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, 2016 these memorialising words and images have appeared serialised here in Kashmir Reader thrice every week, except between Oct 3 and Dec 28 when the Administration barred its publication. The series resumes and will appear on this page every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
It was exactly two years ago to the day that seventeen-year-old Tufail Ashraf Mattoo was killed on his way home from maths tuition in Kashmir. Kasturi and I had been in Kashmir together in the months prior to Tufail’s death, and today, on the second anniversary, we sat together in a small room in a student hostel in Delhi with two cups of nun chai.
Kasturi and I lived alongside each other in this same hostel for two years when I was a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). We knew each other well. We’d chatted daily about life, literature, politics, critical theory and the intimacies of family. And after I left JNU, we still debated and contested, especially the meaning of Cups of nun chai. I respected Kasturi a lot and all of this made me very nervous to finally share a cup of nun chai with her today.
I started to recall how the Summer of 2010 began for me. I had just returned to Delhi from Kashmir, when I met a close friend on the road inside JNU. She told me with great urgency that a boy had been killed in Kashmir; she was speaking of Tufail, the boy whose death ignited the protests of 2010. But I did not immediately connect with her exasperation. Having just returned from Kashmir, death had become familiar. Evidence that the Machil encounter was fake surfaced; the army claimed to have foiled an infiltration bid across the Line of Control by killing three ‘Pakistani militants’ who it was later proved were Kashmiri civilians lured to the area with the promise of jobs and killed by the army in cold blood. In Sopore a local media maker had been shot at home in front of his family; a local politician was also assassinated one morning at the market. So, I wondered, why was my friend in Delhi suddenly so exasperated about this boy? As life goes on, in the only way it can, it is harrowing to realise how quickly death becomes normal. Cups of nun chai became an attempt to move against that normalisation.
Another friend had recently spoken to me about her visit to Kashmir in 1988 – a year before the war in Kashmir began in full. I longed to freeze Kashmir in that pre-war moment; to hold onto a world that was not yet full of mass graves, a world that was not yet familiar with torture, nor embedded with violence and loss. But Arif, a wonderful young writer from Anantnag (aka Islamabad), reminded me that it was not this simple. The ‘loudness’ of Kashmir’s struggle post-1989 was a response to a more ‘quiet’ process of colonisation that took route in 1947, and in many ways also before. Kashmir can’t be frozen – not in 1988, nor in 1947, nor in a free future. Philosophically and ideologically to freeze a moment, at any point in time, would be to delegitimize the larger continuum of struggle.
“Kashmir in my mind, as a kid, growing up in Bengal in the ‘90s, was really different to my parents. They grew up with Kashmir as a romantic landscape from a Bollywood song sequence. For my generation Kashmir has become a place of conflict that produces headlines about terrorism in the news.” Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), is an overtly nationalistic Bollywood love story about a terror plot. Made in the early days of armed conflict in Kashmir it epitomised these shifts in how the popular imagination in India views Kashmir.
I asked Kasturi if there was a point at which her own understanding of Kashmir shifted. When did Kashmir become more than a Bollywood landscape or news headline? “I guess it was at college that I really started to learn how contested India is as a nation. We started to break down how these ideas of unity in diversity really work, and especially how they don’t work. I would go to seminars, or protests, and join Facebook groups that discussed Kashmir, the North East and the Naxals.” Kasturi continued, “But even then, it wasn’t personal. My feelings really changed after I went to Kashmir.” When Kashmir became a place with people who had names, as the streets became familiar smells, as she saw the bullet holes on a cement wall and the smashed windows of a friend’s home, as she walked past graves, too many of them, some containing known martyrs, others that were anonymous, it was here when Kashmir opened up to her—with all its flavours and contradictions and personalities—that what had previously been an intellectual and ethical concern became personal.
“In Bengal I spent my childhood complaining about school.” For Kasturi maths was the ultimate drudgery of life. But in Kashmir our friend Saba’s schooling had been disrupted by the curfews and strikes of the war. She had spent her childhood in Sopore yearning for school. This is what struck Kasturi—the juxtaposition of her childhood mathematics drudgeries and Saba’s. Two years to the day, Tufail had been on his way home from maths tuition when he was killed by the armed forces. Knowing this is how Kashmir became real, and how Kasturi started to understand the everyday urgency of Kashmir’s freedom.