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.
Meg prepared a place for us to sit in her backyard. It was a warm summer afternoon in Sydney and incense was burning to repel the mosquitoes. Meg tasted the nun chai which, after travelling in the thermos for some time, had become lukewarm.
“What does it remind you of?” I asked. Meg moved the tea through her mouth. Tasting. Absorbing. Thinking.
“It’s almost like something human, something bodily,” she replied. “Tear drops perhaps.” Tears in Kashmir? Tears from Kashmir? Tears for Kashmir? “No, no. Breast milk. It’s more like a mother’s breast milk.” she corrected, “Not tears, but breast milk at a nourishing bodily temperature.” Nourishment in Kashmir. Nourishment from Kashmir. Nourishment for Kashmir.
“My sisters have babies now,” she went on, “There is so much to learn about breastfeeding. I never imagined. Did you know you can squirt the milk across an entire room?”
There are a lot of debates in Australia about women’s right to breastfeed in public. It is the most natural thing, yet it makes some people extremely uncomfortable. It seems the more ‘modern’ we are the less comfortable we become with the body’s functions. In Kashmir, it was different. I loved witnessing the ease of my friend’s sister-in-law as she breastfed in front of her family and the many neighbourhood visitors who frequented their small kitchen. No one looked twice as she pulled her firaakh up and over to one side, with the baby tucked in to one of her breasts.
“How big is Kashmir?” Meg asked. I tried to piece together the fragments that Kashmir had become across the orange tablecloth that was spread between us. We spoke about the conflict’s history through geography. We spoke about the summer of 2010 and these cups of nun chai. “Did you know all this before you went there? What took you there in the first place?”
I remembered my first or second day in the valley of Kashmir. I was interning with some social workers. We had driven across an expansive river, over a few hills and onto the peak of a gentle mountain. Rolling mounds, smooth grass, worn but clean dirt tracks were shadowed by trees that gently filtered the sun. We came to a collection of A-frame homes with open doors and chickens running loosely between them. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.
We were welcomed to one of these A-frame homes and served chai by the family who lived there. The social workers got down to work quickly and began to ask questions about the conflict related death of a family member. After a short time an older woman entered, and her presence soon filled the room. She looked at us through broken eyes and then started to wail. Her pain was like a song:
Oh my son where have you gone?
Why did you leave me?
I am still here.
I am still here.
Why did you have to go?
She became louder as her family tried to calm her. A young girl had tears welling up in her eyes quietly. Their pain was fresh. I later learnt that the old lady’s son had died fifteen years ago. Fifteen years and the enduring nourishment of a mother continues; from milk to tears.
—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.