This participatory memorial, by artist Alana Hunt, emerged in response to Kashmir’s Summer of 2010. In the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of serious media coverage, Hunt evolved ways to speak, to connect and to write in a form that would reach places where the news headlines do not. By July 2012 she had invited 118 people to share a cup of nun chai with her as a simple act that acknowledged this loss of life. Like an ever-growing memory the endeavour unfolded over two years of tea and conversation – across Australia, Europe, parts of South Asia and Kashmir – into a gentle yet challenging refusal to allow that loss of life to simply pass.
Since June 11, these memorialising words and images have appeared here in Kashmir Reader serialised every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
“It doesn’t matter,” Idil reassured me, “I often drink cold tea at home. I make it and forget about the cup until I find it sitting there cold.” The nun chai had become cold in the thermos but it was a perfect rusted pink colour. “Do you use special milk to make this? In Somalia we use camel milk. It is rich and creamy. Camel’s milk is the source of life and energy for my people. But here in Australia we can’t buy it. We miss it so much. But you can buy camel meat – and the Somali community goes wild over it!”
Idil reminded me of the warm milk I was served when I first visited the home of a good friend in the north of Kashmir. I was later told that the reason we were served warm milk was because their mother believed in two kinds of relations among people; one was a blood relation while the other formed when someone shared the same mother’s milk. Guests we were served warm milk to bring us closer to the family. Kashmir abounds with this deep sense of hospitality.
Idil’s friend Danielle arrived a little late. She had recently visited Pakistan and came very close to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, also known as Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir). Danielle worked with Afghan refugees in Western Sydney. She was interested in Islam and the Western media’s bias and she wanted to learn about Kashmir and this nun chai project.
We were three young women whose common lives in Sydney coalesced with our distinctive experiences across Kashmir, Somalia and Pakistan. Our conversation flowed seamlessly between Bollywood and civil war in Somalia, from the conviviality of Henna to the absurdity of helicopters patrolling the streets of Auburn in Western Sydney at night, from salwar kameez to the vastness of Sydney’s suburbs, the chaotic nature of roads in Lahore and of course to the history of Kashmir and all the people who should not have lost their lives in the valley that summer.
For Idil the world made most sense when you were simply chatting over the back fence with your neighbours. But sometimes neighbours were lost to borders and political opinions. Contemporary Kashmir has been shaped in this way. Idil told us about the struggles in Somalia, “Somaliland wants independence from Somalia. Even though we’re thousands of miles from home debates about this still dominate the Somali community in Sydney. I don’t like to get involved. Neighbours will refuse to speak for months!” These emotional disagreements are the legacies of colonisation. They are the legacies of decisions that had little connection to the people they would most affect.
A man in Kupwoar district of Kashmir once told me that the only active militants in the mountains of Kashmir today were not locals but rather a handful of men from Somalia and Afghanistan. Idil said that even here, in Australia, she had heard stories of a few young Somali men leaving their homes without telling their families to join jihad struggles in far off countries. I wonder if any of these people from Sydney reached the mountains of Kashmir via Somalia? “We won’t get anywhere if we keep running around killing people.” Idil spoke for a long time, drifting off occasionally and looking down as words inevitably failed the immensity of what she was trying to get at.
—Alana Hunt makes art, writes and occasionally curates. Her work is informed, in quiet yet consistent ways, by the dual (post)colonial worlds of South Asia and the remote East Kimberley region of Western Australia.