Cups, Chronicles, and Conflict: In conversation with Alana Hunt

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Image: Alana Hunt.

Cups of Nun Chai (2020), published by Yarbal Books, is an archive of stories that give a glance into the extraordinary lives of ordinary people affected by the Kashmir conflict.

Led by the 2010 civilian uprising in the valley post the killing of 17 year-old-boy Tufail Mattoo, the book attests to the loss of lives, power dynamics in politics, influence of the nation-state on the commonfolk, leaping into the normalization of political violence and death in the region: all taking place in the social realm, with real experiences and conversations over cups of nun chai, a popular salt tea beverage in Kashmir.

The book, episodically published in the Kashmir Reader newspaper in the beginning and shown in multiple exhibitions, strings together tiny but crucial moments marking the suffering and catastrophe of people involved in the Kashmir conflict over 118 cups or stories of people from varied walks of life, unfolding over a decade – with stories that explore the framework and repercussions of the politics, society and milieu of Kashmir and the conflict.

In a conversation with Free Press Kashmir, Alana Hunt – author of the book, answers questions about the expositional value of political art today, normalization of violence, dealing with the intricacies of documentation, the process of chronicling colossal conflicts, the need for Kashmiri solidarity, and much more.


Free Press Kashmir: If you could talk a bit about your first visit to Kashmir in 2009 as an intern with an NGO – how did it alter your perspective about Kashmir and what exactly kindled the zest to attempt to chronicle the conflict?

Alana Hunt: Prior to actually visiting Kashmir I had caught glimpses of the place through discussions with friends in Delhi, and particular texts. Most notably the book 13 December: The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament (Penguin, 2006) and Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-e-Azadi (2007).

I never considered the possibility of going to Kashmir until, during the summer break from university, there was an opportunity to work as an intern with an NGO. For a month I lived with and worked alongside social workers and their families in Kupwara, Sopore, and near Uri. This suddenly rendered Kashmir personal and material, no longer abstract or theoretical. On that first trip, I travelled light. I carried no camera and took with me only one book: a bound photocopy of Agha Shahid Ali’s writing.

I never thought about making work around Kashmir until I got news of the 2009 ban on prepaid mobile phones. As someone so new to Kashmir it seemed utterly absurd. This was only compounded by the fact that no one around me in Delhi seemed to think twice about their government disabling phones across an entire population of people it was claiming as their own citizens. In response, I made Paper txt msgs from Kashmir (2009-11).

In that sense, it has always been particular events that have kindled my work.


FPK: A riveting aspect you touch in the book is that of the ‘shallow nature of western empathy’. Please elaborate on the same, particularly with context to South-Asian conflicts.

AH: Just as Paper txt msgs from Kashmir was spurred on by the fact no one around me in Delhi was taking note, so too Cups of nun chai (2010-ongoing) grew in that space of indifference, though this time from the context of Sydney.

A key undercurrent in Cups of nun chai asks, when a nation’s armed forces kill unarmed civilians in a place distant to where you are, what might be an appropriate response? Though the degree of distance is different, this is a question with the capacity to resonate in Sydney as much as in New Delhi.

In a sense, Cups of nun chai tries to confront and scratch at the shallow nature of western empathy, to examine and wrestle with it. But not in an accusatory way. I mean, we all have limits. None of us has the capacity to know and act on everything all of the time. But there are consequences to this too.

Conversely, people in South Asia are not commonly aware of the political and social struggles facing people in Australia. But how do we build more connections across these spaces, rather than less? I think this is important.

I still don’t have any concrete answers. But I think we need to pay attention. To think and feel. And to move from there.


FPK: How was the experience and even the response of writing about Kashmir, as a non-Kashmiri?

AH: As someone not from Kashmir, it is undoubtedly complex working with and about Kashmir. This is not something I ever thought about lightly, and it needs careful and constant consideration. Though I don’t feel doing nothing is an adequate response either. My voice is one small part of a much larger chorus.

I think it helps that the work emerged in response to specific events, and from the context of personal relationships. It is not the product of an “artist residency” in that sense where the artist arrives for a particular amount of time to produce a particular thing with a particular community. I had none of those external constraints or expectations.

My work unfolded gradually over time. Bound up in a sense of urgency, I also learnt to trust the slower pace of the work. To trust time and the particular moments in time the work was encountering and being shaped by.

I paid attention and learnt a lot from writers and academics and journalists from Kashmir, trying to always respect the implications of language and representation.

I listened carefully to the responses to my work in Kashmir. There are particular people who I respect deeply, and if they were telling me my work was terrible, I would not persist with it.

But more broadly, within the spheres of socially or community-engaged art there are tendencies to homogenise what is seen as the “community”, for artists to seek an almost universal approval from that community, and to consequently produce work that plays it “safe”. I am not interested in that. I don’t expect everyone in Kashmir to have some unifying consensus of appreciation and approval of my work; Kashmir is diverse. Responses to any artists work should similarly be diverse. And as artists, we need to be comfortable with that and trust the authenticity of our practices and those we respect.


FPK: How did the packaging of the entire book come about? Please take us through the process of bringing the loose ends of diverse shores by collecting the written material from prior blogs/magazine pieces, writing, to eventually generating the first draft.

AH: It has always been really important to me that my work is accessible to people in Kashmir, as well as those outside. Yet Cups of nun chai is a difficult work to package—having arisen from the social space between people, accumulating progressively online, and circulating in the newspaper Kashmir Reader.

I was drawn to the book format because of its capacity to hold the numerous threads of the work together—textual, visual, and temporal. Books hold a space that is intimate yet they are also public and have the ability to move into homes, across national borders, and between friends, in a way that conventional art exhibitions cannot. Photographer Dayanita Singh recently said, a book is a conversation with a stranger in the future.

