In February 2021, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, a resident of India-administered Kashmir’s Bellow village, was arrested with six others for organising a prayer at an empty grave he dug with his own hands. According to recent updates from the ground, he was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and spent several months in imprisonment. Wani had dug that grave for his 16-year-old son Ather Mushtaq Wani, a class 11 student killed by Indian forces in Lawaypora on December 30, 2020. Ather lies buried hundreds of kilometres away in the picturesque tourist spot of Sonamarg. The same year, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) of Kashmir, Vijay Kumar announced in a press conference that they had buried 158 armed rebels in isolated locations across the Valley in a move which, according to him, had stopped the ‘glamourising’ of “terrorists”. He called this action historic.
Ather is one among thousands who lie scattered in unmarked graves (a few of these graves later marked by families) throughout the region, denied dignity even in death. What marks Kashmir, then, is not just an absence of people – or their bodies – but also a wider absence of justice, of freedom.
It is in the context of this absence that Australian artist Alana Hunt’s work gains compelling urgency. Conceptualised as a participatory memorial honouring the deaths of over 118 Kashmiri locals killed by Indian forces during the 2010 summer uprising, her book Cups of Nun Chai joins several tender archives preserved over decades by Kashmiris to pay homage to their beloved martyrs. With public taps and town squares named after the fallen, as well as an inventory of flex banners and hoardings sprawled across the streets with photographs, promises, and prayers, the history of Kashmir’s resistance is simultaneously a history of remembrance.
If the state insists on moving on, on establishing closure with shoddy probes and biased commissions of inquiry, Cups of Nun Chai challenges this kinesis with a thoughtful pause.
In 2010, news of three Kashmiri villagers being killed by Indian forces in Machil spread through the Valley, becoming a conduit for the oppressed to express their anger against decades of injustice under the Indian rule. The streets smouldered with young men and teenagers aiming stones at every emblem of the occupation. As protests raged for months, hundreds were killed and thousands were injured – some maimed for life. Yet, these lives and their aspirations made it to no global conversation. Unsettled by this silence, Hunt sat down to converse with 118 people across Australia, Europe, Bangkok, Southasia, and Jammu & Kashmir, where she photographed each person holding their cup of Kashmiri salt tea (nun chai). She wrote from memory about each of these conversations connecting Kashmir’s story to various struggles against colonialism, fascism, majoritarianism, and state-sponsored violence across the world.
In being a work of literature as well as a historical document, this book inhabits the complex world of memory-making. In Kashmir, the sentiments associated with shahadat (martyrdom) do not refer only to rebels but also to unarmed locals who are viewed as threats simply because they are Kashmiri. In June 2010, 17-year-old Tufail Ahmed Mattoo was on his way back home from his tuition when he was hit by a tear gas shell that cracked his skull open, leaving him to die on the spot. In July 2010, 24-year-old Fancy Jan was adjusting the net over her window when a bullet pierced her body. In August 2010, 8-year-old Sameer Rah was clubbed to death with bamboo sticks when he shouted pro-freedom slogans in his neighbourhood. Over the years, the memory of these shaheed (martyrs), as Kashmiris call them, has continued to evoke a strong sense of respect and commitment, having defied various forms of state repression to observe rituals of collective mourning and remembrance. Funeral processions have routinely reverberated with the demand for freedom and have carried symbolic power for a besieged population. With supplications, tears, anger, songs, and candies tossed by grieving mothers, these have also been sites of renewal where each death is singular, and not a statistic. In some ways, Cups of Nun Chai learns from Kashmir and rejects the recordkeeping enterprise of the state to value each life (and each death) with its own meaning, to produce each martyr as a witness, to plant each of them back in their history – the semantic ambiguity of the Arabic word shaheed lies in being testimony-bearer and martyr simultaneously. Hunt is not concerned with a representation of Kashmir, rather with creating a re-presence of the ones lost to war.
The project began in 2016 in Kashmir, appearing as a newspaper serial in Srinagar-based Kashmir Reader, where it made its way to tens of thousands of readers on a weekly basis. However, the year marked another series of protests following the death of popular Kashmiri rebel commander Burhan Wani, and the streets were filled with news of more deaths, arrests, and injuries. In 2016, ‘non-lethal’ weapons were rehearsed on Kashmiri eyes as the world witnessed its first instance of targeted mass blinding by state forces. With the crackdown on civil society and media organisations intensifying in subsequent weeks, Kashmir Reader was banned on charges that their content could incite acts of violence. As Hunt’s work continued to evolve in other iterations, such as that of an exhibition, of public readings, of a website, and in its present form as a book – it found a way to stitch together fragments from the previously banned newspaper, thereby tending to its own memory as well. As conversations unfold in the book, slivers of headlines leap at the readers, placing the events of 2016 in dialogue with remembrance of 2010. In superimposing these two temporalities, newspapers perform an important function in the book: they seem to suggest that the struggle in Kashmir does not conform to the linear progression of colonial timelines, and they establish a continuum in the way Kashmiris resist and remember.
