In early 2011, on a cool winter morning inside the Warmun community’s post-flood evacuation camp in Kununurra, Karen and I sat on the small steps outside her temporary accommodation with two cups of nun chai. But like much life at that time, our tea was disrupted only to resume again at another time and in another place.
On that later occasion the weather was warm. Karen and I knew each other better, and we were now in Warmun. Since that morning in Kununurra many months ago we had spoken of Kashmir many times. Nun chai always reminded Karen of the Tibetan tea she had been introduced to in Nepal, and we decided to brew the nun chai and this buttery Tibetan tea together. The two separate (though similar) pots of tea simmered simultaneously over the gas and when we eventually sat down, each with two different (though similar) cups of tea, a gentle silence fell over us. Having spoken so much of Kashmir, it was as though the flavours of this tea and the lives it memorialised necessitated some silence.
When Karen and I did eventually speak we began to discuss the state of non-violent protest in the world today. Karen spoke of Tibetan monks who were turning to violence, against the Dalai Lama’s directions, in their struggle against China. Non-violence, also known as ahimsa, was loosing its command in India too. The political powers had stopped listening. They had learnt to turn away. In such situations violence becomes the only language that is understood. “I had a friend,” Karen said, “who was able to walk the talk of non-violence to its limits. He had the patience, and the courage, to walk up to someone in the heat of an argument and ask for help. There is immense strength in that. I don’t have it.” I showed Karen a map of India indicating the Red Corridor. This is a part of India experiencing a Naxalalite-Maoist led insurgency. As I pointed out the geographical regions of the South, the North-East, the Punjab and Kashmir, India came together as a series of social and political fragmentations. This was quite contrary to the nation’s official narrative of ‘unity in diversity’.
Karen had been part of a lot of political activism over the years. She spoke of her experiences in Alice Springs during the 1990s and the radical Aboriginal political movements she encountered. She told me about friends who had smuggled footage in their underpants out of East Timor and Australia activists who had mysteriously ‘gone missing’ in the crocodile infested waters of Queensland and the Northern Territory. These were pieces of Australia’s political history that most of us know very little about.
Trauma has the ability to embed itself in future generations. Karen’s personal experiences—her Jewish background and queer identity—meant that she understood this well. A seething historical rage often explodes from the same kernel as intense and varying degrees of creativity and destruction. This is nowhere more prevalent than in Warmun, where a very deep and historical trauma manifests itself in the social fabric of a community that has produced one of Australia’s most important Aboriginal art movements. It is also happening in Kashmir now, as younger generations manifest their experiences of injustice in words, painting, photography, music, and performance.
Some things in this world absolutely confound me. The Queen of England visited Perth a few weeks ago and attended an exhibition of Aboriginal art. Thinking of the utter desolation and destruction that the processes of colonisation continues to wreak, my mind searches for how she possibly makes sense of the world she sees. How does she not simply break down with the haunting responsibility of everything done in her name?
Karen quietly looked at her cup of nun chai and began to speak,
The colour of the tea is like skin, pink with the blood that runs through it. The leaves come from the soils of untold buried stories. The dried marks on the edge of the cup are the mountains that people live in. The cup itself is the world that holds them all; the world they are now a part of. There are people who will no longer taste this tea.