Danie’s face, in fact his whole body, stirred at the idea of 118 people dead. The idea of life and what it means, particularly in relation to death, was a strong undercurrent throughout our conversation. Danie is an artist whose work deals with similar themes. Most known for his blue pencil drawings, Danie explores the cross-over and collision of two cultures – Aboriginal and European Australia – through history and representation, rites and ritual, reality and myth, and death and resurrection. It often feels like Danie is looking for curious connections between the present day and the past; he listens and watches things with a quiet intent.
I spoke about Kashmir. I spoke of returning to Australia from Kashmir. I spoke of the death that brought about this work. I spoke of how each of these cups of nun chai will come to form a participatory memorial for those 118 people who died in Kashmir during the summer of 2010. Danie’s would be the 42nd cup of nun chai. He told me to pour the tea. He tasted it carefully. He thought about what it meant.
After quite some time Danie asked, “Have you ever read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams?” It seemed completely off track and I wondered why in the world Danie was asking me about this right now. He went on to tell me about the book, “Deep Thought was this giant computer programmed to reveal the meaning of life. After much deliberation Deep Thought eventually said the meaning of life was the number 42. When I was a kid, I couldn’t get this number out of my mind. I wanted to understand how life could be reduced to a number.” Danie drank a little more of the 42nd cup of nun chai. He is right. How can life be reduced to a number?
“Death in places like Kashmir is hard to comprehend from here in Australia.” Danie continued, “Things are terrible in Libya too. And yesterday there was an earthquake in Christchurch, and another 140 people died. My only experience of being close to violence was at high school in South Africa during apartheid. My parents enrolled me in a mixed-race school, which was pretty unusual at the time. Just after we arrived in South Africa the government called a state of emergency. A lot of kids couldn’t come to school because of the violence on the streets and curfews.” I asked Danie if he remembered how the political situation was explained to him at the time. “My parents didn’t explain much directly, but it was just there, part of everyday conversations with friends at school.”
It was ‘just there’ in Kashmir too. One afternoon in Sopore a tear gas explosion went off outside the house I was staying in. The girls I was with had become experts in identifying the sound of tear gas, gun shots, stones and other explosions. They had become regular reminders most Friday afternoons. As they told me this, with the same breath, they continued speaking about boys, what we were cooking for dinner and their days at work. It is really humbling to see how life survives in the ugly face of khaki uniforms and guns. And in Kashmir it does, despite the 700,000 people who wear these uniforms everyday. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has given these uniformed people the right to fire and cause death on suspicion alone. It has also given them legal immunity. Political violence is ‘just there’ in Kashmir too.
Danie asked, “Do you think you found a certain appreciation of life in Kashmir because death was so close?” I couldn’t give Danie a definitive answer; his question was pertinent but difficult. The complexity of everyday life in Kashmir – the struggle, the compromise, the freedom and its lack of – reeled in my mind.