I will be repeating myself when I say that Srinagar is a cold, cold place. The wind blows little needles in the face and waters the eyes. In my dreamy, detached, ever hopeful existence, Srinagar is so many miles away that the only things that anchor me to reality are the cold and tea. And by tea I mean Nun Chai with its ever comforting warmth like a hug from a worthy friend.
Early this year, I remember telling a friend that this is going to be a good year. We were going on the Boulevard Road and the sun was about to set on a day in the prime of spring. He agreed. Now, we are just moving from a curfew and lock down of five months. Everyone who knows anything about us knows that this is a fragile, fragile situation. Kashmir is like a samovar full of tea, with embers keeping it simmering all the time.
Among the many disappointments we had this year, I will remember with gratitude the sanctuary nun chai afforded me as we spent the summer locked up inside our homes, reading and watching the leaves turn. Outside, the curfews raged, and so many young men were killed. Everyday we mourned for them. Everyday we died a little. Everyday we made tea and thanked God that we are getting by. The leaves faded from green to gold and then left the trees barren; and the skies shifted from blue to gray. The colour of my brew was still pink. Like roses the colour of broken promises.
But somehow we survived. My friends (and sometimes random people one meets by happenstance) from India ask me how did we manage for so many days with no markets open and little money. I have no answer. We just did – with patience and some luck. And lots of resilience. I spent some weeks of the year in Delhi. I had nun chai over there too. A pale, milky brew it came out. Quite out of place. Like the stranger in me. Its flavour lost in the heat of India’s plains. There is no decent way to reconcile to the disappointment of a vile cup of tea. I needed to be back home.
As we end this year on a very somber note with the war raging in one part of the world and uncertainty looming over ours, I look at this empty cup of nun chai. The spent dark brown leaves have collected at the base. Someone may stare at the shape to read the tea leaves. Will the coming year lose its promise in the prime of spring too?
This has been a long, long year. The summer never seemed to end and the autumn dragged its feet – its cold, beautiful, scarred feet. I don’t want to sound pedantic. On days like these I find heart in the fact, that when everything goes wrong there will be nun chai to fall back to. It is the promise of a very old custom. It shall forever bring me back home.
(PS: Today is “International Tea Day”, and thank you Mr. Ross Chambers for suggesting that I write something about Nun Chai on this day. I must thank the shared joy of nun chai for being the source of many a conversation on social media with strangers and a lot of inspiration. On that note, I had this year before the curfews began a memorable occasion of having nunchai in the huts of very friendly nomads in a meadow tucked somewhere in the mountains of Baramulla. Prepared freshly on a wood fire, the tea was as buttery as salty it was and had a very subtle but distinct aroma of smoke.)
For a recipe of nun chai check this post.