“I plan to continue listening to Kashmir”: Alana Hunt on her journey over cups of nun-chai

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As a student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in 2008, Alana Hunt was intrigued by the Kashmir she read in books, articles, and the individuals she met. She arrived in Kashmir the following year and learnt more about the place over cups of Himalayan salt tea, called nunchai here.

In response to the summer of 2010, Hunt decided to forge 118 cups of nun chai and conversations into an evolving work aptly titled Cups of nun chai, and most recently published by Yaarbal Book. An artist and writer, Hunt spoke with The Kashmir Walla over email from her home in Miriwoong country in north-west Australia about the journey that led to the book and how she had “no choice” in letting Kashmir grow on her over the course of her stay.

Here are the edited excerpts:

When did you first taste nunchai and how did it come to represent Kashmir? 

I first tasted nun chai in New Delhi, in a Kashmiri Pandit home which, in itself, presented a distinct introduction to Kashmir’s recent histories. I liked the tea very much, so when I eventually went to Kashmir its flavour was no surprise. I was so fond of nunchai that I regularly prepared it on an (unsanctioned) burner in my hostel room in JNU and shared it with any friend I could find who was willing to drink salty tea during Delhi’s cold winters. Naturally, Kashmir often entered our conversations. But I think the fact that nunchai is so clearly not consumed in India, also struck a chord.

In mid-2010, not long after Tufail Ahmad Mattoo was killed, I moved back to Australia after an absence of almost three years, during which I had been living in Delhi and visiting Kashmir. I had just started using social media and my feed was full of friends in Kashmir writing about what was going on around them; specifically, the state killing people on the streets of Kashmir on an almost daily basis. Meanwhile, in Australia, the media and people around me barely took note. There was a gaping silence.

As the death toll continued to grow in Kashmir, so too did the utter absurdity of the state’s violence. I wanted to find a means of moving against the normalisation of that violence. I wanted to make that violence evident to the wider world. And I was looking for a process that went deeper than a newspaper headline, (although I have a penchant for newspaper headlines in their own way as well).

Each cup of nun chai in this work provided not only the necessary flavour, but it also crafted the space and time to begin a series of pointed conversations about Kashmir that would ultimately grow into a requiem for those who had been killed that summer.

What was the motivation behind compiling conversations in the form of a book? 

There are some words from John Berger that have been with me since the work’s inception and now feature in the opening pages of the book. I’d like to share these. 

In The Shape of a Pocket Berger writes:

The sharing of pain is one of the essential preconditions for a refinding of dignity and hope. Much pain is unshareable. But the will to share pain is shareable. And from that inevitably inadequate sharing comes a resistance.

Moving across intensely personal and public spaces Cups of nun chai is a difficult work to “package”. Having begun as a conversation, the work accumulated on a website, circulated as a newspaper serial in Kashmir Reader, and further engaged people in readings and discussions. However it does not fit easily into a conventional art exhibition. Books can move swiftly across both social boundaries and national borders, in a way that most art exhibitions cannot. The book format was capable of holding the work in its entirety while also furthering the ethos of circulation that has been with the work from the start and offering the level of intimate engagement the work demands. I wanted to make something that could move. I wanted this book to be special, but not at all precious.

How did you keep the records of all the conversations you had with people?

I held them in my mind. And made sure to write the first draft within a day or two.

There are chapters in your book where comparisons are made with other conflict zones. What do you think are the similarities?

Something I realised through the conversations I had with people over nun chai, is that as humans we have a tendency to make sense of the world we encounter by relating it to the world we know.

While Kashmir’s situation is in many ways unique, I do not think it is alone. The weight of state violence, the claws of colonisation, the fault lines of democracy, and the very real need for something better—these are common threads of contemporary life for many people in many places around the world, Australia included. And it is these threads that form the constellation of this work.

Why did it take so long for you to come up with the book?

Like a good cup of tea, one’s work needs time to brew. Further Cups of nun chai was not sitting idle for a decade; it journeyed, it rested, it grew. This book is not a final destination, rather one more step in that journey.

Do you plan to continue writing and speaking about Kashmir?

I plan to continue listening to Kashmir. Whether I write or speak beyond this work is another matter—unknown at this stage.

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