Talking Beasts

‘It’s free,’ she said. ‘A free service. Meaning you don’t have to pay anything.’ Sylvie sounded as tired as he felt. He knew he must smell bad too; her nose had twitched when she reached out to draw him into a hug. As usual, he hung back, stiff-armed while she tried to embrace him. There was way too much inter-sex hugging and cheek kissing in this country. She was tall and his eyes were always at breast height with her.

‘The people are kind. I used to volunteer there when I was a student. Everyone works gratis, you know. Everyone. Lawyers, social workers, interpreters, everyone. And you could really use an interpreter. I know you understand English perfectly well but if they think …’ Sylvie didn’t finish her sentence. She used lots of hand gestures when she spoke to him. She also repeated herself a lot.

Aslam clicked his tongue at the word lawyer. It was like saying policeman and had the same nasty connotation.  A lawyer had caused the current mess he was in, anyway. Shirin had gone to a lawyer, suggested to her by that woman, Janet, who hated him.

Shirin said it was about convenience, and how it was no longer convenient for her to be with him. She didn’t tell Aslam that her dad had paid her college fees for two years and told her to get rid of that useless bastard; he found that out from Janet. No, instead she told him she loved him and waved a ringed hand around the shabby room they shared with two other couples.

‘If Abba sees we are still together, in this place’ she said, ‘he’ll get really upset and make me go back. There are so many wagging tongues here, among our people. I’ll move out temporarily, and Abba will see how well I’m doing, and he won’t care if I see you again. He thinks you’re holding me back. I’m sorry. But for the next few months at least, we shouldn’t see each other.’

He told her he’d take on a couple of extra night shifts to pay for her new course, that fancy Associate Degree in Criminology and Justice, because the Certificate in Hospitality was not good enough, even though they had both signed up for it as the easiest option. He begged and cried.

Shirin looked at him as if he had gone mad. ‘You think your 50 bucks extra a week are going to pay for my course? Really Aslam. Why do you have to make everything so difficult?’

She touched the loose knot at the nape of her neck and he thought he would die if he didn’t see her every day. She was making it sound like it wasn’t such a big deal, but he couldn’t let her out of his sight. He saw how they gathered around her, the Pakistanis, Afghanis, Indians. The white boys loved her too. She wasn’t shy, like other Asian girls. She gravitated into the centre of the crowd and they made room for her. He hung back and scowled and she pulled him in. When they were children, Aslam was the gregarious, popular child and Shirin the awkward gangly one. And Aslam’s mother, so loving to the only child of her dead friend, reminding Aslam of his duty to look after the girl. What would Ammi say now, if she could see him, impotent, angry and unable to hold on to the girl he was supposed to protect?

They’d met Janet at one of those compulsory lectures all overseas students had to attend, and the woman had become a permanent fixture in their lives since. Shirin started dressing differently, ditching her bangles and anklets and long hair and loose kurtas for tight jeans and sleeveless tops. It made the boys look at her even more. Aslam wished Janet would have an accident one day and he’d cheer her demise, but Shirin laughed at them both and said they’d better get along, her two most favourite people. Then Janet introduced Shirin to that lawyer. Words like 457 visas, sponsorships and in-demand courses drifted around the house when the three of them talked, barely looking at Aslam as he clattered around. They talked about him as if he wasn’t there. Janet once said – ‘you don’t want to end up like Aslam, do you?’ when he walked in, dusty and hot after collecting trolleys all afternoon. Shirin turned to stare at him and he wanted to hit her then.

When he came home one Saturday evening, a week after that look, he knew something had shifted. Janet was in the kitchen, holding a mug of tea that she raised in the air when he walked in and he could hear Shirin in the lounge. He stared at Janet and followed her into the other room. Shirin turned as he entered, talking to a man in a blue suit while indicating the packed bags at her feet.

‘I’ve found somewhere nice,’ she said cheerfully.  ‘Jake found it for me. You remember Jake? He’s just finished the course I’m doing, so he’s almost a real lawyer.’

‘You’re leaving?’ Aslam smelled the sweat under the three-day-old shirt and folded his arms across his belly where the imprint of greasy trolleys was stamped. He licked his lips before he spoke, muscles screaming with dehydration and hunger. Janet brushed past him again and returned with a cup of tea. He took it and downed it in one gulp, thankful that Australians usually made their tea warm and excessively milky.

‘Just moving out temporarily, honey.’ Shirin’s voice was someone else’s. She’d never called him honey before.

The almost-lawyer had already taken her bags to the waiting car and Janet stood between them, determined to prevent any scenes. Aslam sat down on the rocking chair still covered with one of Shirin’s old dupattas and took his shoes off.

‘Go,’ he said. ‘You’ll never see me again. Be sure to tell my Ammi this is your decision.’

