The ninety-seventh cup of nun chai


Like the content of our conversation the spaces in which we spoke were similarly vast and varied; I met Gowhar by the fruit stall at Habak Crossing, we spoke by the shores of Dal Lake, and drank nun chai at home on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Rupin was there also, and we began speaking about the limits of disciplinary boundaries. Despite the fact our work was quite different, we were all commonly searching for ways to exist between and across disciplines. Cups of nun chai existed in a similar terrain that was in-between-many, but never wholly contained within any one single form.

In 2010 Gowhar had been in Ladakh. One day he overheard a tour guide explaining to some Japanese tourists that much of Ladakh’s Buddhist art had actually travelled to Leh from places like Kashmir and Afghanistan. ‘At one point in time these places had been at the peak of civilisation, though now’, the tour guide lamented, ‘just look at the mess they have gotten themselves into.’ Gowhar was offended by the lack of compassion and the blame that this man put on his home, a home torn apart, ravaged by war.

Shortly after overhearing these comments in Ladakh, Gowhar learnt of Tufail’s death. He soon returned from Ladakh to four months of curfew and killing at home in the valley. All the while the tour guide’s words ran through his mind. Along with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), in 2010 it was Kashmir’s own state police who were responsible for much of the killing. Governed by a local state administration that supported and followed the central Indian government, these were in essence Kashmiris killing Kashmiris. Nothing is simple here and the more one listens to the ground in Kashmir the more complex things become.

Gowhar had recently undertaken fieldwork with the local police in an attempt to understand the apparatus that allowed policeman in Kashmir to inhabit what was almost a dual life, through which they performed their duty as policeman and then existed in the wider social landscape of Kashmir as individuals with friends and families. Gowhar said it wasn’t simply that these were ‘bad people’, but about understanding the logic that allowed them to justify their actions in life and at work. He met three officers, one was an atheist, another a Wahabi and yet another a Sufi who would recite Persian poetry to young stone throwers in an attempt to prove to them why throwing stones was wrong. Gowhar found that each of these individuals justified and made sense of their actions through a logic that was supported by these three radically different worldviews.

Gowhar began his PhD with the aim of looking back historically and recollecting experiences embedded in the last twenty years of conflict, but this had changed in 2010. That year had created an urgency to listen and to make sense of the present moment, at the things that were happening, that were immediate, that were in front of him. The present cried out louder than the past.

Gowhar had met with some of those who were injured in 2010, and also with the families of those who died. He had written about mourning, and was interested in its relationship to gender, and more specifically how gender expectations shape how we mourn. But he said the people he encountered in his research always spoke to him more as stories than academic content, and he seemed more comfortable making sense of the situation in Kashmir through narrative as opposed to the formalised structure that academia demanded.

Like many young boys in Kashmir during the 1990’s Gowhar’s family had sent him away for schooling. He had felt frustrated, and regretted not being home at this time. Gowhar described it as an intensely emotional period. He looked to the side and said with hindsight that if he hadn’t gone, if he hadn’t been sent away, he mightn’t still be here today.

I listened intently as Gowhar spoke for a long time, taking in his stories and experiences and occasionally I would catch sight of the lake that was in front of us and it would thrust me from the horrible iniquities of Kashmir that we spoke of, to the incredible beauty of its mountains reflected at sunset on the surface of the Dal Lake.

At times it was Kashmir’s beauty that felt criminal as it sat beside the iniquity that was coming to shape the core of its being.

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