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

01.03.11

The distinct flavour of the nun chai welled in Chiara and Miguel’s mouths for a moment. Somehow the tea had a richer milkier flavour than usual. We paused. The nun chai entered and moved within our mouths and into our bodies as Miguel and Chiara silently tried to make sense of the situation in Kashmir that I had just described.

Miguel asked if I began this work in India or Australia. It was a question that made me think. The work had emerged in Australia after I returned from India. The death toll in Kashmir was mounting – day by day – and there was next to nothing about it in the Australian media. When I initially discussed the idea of this work, friends from Kashmir had been enthusiastic while some other friends in New Delhi held reservations about how a cup of nun chai could ever fill the gap left by this loss of life. But the work has never been about filling the gap but rather about making that gap known. Acknowledging it. Speaking it.

Through the discussions that took place as this work was taking shape, I began to presume 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 certain distance that was necessary. But there was something about the way that Miguel asked his question that made me think differently. Perhaps in South Asia these cups of nun chai were even more urgent.

I imagined the project taking place in New Delhi. I imagined sitting with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I would give him a cup of nun chai, and with the flavour of Kashmir in his mouth I would ask him to seriously and very genuinely contemplate the loss of life that his country’s armed forces were responsible for. When things were given the time and space to become real, to become personal, where would his humanity lie?

In South Asia the process would be more confrontational than it is here in Australia. It would be closer to the wound, but perhaps even more pertinent.

Miguel said he appreciated the ritual that was associated with the tea. He said in Morocco it was common for people to meet and speak of important things like this. He described it as part of a wider process of conversing, listening and being heard. Tea was a part of Moroccan hospitality, just as it was in Kashmir and many places throughout the world. I was reminded of a few common phrases in Kashmir: Walie yoer, pather beah/come and sit here, Chai chakhae?/Will you have have tea?, Wale, khat karev/come, lets chat. There is a certain twang in the Kashmiri language, which I find similar to the twang of Australian-English. There is a familiarity with the sounds.

Chiara is herself working on a process based art project that utilises blogging and we spoke about the increasing significance of the internet for both cultural and political activity today. There is an array of different forms of cultural expression that are emerging from Kashmir in response to the occupation; a heartening outburst of films and independent documentaries, novels and journalism, ongoing critical debates on social networking sites and even the emergence of rap music from the likes of MC Kash. His lyrics and their rhythm ran through my mind:

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.

 

Each cup of nun chai is also a protest.

 

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