‘Are you threatening me? Don’t be such an ass.’ Shirin flicked his cheek with a finger and walked out.

The car pulled away and when Aslam looked up again, he was alone. He licked the last of the tea from the mug he still held, stomach growling. There was a strict rule in the share house that you did not eat what you hadn’t cooked. They worked odd hours and cooked when they could. To eat the food that someone was looking forward to after a long shift was wrong. Aslam did it anyway and threw the container in the council bin at the park.  That night the Gujarati boy, whose dal and rice he had stolen, looked inside the fridge several times before he went out to buy a burger and chips.

When Aslam didn’t turn up for work the next day, they fired him. His housemates were sympathetic but impatient. They all struggled with the courses they’d enrolled in to get their student visas and the long hours they worked at supermarkets and petrol stations took the shine off their compassion.

‘Talk to Sylvie, yaar,’ the Punjabi boy said to him, a week after Shirin’s departure. ‘She works with refugees and all.’

‘I’m not a refugee.’ Aslam shouted, and the boy laughed.

‘That’s the spirit. So, talk to her. She knows people and she can help. Nice woman. Dresses nicely too.’ The boy laughed again and cupped his man boobs while sliding his tee shirt off one shoulder.

‘You have no shame,’ Aslam said and the boy shrugged and left him alone. But he brought Sylvie back with him. Tall, long legged, compassionate Sylvie, who had once trekked through the Swat Valley and loved Kabul and Peshawar and imagined that’s where his people came from. And after weeks of trying to persuade him to go with her and ask for help – free help – she kept emphasising that; she looked ready to give up.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’ll go. What should I say?’

‘Tell them the truth. Ask for help. Mention what would happen if you went back. They know about the situation with the Hazaras. Tell them you are seeking asylum. And ask for an interpreter. Someone who speaks Pashto.’

‘I don’t speak Pashto. A little bit of Dari, but mostly Urdu.’

‘Of course, my mistake. Sorry. I always get the languages mixed up. Urdu interpreters will be easier to find, so make sure you request one. I’ll go with you the first time, but they will want to speak to you alone.’

The interpreter was a middle-aged Indian woman who reminded him of a kindly aunt. When the lawyer went out to get some tea, they chatted briefly about how nice it would be to get real chai with elaichi and adrak instead of the watery concoction that would soon be placed before them. When the tea arrived, they smiled at each other.

They filled out forms electronically, the lawyer stopping after each line to check if ‘Aslan’ understood what she was saying. The interpreter, whose name he never found out, kept calling him Aslam with an M, but it made no difference to the lawyer, who clattered energetically on her keyboard and twisted the monitor around to show them what she was writing. Aslam’s discomfort escalated with each keystroke and the interpreter touched him once on his arm as if she knew. When the lawyer finished her form filling and went away again to make photocopies, he turned to the interpreter and told her in Urdu that he wasn’t really Hazara.

‘I know,’ she replied.

‘Why didn’t you say something then?’

‘I am a volunteer interpreter. Not an ethnicity expert.’

‘But what if they find out?’

‘Aslam,’ she said, ‘you cannot worry about what you can’t control. You need to eat and sleep and find some work. Maybe you get to stay here. Maybe not. But you deserve respect and peace. Sometimes you have to stretch the truth a little to get what you want. That’s not a crime.’

‘Why are they so eager for me to say I am Hazara? Where I come from, people don’t say it out loud. It could get them killed.’

‘Exactly. That’s why it may help you stay here. If you want to stay at any cost. Consider yourself fortunate you’re not on Manus Island. The real crime is locking people up in a country where they are not wanted because they are the wrong colour,’ said the woman as if they were discussing the price of goat’s meat at the halal butcher’s. ‘These nice white people who want to help you have never seen where our people live, when they first come here. We live four to a room, sleep on mattresses on the floor and pretend we haven’t felt the landlord’s hands on our breasts when we pay the rent. All you have done is to grieve for that rich girl who left you in this state. And claimed the status of your ancestors.’

‘Aslan?’ The lawyer stood in front of him with a stack of papers.

‘For heaven’s sake,’ the interpreter pushed her chair back and addressed the lawyer directly for the first time. ‘His name is Aslam, not Aslan. How can you help him if you can’t even get his name right?’ And she patted Aslam on his arm before striding out, leaving the lawyer staring after her.

‘Right, Azlum, sorry about that. It is important to get the details right of course. So, it looks as if we’re on our own. Your interpreter has vanished. You do read English, don’t you? Let’s go through all this one last time and I’ll make another appointment for you.’ The lawyer fiddled with the front of her low-necked shirt and Aslam looked away.

