Cups of nun chai-98: A poetic preservation of history

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.


Down a back lane in the old city of Srinagar a small silver-haired poet named Zareef Ahmed Zareef (meaning the happy one), welcomed us into his home. As he came to learn about Cups of nun chai, and also about an earlier work Paper txt msgs from Kashmir, Zareef smiled and said there were always alternative ways out. He then served us nun chai with large pieces of pink Himalayan salt on the side.
Zareef asked his grandson to show us a translated collection of his poems that had been compiled on Facebook. In Kashmiri he began to read Tch’er T’e be’, literally ‘the sparrow and me’, though translated from Kashmiri into English as The Sparrow’s Sorrow. Written towards the end of 2010, Uzma helped me follow the English translation, parts of which spoke so pertinently to what was also at the core of Cups of nun chai:
If the tongue dithers and nothing is said,
People of tomorrow can’t know our today.
Zareef continued reading. In this secluded corner of the old city birds outside the window skirted across the roof of his home. Tch’er T’e be’ was based on a conversation between Zareef and a sparrow. I imagined Zareef sitting here in his home surrounded outside by the death and desecration of 2010, and suddenly turning to the visiting sparrows outside his window to make sense of it all.
Zareef spoke for more than two hours with us. His conversation was full of poetry and satirical criticisms of Kashmiri society at large. His charming wit enabled him to poke fun at almost everything, though there was also a heavier, more serious side to what he said. I remember the phrase, Taaran garee, taaran garee. He repeated it again, Taaran garee, taaran garee. It was the title of a poem, and a Kashmiri phrase that referred to trickery, roguery and deception. Taaran garee, taaran garee.
Zareef spoke endlessly about the idea of occupation. He spoke about what it has meant historically in Kashmir and what it means today under what he described as “Hindustan”. And he spoke a lot about what he does with his qalam (pen) in response to this occupation.
Zareef wanted to mark history with his qalam. Kashmir’s history had always been distorted and controlled by others and he stressed the importance of writing one’s own story. Zareef wanted to capture his world in his words so that the future would know and understand what had happened. It was for these reasons that he wrote.
Zareef’s ancestors had been experts in the craft of shawl making. However, under Dogra rule in the latter part of the 19th century his family were forced into exile, and made to move from Kashmir all the way to Amritsar. Zareef said with a sense of pride that all of his ancestors had given something of themselves to the idea of azadi (freedom). Today he was writing in Kashmir, using his qalam and analogies drawn from the natural environment of Kashmir to mark history with the desecration of life that surrounded him.
The Chinar tree, called Boe’n in Kashmiri, had special significance for Zareef. He not only wrote about them but also spent a lot of time planting them. The physical act of this small silver-haired poet planting a boe’n on the streets of Srinagar and in the rolling valleys of Kashmir, felt like a poem in itself. Zareef’s own ode to the boe’n, reads in part like this:
Dae’dwanan yawun yei yo’ud thaevehaen hamsai Boe’n
These desolate ruins will come back to life, if as thy neighbour you cultivate the Boe’n.
As we were leaving Zareef led us into the corner of his back garden where he pointed to the fort atop the Hari Parbat hill above his home. He pointed and said it had been an interrogation centre, a place of torture. Imagine having that above your home. The Indian army sat in that old Afghan fort and peered down at the city through binoculars. I hope they catch sight of Zareef with his hands in the soil lovingly planting a boe’n, and I hope their binoculars are able to see the power of his poetry in action.
This conversation was made possible with the assistance of Uzma Falak as translator.