The sixty-fourth and sixty-fifth cups of nun chai

15.10.11

Maggie and Gary were unsure how to begin. The nun chai was hot and the cups had become difficult to hold, so we put them down on the table to rest for some time.

I spoke specifically of last Summer in Kashmir, and my personal experience of what seemed at that time to be an ever-mounting-death-toll. Maggie asked about how it all began? She needed a broader context. I spoke about the Partition of South Asia, the promise of a plebiscite, the decay of democratic rights and the emergence of an armed struggle that met the absolute violence of India’s armed forces. I spoke of the geopolitics that have shaped Kashmir’s stories and the splintering of the movement. I spoke of the multifaceted nature of protest in Kashmir today – the significance of stones and words as opposed to guns.

The nun chai had cooled, so we began to drink. Maggie and Gary confirmed that nun chai was drunk every day in Kashmir. Last year I was sitting in an art studio in Sydney reading about the incomprehensible reality of 69 dead – shot and beaten on the streets of a place I knew. Struggling to make sense of something that was without sense, that loss of life translated into empty tea cups sitting in homes that felt the absence of a loved one. Sixty-nine cups of nun chai that would simply no longer be. As I said this Maggie’s face told me that she understood. The tea was an intimate window that opened onto a difficult story.

As we spoke on the inevitable and unanswerable question arose: But why do they want Kashmir? What does it have that they need? We spoke about the hydroelectricity generated in Kashmir and sent to Delhi, but that wasn’t enough. Between the two sibling nations of Pakistan and India, the struggle to maintain control over Kashmir was more about territory and the ego of the nation state than anything as straight forward as resources or religion.

Reflecting upon the situation in Kashmir, Maggie and Gary’s minds travelled immediately to our own experiences living in Warmun, a remote Indigenous community in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. Gary spoke of what has come to be known here in the East Kimberley as the “killing times”, when white settlers massacred large portions of the Indigenous population in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He spoke of this as something in the past but Maggie intercepted and drew attention to the contemporary legacies of that colonialism that were still taking place today.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend the night before. As we spoke generally of Kashmir, she remarked that it couldn’t be worse than here. I spoke in more detail of the situation and the extent of the military occupation, the reality of torture and unmarked graves and my friend was shocked. But on one level she was also right. The war in Kashmir is loud; while it is undoubtedly complex it is also unmistakable. Here in Warmun, and across much of (Indigenous) Australia today, the ongoing war of Australia’s colonisation moves silently.

In Australia the heavy arms of colonisation do not exist in some distant past; they have extended deep and continue quietly with their roots deep in the present. My friend said that while in Kashmir the state was shooting its civilians, here the state had produced an environment in which Indigenous people were now killing themselves. In some areas suicide among Indigenous Australians is 40% higher than that of the non-Indigenous population – and over the last 30 years this number has only increased.

Gary estimated that each of those 117 people who died in Kashmir last year was probably in direct contact with at least 100 other people in their day to day life. He multiplied 117 by 100 and calculated that thousands of people would have been directly affected by those deaths. That loss of life rippled like a stone thrown into a pond. Similarly, Gary said these cups of nun chai would also ripple out as thoughts and memories, which would in turn be shared with others.

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