A month later Aslam was back at the centre with the same interpreter but a different lawyer. This one was a skinny young fellow with an ear stud and shiny black hair. He was confident they would have approval for Aslam to stay in the country. Aslam signed more forms, answered more questions about the ordeals of a Hazara-by-birth in Pakistan, admitted to being smuggled across the border as a child and prayed his mother would never find out how he lied. If he’d remained a believer he would have acknowledged the Prophet’s mercy all around him, because why else would complete strangers spend so much time making sure he had food, shelter, work and maybe a permanent home in this country?

The interpreter was waiting for him outside when he emerged, blinking in the December sun. She offered him a lift and he accepted, thankful not to have to walk to the bus station in his flimsy rubber thongs.

‘I can drive you home, if you like,’ she said.

‘Oh no, bus stop is fine. It’s a long walk in this heat so …’

‘It’s no trouble. Really. Let me drive you home. I have a son about your age. He’s also breaking his heart over a girl who doesn’t care. A white girl.’

They drove silently the rest of the way. She dropped him outside the ugly red brick house in that neighbourhood he had recently begun to notice was ‘dodgy’ and waved him away as he stammered his thanks. He invited her in for chai and she smiled and asked if he had elaichi, then laughed at his frown as he tried to think.

‘I’m only joking. I hope you do well Aslam-Aslan. I hope you roar. Do good things. And ring your mother.’

The woman wound down the window and waved again. He remained standing on crisp brown grass until her car disappeared around the corner, watching the old drunk from the park lurch across the street towards him. The kids from the corner house readied themselves with water pistols in case the derelict walked past their place. The oldest kid yelled that there were effing wogs everywhere and Aslam thought being sent back in disgrace to that colourful Peshawari market where his father sold embroidered topis, wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He turned to go inside, showing his middle finger to the kid with the pistol.

A smell of frying garlic and chilli greeted him and Suman, their latest housemate, called out from the kitchen. He walked in to find all the housemates gathered around the girl, holding bottles of beer and clapping each other on the back. Aslam’s blank look made her laugh and she said her application was through and she could stay on as a resident Australian. She was cooking for everyone tonight. Tomorrow she was moving out.

‘Don’t look so sad, yaar.’ Suman put down her spatula and hugged Aslam. ‘It’ll happen for you. For all of you. This is the lucky country, so why shouldn’t we be lucky, hey? And Aslam, you better call your mum. She rang and left a message.’

Shortlisted for the KSP Short Story Award judged by Michelle Michau Crawford

 

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Hot Chocolate

Day One – A red and white tape stretches along the curvaceous corridor, like a scene of crime. I cannot think of crimes – I must focus – I am here to save my life, I think. The whine and blast of the thing that may indeed save my life is all around me and the women I share this space with. Assembly lines. Sit. Stand. Change. Wait. In. Out. Next. Repeat.

When it’s my turn, two young women escort me in. They have cheerful faces and lilting voices. I wonder if they work at Woolies on weekends as they ask me how I am and the plans I have for the rest of the day. So normal. So many women.

Inside the tunnel room a bed of sorts. A machine with paddles. I lie down and am lifted up and shifted about and numbers are called out and everyone runs away – like they do at the dentist when they x-ray your tooth before regretfully informing you it cannot be saved.

I am alone in this terrifying space I have never encountered before. And in my ears, Errol Brown whispers – you sexy thang. It brings me back briefly to my body and I wonder if they will let me take this unutterably ugly blue gown and put sequins on it. I believe in miracles, continues Mr Brown, where you from, you sexy thing? I close my eyes and he croons. The paddle thing churns around, the whine and blasts echo down the corridor where the next woman waits. The cheerful women come back in and lower me. I have twenty-four days to go.

Day Five – The lovely woman in the white turban nods at me. Sheesh, she mutters. Groundhog Day. I grimace in sympathy. We’re practically old friends now. We know each other’s names because the woman behind the police tape calls out each name clearly. Even mine. See, it’s not that hard. Anyone can pronounce it. Inside the ‘treatment room’ after the young ones run away, Cat Stevens informs me it’s a wild world. I agree. Oh baby, baby.

Day Six – So many people in the room today, including a red-haired young man. I stifle anxiety and wait for the café-style chatter to ease. They wave me towards the plank, and the boy comes to stand beside me. I’m sorry, I say, looking into his clear eyes. Would it be possible for you to swap with one of the girls? He looks back, nods, leaves the room. A grim-eyed woman takes his place. I’m in trouble, I can smell the coffee she’s had to leave. Afterwards, she informs me there are men ‘on the team,’ it’s not always possible to swap, there are rosters in place, what exactly is my objection anyway? She becomes grimmer with every sentence she bites out. Eyes as cold as the room she scolds me in, she says she will ‘make a note’ of my objection to men. Eighteen days.

