Julia and I spent a long time talking of the idiosyncratic ways different families prepare nun chai. Some people make nun chai creamy, with extra milk and butter. Others prefer less salt. Some people simmer it with phull, the Kashmiri word for bi-carb soda. Some refuse to use phull in the fear that it causes stomach pains, while others assure me it is a cure.
“Did you carry this salt back from Kashmir?” Julia asked.
The tea leaves were bought from an elderly man in Sopore, a large town in Kashmir that lies to the north-west of Srinagar. He carefully wrapped the phull in a small piece of used newspaper that I still have. But the salt is from my kitchen cupboard in Sydney.
Julia is an artist and last year she made a series of sculptures out of rock salt sourced from the Himalayas.
“I still carry the salty residue from those sculptures in my lungs. The flavour of this tea reminds me of that time.”
We paused to drink.
“This work demands a slowing down. Drinking tea is a way of stopping. In most cities we don’t do this enough.” Julia had recently visited a small town in Western Australia. “Only two hundred people live there and they have five churches of five different denominations. I spent a lot of time drinking tea and talking in people’s homes. I’m curious, does the flavour of nun chai take you back to Kashmir?”
It is almost a universal fact that, over tea, local histories and everyday politics play out with the ease of a radio broadcast. It is through tea and conversation, as opposed to books, university lectures or the media, that I learnt most about Kashmir.
Surprisingly it was on the eastern outskirts of Delhi, not Kashmir, that I first tasted nun chai. I was in the home of Inder Salim, who had migrated from his home in a small town named Bijbehara in Anantnag district, to Jammu and then to Delhi, in the early 1990s.
Inder is a Hindu by birth, a Kashmiri Pandit, and the exodus of this community from the valley is a complicated, charged and contested moment of Kashmir’s recent history. What is clear is that there was genuine fear and confusion, both Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims became targets, and a large proportion of Pandits fled the valley. The number of those who died and the number who fled remains uncertain, as does the precise cause, with both the armed resistance and the government implicated.
Regardless, what this moment produced was a mass-displacement of a religious minority, the violent oppression of the majority, and the continued communalisation of political spheres within Kashmir.
Inder is best known as a performance artist. He is the kind of person who relishes talking about things others shy from. He’s made art out of shit, cut his little finger off in communion with the dead river Yamuna, and often employs his own naked body in performance pieces. But, knowing him personally and speaking with him privately, I saw the grave seriousness that befalls his whole being when he recalls leaving the valley.
Today, many right-wing Kashmiri Pandits are using their own pain to justify the pain inflicted on others and to ignite communal tension. Inder has channelled his personal experiences into something else.
His very name, incorporating both Hindu and Muslim traits, is itself part of a long-running performance piece that emerged gradually, as a pen name, in the mid-1980s, in an attempt to move away from an identity that was marked by religion; “Salim” is a recognisably Muslim name, and “Inder” is Hindu. Much of Inder’s work today deals in productive ways with social injustice and communal violence in Kashmir as well as places in India, like Gujarat.
And so it was with Inder that I had my first taste of nun chai, and I liked it and asked for more. But it was another year until I would taste it again. This second time, I was in Kashmir.
Julia asked about the fighting in Kashmir, but at that moment, in 2010, “fighting” was not really the right word; people were struggling against a hegemonic military occupation. There had been an armed struggle for almost two decades since the early 1990s, the culmination of an even longer struggle for the right to self-determination.
This armed component has largely subsided as a result of two decades of overtly brutal as well as surreptitious strategies of the Indian state. More recently, people in Kashmir were developing all sorts of different ways to resist the full military power of India. They were protesting on the streets, throwing stones, working as journalists, composing songs, making theatre productions, writing short fictions and articulating their own histories in their own words.
People expressed their everyday life under military occupation on social-networking sites. The government response was, put simply, more repression. People were killed, injured and imprisoned. Many warn that if the state ignores the sentiments expressed so fervently via words, songs, stones and pro- tests in 2010, armed resistance will return.
“One of the most powerful photos I have ever seen is from Palestine.” Julia described an image of a Palestinian child throwing stones at an Israeli tank. “But in the background you can see this boy’s mother bringing him lunch. The photo never left me. It made me rethink the whole situation of their lives. I know it’s terrible, but I just can’t imagine an end to it all. Maybe we need to think about lots of possible endings.”
Or lots of possible beginnings.
Excerpted with permission from Cups Of Nun Chai, Alana Hunt, Yaarbal.