I wanted this book to be special but not at all precious. Much more akin to a novel in terms of its form and circulation, as opposed to a glossy art or photo-book. When we were producing the book with Itu Chaudhuri Design, Lisa Rath described it as a novel-form.

Primarily the book consists of three components: the texts, the nun chai images, and the newspaper fragments taken from issues of Kashmir Reader in the months when the work was serialised in its pages between 2016-17. We spent a lot of time building the balance and rhythm between these components.

We carefully selected newspaper fragments that subtly spoke to the texts while providing their own insights into Kashmir. I wanted the work to draw out connections over time from 2010 and 2016, and the present moment in which the book is read.

Parvaiz Bukhari’s writing appears at the moment in the book and in time, when Kashmir Reader was banned. Uzma Falak’s writing closes the book, bringing the work into the present by drawing upon her experiences in Kashmir after 5 August 2019. And Arif Ayaz Parrey’s piece, Storm in a Teacup appears on the website as a sharp prelude to Cups of nun chai and to Kashmir.


FPK: At a time when “atavistic” violence itself is indicative of a liberal brand of innovation in violence, should religion and resources be seen in the context of war and capitalism as mutually exclusive entities? If yes/no, why?

AH: I refer to this in the book, but I think in the context of war and capitalism, religion has the capacity to become a dangerous political resource. Although conversely, even the extraction of resources comes to be something pursued with the same single-minded intensity as some forms of religious conviction.

I am still learning, but I suspect that in the current moment, as Kashmir is experiencing the force of settler-colonisation through attempts at demographic change and the control and extraction of resources, any previous sense of separation between the two may be collapsing before us.


FPK: What is your perception of the state driving a civil society not only to commit violence but also to believe in it? How do you think the recurrence of aggression impacts the unheard-of expressions of non-violent dissent?

AH: No doubt it is tragic when the state’s corner civil society into violence. But I am not sure it is an aberration, or instead something inherent to nation-states. Albeit experienced with different intensities in different places.

When I first began to visit Kashmir in 2009 the people I met, of my generation, often told me proudly that the pen was their weapon of choice. There was powerful work produced during this period in Kashmir, some of which has been captured in Sanjay Kak’s edited volume Until My Freedom Comes: The New Intifada in Kashmir (Penguin, 2011).

But by 2012 people in Kashmir were saying loud and clear, and with great concern, that if their aspirations are not heard, if the state’s violence persists, then the armed struggle will return with a force not seen before, driven by a new generation who has known little but violence and injustice.

The lid that has been placed on Kashmir since 5 August 2019, has never been wholly sealed. Even at the worst of times, the information found a way to get out. We just need to keep working in whatever capacity we have to render these expressions non-violent dissent audible.


FPK: What hurdles did you face in the prevalence of the ‘standardisation process’ wherein institutional violence in Kashmir is rendered into an ordinary thing – and did the essence itself become too intense, if at all?

AH: My work in Kashmir has attempted to move against the normalisation of state violence, whether via Paper txt msgs from Kashmir, Cups of nun chai or the essay A mere drop in the sea of what is (4A Papers, 2016). Part of this has been shaped, no doubt, by the fact I am an outsider, and therefore not as familiar with the conditions of everyday life in Kashmir under military occupation.

Over the years, however, I have become somewhat more familiar with these conditions. So much so that the complete communications blackout in Kashmir that preceded August 5 2019, was less of a shock to me than the 2009 ban on pre-paid phones. Over the intervening decade, I had become accustomed to phone and internet access being intermittently cut in Kashmir.

One of the biggest hurdles is continually reminding myself not to see these as ordinary things, but with the full absurdity, violence and injustice that they truly are.


FPK: What according to you is the expositional value of political art today – specifically with context to documenting a politically volatile region like Kashmir – where grief and conflict are highly prone to being fetishised, exotified and over-aestheticised?

AH: A few years ago a friend from Kashmir reminded me that Kashmir needs azadi in reality, and not via art alone. I wrote about this in A mere drop in the sea of what is, about how there is a danger that, as has been the case with Palestine, Kashmir may be offered the illusory consolation of the latter while the land continues to be taken.

Art and cultural expression are vital. I believe that. But it need not only exist in prescribed art or literary worlds. I am interested in the movement of cultural practice in the world. In this sense, it is important to keep your audience in mind. Work towards ways of reaching them, of engaging them, of touching them. Recognise where and how you want the work to move.

I’ve always been quite conscious of the dynamics of beauty and war that characterise representations of Kashmir, with all the potential to be easily fetishised. I didn’t feel it was my place as an outsider to point a lens; many Kashmiris are doing this very well. As a result, my work has engaged with Kashmir in a more lateral way, skirting around direct modes of representation to find other means of expression and communication.


FPK: What were some cross-border and cross-continental inferences you could draw from talking to people from various walks of conflict – for instance, the mention of Palestine, Thailand, East Timor, Ireland and Somali migrants – as mentioned in the book?

AH: Speaking with people over the course of Cups of nun chai reminded me that Kashmir is not alone or distinctly unique. No doubt Kashmir has its own story. But many people have overcome forms of oppression that seemed to endure once upon a time. Sometimes when I feel dismal, I think of this and remember that empires crumble.


FPK: Despite the physical and cultural subluxation involved, the book is at an equally personal, as well as a historical juncture. When narrativizing a widespread conflict of such complexities as Kashmir, how did you deal with the inherent intricacies?

AH: The intricacies that I hope this work has been able to convey have emerged through personal encounters. This is because of the nuance conversation affords, and because it is the big political narratives that shape our personal worlds. So by engaging with seemingly smaller, everyday experiences we actually get a clearer view of the bigger scene at play.


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