Days Seven to Fifteen – I have two ‘reviews.’ In the first, the radiologist seems empathic. Asks how I’m going. I murmur how, despite the note made of my request, there’s been a man in the room each day. The doctor nods, agrees it is entirely reasonable for women to request women in the treatment room. He’s been to positive communication classes, I can tell. Nothing changes. I notice the women walking away from the station as I walk towards it. Coincidence. Mentally I dub them ‘mean girls.’ Adele tells me I almost had it all. I couldn’t disagree more. I read a review of Porochista Khakpour’s memoir on the day the machine breaks and I wait in my non-sequinned blue gown for an hour. Different illness, different health system, same shit. Porochista recalls gripping a paramedic by the arm and telling him not to take her to the racist people. I tell my husband I don’t want to go back to the mean girls. His face rearranges into the same planes as the day our cat died. The face that says – I cannot change this for you.

Day Sixteen – It is the morning after the Bourke Street stabbing. The Sudanese woman shifts slightly in her seat, edging closer to me. I move my elbow towards her and we touch, briefly. Today no names are called out. The man just nods at the African lady and she rushes into the change room. I try to beam solace, entirely approving of Enrico today because he’ll be your hero baby – he will kiss away your pain.

All the days after – Claustrophobia is a bitch even when we are family, and I’ve got all my sisters with me. The panic increases each time. I learn not to respond when they ask how I am. I’d caved in once and told them about swollen eyes and exhaustion and insomnia and they said, perfectly normal, nothing we can do. So, why ask? I learn that the mean girls and the wispy boys are called ‘therapists,’ a term which strikes me as being as satirical as the choice of music each day. I learn that my body endures, even when I don’t. And yes Natalie, I know the perfect sky is torn – because I’m all out of faith.

 

 

 

Peddling my wares

IMG_0822These days I write the word ‘writer’ on forms that ask me what I do. I know I’ve earned it. I am that person – a published novelist. Publication has changed the way I view my profession. The secret is out. I can own it. Even when I’m questioned and occasionally challenged. ‘What do you write?’ is the inevitable question and these days I have an answer. Sometimes that answer – fiction, is followed by another question – what sort?  This leads to conversations, which in most part are educational, entertaining or informative. I may hear the idea of a story I really ought to write or I may be asked to read 500 pages of this story they wrote when their dad was a lad during the war. Of course, everyone knows someone who writes and surely, as a writer I must know them too. Occasionally the conversation turns to my ability to speak English so well, the colour of my skin and my good fortune that Australia allows me to do whatever I want to. Because in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Fiji or wherever I come from, opportunities for women are so limited, you know, because they don’t even let women drive there.

Once, at a regional writers’ festival I participated in two well-attended, thoughtful panels on writing, loss and culture. Discussions ranged over the conditions of loss and the ability to make sense of that loss as an immigrant writer. At the end, there were questions and after that, book signings. A tall, lovely looking woman with a colonial accent chatted to me while I signed her book. I handed over the book and looked up at her and smiled. She frowned down at me and asked, ‘why is it that you people never talk about the advantages this country offers you? Why aren’t you grateful you are living here? I’ve been to your country – women don’t have toilets and go in the fields.  That’s where you come from – and now look at you. I get it – you’ve lost that, but have you gained nothing?’

Racism can be insistent (like a sty in your eye) or unseen (like a tumour).  Mostly I ignore daily micro aggressions. Everything from having conversations directed to my white husband, and the assumption that I must need him as an interpreter, to having my name mispronounced to the point of hilarity. A consistent micro aggression is the old white guy who comes really close and touches whichever part of my anatomy is accessible; arm, face or hair, followed by a stumbling pat or hug because he once went to Nepal or Pakistan and ‘knows’ women like me. Except they couldn’t speak English and wasn’t I lucky to find a man here? Apparently, I am the generic South Asian/Middle Eastern woman, and I should be able to answer for everything from a lack of toilets in India to Saudi women being unable to drive cars until recently.

Then there was that time I was at a library. Another well-attended, sold out event, with several books sold, to the delight of the local bookseller who also attended. I read from my novel, spoke about the length of time required to write and re-write, the path to publication and the thrill of seeing my story in people’s homes. An elderly woman sat in the front row and stared at me all through my talk. Now, as people stood up and moved, lining up for signed copies of my novel, this woman continued to sit, a sturdy foot out firmly, obliging me to go around the back of her chair to get to the signing table, delicious with multiple copies of my novel. She tapped my arm as I tried to slide past and I looked at her. ‘Don’t you get tired of peddling your wares?’ she asked. ‘If this is what I had to do to sell a few copies of a book, I know I wouldn’t bother. I suppose you don’t have an Australian publicist who can manage these things for you.’

