The one-hundred and ninth cup of nun chai

18.07.12

As I explained what Cups of nun chai was about, Mehran said that in 2010 he had himself written a poem about nun chai. In Kashmir it is common for older people to experience high blood pressure, to which Doctors advise them not to drink nun chai because of the high quantities of salt. In his poem Mehran referred to a mother, with high blood pressure, whose son had died in the conflict – a desolate mother, sipping heart attacks in her nun chai, trying in vain to accelerate the time.

Mehran and I sat by the banks of the Jehlum Bund looking down towards Zero Bridge and we spoke about memory, and what it means to remember. On my way from Australia to South Asia, some months back, I stopped in Thailand where I shared nun chai with a number of people and learnt that only two years ago more than 100 people had been killed in anti-government protests on the streets of Bangkok. The city itself felt devoid of such a history and I was told that in Thailand what enabled life to continue was a kind of cultural willingness to forget. In light of this idea of forgetting and the drive behind Cups of nun chai to remember, I asked Mehran if he felt memory was important. He would eventually answer my question by quoting Milan Kundera’s famous words, The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

As a student of architecture Mehran had written his thesis on conflict, trauma and memory, exploring how these experiences were housed in the built environment of Srinagar. He had drawn from theoretical writings on the subject that emerged out of the Holocaust. There is important and very sensitive work here, but it is haunting, in light of Israel’s aggression towards Palestine today, just how quickly the oppressed can become the oppressor. Looking back over history, Mehran said he felt that something went wrong with modernity. It is here, with the onset of modernity, that we see the seeds of the systematised violence that continues to unfold in our world today.

As we looked towards Zero Bridge Mehran spoke of the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, From Zero Bridge/a shadow chased by searchlights is running away to find its body. Shahid’s words haunt the landscape. Similarly the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) at Lal Chowk had been at the centre of so much in the last few decades that, for Mehran, a future free Kashmir would feel incomplete without it. Places like Zero Bridge and Ghanta Ghar carried histories within them, but as Mehran went on to explain there were important memories embedded in even smaller, more personal and obscure places as well.

Some years ago, on a cold winter morning, Mehran was on his way to school when he came across a group of solemn looking people on the street. The body had already been taken away, but Mehran remembers a woman with a bucket and a broom who was trying to scrub the blood from the pavement. But the blood had congealed and stuck to the ground and the woman was struggling in the cold to make it go away. Mehran explained that his memories lay even in the pavements of this city.

Mehran shared a number of other memories similarly embedded in obscure corners of his world – but these memories were all too personal to write on this page.

The landscape of Srinagar, with its pavements and bedrooms and bridges, has become a home to small, everyday pieces of history that are central to the personal ‘struggle of memory against forgetting’. And it is often these small, obscure things that mark us the most. Four brief lines in Mehran’s poem read:

Inside a radio
tragedy and melody
embrace each other:
‘Moate chooro, karith khaeli‘……

Mehran had taken the last words from a Kashmiri song, Moate chooro, karith khaeli, kam khaane tai, which translates into, what lively dwellings, o angel of death, you render desolate!

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