this bubble will burst; or, Jono’s Dilemma

all through my life, I’ve felt like I’ve been in my own little bubble, my own world… and no matter how hard people try, they can’t get into my bubble…  I think having my own family, this bubble will burst…  I want a child and nothing and no-one’s gonna stop me achieving that…

Jono Lancaster, “So what if my baby is born like me?”

Having a child is not a simple decision for anyone.  Of course, in the past, it was rarely “a decision” – it just happened or it didn’t.  Now, not only are we in the contraceptive era, but we are also in the DNA era.  Which means for most people, the whole process involves some serious thinking and feeling.  Last week, I watched “So what if my baby is born like me?”, a BBC documentary, which followed Jono Lancaster and his partner Laura, as they decide if and how to proceed.  As you’ve probably already guessed (from the above photo, or from knowing what this blog tends to cover…!), their situation is especially complicated.

Jono suffers from Treacher-Collins Syndrome, a congenital disorder characterised by cranio-facial deformities and related medical complications.  Jono discovers he can undergo genetic testing, to see if the defective gene can be identified – if it is, they then have the option of going through IVF and selecting the “best” embryo.  To be clear, this is not just about appearance and social discrimination – someone born with Treacher-Collins potentially may have trouble breathing, faces early death.  And, just as is the case with many genetic conditions, there is a 50% chance of passing the gene on, but no way of knowing how severe the syndrome will be for the child.

The documentary is worth watching not for these medical facts, of course, but for the human story – as Jono and Laura talk together and with genetic counsellors, with other parents, and with a children with the same condition, the viewer is taken into the heart of an acutely personal and contemporary conundrum.  It’s what I’m calling “Jono’s Dilemma” – and it’s common to everyone with genetically obvious conditions.  If you decide to abort a foetus (or not select an embryo) based purely on it having the same genetic condition as you, is this some kind of betrayal, of yourself or others with your condition?  Is it a kind of personal eugenics?  Or is it, rather, the only sensible and compassionate choice to make?

At one point, Jono almost loses the power of speech when considering the idea that if his parents were able to decide to abort or select, he may have never been born.  It’s a dizzying philosophical question – how can I will the non-existence of someone like me?  Or, from another angle, if I didn’t have this condition, how different would I be?  Or, again, fundamentally, if I didn’t exist, don’t questions like these become completely moot?

When Laura says to Jono, with great frustration and love, “you’re not a genetic condition!”,  I couldn’t help also thinking of my own ambivalence about Marfan Syndrome (the genetic condition I have).  I have oscillated over the course of my life between resentment, pride and nonchalance, and everything in between.  I still think it’s almost practically impossible to be neutral or to separate yourself from your condition, I do think that what Laura says (and what all the other caring partners and parents in the world say) is totally right.  We are, and are not, our genetic conditions.

Jono is a smart, sensitive and charismatic young man (who, heartbreakingly, the documentary reveals, is mocked online in response to his appearance on TV).  So, yes, on one level, he’s easy to identify with, but on another, his dilemma is not mine, nor is it yours.  And the very fact that they are being filmed and broadcast, means that their decision is made to carry an extra, political weight.  It’s no wonder he says “I feel like I’m disrespecting or offending [people]…”.  Genetic screening and decisions around people with disabilities are intensely politicised – every action is seen as influencing future decisions, giving momentum to one side or the other of a polarised debate.

The various ethical frameworks that we have drawn on for centuries are now facing immense technological, social and information changes – changes that affect the very nature of the decisions we are making.  And these changes are happening at an incredibly fast rate, whereas our ethical systems evolve slowly.  We still intuitively grasp for them for support or guidance, but I’m not sure they function so well anymore.

When I was younger, I was very attracted to a radical position.  But now, increasingly I feel that the debate is best left to the private space between partners and inside their particular minds, hearts and bodies.  Ironically, So What If My Baby Is Born Like Me? allowed us the privilege of seeing inside that private space – but it also reminded me that making that private decision-making process public doesn’t make the process any easier.

Continue reading “this bubble will burst; or, Jono’s Dilemma”

a few more things before I (try to) land back in Melbourne

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.

Old Portuguese quarter, Panjim, Goa
Mandovi River, Panjim, Goa

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?

"Unselfishness is God", Mylapore, Chennai

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.

Marina Beach, Chennai
one last sit on Marina Beach...

welcome back to Chennai

We have a (what can I say…?) a complicated relationship.  There’s a lot of love between Chennai and I, but it’s a little like an arranged marriage.  Coming back here from Kochi (via Vellore) was almost a little bit slightly like coming home, somewhat.  Especially Mylapore.  Nageswara Rao Park, my regular restaurant haunts, the bustle and honking, the streetside stalls, the local Temple…  Familiarity breeds affection.  Which is reciprocal.  But not always.

Chennai, view from the Metro

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have learnt a lot in the process of this week (well, I feel I’ve been taught a lot – who knows if I’ve learnt anything!).  One small example – I’d been invited to give a talk at Anna University about how to teach creative writing.  Me being stuck inside my own experience, I suggested the ideal number for facilitating creativity is around ten, twelve at most.  When it came to question time, someone said their classes are usually around 50 or 60, so did I have any suggestions as to how they could incorporate creativity and participation under such conditions?  Ummmm…..  Sometimes while here I have felt so very very Australian, sheltered…

Speaking of Vellore, I wish I could show you a few photos of this intriguing, bustling, paradox of a town.  Essentially, it’s really a small city, centered around trading and industry, but dominated by two buildings – the Christian Medical College Hospital (CMC) and the Vellore Fort.  The CMC isn’t monumental or extravagant visually, but it’s renowned as being one of Tamil Nadu’s best hospitals, if not India’s.  And there are also many signs around the town which commemorating how CMC donated the funds for this or that piece of infrastructure.  Where government fails or is slow, business or community steps in.  The CMC is also absolutely surrounded by rickshaw drivers and people sitting on the footpath in various states of illness and misfortune begging.