My usual reaction to racism, (and I have had over 34 years to get used to it), is always the same. I shut down. I lower my eyes. I smile weakly. I walk away. I was raised to show respect to people even when they were entirely undeserving of it. But I was never taught how to respond to racism. That I had to learn on my own.

Why do white people assume that asking rude questions is okay if addressed to a person of colour? Do they think brown people are incapable of understanding nuanced racism? Why does a statement that includes my good fortune in being allowed to live here follow every compliment? Would the tall white woman at the writers’ festival ask a Jewish person why the Holocaust continues to haunt entire generations? Would the woman at the library ask Jodie Picoult why she was peddling her wares after an author talk? I am by no means suggesting that my stories are as gravely important as those of the Jewish diaspora or as popular as Ms Picoult’s. And I’d be really interested to know how many of my white female friends are randomly touched by strange men during conversations.

I am a writer. I am an introvert. I am entirely comfortable in my own skin and company. I have consciously shrunk my world to keep out a steady barrage of ‘harmless’ comments. But I still want to be able to interact in my own city and country without needing several days to recover from each encounter. Perth is a modern city with over 2 million people, of whom about 41% come from non-English speaking countries. How long must I wait to feel like this is my home and not a colonial outpost, used to ‘women like me’ being subservient and voiceless?

First published, Southern Crossings

 

 

Strands of Jupiter

Our resident astrologer was a strict vegetarian Hindu who wore his caste marks on his forehead. With stained fingers he spread out charts and filled the room with the smell of ink and cigarette smoke. His hands were papery; his breath a sigh, and his stooped hunch suggested a lifetime of poring over the lifelines of the rich and entitled.

Why and how he appeared on our doorstep, I have no idea. We weren’t his usual clients. For a start we had no money, or that’s what our father told us anyhow. And Dad wasn’t about to part with the little he had to find out if his sons were going to America or if his daughters were marrying rich men next year, which appeared to be what the astrologer promised. I knew this because Sujata’s parents, unlike ours, had money. They had been told that Sujata would marry a rich boy with an MBA from Harvard and have several boy children before she was thirty. Sujata’s parents placed a large sum of money into the astrologer’s open hands and praised his talents to all who cared to listen.

Maybe that’s why he was at our place. From the outside, we looked entitled. We had a large home, a couple of servants, a garden where we grew sugarcane and we went to private schools. But Dad said we were living on borrowed money. Borrowed from uncles and grandfathers and cousins who lived in Africa. The sugarcane was supposed to make us enough money to pay back the rich cousins in Africa. Mum said it was another of Dad’s grandiose schemes. It would come to nothing and we would all be tossed on the street when the cousins returned.

The astrologer disagreed. He knew he could change our fortunes. He sat cross-legged on the floor, resting his head briefly against the wall behind him. He drew lines across constellations and explained the power of the stars over our puny lives. His fingers were blue and yellow and his palms wrinkled and brown. Occasionally he looked hunted and we felt sorry for him, squinting at dusty books and charts and reading the futures of an ever-increasing number of people.

We stared, us kids, our mouths open at first then giggling behind our hands. Mum warned us with her eyes as he told us about Aquarius and Saturn and the moons in Venus and how we could, if we were clever, channel the power of those heavenly bodies before they harmed us. Because harm us, they would. Unless we diverted the wrath of the planetary gods away from us by choosing the right gemstones. Sapphire, diamond, cats-eye, topaz, ruby. He knew a gemstone dealer who could help. We must allow him to help us. Mum asked where the money for diamonds would come from. He ignored her and focussed his fierce eyes on Dad. He could see fortune, he told Dad; a home filled with happy, singing children, more money than we needed and certainly more than enough to place on his upturned palm after what he’d just told us. Mum said all that would be placed on his palm was a cup of tea. Dad laughed and said he could come back when everything he’d predicted came true.

The astrologer looked unhappy but bowed his head. When he coughed the air filled with rustling and thunder, and as he walked out we thought we saw planets revolving in the space above his head.

He came back, day after day, sitting stooped and cross-legged in the same position for hours, drawing, writing, sketching, and occasionally asking us questions. He seemed not to like us much. Occasionally I saw him frown terribly and mutter to himself. Intricate charts, however, emerged – Dad and the boys first of course. Dad’s fortunes were especially luminous; all the planets had kindly aligned at the hour of his birth to ensure an extremely long and prosperous life. He didn’t need the enhancement of jewels. Sustained, regular donations of money to charity were recommended instead. Mum said homeless astrologers were considered charity cases, and wasn’t that a nice coincidence.