There are two segments in the book where the name, age, residence, and date of death of the shaheed of 2010 are arranged in a grid that almost threatens to crawl out of the pages. As readers hold these pages and fold them back, they are confronted by the weight of loss and grief that punctuates the entire landscape of Kashmir. Memory haunts the form of this work, where the author seeks to emphasise that memory is not a static object from the past – rather, it is woven into the present. The choice of newsprint-grade paper for the pages adds a layer of ephemerality to the words, and the tenderness of these words offers nourishment and warmth, just like a cup of nun chai.
Both 2010 and 2016 were lodged in public memory with a set of defining photographs. Clouds of tear gas descending upon protesters. Young men with stones in their fists facing legions of Indian soldiers. Villagers showering flower petals over the frozen face of a young boy. An 18-month-old girl hit by a volley of hot lead pellets. Wails and fingers rising higher than poplar trees. Shards of glass combing ambulance doors. X-ray scans giving way to the unyielding stare of an injured man. Thousands of faces welded to each other as they wait for the body of a local rebel commander. A soldier aiming his gun at an elderly woman. Blood congealing to walls. These, and other harrowing images, enframed the truths of those months and moments. However, the only photographs in Hunt’s work are tea cups or hands, empty – emptied in anticipation, signalling that the conversations on Kashmir must continue. Carrying a gentle visual language, these cups link distinct geographies and temporalities that the conversations traverse.
With public taps and town squares named after the fallen, as well as an inventory of flex banners and hoardings sprawled across the streets with photographs, promises, and prayers, the history of Kashmir’s resistance is simultaneously a history of remembrance.
The conversations in the book interrogate our responses to mass violence; they push us to question why we continue to address such violence as an event with a specific beginning and a definite end. For example, sipping the 64th cup of nun chai in the series, Gary, who runs an Aboriginal art centre in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia with his wife Maggie (the 65th cup), sighs:
“So, around 118 people died in 2010? If you think about it, those 118 people were probably in direct contact with at least 100 other people in their day-to-day lives. If you multiply 118 by 100, that comes to over eleven thousand people who would have been directly affected by this loss.”
The standardised political time that every nation state from India to Australia manufactures is premised upon establishing a permanent sense of security threat, a perpetual state of exception where law and lawlessness co-exist to control, discipline and punish everyone on its margins. This is how time and the bodies of the colonised have come to be regulated and disfigured. However, the voices in Cups of Nun Chai allude to the struggles of peoples from Palestine, Ireland, Somaliland, Tibet, and Chile and more, thereby stitching an alternative timeline of reminiscences and resonance, an indigenous time otherwise declared “illegal” by their respective colonisers. These layers of time are stacked over one another in a simultaneity that becomes a life-affirming call for wider transnational solidarities. With the turning of pages, the readers are transported from an account of colonisation of Hawaii to the French-Flemish conflict in Belgium. Kashmir flows through all of these stories, like a whirling stream of nun chai, as if indicating that all struggles for liberation and decolonisation are intertwined.
By employing the accessible medium of collage in her art, Hunt moulds pieces from various anti-imperialist movements into a pulsating ground for sharing ideas, knowledge systems, and legacies of pain with each other. All the documents of authority, barbed wire, and borders created by the state collapse as these voices come together. Kashmir is connected with the world despite the statist insistence that it is “India’s internal matter”. Hunt’s work is provocative in rupturing these prescribed limits, rescuing it from being limited to a solely aesthetic, depoliticised categorisation of grief, and allowing the readers to reject viewing Kashmiri bodies as suspended entities, expelled from their own history.
Even if this meaning remains elusive, what emerges gradually is an ethic of listening, a labour of caregiving.
