Cups of nun chai-93: The strength of memory

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.
When I met Khalid outside Sabarmati Hostel at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi we bumped into a group of Kashmiri students whom Khalid and I both knew to some extent. It was a nice coincidence and Khalid said, “This is really what nun chai is all about.” Khalid caught up on news from old friends and we spoke about nun chai and this work as a whole. After some time the others departed and Khalid and I sat together talking further over two cups of nun chai.
It had been two years since I was last in Kashmir and two years since the violence that shaped the summer of 2010 began. I pointed to a spot on the road a few hundred metres from where we sat and told Khalid that it was at that spot two years ago that I was told about Tufail’s death.
“I was living in Bangalore during that summer. I remember when nine people were killed in just one day. Watching the number of dead rise became like counting the score of a cricket match. But it was like a nightmare, and only one side was accruing the points.” Khalid looked at the students around us, “When I spoke with friends and family back home I felt guilty for not being there. As if my studies outside Kashmir were some kind of attempt to run away from it all.”
In 2010 Khalid organised a candle lit vigil in Bangalore, for those who were dying in Kashmir. He had been granted two hours permission to do so from the state police. Half an hour into the vigil the police detained Khalid, but the event went on without him and one and a half hours later he was released without harm. “Some local organisations in Bangalore asked me to work with them on human rights violations in Kashmir. But it was always on the condition that I would have to separate human rights violations from the question of self-determination and azadi (freedom). I couldn’t do it. I refused the job. None of these things can be understood in isolation from each other.”
Khalid spoke to me in much detail about the different Islamist and secular ideas of azadi in Kashmir, and how often the two are more conflated than we expect. He spoke about the kinds of criticality and debate that takes place within the freedom movement, and how important it is to make space for dissent. Khalid’s opinions on the importance of dissent stemmed directly from his view that India’s own democracy failed miserably in this respect. He also spoke about the place of minority communities in a future Kashmir. The nuanced sensitivity of Khalid’s political being gave a strong and hopeful sense of how beautiful a future Kashmir really could be.
But then I thought about the trauma and violence that is now so unavoidably embedded in Kashmir’s being—in its soil and its soul. Thinking about the fact that Cups of nun chai is essentially an act of remembering, I asked Khalid how one might utilise memory in a way that created a more beautiful Kashmir as opposed to a more bitter one. He said that sometimes within the movement, and within the Hurriyat more specifically, there were calls to be more ‘practical’ and engage in a dialogue that would ultimately lead to a compromise. While it wasn’t ‘ideal’, it would at least be ‘realistic’. “But it’s our memories,” Khalid explained, “that give us the strength to refuse this kind of compromise.”
What Khalid described was really about turning Kashmir’s memories of some of the most horrific experiences to ever take place in our world into an inner strength that enabled one to have the persistence and sensitivity to turn Kashmir into a free place—free in the most fluid and simple sense of the word.