Thursday, January 28, 2016

Pink and Fabulous

A lot of people ask for the recipe to make Nun Chai or Kashmiri Chai.


In Srinagar and the areas around it, Nun Chai is the default Kashmiri Chai. Its a salty brew pink in colour. It is to be had hot, and I take mortal offence if someone calls it a soup. In case, I am not clear on that count, let me repeat, it is not a soup. I am glad that we cleared that up.

Outside Kashmir, in areas like Rawalpindi, the same is had with sugar and lot of spices, I am told. But not so in Kashmir. Never in Kashmir. Also, it is not a soup.

When I was a little child, we made nun chai on the electric heater. Those were simpler days, with very little electricity and very cold winters. The only corner of the kitchen that would be warm was the one with the heater. Placed on a wooden board covered with a tin sheet, there were strict rules in place for the children against touching it. Its coils would burn bright orange, and if you placed your face close to it, you could smell your hair singe. We did that for fun.

The tea would be boiled for hours and when the liquid was dark and sufficiently bitter, it would be left covered for the night to be used in the morning for breakfast. There is no rule or need for overnight cooling, we just did it because we prepared it in the evening and no one would have tea at that hour. In the morning, the black tea would be mixed with milk and heated again, a dollop of fresh milk cream added for taste, and boiled.

Breakfast is served.

There is no fixed method of preparing it, so much so that there is only one way we know of. It is used for all quantities, from two – three cups for a single person to dozens of cups for the samovar. The best way to prepare it is to go by instincts, but here are the approximate quantities for 1-2 cups:

Nun Chai tea leaves – 1 (or a little bit more) tablespoonfuls (notice, these leaves are large and when boiled in water they ‘open up’). Nun chai leaves are green and long, and not the usual ones. 

Sodium bicarbonate – ½ teaspoon (a pinch actually, or a little more). This is important for the wholesome flavour and colour.

Milk – 1 cup (or more, if you like milkier teas)

Salt – to taste

So how is it prepared? Preparing Nun Chai is a very straight forward, though time taking, process. And for first timers, it is difficult to get right. When I prepared nunchai for the first time, it was perfect in taste and fabulously pink. Not so much the second and third time. I had forgotten the proportions.

To prepare the tea, boil the leaves and the sodium bicarbonate in 3 cups of water. Boil till about half the water is evaporated and the remaining is dark – a woody brown (almost burgundy) or black. The tea leaves will hydrate and sink to the bottom. That's where you want them.

Add in milk. The best way to do that is to add milk in parts and letting it boil. When the tea leaves have been boiled to the perfect brown/black colour and the soda has worked its way in, the milk gives the brew its characteristic pink colour. If you add the whole milk in one go, you may not see it.

The greenish colour of the tea is due to butter. 

In Kashmir, we do not put any spices in our tea. On special occasions, like weddings or Urs of saints, coconut flakes are put (with the milk) to enhance the taste. That is the extent of the use of nuts in Nun Chai and the use of coconut in Kashmir (the only other use I can think of is addition in phirni). Contrary to what some people on the internet profess, I have never had nunchai with pistachios, almonds, star anise (what an unKashmiri thing to do!) and cardamom. So, now that nuts are out, you can vastly vary the taste by adding butter or cream to the tea.

The breads and accoutrements to be had with nunchai deserve a blogpost of their own. So we will leave that for now.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Appeals and Answers

~I~

The old man was no hero. He had never been, and it is very important to understand that. He had been more like a moth on the curtains of time. Fluttering in oblivion and waiting, hoping, for a simple death. People would rather like him, if they could recollect him. But they would forget, he knew and was at peace with that.

Srinagar is a cold place now-a-days. He had spent the entire day at Dargah in his checked tweed coat, mildly dusty in the winter sun. It had been crowded, and he was okay with that too. He had crept silently along the walls and sat near the door. Close enough to escape without being seen, far enough to not obstruct those coming and going out. The crowd did not seem to move. There were too many people, all stationary, frozen in their places. The prayers were over, so most were just waiting for the next prayers.

Srinagar was a cold place. Dangerous. It’s no place for young birds, someone had told him. It was a sad place where life had ceased to exist, somehow. Look where are we now! He wondered what had happened. He looked at the pulpit of the sanctum for an answer. None came. The medieval city caught in a violent war. People didn't want it anyway. And now from the corner of his row, he looked not just at uncertainty, but financial penury. The giant chandelier with its many glass pieces looked down on him, and he felt its stare on the small of his neck. It was still daylight, but the old man decided to leave. With a final bow and a silent prayer, he took his feeble self out.

