Rusty and I had been speaking about this project on and off for the last few weeks and today was not much different. We looked over some photos of Kashmir on my laptop. I spoke again about last Summer and what this nun chai was all about.
As I finished speaking Rusty said, That’s the same, here, in Australia. Right across Australia. That’s the same everywhere. He sighed, heavily. He spoke of the initial period of colonisation, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of his Gija country in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. This period has come to be known as the ‘killing times’ and today his country is scattered with sites of massacre and stories of desecration.
Thinking of what I had said about Kashmir, fragments of stories and oral histories about this place began to flow from Rusty’s mouth.
They collected the wood. Their curry was poisoned. All of them. Beaten. Killed. Doused in kerosene. Their bodies burnt on that same wood. Running. Hiding. Shooting. More burning. Rusty said his grandfather used to warn him, Never drink tea made by someone else, and always collect your own drinking water. This underlying fear of being poisoned still comes up in conversations here today.
Rusty said he got sad when he spoke of these things but, regardless, he went on to speak of more. His uncle had lay still, surrounded by the dead. They poked his body and he didn’t move a muscle. They poked his eyes and he didn’t blink. As they moved away he got up and ran. He ran away into a cave. Ran and hid. They chased him. Trying to burn him, they burnt that cave, and today the residue of that murderous smoke still remains. But the gardiya (whitefellas) didn’t know that cave was a tunnel. Rusty’s uncle escaped by crawling through that tunnel to the other side of the hill and he lived to tell the tale.
Rusty asked if they were killing people in Kashmir with guns or poison? I said mostly with guns and sometimes by beating people with batons. Sometimes chasing people into the river. He said it was the same here and there; sometimes there are good people and sometimes there are bad people. Good gardiya and bad gardiya. He told me that before the gardiya came here, the old people would kill those they didn’t know, simply because they were strangers. He spoke of how they could ‘sing someone’, put a curse on them from their footprints that were left on the ground. They could send a man mad and make him go running for his life.
Rusty is an artist whose work has voiced stories that have been left out of Australia’s official history. Some of his paintings carry titles like Blackfella murdered in Australia (2002) and Chinaman’s Garden Massacre (2000). In this latter work we see a valley like landscape, two large trees beside a fire and a small house. The house belonged to the gardiya who had shot and burned many Aboriginal people in that fire. They had picked the children up by their feet and belted their bodies against those trees. Passed down through oral histories, violent and traumatic events like this are the dark underbelly of Australia’s nation-making enterprise. Within this context of unofficial memories and official histories Rusty’s paintings resonate with the words of the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali when he wrote, my memory keeps getting in the way of your history.
As we sat, thinking about Gija country and thinking about Kashmir, Rusty said to me, Okay. I understand. Go and make this tea.
I prepared the nun chai, some fresh chapatti and sat down beside Rusty outside. We sat there in silence for quite some time. I actually didn’t know what more to say, and then he said, This country is lost.
North, South, East and West, Rusty said, this country is lost. He said it again. He is growing old and each day he laments the younger generation while he struggles to make sense of the desecration that continues to abound.