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.
“Mmm, it reminds me of warm buttery bread.” Ann seemed comforted after tasting nun chai for the first time. Our conversation danced around the flavour, ingredients and preparation of nun chai, before settling down to what these cups were really all about.
I showed Ann a document produced by the newspaper Rising Kashmir, which listed all the people who died in the first 100 days of violence this past summer. Ann was drinking the 38th cup of nun chai. On the 2nd of August Khursheed Ahmed War became the 38th person to die. According to the report he was killed by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Her eyes darted below. The 39th person to die was an 8-year-old boy named Sameer Ahmed Rah. Again, Ann’s eyes darted across the page to another 8 year old – Milad Ahmed Dar, killed on the 19th of August. The death toll now lies at around 118. Numbers jumped out from the page, and Ann was shocked at how young most of the deceased were. There was a moment of silence between us. A heaviness filled the room.
Looking over a map Ann started to conceptualise where Kashmir was in relation to the rest of the world. Kashmir was in fragments – divided in parts between India, Pakistan and China. We pieced together the regions of Jammu, Chenab valley, Pir Panchal, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit, Baltistan, Kargil, Leh and Zanskar, Aksai Chin and the Kashmir valley. We spoke about religion in the region – the diversity of its history and contemporary makeup. I described the exodus of the Pandit community along with the concurrent rise of an armed movement. But to understand the relationship between religion and politics we had to go further back into history – back to the Treaty of Amritsar and to partition, to Hari Singh, Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru. There was so much necessary detail. There were so many narratives vying for space. In essence, there was so much that needed to be said.
“My mother visited Kashmir many times, right up until she was well into her 70s. That was sometime in the mid-1980s. Kashmir was a destination on the hippie trail. That’s how I came to know of it.” Ann recalled. I explained the political pressure that had been mounting in Kashmir since the time of Partition. There had been decades of mounting pressure. “Imagine, all those people living with that pressure. Generations of people, day in and day out. Something has to give.”
I showed Ann images on the internet of Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik. We spoke about the different ways different generations of people have experienced the conflict in Kashmir. I told Ann about the imprisonment of some of my friends’ fathers and their brothers, and she asked about torture. It was common and affected people in both physical and psychological ways. Wikileaks released a series of cables this year from the International Committee of the Red Cross that accused the Indian government of condoning the use of torture in Kashmir. This didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in Kashmir.
As Ann looked at the little map on my computer screen I could feel her mind ticking. She was trying to work out a way for all these different people, religions, landscapes and countries to come to a point where Azadi (freedom) was available to everyone. It was almost as if for a moment the map became a chess board and she wanted to find a way to move Kashmir out of checkmate.
I wanted to know more about the Kashmir Ann’s mother knew. I wanted to speak with Ann more about the role of social media, journalism, literature, art and music in Kashmir right now. I showed Ann a video from India’s national Republic Day, during which the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front floated a helium balloon carrying a flag, up into the sky in protest. I wanted to speak more about what the events in Egypt at Tahrir Square could mean for Kashmir. There was so much to say and not enough time. As our discussion came to an end Ann and I looked back at the map. It seemed to come down to the haunting legacy of colonialism. This was not simply a process of ‘redrawing maps’ but the imposition of the whole idea of a map and of a nation in the first place. The irony is that many struggles for independence seek precisely this too. It is a double-edged sword, with no easy answer, except to constantly question and re-imagine what that idea of independence and freedom could be.
—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.