Our brothers and cousins were next. Saturn and Pluto and Jupiter were explained over several cups of tea and samosas. Jewels were discussed. Topaz, amber, cats-eye, perhaps a yellow diamond for one of my brothers. To be worn on the index finger of the left hand. The oldest cousin could wear a diamond but sapphires were not recommended. Apart from Dad, it appeared all of us were in need of shiny interventions.  Jewels that would augment the pathetic lives we were destined to lead because Saturn was in the ninth house and Mercury was rising and Jupiter ascending.

When he started doing my chart, it was on Mum’s insistence. ‘Why can’t the girls also have their fortune told,’ she said crossly. ‘It’s not like they aren’t people too.’ The astrologer resisted, trying to explain how my chart, like my stick-legged body, was still developing. Mum looked at him and he huffed and shuffled and said he would do his best.

He frowned as he wrote down the exact time of my birth, muttered and coughed as he calculated, shook his head to clear a blockage and finally stood up and walked out of the house. I had been watching him all day and ran to Mum and told her I was going to die.

‘Don’t be so silly’ she said.

‘What else does it mean?’ I wept. ‘He was doing my chart. I will die.’

‘Oh yes, you’re going to die,’ my sister said. ‘Because if you don’t stop blubbering, I’ll kill you.’

‘Stop this nonsense, both of you.’

He came back a week later and summoned the family to his side. My sister put her arm around me and looked worried.

‘I have bad news,’ the astrologer said. ‘But it could be worse. It could have been one of the boys. However, it is the girl.’

‘How dare you,’ Mum said, pulling me away from my sister and putting her own arm around my shoulders. ‘I’ve had enough of your rubbish. You are no longer welcome in this house.’

The astrologer looked at Dad. ‘The girl is a mangli. Tuesday born. Under the influence of Saturn. No one can outrun a planetary influence like that. But here’s the curious thing. I see a long life-line. So she will live. However, she must never marry. She will, umm, bring bad luck to the husband. Possibly death. I’m sorry. She’s your responsibility for life, because if you give her to another family, you will be cursed. However, a sapphire will help ease that burden. Yes. You must get a sapphire ring at once.’

‘Is that all?’ I grinned and hugged Mum. ‘I wasn’t ever going to marry anyway. Boys are so silly. Sister Mary Ascension says they are full of sin.’

‘You’re such a freak,’ my sister pulled my hair and tapped my head before linking arms with me and dragging me out of the quiet room.

Our parents and brothers became more remote and less willing to mediate the fights I had with my sister when we were finally teenagers together. She fell in love with a sinful boy and married him and Mum watched me carefully for signs I might want to do the same one day.

‘It’s fine, Mum, don’t worry,’ I said to her at least once a day until she died. ‘I have no desire to be a husband killer.’

And in my thirtieth year, as we watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean from the balcony of my house in Perth, my sister said casually, ‘he killed himself, you know.’

‘Who?’

‘The astrologer who told you you’d be a spinster all your life, that’s who.’

‘What?’

‘Yes, shot himself. Very messy. One of the cousins found out about it and told mum.’ My sister spoke slowly, her eyes distant, cup of tea forgotten.

‘Why?’

‘Nowadays we would recognise it as depression. Remember the signs? Didn’t want to be around people, for a man whose profession put him in direct contact with people …’

‘How long have you known? And why have you waited till now to tell me this?’

‘Mum told me before she died. Besides, none of the other stuff he said came true anyway. Except for you.’ She reached out and tapped the sapphire ring on my left hand as we thought about moons in Jupiter and suns in Saturn and the unfortunately short lives of both my husbands.

First published in the Newcastle Short Story Award Anthology 2018

 

 

 

 

A Ministry, a Garden, a God

Image result for blind man's garden image Image result for a god in every stone image Image result for ministry of utmost happiness image

I read a lot of books. For research mainly, or so I tell others and myself but also for pleasure, for comfort and to know myself better. I read fabulous books and ordinary ones, heartbreaking books and healing ones, smart books and hilarious ones, and I have a system of shelving these in idiosyncratic ways. I give away a lot of books too, sometimes because I can’t stand to have them in my house and sometimes because I realise guiltily I have multiple copies I don’t need. And I rarely loan them out. I’m sure the ones that I do loan to very special friends burn in their hands until they return them. The bibliotaph’s burden. We all have something to carry, do we not?

I try to read the world in the voices of the world. Three recent books have been on my mind so much that I feel compelled to unpack their hold on my consciousness.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone follows the journey of Vivian Spencer from England to Turkey to Peshawar in the troubled years from 1914 to 1930 when colonialism compressed the lives of a disparate band of people and left a trail of personal and global destruction. Vivian’s legacy is loss. She loves the Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey and follows him into the ancient city of Caspatyrus (modern Peshawar) but betrays him anyway, echoing the subcontinent’s colonial enterprise; the aftershocks of which its people continue to feel today. Years later she befriends Najeeb Gul, a young Peshawari boy whose troubled older brother will unleash his own brand of destruction within the countries that have used and discarded him. Shamsie uncovers the layers of the ancient landscape where her story is set, turning an unflinching eye towards the lives buried beneath and superimposed over those layers. This novel is fiction at its truth-telling best. “Why sigh over lost mulberries instead of giving thanks to the engineers who saved the city from floodwaters? said Qayyum and Najeeb threw his hands in the air in exasperation. Lala, why can’t you see that the past is beautiful” (p263).

