Over nun chai Sobia, Ifrah and Nazish – three young girls just 20 years of age – began recounting stories they had heard while growing up. On the insistence of her daughter, Nazish’s mother Mehjabeen told me that after crossing back over from Pakistan her brother had been detained for two years in India’s notorious Tihar Jail. With no word his family had presumed he was dead, but one day he returned and was thankfully still with them today. Later that evening I met Mehjabeen’s brother who was now a slim, frail man with a hopeful smile.
But as the girls spoke about militants Nazish’s father Mohammad Ashraf intercepted in a cheeky way and told them not to use the word militant, but to instead speak of Kashmir’s freedom fighters. He said if Gandhi was India’s freedom fighter, why not ours also?
The girls were all a little embarrassed. They soon recognised the deeper meanings embedded in their use of language and corrected themselves. Nazish later remarked, with a smirk, that she wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Mohammad asked me when Australia became free from the British? I tried to explain, sadly, that we never really did. Today, the shape of Australia is a legacy of that continual occupation, of that stolen land, of the desecration of one civilisation by another. Colonisation ran too deep; Indigenous Australians were ostracised in their own country, and despite many political gains in recent decades they were far from ‘free’.
I told Mohammad that I had shared these cups of nun chai with Indigenous people in Australia. Once I explained the situation in Kashmir they inevitably related it back to the wars and massacres and struggles against colonisation that had shaped Australia. Mohammad listened and thought about this.
For Sobia, Ifrah and Nazish, throughout most of their lives the conflict in Kashmir had existed largely through stories they overheard from their parents and older family members. But 2008 and 2010 had changed this. Those two years had given their generation, who were just small kids in the 1990’s, stories of their own. The violence had now marked their memories.
In 2010 Sobia, Ifrah and Nazish had been in their final year of high school, during which they spent 4 months at home under curfew and consequently missed half of the year’s curriculum. They spoke a lot about being inside for these months; the fear, the death, the frustration and the hopelessness burst out of them like fluid. But one thing they described, which I had never heard before, was something called a ‘deal’. A ‘deal’ occurred when the armed forces decided to let people out of their homes to buy essentials for a restricted period of time. They would drive around a locality, telling its residents through a loudspeaker that a ‘deal’ had been made. People would pour out of their homes to buy essentials, and when these fifteen minutes of the deal were up, the voice on the loudspeaker would order everyone to return to their homes. The lathi (bamboo) sticks used for crowd control would come out, and the curfew would resume. Once again they were inside.
Against their mother’s will Sobia’s younger brothers would join the protests on the streets. She would scold them, and order them to stay inside, but at only 15 and 11 years of age, they would argue back asking their mother if she wanted her daughter to be the next Neelofar or Asiya – two young victims of a double rape and murder case in Shopian that manifested in a major cover up involving the government and armed forces in 2009.
Poignantly Ifrah said we could sympathise with those who had lost their loved ones, but unless and until it happened to us we could never know their pain. She explained that pain is something one lives with permanently, it is carried with you and ultimately changes our very definition of life.
Earlier that day, Nazish said she was not so interested in politics, but somehow Kashmir made politics unavoidable. In light of Cups of nun chai, she asked what I felt and I explained that it wasn’t politicians or parliaments that interested me, but a deeper politics of life. Nazish understood exactly what I meant.