The eightieth cup of nun chai


It was sunny when Mandy first arrived. But by the time we actually sat down to have nun chai the weather had changed. Grey clouds were blown in by a strong wind. Thunder broke through the sky and the rain belted down. It reminded me of the storms that would hit my friend’s village, in the mountains of north Kashmir, suddenly but with a sure regularity every afternoon in May 2010. That was only weeks before the killing and the protests that etched that Summer into history began.

Mandy and I began speaking about Kashmir and what lay behind these cups of nun chai. After some time Mandy paused, she said this was the first time she had felt a sense of guilt at being Indian.

Though Mandy had grown up in Australia her paternal family were from Goa, and like most people she began to make sense of Kashmir through her own personal experiences. A number of years ago Mandy had read a lot about the Goan Inquisition, which had made her question the role her own family had played in Goa at this time. Had they been forced to convert to Catholicism or had they been involved in forcing others? She said this was something she would never know – her family’s history now too splintered and distant today to ever get to the bottom of it. The situation was not dissimilar in Australia. Some of my family had been here during the Frontier Wars that took place between the Indigenous people and the occupying European settlers. What had they committed? Witnessed? Turned a blind eye to? Mandy said these questions were explored in the novels of Australian author Kate Grenville, including The Secret River (2005) and The Lieutenant (2008).

The Goan Inquisition? Colonial Australia? Contemporary Kashmir? In just about every room, in every home, in every town and city, in every country and continent on this planet we are forever making individual choices that govern how we either struggle against or contribute to the injustices and moral complexities of our own times.

On her way to meet me Mandy had been thinking about what these cups of nun chai actually mean. For me, life itself seems to hinge on that which is at once insanely absurd and at the same moment intensely meaningful. This work is no different. Drinking tea is, on the one hand, an absurd response to a military occupation and the desecration it has brought on a people and a place. Yet a military occupation is, at the same time, so disgustingly absurd that perhaps this absurd act of drinking tea could potentially gather a kind of meaning that carries us somewhere else.

Our conversation moved from the political and historical complexities of Kashmir towards the personal and psychological. People in themselves are polarised; at once dually capable of altruism and murder.

Mandy wanted to see some images of Kashmir. We looked online and found representations of Kashmir that moved between an idyllic fruitful landscape to a Kashmir with streets filled with armed men in uniform and protesting men without – yet there is so much more in between. These images brought us to the modern political history of Kashmir, and Mandy seemed to suddenly recognise in India the way the colonised can so easily transform into the coloniser.

Emerging from the complicated and very sad story of Kashmir in the Summer of 2010, the underlying bent of our conversation seemed to dwell on the fragile question of what all of us, as individuals and as larger collective social bodies, are capable of.


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