Nadeem Aslam is another writer who walks confidently into the murky territories of war, loss, race and religion. I read The Blind Man’s Garden on a recent plane trip from India to Perth and remember feeling like I couldn’t take my eyes off the page in case I missed something. Aslam’s writing always evokes a sense of doom. When this writer decides to place his characters inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while their families attempt to live lives of ideological beauty, the result is beautiful, raw and intense. And scary. The slow build-up of horror swept me up entirely and dumped me, metaphorically on the other side, bleary-eyed and stunned. Rohan, the blind man of the title, knows that “history is the third parent.” When both his son and foster son leave him in his garden of memories to go and help save wounded civilians from the Taliban, Rohan remembers that his ancestors had played a part in the loss of Muslim lands to nonbelievers. “This was the century-old taint that Rohan had tried to remove by spreading the soils of Allah’s six beloved cities here. Mecca. Baghdad. Cordoba. Cairo. Delhi. Istanbul” (p11). Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie both know their landscape, their people and their sorrows and understand how the world will always come to the doorsteps of those whose lives are considered expendable. We live in times when the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ cause fear or at least discomfort in a Western context. Here are two contemporary writers (and there are several) unafraid to write the complexities that define the politics of terror, fear and justice.

Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness took me through a journey of the country of my birth and showed it to me in ways that confronted, broke and made me whole again. Roy uses myth, larger-than-life landscapes and people, and the minutiae and particularities of lives lived under fear and despair to describe love and joy. Aftab/Anjum lives his/her life in the crumbling graveyard of an Old Delhi neighbourhood. Anjum distances herself from her genteel family of birth after deciding to live as a woman despite being born a hermaphrodite. And yes, there are troubled boys across the country with legacies they cannot contain in their bodies; boys like the enigmatic Kashmiri Musa who loves the South Indian Tilottama. Under the vast canvas of modern India and the lives she follows, Roy’s fierce, iconic politics is never disguised. “Today, as the saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism rises in our country like the swastika once did in another, Naga’s ‘foolish faith’ schoolboy speech would probably get him expelled, if not by the school authorities, then certainly by some sort of parents’ campaign” (p165). Roy has her detractors, most of whom appear to think she ought not to fiercely criticise a country that shelters her, but like Shamsie and Aslam, Roy’s truth shines through the refracted prism of fiction.

These were difficult books to read and grieve over. They fed my pessimism. They made me long to hold those I love fiercely. They made me wish someone would ask me to run a course on reading that elevates you and makes you want to be a better person and a better writer. They spoke to those nerve-endings that tingle when I know I am being transformed. And most of all, they taught me how hard it is to write elegantly about difficult things and how astonishing it is when complexity and tragedy combine to create beauty.

First published in Southern Crossings

http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/a-ministry-a-garden-a-god/

 

Cultural Knowledge

Such a loaded term – cultural knowledge – coming as it does with its own set of expectations and hints of secrets. When I try to unpack it a little, I think about how knowledge differs from appropriation and what the keepers of cultural knowledge can do to protect themselves from stealth and theft. And the answer is – very little. We live in times of exchange and borrowings and slippages and it is hard to skid to a stop, metaphorically speaking, and say – ‘You have gone too far.’

My cultural knowledge is a concentric circle that extends out from family and memories of family, to the community I grew up in, the school I went to, the families I married into, the town I left and the city I adopted; and the country I settled in and everything between. Growing up Indian in India, as a member of a minority sect within a minority religion taught me about culture from the inside. Growing up female in an orthodoxy that disapproved of girls and discouraged them from forming opinions or making decisions taught me to write in secret. Raising a female child outside the confines of country and cultural knowledge allowed me to trust my judgement and own my mistakes. This came at a cost – and a loss of language, tradition and family. I never imagined interpreting this complexity for easy consumption. I still can’t make dal-chawal-palida like mum does. I still shiver walking past death-scented marigolds. I still miss the drama of eid-ka-chand and diwali-ke phatake. But for more than three decades in this country, and counting, I’ve tried, and lost, translation.

