kashmir’s struggle post-1989 was a response to a more ‘quiet’ process of colonisation that took route in 1947. Kashmir can’t be frozen – not in 1988, nor in 1947, nor in a future that is free. This is not because of the physical impossibility of freezing time and place, but because philosophically and ideologically to freeze a moment, at any point in time, would be to delegitimize the larger continuum of struggle, which, whether we feel comfortable with it or not, will always be shaped by complexity, shades of grey, the good and the bad.

Kasturi spoke of how Kashmir had formed in her mind as a child growing up in Bengal in the 1990’s. It was no longer a romantic landscape thrown into the midst of a Bollywood song sequence as it had been for earlier generations. For our generation, born in the 1980’s, Kashmir appeared in movies and in the news as a place of conflict and terrorism. Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), an overtly nationalistic Bollywood love story, made in the early days of armed conflict in Kashmir, epitomised this. Yet there is so much more that Kashmir is, so much in between and so much overlooked.

I asked Kasturi if there was a point at which her understanding of Kashmir shifted. In college she had studied the North East, Kashmir, the Maoists and minority groups. In discussions, exams and essays they contested ideas of nationalism and India’s grand idea of ‘unity in diversity’. Kasturi said she really felt for these concerns – she would attend seminars, go to protests, join groups on facebook – but it was part of an intellectual engagement that was she described as ‘impersonal’.

It was not until we visited Kashmir together in early 2010, that the idea of Kashmir shifted for Kasturi. It was here in Kashmir, when Kashmir became a place with people who had faces and names, as the streets became familiar, as she saw the bullet holes on a cement wall and the smashed the windows of a friend’s home, as she walked past graves, too many of them, some containing known martyrs, and others graves that were anonymous and shallow, it was here when Kashmir opened up to her – with all its flavours and contradictions and personalities – that what had previously been an intellectual or critical concern became personal.

Kasturi said much of her childhood in Bengal had been spent complaining that school and especially her maths class were the ultimate drudgeries of life. But here in Kashmir, at the same time that Kasturi was trying to avoid maths, another friend of ours named Saba was yearning for it. Though because of the curfews, because of the strikes and the conflict she couldn’t get to school. These were two lives, running at parallel times, though shaped by entirely different worlds. This is what struck Kasturi – the juxtaposition of her life with Saba’s. Kashmir became more real, more urgent when she encountered something personal and felt how it was shaped by the political.

Two years ago Tufail had been on his way home from maths tuition when he was killed.


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