The fortieth cup of nun chai


David is a wonderful artist and writer. We met at his home; a converted warehouse nestled in a former industrial enclave of Sydney Harbour. Over the last twenty years, David and his wife have worked on their warehouse-cum-home piece by piece. I could feel the course of their lives speaking through the space. It was testimony to their creativity and also their ethics. The roof was covered in solar panels and much of the materials inside were recycled. David and his wife had crafted a home from the relics of a pollutant industry.

As I poured the nun chai for David he said, “I know why we are here. I know this tea is for the people who died in Kashmir last year.” He was familiar with the general premise, “But I need you to explain the basics. What is the ‘Kashmir issue’ about? Can we even call it an ‘issue’?” I had told Kashmir’s story again and again. I was telling it for those who died in that story. But it was always a struggle to get to the heart of the matter, without over complicating or simplifying anything. I narrated a brief history of Kashmir and David was surprised, “I like to think of myself as a relatively informed person – but I know next to nothing about Kashmir. Next time I hear the word my ears will prick up, I will listen.”

David tasted the nun chai ceremoniously. “We are very lucky to be drinking this.” At first, I didn’t know how to take David’s response, but soon realised he was quite serious, “A billion people in the world go to bed hungry and others are simply killed. Something is not right. 20% of the world’s population use 80% of its resources.” David described society here in Australia as “fat”. He was not referring to the physical fatness of individual bodies but rather the abundance and decadence of life here.

We spoke about the immensity of information circulating in the world, the impossibility of ever understanding it and the need to try all the same. We want to slow down, but often can’t. Cups of tea help slow things down. They open up space for conversation and understanding. David felt there was significance in speaking. I did too.

“This work reminds me of a remarkable film by an Australian paramedic in collaboration with the Pashtun community of Pakistan. It’s called Son of a Lion. The filmmaker was a paramedic, and he just encountered this story, forged these relationships and had to make a film.” Films and documentaries have also been coming out of Kashmir, like Harud (Autumn). Bollywood has exoticised Kashmir in their films for decades, but now, frame-by-frame through independent films and documentaries Kashmir is starting to tell its own story too.

“Is it a war over resources or religion?” David asked. In the context of war and capitalism, how can one ever clearly divide the two? In Kashmir they seem to be in a constant state of political tussle. Perhaps in our hyper-capitalist world religion has become a resource, and resources a religion.

My conversation with David did not move in the direction of individuals or specific experiences, but to broader social conditions globally. The geopolitical currents that Salman Rushdie evoked through the lives of his characters in Shalimar the Clown came to mind.  David’s response to Kashmir articulated the dark undercurrents of contemporary society. He drew concrete links between political and environmental violence in the modern era. It brought to mind the pollution stagnating in Srinagar’s iconic Dal Lake. David concluded, “The last 150 years of human activity must be so drastically different to all that has come before. Something has to give.” I said it will. But perhaps I should have said it already is.



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