The forty-ninth cup of nun chai

17.03.11

Kay and I sat on a yacht. It was suspended on a hardstand, out of the water. “It is terribly sad.” The heaviness of Kay’s body told me she was really grappling with the situation in Kashmir I had just described. When she said it was sad, she meant it. Her words were simple yet strong. “Oh!” Kay was surprised at the saltiness of the nun chai, “It’s okay.” She assured herself, “I like salty things. I’ll probably get used to it quickly.” Nun chai was in our mouths and Kashmir at the fore of our minds.

“Your mother told me about another project of yours, another one you produced in Kashmir about text messaging.” Kay asked me to tell her about it. In late 2009 the Indian government banned all pre-paid phone connections in Kashmir citing reasons of ‘security’. Virtually overnight, more than 400,000 mobile phone users—people conducting business, college students, families, distanced lovers—were left without telecommunication. The event passed with little more than a murmur from the media in South Asia. I knew about the violence in Kashmir, but the sudden banning of all pre-paid phone connections illuminated the absurdity of the occupation and the extent of its impact upon people’s everyday lives. I made 1000 ‘paper txt msgs’—specially designed 4×4 inch pieces of card—and distributed them around Kashmir as a humorous, tongue-in-cheek ‘replacement’ for the phone services that had been taken away. The paper txt msgs were a playful and deeply political way for people to vent their frustrations.

“I think, at around the same time in Australia there was an increase in ID requirements for mobile phones too,” Kay recalled.

“In India you can get a sim card with standard photo ID,” I explained, “But in Kashmir you need police verification. The process is much stricter and far less accessible.” Mobiles phones have an added importance in a place like Kashmir, they are a security blanket for the common person who is haunted by the uncertainty of returning home for the day. While pre-paid connections were eventually restored in February 2010, it is routine for the government in Kashmir to cut phone connections, block text messaging services and disrupt the internet. After that summer, it is now only government phone connections that operate in Kashmir and SMS services have ceased completely.

“These are all probably monitored closely anyway. How are people communicating in Kashmir now?” Kay asked. There was an informal network of borrowed phones between family and friends. Facebook and the emergence of spaces online are also strong. “Oh, I’m surprised that hasn’t been shut down as well,” Kay commented. I often hear rumours of hacking and government spies taking on fake identities online. They must be watching because people are being arrested for what they write online. The government’s fear of sentiment is astounding.

Kay raised her cup in memory of the summer of 2010, and finished her nun chai.

 

 

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