Fifteen minutes before we shared the nun chai my brother Ryan was discussing how the Indian Commonwealth Games Organising Committee paid $90 for a roll of toilet paper. He was astounded at the price of toilet paper in India. I explained that toilet paper didn’t actually cost $90, but that someone had claimed on paper that price while pocketing the rest of the money.
I spoke with my father and two younger brothers about the media coverage that had been flooding Australian television in the lead up to Delhi’s Commonwealth Games. While prime time television was filled with apparent ‘experts’ worrying about the safety of foreign athletes, the cleanliness of the accommodation and the price of toilet rolls – there was little said about the injuries and deaths of the Commonwealth Games construction workers, about the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed in order to make way for that construction and virtually no mention of the fact that in Kashmir Indian armed forces had killed over one hundred unarmed people, people it claimed as its own citizens, in only one hundred days.
Things sort of clicked at that moment in my brother’s eyes and the $90 toilet paper took a back seat. As we held our cups of nun chai I explained how they were a kind of memorial for those lives that had been lost in Kashmir. Many of whom were young boys, of my brother’s age, in their mid to late teens.
We drank the nun chai, and paused.
But it was almost as if, as if a distraction to the reality we were beginning to access was required. A distraction from a story that was so distant – and hence so irreconcilable – with what my brothers and my father knew.
The air was awkward.
And then quite quickly the conversation moved towards the flavour of nun chai.
It reminded them of sea water. I have often been told by people in Kashmir that nun chai is hydrating. But having grown up by the ocean, where one is forever told not to drink sea water because of the salt, my brothers and my father were adamant that nun chai must be dehydrating. It never ceases to amaze me how right we tend to believe we are within our own cultural confines.
The hot milk gathered a skin that floated on the surface of the tea. My youngest brother is ten and has a beautiful smile. He was proud to have drunk the most nun chai and suddenly declared, ‘We need war to prepare for peace’. He was repeating a phrase he had overheard somewhere. He knew there was a paradox in what he said, but his words were haunting because they sidestepped the gravity of the situation. Like so much in contemporary society his words echoed like a distant copy of something real. I was reminded of President Obama’s justification of the war in Afghanistan when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The world moves in strange directions.
My father, forever balancing the characteristics of an eternal optimist and an eternal escapist, asked, ‘So if this is a critique of the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir, tell me something good that they are also doing.’