I had every intention that I’d write this post before I left India, or perhaps in Bangkok on the way home. But as those last few days sped by, they felt precious. Faced with a choice between soaking up the last sights of Panjim and Chennai, and staring at a monitor in an internet cafe, well, what would you do?
Most of my last week in India was spent in Goa, a place I really knew very little of, apart from its reputation as being crammed with ageing hippies and beach resorts, with a segment of the local population desperately fighting to protect its natural resources. After my very short visit to the capital, I can say it’s not entirely untrue, but there is of course worlds more. When I think of Panjim now, I remember the old buildings’ flaking paint, dozens of dim little bars the size of walk-in-robes, small hills blanketed with palm-trees, floating casinos (yes, boats on the river), and the overall sense that while tourism has its impact, the city and its people persist.
I came here to attend the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, at Dona Paula, just south of Panjim. While the attendance left a little to be desired (due mostly to the festival co-inciding with a plethora of other events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Indian army entering Goa to claim it back from the Portuguese), the talks, readings and discussions were an absolute feast. A sample of some of the events can be found on You Tube here. We saw and heard Amitav Ghosh on Goa’s resilence, Jerry Pinto on Indian cinema, powerful poetry from Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih & Robin Ngangom, a wonderful philosophical short story from Anjum Hasan, and of course, and a whole lot more. I was scheduled to read my poems alongside Manohar Shetty. A long story, but I read alone – to a small but appreciative audience.
Interestingly, it was here that a nagging doubt about this project (writing poems about medical tourism in India) started to untangle itself. For a long time, I’d felt uncomfortable about what I was writing – was it too much focussed on the spectacular, the poverty, the visible disparities between India and the rest of the world? How could I be true to the complexities I was encountering, which included scenes and scenarios that stir up anger, grief, confusion as well as admiration? Were my poems too much concerned with the Otherness of India? Will there be a difference between how they are received by Indian people and non-Indians?
Unanswerable questions really. But I couldn’t stop asking myself. To the point where, over the course of the residency, at times I’ve felt a bit constrained by my own self-critique. And somehow the Goa Lit Fest helped me relax. Himanshu Suri (Heems from US hip-hop act Das Racist) said he often worried that he was at risk of “self-exotifying” or “performing his race” in front of their predominantly white audience, while also trying to remember that there may only be a few people at their gigs he really relates to – and it’s they who he is “winking at”. I am also always encouraged and challenged when I hear resident Indians express a sense of injustice. Novelist Kiran Nagarkar said something so clear and important, inspired by a compassionate anger at the clearing of Mumbai slums, that “architecture is about human dignity”.
It seems to me now that the key to the dilemma of this project is that there is no key – except to continue to question, and to take risks, to explore various dimensions of empathy and affinities, to include the gaps and doubts, to be immersed in the poems not in how I imagine they might be received. I have about 25 or 30 rough drafts of poems to work on. Who knows how many will survive my surgical eye, but for now, it feels like there is a good chance a lot will.
The early poems feel a little chaotic and flailing around trying to capture the initial shock of arrival, with the urgency of a sense of injustice and discomfort. The poems from mid November feel a little fragmented and tangential, finding fascinating stories and grappling to fit them into poems. And the poems from my last few weeks are relatively settled, calm, philosophical, as if I had found some kind of stable poetic ground. I shouldn’t be surprised that the poetry went on a journey parallel to mine.
I have a lot of thankyous – Asialink and the Australia India Council for funding and supporting this project, the staff and students of the English Department at the University of Madras for their enthusiasm and interest, Prakriti Foundation, India Intercontinental Cultural Association, Goa Arts & Literary Festival, Anna University, Wellspring India MediTour, Dr Smilez Dental Clinics, my friends and contacts (especially Syam, Prabalan, Eugenie and Mr Matthew), and everyone where our conversation went further than where I’m from and cricket! It’s been an amazing journey. I’m still on it, and I hope it brings me back to south India soon.
onya, andy. for me, the questions that you were/are asking yourself are crucial ones — necessary for the integrity of any similar art, really, and i also essentially agree with the conclusions you came to. to dwell too much [or maybe even much more than a little bit] on the RECEPTION of our art is kind of self-sabotaging, i think. it matters, of course, but to second-guess the public response to it can be a self-censoring and quasi-defeatist way of being. for me, just admitting that there’s a level of hypocrisy [or at least privilege] for us in relation to the lives of many in materially poorer countries is a good start.
Although .. that is an interesting argument, Matt… will be travelling to India in February and have been learning a bit about not only the spiritual beauty in the slums of Mumbai, for example, but the extraordinary low crime rate and inner joy of the people who live there. We still measure developing versus developed in terms of materialism. It’s funny. We might rewrite the list of richer and poorer countries if we measured not physical wealth but inner wealth, or community wealth. A lovely question to explore.
Cheers, Matt & Lara. I heard someone say (at a writers festival of course) that “othering is inevitable – all we can do is hope the other is both mirror and lamp”. Which has stayed with me. And as soon as you arrive in India, you realise that YOU are an other as well, perhaps even more so.
And I certainly feel we have been the victims as well as the beneficiaries of our “wealth”. I would also say that while the sheer courage and patience of (most) Indian people is astounding, especially in the urban slums and the villages, I’m really wary of idealising India. It’s just so complex. Which India? Which tradition, community, culture, etc? Colonialism has certainly has a lot to answer for, but so has the ruling elite of the last sixty years. Having researched “medical tourism” and the contrast with the local health system, I can only say India has a long way to go to assist the vast majority of its population. If they can begin to tackle corruption and sanitation, they WILL be the 21st-century superpower. If they don’t… well, I don’t like thinking about that too much…