Tag Archives: culture

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

 

 

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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/