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.
I read Gowhar Fazili’s Grieving as a Medium. The piece sensitively considers the articulation of grief in Kashmir through the pain and sense of loss expressed by two mothers whose very young sons had died in 2010. Cath is my aunt, and she is also a new mother. As we spoke, her 5-month-old baby, my little cousin Theo, slept soundly in the other room.
It was a hot Sydney summer day. The flavour of nun chai isn’t suited to hot weather, so I asked Cath to imagine the cool of the Himalayas. When I first returned to Delhi from Kashmir in mid-2009 I brought a bag of tea leaves from Sopore. I would often make nun chai during Delhi’s cold winters. I tried to persuade friends to drink it with me, but the salty flavour was too much for those accustomed to sweet sugary tea. But there was one man named Salim who liked my nun chai. He runs a tea stall at Nizamuddin Dargah and requested me to bring it for him when I visited. I would often carry the nun chai in a thermos from the JNU campus to Nizamuddin Dargah. When I eventually returned to Australia in mid-2010, I was still making nun chai in winter, sharing it with friends and family and speaking about Kashmir.
On a bitterly cold winter morning in Sydney, while reading through reports and newspaper articles online, I read that the death toll in Kashmir had suddenly reached 69. Somehow I came to feel that loss of life in the cup of nun chai that rested in my hand. Those 69 people were gone and like them the many cups of nun chai they would have drunk daily wouldn’t exist anymore. Cath and I held our cups of nun chai, and sat with this thought for a moment.
How did Kashmiris deal with this loss? The cups of nun chai, shared between family and friends, would continue to be filled with more nun chai. One set of lips would no longer touch it, but others would kiss the absence every day. Life would go on. The state tries to make itself invincible by becoming impersonal—it is no person. The resistance to the state defeats it by becoming collective; it is all the people all the time.
Cath asked many questions about Kashmir. We spoke of how the events of the past have shaped the present. “When did it end? The violence of 2010 – are people still dying now?” The violence of Kashmir’s occupation feels like waves perpetually pounding an ocean shore. It feels all encompassing—sometimes the waves are small and quiet and at other times they are big and forceful. But they never stop pounding the shore. The occupation will never stop pounding the people until it eventually packs up and leaves.
“I remember hearing about Kashmir in the early 1990s. I had just finished high school and it was in the news. I remember the violence reported in the media, but I never understood the story behind it all.” Then suddenly baby Theo woke from his sleep and began crying. Cath brought him out, “Perhaps he can also take part in the work?” As I looked at Theo in his mother’s arms I began to speak about Gowhar’s essay Grieving as a Medium.
Gowhar’s piece explored the relationship between the private and public, and the personal and political nature of grief in Kashmir through the stories of two mourning mothers. In their expression of grief both mothers had emphasised the character of their sons; describing their individual physique, personality, demeanour, idiosyncrasies and role in the wider community in the minutest of details. As Gowhar writes: I had not expected her to talk about her dead son so easily. She began instantaneously to describe her son’s nature and personality, while at the same time she tried to place before us the exact circumstances that preceded his departure on the day of his final outing.
As I spoke of the death of a twelve year old boy, shot by Indian security forces that summer, my grandmother, shocked at the idea of a man shooting a boy, piped up from the other room. “Why are they shooting children?” she exclaimed. The conversation continued between myself, my grandmother and my aunt with baby Theo in her arms. In this little room in Sydney our own stories merged with the stories of other women’s losses as they came to light for us through Gowhar’s Grieving as a Medium.
—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.