Among the last cups of nun chai to take place, as part of this work on Australian soil, Manzoor and Neelofar arrived like a bridge between two places; their timing a perfect point of transition as the project edges closer towards its end in South Asia.
Manzoor is the first Kashmiri to take part in Cups of nun chai, and both Neelofar and Manzoor had been living in Kashmir during that dreadful curfewed Summer of 2010. My grandparents first met the couple at their shop, in Sydney, where they sell some of Kashmir’s finest handcrafted products. Upon learning that they were from Kashmir my grandparents had spoken of me and soon introduced us. Now, almost one week later, I was walking into their shop for our second meeting over a cup of nun chai.
When I arrived Neelofar was reading some of the work online, and in particular she mentioned Rusty’s story. Manzoor prepared the nun chai in the back of their shop while Neelofar and I began to speak about Kashmir and Australia and some of the less obvious points of commonality between these two seemingly disparate places. States of illegal occupation, normalised. Historical experiences, unwritten. Violence, embedded in memory.
At one point tears welled up in Neelofar’s eyes, and also my own, as she spoke in detail of the four and a half months of curfew they endured in 2010. But it was not the curfew, nor the dead that Neelofar returned to, but it was the thousands of injured who are still with us today.
Neelofar and Manzoor had many stories. The curfew. The kids’ disrupted schooling. The food shortages. The way this idea of azadi only got stronger as the months passed. Worry. The noise. They said the noise was continuous, and horrible. Again, Neelofar came back to the injured. And they spoke about how long it took the media to actually take note of what was happening.
Manzoor said that he had never experienced anything like it before. Despite having grown up in the 1990’s, during what has come to be known as the height of the conflict in Kashmir, Manzoor said that for him the Summer of 2010 was the worst. Those four and a half months had shaken them both. It had etched itself into their beautiful eyes. Politicised them, out of necessity. And as Neelofar said it had made her tougher. Manzoor had hope, but he was concerned that as the days passed into years and the years turned into decades that one day he too might loose hope like his father, who had been watching the struggle in its various forms since 1947.
Neelofar and Manzoor could have left during those Summer months and returned to Australia, but they did not. The idea of leaving loved ones was more difficult to face than the occupation itself. Manzoor’s father believed that if you ran from war you became a target. In order to survive one had to wait it out. When Neelofar first came to Kashmir from Australia she said she had wanted to leave. During the Kargil War she wanted to run. But now she had learnt to wait.
We sat in a shop surrounded by the most exquisite shawls, papier mache, clothes and sozni embroidery that Kashmir has on offer while speaking about many of the most horrible and traumatic experiences that Kashmir, as a place and a people, has undergone. Middle-aged women from Sydney wandered in admiring the products on display. I wondered how they pieced together fragments of our conversation that they must have overheard, and how this shaped the way they saw the products on display. Somehow, for Manzoor, Neelofar and I, none of this felt out of place. In this little shop in Sydney, just as in Kashmir itself, Kashmir’s beauty and its pain cannot be understood in isolation from one another.
Neelofar said the mountains in Kashmir are crying for the violence that has engulfed its valleys. In the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, where Rusty is from, a friend often said something very similar. The impact of colonisation, the murder not just of people but also of language, has made this country sad too.