On my way to meet with Suzy and Nicola I dropped the ceramic cups I was carrying in a thin cotton bag and they smashed into pieces on the footpath. I picked up some paper cups from a café on the way, and when I told Suzy and Nicola they both laughed and said they were honoured to be the first, and hopefully the only, paper cups in this work.
Almost immediately Suzy asked if there was a particular schedule the project was running to and when it was expected to finish. I have no idea when I will reach the end, but questions like this speak immediately of the disproportionate amount of time it actually takes to have 117 cups of nun chai in comparison to the time it took for India’s armed forces to kill 117 unarmed people.
I first spoke to Suzy, who is a current student at my former art school, when she phoned me from a call centre at the University of Sydney in order to gather information about what former students were doing. As I spoke about Cups of nun chai she expressed a lot of interest in participating, and when we finally met she brought along her friend Nicola who was studying journalism at the University of Technology.
We spoke about the summer of 2010 in Kashmir. The current winter quiet would soon come to an end and the summer of 2011 was fast approaching. People were anxious about what it would bring. We spoke about the historical and contemporary narratives of Kashmir – piecing the complicated story together into some kind of a coherent picture. As I spoke of Partition Suzy said the year 1947 had been etched into her memory from history classes at school. Both Suzy and Nicola said they had known very little about any of this. Nicola doubted whether anyone in her journalism course had even heard of Kashmir.
Of course, there is a certain impossibility of ever being able to know every thing that happens everywhere. The world is large and each local situation complex and unique. But the amount of information that circulates about Kashmir is hugely disproportionate to the scale of what has and continues to take place in Kashmir everyday.
Suzy and Nicola asked a lot of questions. As journalism and art students they wanted to know how the work was coneptualised. How it took place in practice. They reflected on the value of the work, describing how it enabled them learn about and come into contact with something they hadn’t know much about before. We spoke about the whole process as an accumulating memorial.
Suzy and Nicola emptied their paper cups and seemed to enjoy its flavour. They asked about how I came into contact with people who wanted to participate in the work. Initially I distributed 200 invitations to people on the streets of Sydney, but not one person contacted me. I had expected that at least 20% of these people would decide to take part in the project and participate or at least want to know more, but it was a complete failure. I worried about the feasibility of the work and the general amount of compassion in the world today. But then, slowly the work began to move and things started to flow. Now it circulates mostly through word of mouth, online networks and occasional exhibitions of the work in progress. After a stalled beginning the nun chai is now flowing at a steady pace.
Conversely the rate at which people are dying in Kashmir has slowed, but unfortunately it is not possible to say it has stopped entirely. With the Summer of 2011 around the corner there is an anxious expectation in the air. I want to ask the Indian government a question:
Would it be possible to give your armed forces in Kashmir a new goal? Ask them to pass the Summer months without killing one person. Give a reward for life, instead of for a fake encounter that causes death.
The world is complicated but sometimes it is necessary for things to be made simple.