The sixty-first cup of nun chai

08.09.11

A few hours before meeting Antony, I followed an online link to a cartoon that he had sent me via email. In the image a little man with a big nose was sitting at a small table, alone, sipping on a cup of tea. Drawn by Michael Leunig the accompanying text read:

The tiny bit of GST / I pay for my cup of tea / Will go towards the bit of lead / That goes into somebody’s head / In deepest dark Afghanistan: / Perhaps a peaceful loving man /Targeted by secret sources / Murdered by the Special Forces / Dies to keep me safe and free / As I drink my cup of tea.

Darkly pertinent, the cartoon hit the spot.

There is a futile element in these cups of nun chai. Yet at the same time, in the face of what is a tragic and absurd reality, there remains something oddly meaningful.

Leunig’s cartoon reminded me of what a friend had said when I first conceived this work. She described the process as being somewhat akin to the impotent meetings politicians held on the world stage while smiling for the cameras over cups of tea. My friend had said that little ever came from those cups of tea, and she wondered what could inversely come from these cups of nun chai.

In their quaint character these small yet gradually accumulating cups of nun chai pose an array of questions. One in particular asks: when a nation’s armed forces shoots and kills unarmed civilians in a place that is distant from where you are now what might be an appropriate response?

As we sat down, Antony said his life as a journalist was so often filled with horrible things that he was glad to take a little time to sit down here with this tea. Although this tea was certainly about horrible things the way in which it addressed these things was different. It was simple. The tea was warm. Inviting. Yet the wider context, like the question above, was also challenging.

Antony asked how I developed the project. As he was himself a journalist and a writer, I began to explain how this project grew out of my own need to write about Kashmir in the face of the killing that took place there last year. While the Commonwealth Games were drawing near and the international spotlight shining on Delhi, India’s armed forces were shooting unarmed civilians on a daily basis in Indian occupied Kashmir. One morning, on an Australian news program, the famed Olympic swimmer Dawn Fraser spoke of the looming threat of terrorism and the dirtiness of the Commonwealth Games facilities in New Delhi. My gut wrenched at that point. While she was speaking obnoxiously and with an apparent air of authority about issues of cleanliness and terrorism, the Indian state’s armed forces were conducting their own terrorism in Kashmir. An estimated 117 people had been shot in almost as many days, of which Dawn Fraser said nothing.

Antony spoke of heartache as well. Everywhere, from a small park in Sydney’s inner-west to a home on a Kashmiri mountain not far from the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, from charged war zones to placid suburbs, questions of love never really dissipate. Perhaps like cups of tea, love also has the capacity to cross boundaries and perceived hierarchies of reason and ‘appropriateness’.

And just as love never leaves us, politics doesn’t either. Leunig’s cartoon proved that point well.

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