Varsha is an artist who grew up in Gujurat and has lived in Bangkok since 1995. As co-organiser of the Thai based Womanifesto, feminism and the role of women in the arts have been important components of her work over the years. When we met in an old local’s café in Bangkok Varsha placed a book on the table between us—Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir. It contained black and white photographs of Kashmiri women, their families, and their stories. There was one portrait of a woman whose eyes were full of a violent history, the shape of her mouth torn by war. Varsha began our conversation by bringing to the fore how women always bear the brunt of war.
I had prepared the nun chai earlier on a gas burner at a small food cart on the corner of one of Bangkok’s busy city lanes. When I poured the nun chai for Varsha, more than one hour after it had come off the gas it was still steaming hot. As she tasted the nun chai Varsha spoke immediately of her memories of Kashmir. “I visited Kashmir once in the 1970s, when I was a school girl. At that age I knew nothing about the real political situation, but now I can see that since the time of Partition there has always been trouble. I remember the snow, our cold rosy cheeks and a sheep we saw slaughtered by the side of a road.”
“I also knew a Kashmiri trader who would visit our home in Gujurat every winter selling Kashmiri shawls and embroidered saris.” Varsha said he was the only Kashmiri trader in Gujurat at that time and he always travelled with his son who, as Varsha recalls, was about 8 or 9 year old at the time. “Last year, in 2011, I went home to Gujurat during the winter. Imagine, after decades, I came across that same boy, who was now a man carrying on his father’s trade. He called me ‘baby’, just like his father did all those years ago.” Varsha asked him how life was back home, “He simply shook his head and said, That is no way to live a life.”
What Varsha knew of Kashmir reminded her of Sarajevo. She had gone there some years ago for an artist residency. One day Varsha’s friend said she wanted to take her for a walk. “She didn’t tell me where we were going, but eventually we arrived at a sidewalk. It was a normal looking sidewalk, to my eyes at least, until she told me this is the place where her father fell to the bullet of a sniper. This was the first time she had returned here since his death.” Varsha said Kashmir must also be filled with such stories.
Varsha was friends with some female Iranian writers, and she told me about their courage and the issues they faced politically and socially where religious police intervene in daily life and government censorship is rife—and then suddenly a song that played loudly on the café’s crackling speaker system broke our conversation. I tried to keep speaking through the noise, only to realise everyone in the café was standing. Varsha gently explained, “This is the national anthem, we have to stand.” She smiled, “We have our own kind of religious police here too. We’ll talk about it later.” We stood there silently looking at each other’s faces for the duration of Thailand’s national anthem. I soon learnt it was played everyday at 6am and 6pm across the entire country and everyone had to stand.