The forty-second cup of nun chai


Danie’s face, in fact his whole body, physically moved at the idea of 117 dead. I was yet to tell him about the 70,000 people who had lost their lives in Kashmir over the last twenty years and the 10,000 who had disappeared.

I spoke of the process of returning to Sydney, as the death toll escalated in Kashmir. There was next to nothing about it in the Australian media. I spoke of how this project came into being and how each cup of nun chai will come to form a kind of active memorial for those 117 people. I told Danie that so far I had managed to have 41 cups of nun chai, and he told me to pour the tea.

After Danie carefull tasted the nun chai there was a pause in the conversation. It was a moment of contemplation for us both.

After some time he asked if I had read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I had not, but I had heard of it and I wondered where Danie was moving with this book. He told me the story was about a super smart giant computer named Deep Thought that was built to reveal the meaning of life. After much deliberation Deep Thought concluded that the meaning of life was the number “42”. Because of this book, as a child Danie had been intrigued by this number 42 – wondering how in the world life could be so reduced? Danie noted this was the 42nd cup of nun chai. He smiled calmly and drank a little more tea.

The idea of life and what it means, particularly in relation to death, ran as a subtle undercurrent throughout our conversation. This was interesting because Danie’s own art practice, although radically different to my own, dealt with somewhat similar themes.

Trying to comprehend was difficult. Danie spoke of death in places like Kashmir, Libya and even from natural disasters. Only yesterday there was an earthquake in the New Zealand city of Christchurch that left more than 140 people dead.

I told Danie that as each person brings their own experiences and opinions to these cups of nun chai I was also learning a lot about the world and people myself. Danie said his only experience of being close to violence or in the midst of conflict, was when he was a high school student living in South Africa during apartheid. His parents had enrolled him in a mixed-race school, which he mentioned was quite rare at that time. Just after they arrived in South Africa the government imposed a state of emergency. Danie recalled how some kids weren’t able to come to school because the violence on the streets and the curfews kept them inside their homes.

I asked Danie if he remembered how the situation was explained to him at that time. He said his parents didn’t explain much directly, it was just there as a part of everyday conversation between friends at school.

It was just there in Kashmir too. One afternoon in Sopore a tear gas explosion went off outside and I sat inside with a couple of other girls speaking about love. They knew the sound of tear gas in comparison to a gunshot or some other explosion – and as they told me this, with the same breath, they also spoke of love. It is important that acts of love continue in the face of khaki uniforms and guns. There are close to 700,000 people who wear such uniforms in the valley today. There has been a continuous state of emergency in Kashmir for the last twenty years. The introduction of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1990, gives the armed forces legal immunity for their actions, including the right to fire and cause death. Danie asked if I ever felt threatened.

We discussed the history of Kashmir, and Danie asked if I had come across a certain appreciation of life in Kashmir because death was so close. This question brought us back to the number 42.


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