The fifty-sixth cup of nun chai

10.07.11

In order to get a clearer sense of where and what Kashmir is Peter and I used key words to search the net. First we looked at maps; an image of Kashmir lodged between and occupied by India, Pakistan, and China. It was coloured brown, orange, and green. We next looked at the landscape in detail. Peter’s own country lay in the remote north-west of Australia—like Kashmir it is a place renowned for its beauty. Peter’s country is also replete with the legacies of colonisation, which means Kashmir’s story has resonance here in more than one way. But it was the snow-capped mountains that first caught his eye. Looking at the green and at the rivers Peter smiled, “Kashmir looks like good country.”

Finally we came across images of the protests that engulfed Kashmir in 2010. I tried to contextualise how stone throwing emerged in Kashmir and why the protests were happening. Peter examined the images carefully; his eyes seemed to pull apart the stark dialectic that lay between the men in uniform and those without. The very recent colonial histories of Peter’s own Gija country and the tensions that lie between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people here today connected with Kashmir.

I went to get the nun chai and chapatti from the kitchen. When I returned Peter said, with an understanding that was informed by the injustices of his own world, “So… they might lock you up, over there, for all this.” He knew how fragile nations fear the power of conversation and ideas. Australia can be fragile too.

As we drank nun chai Peter and I looked out towards a small tin shed that lay rusting in the distance. When Peter was a boy the police used that shed as a lock up for people who became unruly during the rodeos. Peter giggled at the antics of his old people and imagined them getting locked up in there when they were young and reckless. “They told me stories. Once they escaped from that tin shed, they found a way to climb out through the roof. Imagine. They weren’t always as calm as they are today. They were young once too.” In Aboriginal Australia there is very little stigma attached to imprisonment, at least where we are in the north-west of Australia. My feeling is that this is because for generations of Aboriginal people the justice system has not been about justice at all; instead it has come to represent injustice. In many ways Kashmir is not dissimilar.

“Are people scared to speak up in Kashmir?” Peter reasoned that it might be important for people outside the region do something if people within Kashmir were feeling intimidated. The old people from Peter’s community held living memories of being beaten, and even shot, for speaking against white pastoralists or not doing what they were ‘told’ to do. We spoke about how governments control populations. In the community of Warmun, where Peter and I live, I often felt as though I was watching Foucault’s theory of bio-power and governmentality enacted on people by the state every day through a process that obsessively (though often without success) tried to make people legible to the system. The recording of birth dates, names, addresses, medical histories, phone numbers, banking details are part of what makes possible the modern nation state and its control of populations, its control of life. Peter’s old people, born in the bush, didn’t have birthdates, and for most of the population of Warmun today, residential addresses and phone numbers changed like the seasons.

Young people in Kashmir had started telling their own stories, wrestling back the power of narration. This was generally viewed in a positive light but Peter was hesitant, “For me it’s important that young people listen to the old people first. We need to know the old peoples’ stories before we start telling our own.” Peter’s words were rooted deep in the struggle to hold on to an oral culture in the face of European colonisation, and the deep respect for elders such oral cultures demand.

I want to have nun chai with the old people here in Warmun too. Peter joked that once they taste nun chai they might ask me to prepare whole billy-cans of it every day! I spoke about how common nun chai is in Kashmir, and how it is drunk at all times of the day and usually accompanied with some kind of bread. I told Peter how this idea came about, when people were being killed in 2010 in Kashmir, when people were dying in Kashmir daily. I thought of the empty cups of nun chai that would be sitting in people’s homes after someone had died. There is a beautiful potential for those cups to be refilled by the continuing presence of family drinking from the same cups their loved ones held. I wanted to explain the need to talk, to acknowledge to share information, to remember but before I could finish explaining, Peter held his cup up, subtly gestured forward, and said, “That is what these cups are for.”

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