Saturday, December 20, 2014

Children of the $

I wonder how it must be to see your favourite movie at home and then go out for a joy ride and see all the little things from it magically manifested in the brightly lit aisles of shops whereupon little stickers are attached on each of them with numbers arranged randomly that you only remember practising for a lark that morning in a straight progression -1,2,3...
I wonder how it must be to hear the smattering of an argument at home and ask one of the protagonists when a counterpoint to that argument is raised in a different conversation later, "But Mum, you said it was your house, not Dad's"... and to then hear her say deliberately and carefully, "It Is My House".
I wonder how it must be at a certain season of the year to hear about a Son of God's birth and marvel at a carefully arranged plaster of paris smorgasbord of figurines made up of little simply dressed people and animals bowing before an infant in a cradle of fake hay, and then have to conflate that image with bearded fat men in red suits carrying big sacks in a reindeer-drawn carriage that flies through the night sky above neon-lit houses with big dining tables laden with food that could feed all the people you saw that day.
I wonder how it must be to follow the thread whereby random dots are connected and associations formed leading to a sudden outburst on a lazy Sunday evening drive back home with the words, 'Dad, Where Was I billed?'

Friday, December 12, 2014

The end (of the year) is nigh

It's that time of the year again, when one must reckon with the annual past ritualistically, in the fetishistic, aggrandizing, reconciliatory fashion that is our wont, lest the next year be as full of disappointment, anger and regret as this one has. We all want to believe that we do learn something about the world each year and will on ourselves a kind of heaped knowledge count that will accrue in some agglomerated measure of gratitude. Gratitude to whatever higher (or lower) power that life has indeed provided us with real progress, not just the delusional sense of it.
What if we reverse the trend... not so much go against the grain as invert it... and focus on all that we would have liked to have learnt but haven't... and more convolutedly, do all this while putting ourselves in the shoes of our brethren from around the world whose past year hasn't really afforded them any real opportunity for much to be grateful for?
What has the year taught us, the Palestinians? That life does not reward a sense of dignity, does not reckon with courage and honour, does not respect a righteous fight. That whatever one does and whatever one believes pales into insignificance in the face of power, wealth and national alliances that are so removed from a basic human sensitivity to our perspective as to render the wanton and regular killing of our children unworthy of too much fuss.
What has the year taught us, the Chinese citizens of Hong Kong? That progress does not go backward in time. That a hundred and fifty-seven years of submission to the rule of foreigners does not guarantee us a right to self-determination after a further fifteen years of rule by our own. That we must succumb to the same old jaded sense of resignation to the fact that those in power will never give it up, never mind the poetry of their tongues or the colour of their skins.
What has the year taught us, the Syrians? That we belong to a region of the world that the rest of the world has given up on, that regards as beyond redemption, beyond brotherhood, beyond help. That we are caught in a time-warp of our own making. That if we only could shed our names, our beliefs, our faith, our history, then we will have perhaps won the sympathy of the peoples of the world, but not their intercession to escape the daily horror of our lives.
What has the year taught us, the Mexicans, Ukrainians, Balochistanis, Somalis, Afghans, and Iraqis? That unless we open up our farms, divest our businesses, end our central banks' independence, receive unnecessary advice and even less meaningful instruction from wolves in expensive haircuts and drab suits, we will continue to be mired in this seemingly endless cycle of violence and intolerance from which our future generations will have a much harder time extricating themselves, after knowing only the despair and misery that comes from a lifetime of imminent expendability.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Guilty by association