Creative writing degrees across Australian universities have marketed the desirability of ‘the other.’ It is actually an advantage to write a story that falls outside the white, heterosexual norm and ‘people like me’ can tell those stories, supported by research and financial aid from our institutions. And for that we are very grateful. We need to be, because it is pointed out to us frequently by seemingly disingenuous white people. The grateful immigrant is as desirable as the grateful refugee. And in the halls of education, we share our culture carefully, because, you know, we don’t want to appear ungrateful, and after all, we are creative colleagues. It’s what we do. We imagine other realities so we can critique patriarchy and draw attention to the plight of women and children in those theocracies and pseudo democracies we come from. We stand together, white, brown and black people, in this new country of informed debate we have fashioned together, within the halls of academia.

So, in the spirit of ‘giving back’ we give away our cultural knowledge. We speak of those layers within the countries we grew up in, those of us who dream and speak in several languages. We explain the differences between our people, our food and our religions. We resist the familiar tropes that seek to define us. We agree to speak at seminars and meet colleagues for coffee to unpack that tricky terrain inscribed on our bodies and in our minds. We talk, we write and sometimes we rage at the lack of self-awareness evident in the language of appropriation. We notice the namastes and salaams and references to shakti and bhakti and try not to mind when we are encouraged to attend workshops on how to write ‘the other.’

Knowledge slips into appropriation so comfortably. It’s a marriage made in heaven, really. Gayatri Spivak, back in 1986, well before cultural appropriation was even a ‘thing,’ said she does not “make the tired nationalist claim that only a native can know the scene,” and in principle I agree. In these days of easy travel, when it is cheaper to go to Bali than Broome; when Australians regularly travel to India and Vietnam and Cambodia and come back transformed by poverty; you don’t need to be a native to know the scene. When you have experienced the country and the natives, and walked among their dusty streets, wearing their costumes, what harm can there be to sit down with one of us in Australia and ask about the things that puzzle you still, weeks after your visit, and after your tummy has settled down? And really, what harm can there be in writing about these experiences, in the interests of eliding differences or building bridges across cultures? The white gaze interprets, interrupts and translates, telling me that my cultural knowledge cannot be the sole interpretation of my reality in Australia.

I think about all I know, all that still informs my writing to this day, and realise I started writing as testimony. So I could have something for my daughter as she grew up and realised what it meant to be a young brown female in Australia. Of course, no amount of cultural knowledge and the thousands of years of ancient Eastern wisdom prepared me for the pitfalls of parenthood. Now that we are finally brown women together in a white country, one young and one not so young, the conversations with my daughter take on an urgency I did not anticipate. There is so much to tell her. So much to show her. Culture. Knowledge. Secrets. Family. Language. Grief. Outrage. To wear a sari without falling down. To understand instinctively that the word Masi always comes after my sister’s name but Aunty always comes before her name.

I don’t have answers and I doubt if I ever will. Uncertainty marks the immigrant passage much more effectively than gratitude. I have been fortunate and people have been generous. I try to give back more than I get. I am not an inexhaustible supply of cultural knowledge. Nor am I a culture hoarder. But my stories are mine to tell and cannot be bought for the price of a cup of coffee by intersectional feminists ‘exploring the idea of difference.’ And I guess that I am still able to grieve over, rage at, and feel the imposition of such selective cultural exchanges.

First published in: http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/cultural-knowledge/

 

Books on Shelves

When a friend sent me a photo of my novel on her shelf, my preoccupation with books and how they appear on shelves, inspired me to find pictures of The Historian’s Daughter on various shelves, in bookshops, libraries and homes. Those who know me understand my idiosyncratic shelving of my books – I sort by gender and country in the first instance and may occasionally swap around to accommodate writers who no longer live in the country of their origin. I situate myself on the Australian Women Writers shelf, although I could equally live alongside Indian Women Writers. This system confuses any reader who looks at my shelves, but it works for me. Clearly my friend has a system that works for her – there are men and women, mostly Australian, in this mix. I just know that to be sharing a shelf with Amanda Curtin, Hannah Kent, Josephine Wilson and Khaled Hosseini among others, works for me 🙂

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When I was invited last year to launch my novel in Melbourne at the Eltham Book Shop, I was gobsmacked to be sharing a shelf with Arundhati Roy, whose second novel was surely the most anticipated book in recent times. The bookshop itself is amazing and I could have lived there, happily and secretly, because there are so many shelves to hide behind and enough books to last me this lifetime and more.

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And here’s this picture. I was at the Perth City Library and found myself under Modern Fiction. In my travels as a sneaky author hoping to take pictures of her novel in the wilderness, I have found a reciprocal idiosyncrasy in the way librarians and bookstore owners categorise my novel.

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And this final picture is from the 2017 Perth Writers Festival, where, for the first time I saw multiple copies of my novel snuggling up against others. I look forward to this year’s festival, where I’ll be speaking with writers Fiona Harari, Leigh Straw and Fiona Palmer about their new books.

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