Tag Archives: culture

A Ministry, a Garden, a God

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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/

 

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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/