Cups of nun chai–80: Accountability as a continuum

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 sunny when Mandy first arrived. But by the time we sat down to have nun chai the weather had suddenly changed. Grey clouds blew overhead on a strong wind. Thunder almost broke the sky and rain belted down. I was reminded of the storms that would hit my friend’s village, in the mountains in northern Kashmir, suddenly but with regularity every afternoon in May 2010. That was only weeks before the violence that etched that summer into history began.

As Mandy learnt more about Kashmir’s history she paused for a moment, “This is the first time I’ve felt a sense of guilt at being Indian.” Though Mandy had grown up in Australia her paternal family were from Goa and her Indian identity was something she normally carried with pride. Mandy suddenly recognised in India how the colonised can so easily transform into the coloniser.

A number of years ago Mandy read extensively about the Goan Inquisition. It made her question the role her own family had played in Goa at this time. “Had my family been forced to convert to Catholicism? Or had they been involved in forcing others? And what would these answers say about my own Catholicism today?” Mandy will never know with certainty, her family’s history in Goa is now too splintered and distant to piece back together again.

The idea of your ancestors implicated in historical wrongs is also common in Australia. Some of my descendants were here at the time of the Frontier Wars that took place between Aboriginal people and the European invaders. What acts had they committed? What had they witnessed? What had they turned a blind eye to? “Have you heard of the writer Kate Greenville?” Mandy asked, “You might like her novels. The Secret River and The Lieutenant explore these histories and raise questions about our role during such times.”

Together we looked online for images and found various representations of Kashmir that moved between an idyllic fruitful landscape to a Kashmir with streets filled with armed men in uniform and protesting men and women without uniform. Yet there is so much more that lies between these two poles.

“On my way to meet you, I was driving, and I was trying to think about what these cups of tea actually mean. On one hand they’re absolutely meaningless, and on the other they are intensely meaningful. Life is like that too, don’t you think?”

Our conversation moved from the political and historical complexities of Kashmir towards the personal and psychological. Mandy asked how people coped emotionally with the occupation. From the Goan Inquisition to colonial Australia and contemporary Kashmir—the simple underlying bent of our conversation dwelled on the fragile question of what all of us, as individuals and as larger collective social bodies, are capable of.


—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.