The thirty-ninth cup of nun chai


Lucas and I met in the Chinese Gardens – an artificial pocket of green plants, big stones, moving water and calm nestled in the heart of Sydney. We were chatting. I poured the nun chai. There was a small hill with pine trees and green grass. It reminded me of Kashmir but as a miniature, constrained version. It was like a piece of a mountain from Kashmir had been captured in the heart of Sydney and made into a bonsai. Aga Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri-American poet, captured this emotion in his poem ‘Postcard from Kashmir’ in the collection Half-inch Himalayas:
Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox

my home a neat four by six inches

I always love neatness

Now I hold

The half-inch Himalayas in my hand

There was a hill just behind Lucas, so from my perspective this little-bonsai-mountain framed our conversation. In my mind two competing narratives were fighting for space on it; one in civilian clothes the other in a military uniform. Kashmir green is just so different to army green.

At only eight years of age Sameer Ahmed Rah was the thirty-ninth person to die in Kashmir during the summer of 2010. Eight years is so young. As I spoke, Lucas pulled a red notebook from his bag and asked me to sketch a map of Kashmir for him. First I drew a line marking the Himalayan belt. Below I drew the triangular shape of India, which extended right into South East Asia and left into Pakistan. On the left side of the line that marked the Himalayas, where India, Pakistan and China all more or less meet, I began to sketch in the shape of Kashmir – or rather the shape that Kashmir was prior to the Partition of South Asia in 1947. I marked in the different regions that make up Kashmir, and then I drew a series of lines that illustrated the current occupation of Kashmir by India, Pakistan and China. As I put marks on Lucas’ paper, we spoke about Kashmir’s history and how the situation today came about.

“It is probably a really silly question, but is Cashmere wool actually from Kashmir?” Lucas’ question reminded me again of the words of Shahid Ali: Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Casmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?

Lucas and I spoke a lot about Kashmir for a very long time. He was very generous with time.

Lucas did a PhD on ‘blogging as art’. He told me about his work, the blogs he had developed and described how blogging itself can have a kind of snowball affect particularly for process and participatory-based art. “Blogging about a particular experience has the capacity to shape consequent experiences – as people read, engage and decide to take part.” I understood what Lucas was saying because of the way my own work about nun chai had been unfolding online via the blog. But the way Lucas spoke of this snowballing capacity seemed to speak even more directly to the capacities of online activism in Kashmir today.

In the summer of 2010, the Indian government arrested Facebook users in Kashmir for what the state claimed were ‘anti-national’ activities. However, it is precisely because of the internet that news of their arrest was able to spread like wildfire. Through the internet, social media and blogging have come to exercise an increasing degree of power due to the immense speed and distance at which information can circulate. There is a diverse online community in Kashmir circulating not only information and news, but also music, literature, photography and, let’s not forget, personal sentiment. This online community also watches the world closely, supporting, comparing and learning from the likes of Egypt’s January 25th movement.

In a 2003 preface to a collection of writing from the mid-1980s, writer and anarchist Hakim Bey dismissed his initial belief that the internet offered a kind of ‘pirate utopia’, arguing that instead it had become a ‘perfect mirror of global capital’. While the internet is not utopic, in the sense that Bey had envisioned in the 1980’s, there is still a great potential in the internet today. People are always finding ways to work it to their advantage, just as the state tries to do the same.

I explained to Lucas how worrying it was that people could actually be killed by the Indian state in Kashmir faster than I was able to have cups of tea with people in Sydney. Lucas remarked, “It is akin Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22. Have you read it?” A day or so later I picked up a copy of Heller’s novel at a second hand book market and the commentary on the back cover seemed particularly pertinent: at the heart of Catch 22 is a savage indictment of twentieth century madness, and a desire of the ordinary man to survive it.

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