The grim city with its hopeless pandering to the elite. The city was run by thieves, of this he was convinced. It was cold and his eyes were watery.  Three men from Indian Army stood near the bus station, checking Ids of a few students from the university before smugly gesturing them into the waiting bus. The air was thick with the fumes of oil from the stalls where hawkers sat among piles of fritters and halwa. A few years ago, he would have taken some for his son. But not today. His son had gone to Delhi to do some 'course' he didn't fully understand. So he walked straight to the bus yard and sat in one leaving for his home. The boys sheepishly tucked their ICards back into their wallets and climbed into the bus.

Srinagar was not a very welcome place, not beyond the Tourism Department posters. His son had never wanted to leave Kashmir one time, and now he wasn’t so sure. There was a sense of resentment and anger he couldn’t explain. He was annoyed with him, and in a way pleased. He couldn’t decide what to do. A young man from the University of Kashmir was munching on fritters. He found that distracting. At one time he had wanted his son to take a government job. But none were available. He was afraid that his son was destined to a very mediocre life, despite his education. He took out his hand and pressed it on his chest - a mediocre life, unless he chose never to return home. To this place. To his city. To him. Be a tourist in his own place. The Tourism Department posters made sense now – Srinagar was a tourist destination for her own people too. And then it dawned on him. In the grey light of afternoon, as the sun was peeking through the mist and a mush of clouds and the bus stopped at odd places, his face fell with the sudden realisation of failure. That he had lost his son, forever, and it was all because of him. He looked at the man who had been eating, he was looking away. May be he should call his son and ask about the future. Or maybe he should give it some time. Birds do come to roost. He slipped a little backward on the uncomfortable bus seat and put his hands in the pockets of his tweed coat. And waited.



~II~


At Rajiv Gandhi Chowk Metro Station the train regurgitated its load of people. There was a scramble at the escalators as the crowd slowly moved away. Rajiv Gandhi Chowk Metro Station was crowded. Too crowded for his comfort, and he noticed with some satisfaction that it was too crowded for everyone’s comfort except the hippie who sat comfortably near the steps lost in thought. Perhaps asleep. Perhaps drugged. The last thought scared him and he walked on.

In the post lunch session of the tech seminar the speaker spoke with a drone like voice, so sleep inducing that he found himself dosing off despite all the mint and the bottles of water. His friend had sent him a message to bunk the session and go out for a movie. Quietly he replied yes, and packed his bags and left.

New Delhi shone in the cool afternoon light of winter. People around him were decked in mufflers and sweaters, while Abid had folded the sleeves of his shirt. His neatly trimmed beard framing his high cheek bones, and his hair piled softly like ice cream on his head, he was very conscious of the stares he invited in the bazaars. He slung his bag with a careless ease, as the elevators emerged him out of the din of the train station.

The metro, on his first ride, had appeared like a charm. Abid had never seen anything quite like it. There was an artist sitting right next to him, and impolite as it had appeared, he had stared at his notebook throughout the journey. His feverishly moving fingers sketching wildly, to create a face so demure and coy that Abid silently gawked at the contrast. In the crowded train he had guessed to be Kashmiris by their looks. He smiled at the thought that all of us have the same nose, but he had kept to himself. It was like a secret code.

The cinema was crowded in the second week of the film’s release. He got bored and distracted in the first thirty minutes but could not tell that to his friends. He liked the luxury of seeing movies on a giant screen, every colour brought alive by the darkness in the hall. The first time he had come to cinema had been two months ago. He thought he could get used to this. This was nice. The city was like a charm, there was so much to do that if he could just keep himself afloat, he was sure he could swim on forever. The lure was enormous. His friend, the one sitting next to him who had bought the expensive tickets as a treat, had just got a new job. Srinagar was but a heavy price to pay for it. He looked at his newly moneyed friend in the dark. The screen shone in his eyes.

He must evaluate the city for its many appeals and answers. There was a way with things here. The amount of energy he felt in his bones here had dispelled the despair at home. His friends from home had sent him a picture on Whatsapp of them having tea. He recognised the familiar restaurant at Khayam, the sweet milky tea, the unclean cups. Their long chats about girls, life and when someone got philosophical about politics, their hopes for the future, their desires and eventual death. In Srinagar, hope was rare commodity. They had done so for six months after college. Two had appeared unsuccessfully for a job advertised by the J&K Bank. The others were still waiting for a government job. It had seemed possible at first, difficult next and as the exam approached, impossible. His father had tried to persuade him to try for government service. But he had refused.

