The forty-third and forty-fourth cups of nun chai

01.03.11

The nun chai entered and moved around Chiara and Miguel’s mouths. It flowed down into their bodies. Miguel and Chiara tasted nun chai for the first time on the edge of Sydney harbour, and quietly tried to make sense of the situation in Kashmir that I had just described. Somehow today the tea had a richer milkier flavour than usual.

“Did you start this work in India or Australia?” Miguel asked. It was a simple question that made me think. Cups of nun chai started in Australia after I returned from Kashmir. I was watching the death toll in Kashmir mount – day by day. When I initially discussed the idea, friends in Kashmir had given the green light immediately. People were dying and they wanted the world to know. However a few Indian friends of mine in Delhi raised strong reservations about how a cup of tea could ever fill the gap of a life lost. Their reservations were valid, but this work has never been about filling the gap, rather it is about making that gap known. Acknowledging it. Speaking it.

Through these discussions with my Indian friends I started to feel that Cups of nun chai wouldn’t work in India where the state and its armed forces were the very ones responsible for this loss of life. It seemed the context of Australia held a necessary distance. But there was something about the way that Miguel asked his question that made me think differently. Perhaps in India these cups of nun chai were even more urgent.

Imagine confronting the source of India’s occupation of Kashmir and its systemic and systematic abuse of human rights? Imagine sitting with the Prime Minister of India, the Indian Army General or the Chief Minister of Kashmir. Imagine breaking through their barriers of officialdom with a personal intimacy they could no longer evade. What would we find? Their nights plagued with sleeplessness? Anxiety? Guilt? Compassion? Or an obtuse emptiness that enabled them to sleep well at night?

“I like the rituals that surround tea.” Miguel continued, “In Morocco people talk about important things over tea all the time. It’s tied to Moroccan hospitality, and is part of a much bigger social process of listening and being heard.” Tea is part to Kashmir’s hospitality, which comes to light in these common phrases: Walie yoer, pather beah/Come and sit here, Chai chakhae?/Will you have tea?, Wale, kath karev/Come, lets chat. There is a twang in the Kashmiri language, which is similar to the twang of Australian-English. Somehow I always found the sounds familiar.

Chiara is working on a process-based art project that involves blogging. The internet is increasing useful when it comes to cultural and political activity. In Kashmir, like the world over, the internet circulates films, novels, music, journalism and critical debates, connecting people and ideas that would otherwise not be possible. I first heard about and listened to the rap music of MC Kash online. His lyrics and their rhythm seem like an anthem for protests of 2010:

These killings ain’t random its an organised genocide

Sponsored media who hide this homicide

No more injustice we won’t go down when we bleed

Alive in the struggle even the graves will speak

I protest, against the things you done.

I protest, for the mother who lost her son.

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