The sixty-seventh cup of nun chai


Some months back, 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 donga 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.

Now the weather is warm. Karen and I know each other better. And we are back home in Warmun. Since that morning in Kununurra many months ago we’ve spoken of Kashmir many times. Whenever I spoke of nun chai Karen was always reminded of the Tibetan tea she had been introduced to in Nepal, and so 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 what it meant necessitated a little silence.

When Karan and I did eventually begin to speak, we spoke of places and friends. This eventually led into a discussion centred on the relevance of non-violence in the world today. Karan spoke of the changing attitudes of some Tibetan monks, who were turning to violence in their struggle against China. I spoke of the history of non-violence in South Asia and the way it was loosing its effectiveness in the world today. To pull things into context I showed Karan a map of India which indicated the Naxal affected areas, while also pointing out the geographical regions of the South, the North-East, the Punjab and Kashmir; India came together as a series of geographical fragments.

Karan spoke of her experiences in Alice Springs during the 1990’s and the radical Indigenous political movements she encountered there. She spoke of people smuggling footage in their underpants from East Timor and other political activists who had mysteriously going missing to crocodiles in Queensland and the Northern Territory. These were pieces of Australia’s contemporary history that most know very little about.

Trauma is carried across generations and within this the dual processes of creativity and destruction are so often part of the same kernel. This is nowhere more prevalent than in Warmun, where a very deep and almost incomprehensible historical trauma, manifests itself in the struggling social fabric of the community which has produced one of Australia’s most important contemporary Indigenous art movements.

Karan spoke of a friend who was able to walk the talk of non-violence to its limits. He had the patience, or perhaps the commitment, to walk up to someone at the heart of a conflict and ask for help. I felt this approach – attempting the seemingly impossible – to be so very relevant. Again I thought back to the possibility of sitting down with the Prime Minister of India and asking him, over a cup of nun chai, to genuinely contemplate the deaths of 117 people at the hands of his armed forces. What would he taste in that cup of nun chai?

Some things in this world confound me. The Queen of England visited Perth a few weeks back, and attended an exhibition of contemporary Indigenous Australian 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 this world. How does she not simply break down with the haunting responsibility of it all?

Karan looked down at her cup of nun chai and began to speak:

The colour of the tea was 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 held them all; the world they are now a part of. Generations who won’t taste this tea.

Karan’s empathy was deep. She had never experienced genocide first hand, but she had lived its inter-generational fall out. Her Jewish background, her queerness, her beard and her understanding of Indigenous Australia fuelled her with a seething historical rage that exploded in creative and at times also destructive ways into both her life and her poetry.


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