He hadn’t really thought of his father since landing in Delhi. May be he should call him after this awful movie. Ask him about the future. Or maybe he should wait. Let it pass, let the dust settle. That was the thing about future, it would always show itself. He felt his phone in his pocket, and stared at the screen.

And waited. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Page Three Hundred Ninety Four


Alan Rickman, the actor who played Severus Snape (Professor Snape, Harry!) died today. A large part of fascination with the fantastic actor for me is due to his this role, and his perfectly voiced dialogues. There couldn't have been a better Snape. As I read the books after watching the movies, over and over again, I had Rickman's voice playing Snape all along in my mind. 
I present Page. Three. Hundred. Ninety. Four. 
Book 1 & 2 : (don't have Page 394 errr!)
Book 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
“Three turns? What’s he talking about? What are we supposed to do?”
 But Hermione was fumbling with the neck of her robes, pulling from beneath them a very long, very fine gold chain.
“Harry, come here,” she said urgently. “Quick!”
Harry moved toward her, completely bewildered. She was holding the chain out. He saw a tiny, sparkling hourglass hanging from it.
“Here —”
She had thrown the chain around his neck too.
“Ready?” she said breathlessly.
“What are we doing?” Harry said, completely lost.
Hermione turned the hourglass over three times.
The dark ward dissolved. Harry had the sensation that he was flying very fast, backward. A blur of colors and shapes rushed past him, his ears were pounding, he tried to yell but couldn’t hear his own voice —
And then he felt solid ground beneath his feet, and everything came into focus again —
He was standing next to Hermione in the deserted entrance hall and a stream of golden sunlight was falling across the paved floor from the open front doors. He looked wildly around at Hermione, the chain of the hourglass cutting into his neck.
“Hermione, what — ?”
“In here!” Hermione seized Harry’s arm and dragged him across the hall to the door of a broom closet; she opened it, pushed him inside among the buckets and mops, then slammed the door behind them.
“What — how — Hermione, what happened?”

Book 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

“Well, you’d better hurry up, mate, or all the good ones will be gone,” said Fred.
“Who’re you going with, then?” said Ron.
“Angelina,” said Fred promptly, without a trace of embarrassment.
“What?” said Ron, taken aback. “You’ve already asked her?”
“Good point,” said Fred. He turned his head and called across the common room, “Oi! Angelina!”
Angelina, who had been chatting with Alicia Spinnet near the fire, looked over at him.
“What?” she called back.
“Want to come to the ball with me?”
Angelina gave Fred an appraising sort of look.
“All right, then,” she said, and she turned back to Alicia and carried on chatting with a bit of a grin on her face.
“There you go,” said Fred to Harry and Ron, “piece of cake.”
He got to his feet, yawning, and said, “We’d better use a school owl then, George, come on. . . .”
They left. Ron stopped feeling his eyebrows and looked across the smoldering wreck of his card castle at Harry.
“We should get a move on, you know . . . ask someone. He’s right. We don’t want to end up with a pair of trolls.”
Hermione let out a sputter of indignation.
“A pair of . . . what, excuse me?”
“Well — you know,” said Ron, shrugging. “I’d rather go alone than with — with Eloise Midgen, say.”
“Her acne’s loads better lately — and she’s really nice!”
“Her nose is off-center,” said Ron.
“Oh I see,” Hermione said, bristling. “So basically, you’re going...

Book 5: Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix

“Sorry, Harry,” said George hastily, when Harry caught his eye.
“Couldn’t resist . . .”
Harry walked around the other pairs, trying to correct those who were doing the spell wrong. Ginny was teamed with Michael Corner; she was doing very well, whereas Michael was either very bad or unwilling to jinx her. Ernie Macmillan was flourishing his wand unnecessarily, giving his partner time to get in under his guard; the Creevey brothers were enthusiastic but erratic and mainly responsible for all the books leaping off the shelves around them. Luna Lovegood was similarly patchy, occasionally sending Justin Finch-Fletchley’s wand spinning out of his hand, at other times merely causing his hair to stand on end.
“Okay, stop!” Harry shouted. “Stop! STOP!”
I need a whistle, he thought, and immediately spotted one lying on top of the nearest row of books. He caught it up and blew hard. Everyone lowered their wands.
“That wasn’t bad,” said Harry, “but there’s definite room for improvement.”
Zacharias Smith glared at him. “Let’s try again. . . .”
He moved off around the room again, stopping here and there to make suggestions. Slowly the general performance improved. He avoided going near Cho and her friend for a while, but after walking twice around every other pair in the room felt he could not ignore them any longer.
“Oh no,” said Cho rather wildly as he approached. “Expelliarmious! I mean, Expellimellius! I — oh, sorry, Marietta!”
Her curly-haired friend’s sleeve had caught fire; Marietta extinguished it with her own wand and glared at Harry as though it was his fault.
“You made me nervous, I was doing all right before then!” Cho told Harry ruefully.
“That was quite good,” Harry lied, but when she raised her eye...