The texture of the book synthesises 2010 and 2016, pointing to the diffused nature of Kashmiri resistance. It does not subscribe to a statist teleology that centres the narrative on Kashmir in 1947. Instead, it breaks through temporal determinism by presenting these years as part of a long continuum of resistance over decades, and not merely haphazard episodes. The book suggests that the demand for freedom in Kashmir is not because of violence by the Indian state, rather that there is violence because of this demand. Sharing the third cup of nun chai, Alana Hunt observes:
“In his 1993 book Kashmir: Towards Insurgency Balraj Puri holds the Indian state’s abhorrent treatment of Kashmir’s right to democratic freedom responsible for the rise of political unrest and violence. But what Puri might have failed to recognise is that it is the very ideals of democratic secularism that contain the flaws; India’s behaviour in Kashmir is not an arbitrary stain on an otherwise ideal system but the direct result of this system’s inherent limitations.”
The text flits between the realms of memory-writing and storytelling, where the conversations resist their own end. They resist time itself.
The residue and interstices of everyday life, of homes, of emotions, of aspirations, and of anguish are patched through the work, restoring the agency of Kashmiris against the backdrop of dehumanising memos parroted by institutions serving the state. If the state insists on moving on, on establishing closure with shoddy probes and biased commissions of inquiry, Cups of Nun Chai challenges this kinesis with a thoughtful pause. In March 2018, speaking at a peace conference, Paigham-e-Mohabbat, Indian spiritual guru and Art of Living founder Ravi Shankar had asked the people of Kashmir to “forget the past and move forward”. In October 2021, Indian Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, Lt. General K.J.S. Dhillon accused Kashmiris of suffering from “selective dementia”. Hunt disregards such pathologising demands for structural continuity and challenges this linear progression with fragments of Kashmiri memories, lived experiences, and political goals gliding past each other. As time is stolen from Kashmiris by making them wait – for justice, for their haq – this work slows down time and reclaims it.
A disobedient map
At the beginning of the book, the author declares that this work is a “search for meaning” in the world’s most densely militarised zone. Even if this meaning remains elusive, what emerges gradually is an ethic of listening, a labour of caregiving. When the state does not even acknowledge these deaths and when news cycles move from one headline to another, this work sits down — and compels us to sit with it — and listen to Kashmir. It slowly discards the sense of single authorship to give way to a collective practice of witnessing. Alana Hunt also considers the work to be an “absurd gesture” for immersing in the brutality of mass violence with ordinary tea cups. However, as colonial machinery is designed to disrupt the everyday and alter the associations people have with their surroundings, it is these cups whose familiarity provides relief. They situate these conversations in the effervescence of daily life in Kashmir.
The text flits between the realms of memory-writing and storytelling, where the conversations resist their own end. They resist time itself. Each cup of tea carries its own rhythm, its own tonality, and its own grain of voice and silence. Each participant is a witness to Kashmir as well as a chronicler of their own political struggle. The porous topography of this work allows one moment, place, and sensibility to seep into another. It also questions institutional recordkeeping by foregrounding the people outlawed by all such statist interventions. The book does not have a fixed beginning nor an end; it may begin anywhere and end anywhere as the readers prefer, and in this way it silently defies the colonisers’ clocks across the histories it navigates. Kashmir is neither heaven nor hell. It is neither viewed from the prism of India nor that of Pakistan. The Kashmir that illuminates Cups of Nun Chai carries its own disobedient map, claiming its rightful place in the world.
Memory haunts the form of this work, where the author seeks to emphasise that memory is not a static object from the past – rather, it is woven into the present.
As blood-soaked chapters from Kashmir’s history stretch out across the pages, the readers may be tempted to question the utility of political art – of this work of art – in a war zone. But the strength of Cups of Nun Chai lies in neither limiting its engagement to aesthetics and sentimentality, nor presenting itself as a substitute for political action. At its heart lies a simple question: Are some lives less ‘grievable’ than others? This work, then, becomes as much about collective memory as about collective amnesia. It implicates the world for its silence and its complicity in the crimes against the people of Kashmir. It confronts the indifference of the world to a region engulfed in seven decades of war. It operates with a ferocious sense of compassion which refuses to let Kashmir’s martyrs be reduced to numbers – or wickets (every time a Kashmiri is killed, sections of nationalistic Indians rejoice on social media, sneering, ek aur wicket gir gaya (another wicket has fallen)).
Under occupation, often, the distinction between an armed rebel and a civilian blurs because occupied bodies are expendable bodies. That Ather Mushtaq Wani was a student of class 11 does not matter to a state adamant on viewing every Kashmiri body as a threat. His father prayed silently as snow trickled into the empty grave in the images that surfaced on social media earlier this year. Cups of Nun Chai is a sombre ode to the defiant Kashmiri memory that resists amnesia, that resists erasure despite the ongoing project of normalcy.