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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What remains in the shadows

In a world where children are killed without compunction right in front of the unfeeling glare of the global media, where a military superpower will intervene in a humanitarian crisis that has been escalating since the summer of 2011 only when its business interests are being threatened, when a plane ferrying passengers between two destinations in a world within a world suddenly crashes into the intervening space between worlds and triggers the full brunt of economic pressure being brought to bear on a long suffering people as much in need of deliverance from oppression as the rest of the world imagines their notional enemies are, and where hysterical frenzy is being stoked about all adherents, whether brown, black, white or yellow, of a faith that is so poorly understood by the powers that be that it is being demonized simply by virtue of their ignorance of it... there arrives a novel about the emotional and psychological toll that being an individual who encapsulates 'the other' in the western imagination, try as he might to escape the circumstances of his birth, exacts in all its bitter, angry and frustrated manifestations in a modern world that for all its glorification of personal achievement is exposed as hollow and exclusionary to anyone who dares to embrace their own individuality.

'In the Light of What We Know' has as its hero that curious entity - a character who is a success in every way that counts in the modern world, telling us his story in his own words (through an intermediary) without ever referring to that hard-won success except in asides about the reactions of school authorities and parents, colleagues and recruiters, lovers and friends, and others, to his achievements. This is a book primarily about a phantom, Zafar, who represents 'the other' in the west's perception of 'us'. And in every chapter, while delving into the ideas and theories and studies and discoveries that collectively and relentlessly illuminate the rot at the heart of the human condition, the author, Zia Haider Rahman, doesn't fail to remind us that all the knowledge and scholarship in the world doesn't make one iota of difference to the gulf that divides 'us' and 'they'. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Tobias Wolff reminds us that, 'In order for us to live comfortably with ourselves while living on unjust terms with others, we have to tell ourselves a story that makes us innocent'. In the light of the continuing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and the regular pronouncements by government representatives and prominent public figures on refugees, Asians and national 'values' here in Australia, it is time to examine the moral quandary at the heart of this façade of universality and shared space that we call the modern world. And books like, 'In the Light of What We Know' throws light on what it is like to view the expanse of that gulf through the eyes of the masters of the universe, as it were, the one-percent, the ones that control the ebbs and flows of the common perception of the world within the larger world we inhabit.

There is a particularly revealing passage in the novel that describes the struggle of Zafar trying to come to terms with the ethical double-standards of western society:

'What does an optical illusion tell you? It tells you that you have no direct access to reality. How do you begin to control a world you cannot see, a world that includes you? How much of what we do is driven by the vanity of gaining dominion over others, not to own them but with the purpose of shielding our beliefs from evidence that would contradict them?'

There is an equally revealing passage later on in the novel that indicts us as individuals for being responsible for the monster we have wrought by blinding ourselves from the facts in spite of the relentless empiricism we convince ourselves we use to view the world in all its uncompromising and unblinkered light:

'Think of two people who don't know each other very well, when their conversation chances upon a book, a rich and expansive book they both love. They become animated and bear a sudden goodwill towards each other, as if each is thinking, You see the world the way I do. Yet no two people ever feel the same way when stumbling on a book they both dislike. The conversation soon moves on.'

In its essence, the novel is about violence. The violence we use all the time on each other, the violence we use in our interactions with those who are different from us, the violence we are exposed to as a society and the violence we wilfully ignore even when it happens all around us. Little wonder that two instances in the book that shape Zafar's life profoundly, and the reader's perception of him in the earliest and latest stages of our encounter with him, come as a shock when we should have been expecting it all the time, and contain all the madness of the world in brief eruptions that seem more authentic than the all-pervasive 'absence of malice' we tell ourselves is our defining virtue and our legacy to the world.

In a television appearance since the release of, 'In the Light of What We Know', Zia Haider Rahman once spoke about a journey he was making through Asia that was interrupted because of personal bereavement, that eventually led him to write this book. In a novel that brims over with so much personal angst, I shudder to think about what was lost to him.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The stinky, black and fetid pool that Narcissus looked into

I can't get over the fact that the world is literally unravelling (by specific design in the Ukraine and most of the Middle-East, and as a by-product of myopic consumerism all over the rest of the world) exactly while I am at my most tired, strung-out, anarchic, riven by compulsions of violence towards my fellow-man and yes, depressed that I have probably ever been with the possible exception of those few moments of sobriety while surviving my late teens and early twenties.

Money is an all-pervasive driver to these markers of despondency, but so is a futility at striving after the signposts of a successful existence. It is as if I have decided that I will have a life of pseudo/bashful/unjustifiable/pitiable materialism while compulsively exploring the pseudo-ism, bashfulness, unjustifiable-ness and pity of that desire through every waking moment.

Being a father definitely has something to do with everything I feel, but there again the escape-clause inherent in that admission is almost an invitation to forsake blame for a very real state of dangerous personal turmoil while not redirecting that blame to another on account of her inability to accept responsibility for the condition because of her current dependency. In other words, a cop out.
The job I have these days is a natural agitant, of course - menial, repetitive, devoid of meaningful social interaction and devoted to and sustained by the very consumerist ideal that I naturally recoil from, at least during those times when I do have a choice about it. But it pays the rent, and in doing so sustains a chance at fulfilling that ultimate goal of creature comfort and bragging rights encapsulated by a future photograph of a happy teenager wearing a mortarboard and graduate gown while posing next to a late-middle-aged grey and/or balding man in board shorts and unmarked white t-shirt who is, in turn, posing next to a red Ducati Monster in bright sunshine, smug grins all around.

