The seventieth cup of nun chai

04.03.12

I had written two different names on a small piece of paper. There were two dates, two ages, two places and two causes of death:

September 9. Manzoor Ahmed, 38. Bandipora. Shepherd shot dead by Rashtriya Rifles on his way home from the pastures.

September 6. Noorudin Tantray, 26. Tantrypora Pattan. Fired on by police and succumbed to his injuries on the way to hospital.

These details came from two different lists documenting the dead in Kashmir. Both Manzoor and Noorudin could have been the seventieth person to die in the unrest, but how can we really know? Counting the dead in Kashmir is not simple: numbers are political, unstable, and ever increasing. A few days earlier, Meg had asked me whether each cup of nun chai was assigned to a particular person. Our nun chai began with these differing details written on a small piece of paper in an attempt to answer that question.

“Were all these people bystanders? Like the shepherd Manzoor, just heading home.” Meg and I spoke in more detail about fake encounters, demonstrations, stone throwing, and how violence escalates. Bystanders were shot. Stone throwers were also shot. And at the end of the day neither bystander nor stone thrower deserved to be shot, and the line between the two is not always clear. “It all reminds me of what my Irish friends have told me about their struggle against the British,” said Meg, “There was this real need for secrecy, for informal networks, for dedication, and hope.”

Baramulla, also known as Varmul in Kashmiri, lies downstream from Srinagar on the banks of the Jhelum River and was once a grand gateway to Kashmir. However, since 1947 the city’s capacity to trade with places like Muzzafarabad ceased with Partition and the ensuing wars between India and Pakistan. During severe economic blockades in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people descended upon the Muzaffarabad National Highway in an attempt to open the route for trade. Blocked by armed forces, people were shot, and the procession was forced to return without reaching its destination.

In 2010, I arrived in Baramulla on a bus only to find the shops rolling down their shutters. People were moving away in different directions. The shops were closing and the streets were emptying. I looked to my left. For a hundred metres or so, the street was devoid of people yet full with a scattered mass of stones that seemed to have fallen from the sky like a downpour of heavy rain. Marking the end of that stoned emptiness, there were dense thick rows of men in uniform wearing helmets and holding shields. There had been stone throwing—the city was preparing for more and the armed forces were now ready. My friend quickly whisked me away; we jumped in a sumo-taxi and headed up the hill and home.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the stones on the road that day. There were so many. Where had they come from? How do they get removed? And where do they go next? Is there an underground economy of stones in Baramulla? Do the armed forces try to destroy them? Are some stones more preferred than others? Their shape and weight more suited to a particular use, a particular feeling, or the capacity to hold a particular story?

 

 

 

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