The sixty-second and sixty-third cups of nun chai

1.10.2011

I sat with Beth and Andrew and three cups of very hot nun chai on a very hot afternoon. The air was dry and a warm breeze was blowing. Last year, during the Summer months across South Asia, when the central government of India was making decisions (and indecisions) about what to do in Kashmir from their offices in New Delhi, the city’s temperature would have been something akin to this.

As we began Beth asked if these 117 people who died in Kashmir last year were all activists. The word “activist” carries a certain professionalism and specialisation that I find difficult to place in the context of Kashmir. In what is the most densely militarised place in the world, how does one delineate between an activist and a non-activist? There are no definitive lines or set degrees.

Some weeks back a friend, Majid Maqbool, wrote a story about the military occupation of Kashmir. He described a young boy who, upon seeing troops raiding an apple orchard, had been unable to contain himself. Shouting out “….in Kashmiri from a halted public bus: “alai, chioet chuer!” (Hey, Apple stealers!), he mocked at the troops. The troops, unable to comprehend his shout, ignored it. They went on to bite a few more apples. They took away the rest and stored them in their vehicles.”

The youngest person to die in the violence that engulfed Kashmir during the Summer of 2010 was an eight year old boy named Sameer Ahmed Rah. He was beaten to death by the Central Reserve Police Force. When they recovered his body Sameer’s small dead hand still carried the piece of fruit he had bought earlier from a street vendor. As his father laments, “He was holding a pear, not a gun, not even a stone.”

In a place like Kashmir the specialisation of an ‘activist’ almost becomes irrelevant; the word at once encapsulates everyone and, also, no one.

I tried to contextualise the ground swell in Kashmir with the region’s history. Beth said it reminded her of Chile in the late 1980’s. Just before independence is attained, she said, violence usually reaches new heights. She told me about Pinochet’s dictatorship and some special moments in the lead up to its demise. Just before the dictatorship fell, a law was declared that prohibited more than three people congregating in a public place. From every direction in the city, people decided to walk in pairs towards the presidential palace as a means of voicing their opposition. People walked towards Pinochet’s palace and stood in front of it for five minutes before moving on. Beth described it as one of the earlier, more directly political, flash-mobs.

I was reminded of a Harun Farocki film about the 1989 Romanian revolution. Titled Videograms of a Revolution the film was made up of a collection of found footage, that was mostly shot on hand held cameras by people witnessing and participating in the revolution itself. As I explained Farocki’s film in more detail Andrew and I spoke about the significance of the media, the television then and the internet today, while Beth photographed us for a story about this work for ABC Open; the irony of our conversation about the media and the image Beth was taking was not entirely lost.

It was the relative silence over Kashmir last year, particularly in the Australian media, that contributed to the development of this project and these cups of nun chai. As someone who produces media herself Beth spoke about the need for openness and diversity in both what and how the media reports, but also the importance of story. It was stories that ended up mattering most to people; information alone seemed to evaporate, away. It became lost in the air.

At the beginning, as we began drinking the nun chai, Andrew found the tea a little too salty. It was difficult to drink for the first time in this kind of heat. But at the end Andrew’s cup was empty.

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