Nun chai, brewing
Carefully brewed into a rich rusty red tea from a distinct form of green tea leaves, punctuated with a pinch of phull (the Kashmiri word for bi-carb soda) and made nourishing with milk and salt, nun chai, literally meaning ‘salt tea’, is Kashmir’s most common drink. People in Kashmir have it at breakfast, mid-morning, in the afternoon and also, for some, after dinner.
Nun chai greets guests at times of celebration. At times of bereavement the tea is central to a Kashmiri tradition of mourning, a prayer for the dead, that goes by the name fatheha-chai. The pale pink colour of nun chai is a consistent shade of everyday life in Kashmir. It’s flavour at the heart of so many conversations.
As a verb the word brew refers to the process of making tea or coffee by mixing it with hot water: I’ve just brewed some tea. As a noun this word can also refer to a mixture of events, people, or things that interact to form a more potent whole: a dangerous brew of political turmoil and violent conflict.
The lines of nation-states have fractured the shape of Kashmir. Today the mountainous country sits occupied and divided between India, Pakistan and China. Endless kilometres of barbed wire run like open veins across its surfaces. Kashmir is a torn place; its story is as complex and contested as its geography.
Yet at the core of the contemporary moment there is a simplicity that should not be forgotten.
Since the time of the Partition of South Asia in 1947 Kashmir has been waiting for the right to self-determination; promised a plebiscite that has not yet come.
In 1989 an armed struggle emerged in response to an increasing decay of democratic rights in Indian held Kashmir and an intense process of militarization and political manipulation took hold. For more than twenty years war has raged in various forms, with more than 70,000 dead and 8,000 enforced and involuntary disappearances.
In recent years the armed struggle in the valley of Kashmir has subsided though India’s military and political presence continues. Spurred on by particular events in 2008, 2009 and 2010 civilians responded with mass pro-freedom protests that spread across the valley, only to be met with violence from the state.
During one such protest, on the 11th of June 2010 Tufail Ahmed Mattoo, a 17 year old boy on his way home from tuition class, was killed when a tear gas canister fired by the state police hit him directly on the head.
Tufail was not the first person to die this way but his death became a catalyst for demonstrations that swept across Kashmir during the Summer of 2010. These demonstrations were met with more tear gas and more bullets. The death toll rose and rose and rose.
They were mostly young men in their late teens and early twenties. Some young women. Some elderly. And there were some children as young as eight.
Counting the dead in Kashmir is not simple; numbers become political, unstable, ever increasing and unmarked. According to reports compiled by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society 128 civilians died at the hands of the police and armed forces in 2010. It is commonly observed that around 118 of these deaths took place during the violence that came to characterise the Summer months of that year. Over a year later wounded victims have succumbed to their injuries, and the number still increases.
Cups of nun chai emerged from the Summer of 2010. People in Kashmir had died. So many cups of nun chai would simply no longer be – now empty and incomplete inside homes that had lost their loved ones.
Death feeds an experience in which absence is felt more intensely than presence, leaving behind an emptiness that is embodied in what were once familiar things.
Brewing memories. Tasting Kashmir. Over the course of two years I invited 118 people to come and share a cup of nun chai as a simple act that acknowledged this loss of life.
In the face of the violence, the growing number of dead and the lack of thorough media coverage it seemed necessary to speak, to connect and to write in a form that somehow reached places where the news headlines might not. To venture into stories, histories and questions that travelled beyond.
Like an ever-growing memory Cups of nun chai unfolded over two years of conversation and tea into a gentle yet challenging refusal to let that loss of life pass. It is at once a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd, and an absurd gesture when meaning becomes too much to bear.
With each cup, the historical trajectories of South Asia, Kashmir and of the work itself have been explored through unbound articulation, as lines separating personal and larger social histories grow blurred.
Upon a scaffolding of names, dates and places emanating from Kashmir, the historical, political and creative engagement engendered over Cups of nun chai takes place through personal stories that connect Kashmir to countless other places and peoples around the world. Here it is personal experience, which gives voice to history, working towards a space for understanding, empathy and acknowledgement, while being open to the potentiality of where this space could lead.
Cups of nun chai accumulated progressively on this website over the last two years. The first public exhibition of the work took place at Mori Gallery in Sydney in September 2012. It is currently being developed into publication.
For further information or to offer support with the circulation of this work as an installation and publication please write to cupsofnunchai (at) gmail (dot) com