To be anti-establishment in the age I grew up in wasn't really a choice. Separated as I was from the dominant pop-culture narratives glorified in the movies and music I consumed, such as a first world lived experience, unguarded access to unfettered public space, and a single all-encompassing homogeneous language with which I could articulate my day-to-day struggles with modernity, aspiration and other assorted coming-of-age bullshit to anyone willing to listen, I still grew up hating the idea of a culture of political correctness, an uncool striving after social markers of success such as a nice house and kempt children, and the police. This last item wasn't a random assignation of contempt for any and all guardians of public order but the result of a clearly defined negative generalisation of the class of people chosen to police the rest of us, and the reasons for it encompassed, as it must do for juveniles everywhere in the world, peer group pressure, the threat of an enforced conditional freedom, and the looming shadow of familial shame in case something went wrong in my many and varied interactions with men in uniform. Indeed, it is difficult to say that I universally reviled all police - many local heroes and highly principled and celebrated men in our community were police officers. My contempt was reserved for only those I met and saw on the streets of my city on a daily basis.
This is a time of an establishment backlash across the world. People across America are converging on their town-halls and city centres to protest acts by police that explicitly targeted members of the black community, and a culture intent on portraying and acting upon an entire race's supposedly inherent criminality. Calls for respect of the law of the land and patience till investigations into the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have concluded are being met with shriller voices calling for an overhaul of the law of the land and mass civil disturbances till such overhauls are achieved. On the other side of the world, the federal government in Australia is trying desperately and unsuccessfully to convince its citizens that they have been spoiled rotten by hand-outs and fairy god-motherly treatment by previous governments that must end lest the economy collapses under the weight of a too generous public policy. Across an ocean and the Dead Sea, the State of Israel is fighting a moral crisis of its own making by unilaterally declaring a whole race of its residents sub-human, a case of a historically sanitised and polished pot calling a haplessly disenfranchised and stateless kettle black.
If there was ever a time to picket the streets and hold up screaming placards it would seem that it is now, but rarely, if ever, does such a sentiment prompt an ethical examination of a simple, visual and easily breakable pattern of collective behaviour that must stare everyone in the face. That of judgement. We look at a person and decide who they are, what they amount to and what they must dream of based purely on their physical appearance and the circumstance of our encountering them within the confines of a particular physical space. This pattern repeats itself in every single one of us irrespective of where we come from, where we're going and what we've been through in subjective experience. There is never a time we do not judge a human being we encounter, and at those times when we are confused about someone, perhaps within a space-time vortex that is discordant with our expectations, we quickly accept that the exception must prove the rule. This judgement follows us around most sensitively when we find ourselves out of our natural environments and those of us not used to the experience quickly learn to bury the feeling of being singled out as different, even positively, if only to indulge the illusion that we will eventually come around to being accepted by the majority or, if all else fails, to return from whence we came. People in uniform are judged by people not in uniform on the basis of their subjective experiences of encounters with a person in uniform or a particularly strong impression made by a work of fiction or non-fiction depicting an encounter with a person in uniform. I do not and never will profess to know what a person of colour in America goes through every single day of his/her life because, first of all, I am not a person of colour in America and second, because I do not want to be someone else. As an Australian resident of Indian descent I do encounter glimpses of judgement in the sudden facial reactions and physical signs that others display on encountering me, which may or may not be symptoms of a persecution complex or worse depending on my mood or the time of day. Palestinians in Israel, I'm sure, have a markedly different view of the Israelis they encounter every single day of their lives.
Wouldn't it be easier to see me as I am, a human being as full of hopes, dreams, loves, passions, desires and darkness as you when you encounter me for the first time and only later, if our encounter leads to such an eventuality, indulge who I might want to be and how you want to be seen by me.
Perhaps the one positive lesson we can all glean from this turmoil around the world is to learn to judge one another differently, if at all.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Sense of Place

The most sought after facet of a good story: whether fictional, an attempt at an allusion to something, or as reportage, is unarguably a sense of place. In the visual medium the conventional tropes are: the city skyline, a body of water and a detail of an architectural/ natural element or an easily recognisable icon meant to trigger the recognition of the target audience by an assumed common knowledge of the geographical region in question. In writing, it has been the weather and many many other things, including in references to a part of the anatomy of an individual who is representative of a group of people known to belong to a certain place, and not necessarily in a derogatory way. Sometimes the reference is a combination of the physical attributes of the populace and their engagement in a past-time that is commonly associated with them in the fevered imagination of the removed observer... such as a friend's online photo album, descriptively titled, 'Cycling Girls of Copenhagen'. (Sadly, the link to that album is lost.)
For someone like myself, disclosing herein to a certain proclivity for day/week/month/quarterly/half-yearly/annual-tripping in times past to regions of the world where I was as bemused as anyone else at having found myself, I used to think it was the smells. More recently however, I recognise that those olfactory associations are less accurate in hindsight, referring to moments with friends and family in happier and sadder times, and reflective of other compulsions of a notoriously unreliable and sentiment-driven memory.
What drives it all is, I think, the very human need to belong, however temporarily, to the place one is travelling through or from or towards. For the migrant, the need is less clearly articulated. Is one trying desperately to base oneself in, all other factors notwithstanding, a place that he/she has to justify having chosen as home for the rest of one's life? The troubling corollary to this is the less than incidental interactions I have had with people at work and other places who have made the same decision to relocate as I have and unequivocally reject the sense of place, whether in their desperate retaining of prejudice, their consumptive choices, or their home economics. To mitigate this disorientation, I have taken recourse in local literature and it has been enlightening so far because the writers reflect a diaspora as dislocated as I find myself today, and their collective sense of distress at not belonging yet, or belonging so much that they find themselves stuck, is palpable through the page, comforting in the shared befuddlement of a messy discombobulation.

The list so far, and all very very good:

- The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. 1940
- My Brother Jack by George Johnston. 1964
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally. 1972
- The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe. 1983
- The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. 1987
- Dirt Music by Tim Winton. 2001
- The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. 2005