Frontlist | Why ‘Cups of Nun Chai’, by Alana Hunt, needs to be read in urgency to understand the narrative of jingoism
A probing exploration of life in Kashmir, caught in an endless spiral of violence and extreme nationalism
I’ve only really heard of Kashmir as a tourist destination. Isn’t there a lake with beautiful houseboats?” A friend asked Alana Hunt, the Australian author of Cups of Nun Chai.
Fortuitously, Hunt is also an artist and the book palpably reveals this aspect of her creativity. Cups of Nun Chai is more than just a book. It is a project into the life of Kashmir — a collection of the author’s conversations with family, friends and strangers over 118 cups of pink, salty, Kashmiri chai as a tribute to the 118 civilians killed during the violence in the Valley in the summer of 2010. Each of the 118 cups and conversations have a character of their own — lucid and heartachingly stirring. Each cup has a name. Each cup makes us think. Each cup speaks. Each cup is breathtakingly beautiful.
The book is situated at the chasm of real poignance and imagined solace. Though written in the context of the 2010 violence, every word in the book speaks of the misfortune of Kashmir even for the present times, in the understanding of which may lie the solution to our cavalier arrogance when dealing with the problem of Kashmir. The book cultivates our empathy towards Kashmir, the zone of unending conflict.
Throughout Cups of Nun Chai, Hunt repeats one fact — “over 70,000 people have been killed since the armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir in 1989.” This bare truth about Kashmir should haunt us. Killing of children as small as eight-year-olds is not only a blemish on our collective consciousnesses but an ugly blot on the canvas of civilisation we so proudly claim ourselves to be. When brutality is screamed from rooftops, it becomes a “normality”. Hunt reveals this normality not by screaming but by quietly whispering in our ears like a mother comforting a dying child.
Some conversations in the book are more detailed, more insightful and more incisive than others. The book explores what national identities mean and emphasises the fact that identity building should be transparent. In the chapter “The Power of Immense Powerlessness”, Hunt mentions, “injustice is a powerful thing. Whether it’s a child at school who has been wrongly accused of stealing a pen or someone’s premature death — like those in Kashmir — injustice lies at the heart of anger.” In a way, Hunt tries to solve the quintessential conundrum — the relationship of justice with happiness. Like Socrates, she builds her Kallipolis, constructing a language of justice for the Kashmiri masses and touches upon the complicated issue of the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley.
In his story “Justine” (The Alexandria Quartet), Lawrence Durrell asks, “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?” If silence can be interpreted, so can sounds. Hunt describes the sounds of the Valley that represent the political violence eroding Kashmir — that of a tear-gas shell, gunshots, stones, explosions. These sounds have replaced birdsongs, the gregarious laughter of toddlers, conversations of old men on walks, children playing cricket and nothing can be more truthful in describing the astounding situation in Kashmir.
Cups of Nun Chai is interlaced with some extremely alluring photographs, including newspaper fragments. The book has a unique printing format. It has what can be called “stutters”. These are indented paras in the main mass of words. These inimitable indentations disrupt the flow of sentences and let the words sink in. These are no different than the frequent police barricades seen on most roads of the Valley, disrupting the flow of life.
This masterpiece by Hunt needs to be read urgently, not for understanding the common Kashmiri but for understanding ourselves and our persistence with the narrative of jingoism, hate and violence. The book reminds me of these couplets by Faiz Ahmad Faiz: Tujh ko kitnon ka lahu chaheeye aye arz-e-watan/ Jo tere aaraz-e-berang ko gulnar kare/ Kitni aahon se kaleja tera thanda hoga/ Kitne aansoon tere sehraon ko gulzar karein (O motherland, the blood of how many more do you need? That blood which will impart a rosy hue to your pale cheeks. How many laments shall soothe your heart? How many tears shall water and blossom the flowers in your wilderness?)
Shah Alam Khan is professor of orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi