Cups of nun chai-97: Traversing history of the present

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.



Like the content of our conversation the spaces in which Gowhar and I spoke were vast and varied; I met him by the fruit stall at Habak Crossing, we spoke by the shores of Dal Lake, and drank nun chai at home on the outskirts of Srinagar. My friend Rupin was also there.

Gowhar has a background in Sociology. I am an artist. And Rupin is a student of History. Fittingly, we began speaking about the limits of disciplinary boundaries—how one discipline alone can never fully capture the real complexity of lived experience. Despite the fact that our work was quite different, we were all commonly searching for ways to co-exist in the world of ideas and practice. Cups of nun chai sat in a similar kind of terrain.

In 2010 Gowhar visited Ladakh, and one day he overheard a tour guide talking to some Japanese tourists. “The tour guide told them that much of Ladakh’s Buddhist art had actually travelled here from places like Kashmir and Afghanistan. He said, at one point these places had been the peak of civilisation, but just look at the mess they have gotten themselves into now.” Gowhar felt offended, “His words hurt. It wasn’t our fault Kashmir had been ravaged by war.” Gowhar returned home to Kashmir from that trip in Ladakh only to learn of Tufail’s death. “Throughout the four months of curfew and death that followed, that tour guide’s words ran through my mind piercing everyday.”

Along with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), in 2010 it was Jammu and Kashmir’s own state police, militarised and coarsened over the years through the induction of petty criminals and lumpen elements to its ranks, particularly its notorious Special Task Force (STF), who were responsible for much of the killing. Governed by a state administration that followed the central Indian government’s direction, these were in essence Kashmiris killing Kashmiris. Nothing is simple here. The more one puts ones ear to the ground in Kashmir the more complex things become.

Gowhar had recently undertaken fieldwork with the local police in an attempt to understand the apparatus that allowed policeman in Kashmir to inhabit what was almost a dual life, through which they performed their duty as policeman and then existed in the wider social landscape of Kashmir as individuals with friends and families. “It’s not simply that these policeman are ‘bad people’,” Gowhar explained, “I wanted to understand the logic that allows them to justify their decision in life and at work.” He met three officers; one was an atheist, another a Wahabi and yet another a Sufi who would recite Persian poetry to young stone throwers in an attempt to prove to them why throwing stones was wrong. Gowhar found that each of these individuals justified and made sense of their actions through a logic that was supported by these three radically different worldviews.

“I started working on my PhD by looking back at Kashmir’s recent past, but 2010 changed this. That year created an urgency I couldn’t ignore.” For Gowhar the present needed a response—everything that was immediate and in front of him. “The present suddenly cried out more loudly than the past.”

Gowhar decided to meet with some of those who were injured in 2010, and also with the families of those who died. He wrote about mourning, and was interested in its relationship with gender. Specifically how gender expectations shape how people mourn. “But the people I met always spoke to me more as stories, rather than academic research.” Gowhar seemed more comfortable at making sense of Kashmir through personal narratives as opposed to academic arguments, which were often unable to convey empathy.

Like many young boys in Kashmir during the 1990s Gowhar had been sent away for schooling. “I hated home. I was frustrated with my family as a teenager and the attempts to impose values, control my thinking and shape my career.” It was an intense and emotional time for Gowhar, “But in hindsight I can see why my family did it. If I hadn’t gone, I’m not sure I would still be here today.”

I sat intently as Gowhar spoke for a long time. Listening to his stories and experiences, occasionally I would catch sight of the lake that was in front of us and it would thrust me from the violent realities of Kashmir that we spoke of, to the incredible beauty of its mountains reflected at sunset on the surface of the Dal Lake. At times it was this beauty that felt criminal as it sat beside the iniquity that was coming to lie at the core of Kashmir’s being.