The forty-seventh and forty-eighth cups of nun chai


I first met Suzy when she phoned me from a call centre at the University of Sydney. She was gathering information about what former students were up to after graduating. Suzy was studying art at the college I attended and when I told her about Cups of nun chai she said she wanted to participate. When we finally met in person she brought along her friend Nicola who was studying journalism at the University of Technology.

At the time of our conversation, it was winter in Kashmir and the streets were quiet. Sentiment, like people, seems to survive the cold by huddling inside to keep warm. With the summer of 2011 fast approaching, people didn’t expect things would remain quiet for much longer.

“The year 1947 was etched into my mind during history classes at school. It was a big year in so many ways. But I had no idea of its significance in Kashmir,” said Suzy.

“I doubt that anyone in my journalism class has even heard of Kashmir,” added Nicola.

It is impossible to ever know everything that happens everywhere. But what is the affect of our not-knowing? And where does that place our responsibility? The world is full of struggle—but the silence that looms over Kashmir’s story is hugely disproportionate to the scale of what is happening. One would hope journalism students are the ones who will, in the future, change this not-knowing by breaking the silence with their stories.

As journalism and art students Suzy and Nicola were interested in how the work was conceptualised and how it took place in practice. They asked a lot of questions. Suzy reflected, “It’s important, and it is different from most other art people are making at the moment. We’re learning about something we really didn’t know anything about before.”

“How did you first find people to participate?” Nicola asked. At the start I handed out 200 invitations to people on the streets of Sydney. Not one person contacted me. I knew the majority wouldn’t, I hoped a few would, but there was no one. Handing out invitations to strangers on the street was a complete failure. I really worried about the feasibility of the work, and the amount of compassion and empathy in the world generally. But then slowly the work began to move, and things started flowing. Later, I found participants mostly through word of mouth, online and via occasional exhibitions of the work-in-progress. After a stalled beginning the nun chai flowed at a steady pace.

With another summer around the corner anxiety and defiance filled the air in Kashmir. People were fearful of more violence and more death, but they also knew that resistance must continue with renewed vigour, after 2010 added to the ledger of loss. But the Indian state was also sharpening its blade on the whetstone of the apathy of its people. I wanted to ask the Indian government a question:

Would it be possible to give your armed forces a new goal? Ask them to pass the next summer without killing a single person. In the coming year, give a reward for life, instead of giving rewards for causing death.

The world is complicated but sometimes it is necessary for things to be made simple.


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