Cups of nun chai-99: Kashmir’s sense of self

Cups of nun chai-99: Kashmir’s sense of self

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.


“2010 held great promise. But it all turned to nothing with the heavy hand of the Indian state.” Those were Uncle’s first words when we sat together over two cups of nun chai for this project. In his view 2010 had not been significantly different to the last twenty years of conflict in Kashmir.

He was quiet for quite some time. Uncle is the kind of person who thinks carefully before speaking. Eventually he looked towards me, “Kashmir has a long history that goes back much further than India’s.” This was the basic premise that grounded our conversation. It unfolded like a personal tour through time, shedding insight on the mythological and modern political history of Kashmir. It was Uncle’s way of explaining to me why Kashmir was not India.

Uncle began with a story about King Solomon’s journey to Kashmir at a time when the region was mostly underwater, thousands upon thousands of years ago. King Solomon, whom Uncle said Islam recognises as the Prophet Suleiman, had flown to Kashmir and landed by the Hari Parbat Hill in Srinagar. According to popular mythology the King and Prophet Suleiman aided the settlement of Kashmir by regulating the water in the region and encouraging it to flow smoothly along the Jhelum and out past Varmul/Baramulla. Uncle also mentioned that at some point in Hindu mythology Brahma’s grandson visited Kashmir long, long ago.

Sitting at an important juncture on the ancient silk trade route, people from all over the world had come to settle in Kashmir: currents of migration that built the syncretic Kashmiri identity Uncle was so proud of today. He spoke of the Nagas, and the Brahmas and the Jews from Egypt who migrated during the time of the Pharaohs. As an ideal of both the past and the present, Uncle saw Kashmir as a very ‘multi-cultural’ space.

As he spoke, sharing so many diverse and obscure pieces of information, I was amazed at how deeply this fluid, multi-layered sense of history and mythology shaped Uncle’s sense of self. And it was this very clear sense of self that became Uncle’s way of articulating how Kashmir was not India.

Soon Uncle’s personal ‘tour’ through time reached Kashmir’s modern era. For almost 100 years, from 1846, Kashmir’s struggle had been against Dogra rule; 1947 had been a turning point and shortly after Sheikh Abdullah became the first Indigenous head of government that Kashmir had seen for centuries (although ‘Kashmir’ was no longer whole). Driven by their own national-interests the newly formed sibling nations of India and Pakistan divided and occupied Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah was soon imprisoned by India, and during the tenor of his imprisonment Uncle said a number of laws were changed. Two decades later, upon his release in the early 1970s Abdullah was relegated to the position of Chief Minister of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Uncle felt this was a major betrayal to the idea of Kashmir’s independence. It was a political compromise that Sheikh Abdullah never lived down.

Uncle told me about the rigged elections in the 1980s, and the armed movement that emerged partly in response during the 1990s. He said today India had control of virtually all the water resources and powerhouses of Kashmir, along with a major portion of its richest agricultural land. “Just take a look around,” he said, “we are living under siege.” Uncle’s words were full and heavy with the knowledge that anything can happen. Here the food, water, and power are in the hands of an occupying force that does not agree with the majority of views held by the people it occupies. In this town, for instance, the water supply is routinely cut during times of political upheaval in order to exert even more pressure on an already vulnerable civilian population. In 2010—the eruption of anger, the protests, this ability to face bullets with stones—was not at all isolated but, as Uncle explained, the events of 2010 were deeply connected with what has been a centuries long history of struggle in Kashmir.

“But today”, Uncle lamented, “things are so dire that we cannot even protest against the dogs that are biting people on the city’s streets. Politicians come here to defend animal rights but not the rights of humans.” He said that in one year more than 500 women died in a local hospital due to negligence and people were not allowed to protest. “This is no way to live. We are not living. We are simply dragging ourselves through this life.”

Uncle said with a sad clarity that he did not see change in the near future. Kashmir is stuck in a cycle and he could not see how or when it would end. “There had been real hope in 2010, but Pakistan had been silent.” Uncle felt Pakistan had not even supported Kashmir properly in their own media. “We have been betrayed on a number of fronts, and now Kashmir has nowhere to turn.”