Book 6: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

“Romilda?” he repeated. “Did you say Romilda? Harry — do you know her? Can you introduce me?”
Harry stared at the dangling Ron, whose face now looked tremendously hopeful, and fought a strong desire to laugh. A part of him — the part closest to his throbbing right ear — was quite keen on the idea of letting Ron down and watching him run amok until the effects of the potion wore off. . . . But on the other hand, they were supposed to be friends, Ron had not been himself when he had attacked, and Harry thought that he would deserve another punching if he permitted Ron to declare undying love for Romilda Vane.
“Yeah, I’ll introduce you,” said Harry, thinking fast. “I’m going to let you down now, okay?”
He sent Ron crashing back to the floor (his ear did hurt quite a lot), but Ron simply bounded to his feet again, grinning. “She’ll be in Slughorn’s office,” said Harry confidently, leading the way to the door.
“Why will she be in there?” asked Ron anxiously, hurrying to keep up.
“Oh, she has extra Potions lessons with him,” said Harry, inventing wildly.
“Maybe I could ask if I can have them with her?” said Ron eagerly.
“Great idea,” said Harry.
Lavender was waiting beside the portrait hole, a complication Harry had not foreseen.
“You’re late, Won-Won!” she pouted. “I’ve got you a birthday —”
“Leave me alone,” said Ron impatiently. “Harry’s going to introduce me to Romilda Vane.”

Book 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“Xenophilius Lovegood. Luna’s father. I want to go and talk to him!”
“Er — why?”
She took a deep breath, as though bracing herself, and said, “It’s that mark, the mark in Beedle the Bard. Look at this!”
She thrust The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore under Harry’s unwilling eyes and he saw a photograph of the original letter that Dumbledore had written Grindelwald, with Dumbledore’s familiar thin, slanting handwriting. He hated seeing absolute proof that Dumbledore really had written those words, that they had not been Rita’s invention.
“The signature,” said Hermione. “Look at the signature, Harry!”
He obeyed. For a moment he had no idea what she was talking about, but, looking more closely with the aid of his lit wand, he saw that Dumbledore had replaced the A of Albus with a tiny version of the same triangular mark inscribed upon The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
“Er — what are you — ?” said Ron tentatively, but Hermione quelled him with a look and turned back to Harry.
“It keeps cropping up, doesn’t it?” she said. “I know Viktor said it was Grindelwald’s mark, but it was definitely on that old grave in Godric’s Hollow, and the dates on the headstone were long before Grindelwald came along! And now this! Well, we can’t ask Dumbledore or Grindelwald what it means — I don’t even know whether Grindelwald’s still alive — but we can ask Mr. Lovegood. He was wearing the symbol at the wedding. I’m sure this is important, Harry!”
Harry did not answer immediately. He looked into her intense, eager face and then out into the surrounding darkness, thinking. 

***
Alan Rickman's tribute to Snape and Harry Potter series:




Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lovers Shall Love : Reading "The Book of Gold Leaves" by Mirza Waheed

*Spoilers Alert*

I finally finished Mirza Waheed's second novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, last night at 2:40 a.m. and immediately thought of writing this.

I am truly heartbroken, not so much at the fate of Roohi and Faiz, as much at the destiny of all the characters in the book, and indeed Kashmir. First things first, this is a remarkable book - in perhaps more ways than I can express. Its a large story played out in tiny lives. It is an invitation to the life in 1990s as the Kashmir conflict burned like firework, sending sparks into everyone, everywhere. Its easy to generalise, easier than The Collaborator (Waheed’s first book) and may be thats why it is more stirring, though not as shocking.



The Book of Gold Leaves is a love story, but somehow that is not the sum-all of it. It is a premise. It is a story about people who chose to live in hope. The whole 90s construct was based on sheer optimism. People wanted independence so much, that the armed rebellion gave them the hope of immediate release. So, when Roohi and Faiz discuss their future together, there is always a hope that Faiz would settle down, after all. That he will figure out something. That the fight is a task at hand – and will soon end, in victory. That Faiz will return to his masterpiece, the Falaknuma. Somewhere towards the end, Roohi tells Faiz that he is fighting for a dream. It was a collective dream of a hundred thousand people that Faiz had to fight for. It was not going to be easy.

