“That’s the same here. In Australia. Right across Australia. That’s the same story everywhere.” I had been speaking with Rusty for a few weeks about sharing a cup of nun chai and today was the day. I told him about Kashmir and he told me about Australia. He spoke about the violent colonisation of his Gija country, which took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Not long ago at all, really. Locally this period is known as the ‘killing times’. Rusty’s country is littered with sites of massacre and stories of desecration.
I showed Rusty some photos of Kashmir on my laptop. He looked closely at this foreign and distant country. Then terrible stories of his own emerged in fragments, like a tree that had been cut to pieces being put back together.
Their curry was poisoned. But they had collected the wood. All of them were doused in kerosene. Their bodies were burnt on the wood they had collected after they died from food cooked on that same wood. At another place they were beaten. They were killed too. Some ran away. They hid. Shots were fired. And there were more fires. Always fire to burn the bodies. Rusty said his grandfather used to warn him never to drink tea made by another person. He told him to always collect your own drinking water. Today there is a dark humour that underlies a serious sense that death from poison is still a real possibility. Always collect your own water.
“I get sad talking about this,” but Rusty went on anyway. Surrounded by the dead Rusty’s uncle had pretended to be dead in order to survive. They poked his body and he didn’t move a muscle. They poked his eyes and he didn’t blink. Then, as they moved away he got up and ran. He ran into a cave. He ran and hid. But they chased him. The started a fire at the base of that cave, and today the residue of that murderous smoke still remains on the stone surface. But those gardiya (whitefellas) didn’t know the cave was actually a tunnel. And Rusty’s uncle escaped by crawling out the other side. He was one among a few who lived to tell the tale.
“It is the same everywhere. Sometimes there are good people and sometimes there are bad people.” Before the gardiya came, Rusty said his old people would kill people they didn’t know simply because they were strangers. He told me how his old people could ‘sing people’, put a curse on them through their footprints that were left on the ground. He said they could send a man mad, and make him run for his life.
Rusty is a painter. His work has told stories that have been largely left out of Australia’s national history. Some of his paintings carry titles like Blackfella murdered in Australia (2002) and Chinaman’s Garden Massacre (2000). In this latter painting, there is a valley at the base of which grows two large trees beside a fire and a small house. The house belonged to a gardiya who had shot and burned many Aboriginal people in that fire. Rusty said they picked up Aboriginal children by the feet and belted their bodies against those trees. Events like this are the dark underbelly of Australia’s nation-making enterprise.
In Australia the ‘history wars’ refer to an ongoing public debate over the interpretation of the British colonisation of Australia and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Within this atmosphere, where memory and oral history is often pitted against written 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 drinking the nun chai Rusty looked around at the land in front of us and said, “This country is lost.” I didn’t know what to say, “North, South, East and West. This country is lost.” It was heartbreaking. Rusty is growing old; each day he laments the younger generations while he struggles to make sense of the desecration of life that surrounds him.