Life is short, they say. Four Palestinian boys on Gaza Beach yesterday probably hadn't heard that from them.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Where the Mind is Forever Fearful

The cold winds blow,
Fast and strong from the West,
to where I am,
And from the East,
to where they will be felt.

An idea is about to be upended,
An idea come upon in darkness, debauchery and deliberation.
About a hundred years of them,
Each one colder than the last.

But now the cold winds do blow,
down the edifice,
the structure, the frame,
of a dream - many men's and women's,
and of those long dead and of those yet to come.

Did the dream ever really come to pass?
In some little corner,
In one or more many little countries?
I wish I knew, and I wish I could tell you,
Who I really am.

But now, perhaps,
I will forever forget.
Like the ancient leaf scrolls,
Of wisdom inherited,
And then turned to dust.

For the historical contextual counterpoint to this poem, please click here

Monday, April 7, 2014

In Search of Authenticity

It is as if we are being condemned to live in a world of fakery (sic): Our leaders' doublespeak on every possible issue depending on which lobby is currently their most generous sponsor, the products we consume that loudly proclaim the most irrelevant things they are made up of on their labels and in their branding, leaving the most crucial details of their constitution(s) up to the imagination, the services we subscribe to - in the way that there are always a few stock sentences that are used irrespective of context and subjective experience that incredibly manage to exasperate and bemuse us at the same time... and most devastatingly, our own sentiment - that is being cynically manipulated to expect and be driven by the unnatural ideal of a world full of beauty and passion and adventure and heroism, when in fact none of those things exist to the extent that they are even recognisable to a sensitive and compassionate reading of the true world.

What is authenticity, after all, that it can be separated from truth? That which springs forth from a consciousness that is free of economic and spiritual persuasion, that which remains loyal to the implicit tenets in its own raison d'être, that which is in essence severed from the bonds which tie it to its creator, to roam free in the world taking on uses and forms beyond the wildest fantasies of its deliverer... that is the purest form of truth in the modern world, whichever avatar this product/service/sentiment/art form takes, isn't it?
One of my earliest guides to the dishonest duality inherent in living a modern life came in the form of a reading of one of Murphy's Laws, heavily titled, 'Freeman's Commentary on Ginsberg's Theorem', which states, "Every major philosophy that attempts to make life more meaningful is based on the negation of one part of Ginsberg's Theorem:
- Capitalism is based on the assumption that you can win
- Socialism is based on the assumption that you can break even
- Mysticism is based on the assumption that you can quit the game".
A bit of pop culture discourse right there for those of us who don't get enough of it on our news, in our music, literature and art. But what about the diametric opposite - An embrace of the meaninglessness in modern life? Bringing attention to the gimmickry, the falsehoods about ultimate importance, the irrelevance of our lives in the larger picture of the earth's slow debasement from the continuous assaults of humanity on its person, the sheer distance between the First and Third Worlds and the often dangerous ground that one must travel, ideologically, to even attempt to traverse it... can only do so much. Can we not give up fighting the realities of modern life and the inconsistencies and horrors that occasionally bubble up beyond the surface of this anaesthetized, unethical and debaucherous lie that we are fed (and which we feed ourselves), and resurrect our collective consciousness to its once au naturel state that once gave rise to the theory of human rights, charity and apolitical transnational aid, worldwide travel and the machines that abet it, and the internet?
Am I condemned to lurk in the shadows seeking authenticity in the smile of a stranger, a breath of fresh air, the sight of an untouched vista, a random comment on an article I enjoyed reading... for the rest of my life?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Anarchist in High-Viz clothing

In the process of writing, there always comes a time when the words flow independently of conscious thought - a kind of unfettered motion, if you will... as an automobile coasting towards its destination in neutral on a downward incline, smoothly and steadily realising the fruit of all the combustion and smoke and toil that came before, with the idea of its ultimate purpose now dawning at last.

If only the inexorable path of life could be similarly revealed.

Hardship and effort during the course of daily living become virtues only if they provide a clear mental image of the journey's end - with milk and honey and, hopefully, a comfortable armchair with a footrest and a good book waiting at the finish line. As an end in itself there can be nothing virtuous about menial labour - the passage of hours and hours occupied by singularly uninspired regret in one's own horrid company. I make the distinction, here, between solitude - a pleasant voluntary interlude where one indulges the illusion that he/she is bon vivant and engaged in a bacchanal debate with a rabidly fertile brain... and the act of actually engaging in being practically productive all alone, with hours measured against set targets that are remunerated for, depending on prevailing monetary norms and the economic demand for said labour.

And what of the journey's end, you ask... At a bare minimum, driving human beings to desperate exhaustion in the hope of an existence unmarked by a feral dependence on institutions and/or benevolent relatives is a system that can only ever survive in an unexamined and immoral world, a world that is fast being overtaken by calumnious denial about the cost of our collective efforts at providing all or most of us the means to fulfill that dream of a future independent leisure. The forests are fading, the seas are sweltering, the skies are scorching, the water is waning. Towards what end is this system driving itself? Is it actually possible that we covet our comforts, earned over generations and generations of deprivation, so much that we now contemplate our own devouring by the very processes we put in place to emancipate ourselves from the struggle for daily survival.

In an unexamined world the anarchists always die last.