Srinagar seems to be going into a slow freeze to be thawed only when the soldiers return the keys to the city. Then, the lovers shall love, the painter shall paint and the lost will be found. But the freeze slowly turns into a fatal decay, as we descend deeper into the decade. The invasion of Srinagar by the Indian Army was not simply a few hundred trucks to make the militants run away, as Major Sumit Kumar had been led to believe. It was the invasion of an educated (somewhat), largely conservative city by mostly semi literate men who had no understanding and respect for the culture and the people they found themselves among. The results were catastrophic - like the fate of Faate, Faiz's godmother, who was killed when the army opened fire on a school bus. The book brings out this contrast - men from a distant land, fighting an enemy they clearly don't understand - among people, they have no regard for - people who don't want them in the first place - men fighting other men, in their homes. Shanta Koul embodies the difference. The stoic school principal with the graceful walk, who disarms Sumit Kumar every single time he speaks to her. She reminds him, constantly, that he is in her school – that he is an outsider. Waheed's brilliance lies in the strict construct of the dialogue between the two - Koul somewhat embarrassed at being dethroned from her position of power, her superiority compromised by unlettered men; Kumar guilt-ridden at over powering  an educationist, a  woman who reminds him of his mother, who makes him feel powerless and tongue-tied.

A thousand such men were bound to slowly poison the place. As the venom slowly spread, it blackened the heart of the society. Slowly people forgot ties to become ‘agents’ and ‘collaborators’. Rumi turned in his father, unknowingly. His innocent traipses marred by the murder he was led to. Another theme which ran and ruined Kashmir. Paranoia. How could you trust random strangers anymore, if as the book tells us, you could not trust your own? There were and still are spies among people, and you could not guess the games played. Roohi’s father’s special assignment makes a fair game. He wasn’t a spy – until he was. And even then, how could you blame him? In this loosening thread of culture and society, the Pandits are leaving. Temporarily, of course.

Of course, in the backdrop of this time, there is a complete love story – a true and tragic one. Love which is hurled over mountains. Love which survives distance and longing – in uncertain times. Love which causes despair and hope. Love which overcomes society. Love which divides and unites. Roohi is the bold, philosophical heroine who has chosen her own hero. Faiz is the artist she loves, who becomes a militant because he could no longer see sense in his delicate artistry when the world of his inspiration is on fire. In a memorable scene he paints the flowers on his papier mache creation in indigo. In the conservative society of Srinagar, a Shia – Sunni marriage is still a rare occurrence. Waheed makes it plausible, and in the 90s imaginable. The scene of this love story is the seat of Sufism in Kashmir – the ancient shrine of Khanqah Mou’ala.

The Jehlum flows through the book as it does through the city and through our times. Free at first, and increasingly choked as the story progresses. The lunatic, Maharaze, describes souls flowing up and down the river. No one prays for them anymore. Poignant, as no one knows them to be there. The people picked up by the Zaal, in the book a large, metallic, metaphorical vehicle which traps people and takes them to Army’s chambers, are often not heard from again.


Books like Waheed’s are important. They break the barrier of nonfiction journalistic writing to tell smaller, more intimate stories left behind by the conflict. When it all began. Yes, but why should we care about two lovers when the whole city is on fire? Hard to answer, but may be, because the lovers are us too. Their story is also our story. The people embody what becomes of their cities, the cities they live in and the ones they create. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Melancholia

Its a cold night. Very cold. And my feet are getting numb. I dont think I can feel my toes anymore. My hands are shivering. My shoulders tremble.

There is a stillness in this night. Quiet. Almost fearful. And I can feel it in the darkness around me.

There is a dog barking in the neighbour's yard. I don't know, will that bring another earthquake?

The silence falls down like snow in this room. Deadening everything, every source of sound. Not even a moth flutters on this table lamp. Not even a moth.

This is not yet spring. Not even winters. We are still waiting for the snow. For hope, in this dark winters. Its been four days since the sun has come up. Everything is grey and Srinagar is so, so dark now.

Will we ever come out of this?

Will we ever move out of this darkness. And the frosty pale light of this , I ask the few sighs that escape, how does spring feel? A bloom of hundred thousand roses, they say. A bloom of hundred thousand roses.

But not tonight. Tonight, the dew has frozen on my lips and everything in death is turning pale.

It seems so close.