The Vellore Fort is another thing altogether – a mediaeval fortress with its own moat (now plied by paddleboats!), inside is a still-functioning 14th-century Hindu temple, a mosque, a church, two museums, and various government offices.  In a way, the architecture provides a physical narrative of India’s succession of colonial and internal empires.

Why no photos?  My camera broke down!  But I did find a fantastic shop in Chennai called Camera Service Point.  It’s currently at 1st floor, Bata Building, 829 Mount Road (Anna Salai), but the building will be demolished some time in the next year or two, so maybe call them on 93800 62185 first, to check.  A huge thanks to the man who opened up my Sony and made it work again, with not a single photo lost.  Is it hyperbole to say that in India everything can be fixed?  Yes, probably, but still, I was impressed and grateful.

Camera Service Point is in this building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the last week, I’ve given 4 poetry readings, 1 lecture and 1 workshop, as well as sitting in the audience for 4 other readings, a poetry slam, and a carnatic music concert.  I am sated and exhausted.  Huge thanks go to the organisers and volunteers behind Poetry with Prakriti.  Like most poetry festivals, it runs on a shoestring, attracts passionate audiences (not always big numbers, but insightful and engaged), and provides a smorgasbord of words and performances.  Many readings were at local universities and colleges.  Thanks go too to the many students who listened, thought, and asked some fantastic questions.

I found Ranjit Hoskote’s translations of Lal Ded refreshing and intriguing, full of air and insight, especialy in the light of his accompanying discussion of this fascinating woman (14th century Shaivite mystic and Sufi saint from Kashmir, whose legacy now seems to be much contested between communities who wish to claim her exclusively as their own).  Kazim Ali’s poems were a potent blend of disorientation and revelation, both ecstatic and casual (at the risk of misquoting him, I loved the line “you unpacked all my shirts of silence”).  Wonderful too to meet Dutch poet Maria Van Daalen, whose metaphysical and subtly emotional poems were to be savoured.  I also was lucky enough to hear a few poems from Carrie Rudzinski (USA), Giuseppe Conte (Italy), Salah Stetie (France/Lebanon), Anand Krishnan, P Sivakami, Kavitha Muralidharan & Alok Bhalla.  I would have liked to have heard more, but I was either reading my own poems, in transit, or recuperating!

Of course, ironically, while this post is “welcome back…”, I’m typing it while I’m about to leave.  I have a mountain of affection and admiration for the people of Chennai.  But I am so looking forward to being home, with the love of my life…

what about the poetry?

It’s about time I let you know how I’m going poetically.  I’ve been away now for about 7-8 weeks.  Which I should say has been a rollercoaster – ie, full of ups and downs, and not something you can just stop halfway because you feel you need a little break.  At times, it’s been astounding, sublime or just plain odd (see photos in the previous post!).  Other times, mundane, difficult or exasperating.  Mostly, India gives you the opposite of what you’re expecting, or at the very least it goes off on its own tangents.

I’d planned to write a suite of poems exploring the personal side of the medical tourism industry.  And I think I’m getting there.  There’s a lot of roughness to the drafts, but I should end up with 20 to 30 poems.  It hasn’t worked out how I expected – making contacts in the industry itself has been hard (with a few exceptions) and sometimes the smallest hurdles have felt like great walls.  As many wise people have said, channel it all into the poetry.  And I have.

The dilemma has been that I’m very aware that the outsider’s perspective is very clouded by the obvious sensory assault – poverty, rubbish, religious ritual, traffic, etc – and a poetry composed of this risks not only cliche but distortion.  India is much more complex.  Of course, I also don’t want to succumb to the current demand from (a segment of) middle-class India to “not focus on poverty”.  There is an incredible (perhaps understandable) sensitivity within India to how the nation is depicted in the rest of the world, a desire to be seen to be transcending its historical shackles.  Which to me is all the more reason to focus on the economic disparities, as well as exploring what might be behind this sensitivity.  India is a country that has enough maturity, intelligence, wealth and ingenuity to not only handle criticism but to come up with its own solutions.  By the way, I think Australia has its own version of this…

I suspect the other tricky thing will be the redrafting – I’m trying to do the bulk of that here, because I know that a lot of the heart of a poem depends on mood, which is difficult to recreate.  Of course, I could always recruit a thousand auto-rickshaws and cars to encircle our house honking their horns, but there’s more to India and poetry than that.

where am I?

Why “where am I?”?.  Because I’m assuming you’ve all been wondering why such a delay between posts.  And because the last week or two have seen many answers to that question, all variations of the kaleidoscope India.

I’ve managed to talk to the very helpful and warm manager of Wellspring MediTour India, based in the very suburb of Chennai that I’ve been staying in.  It’s a relatively small business at the moment, but (as he kept reiterating) he’s not interested in amassing money, wants to let it grow organically.  I surmised Wellspring assists around a dozen patients a year, mostly from the middle east, to travel to India for medical treatment.  There’s a poem emerging from this conversation, which I don’t want to pre-empt, but I will say that the main thing I got out of it was the genuineness and sincerity of the man.  This, of course, is within the context of a very complex business, which requires constant attentiveness (and I would argue, a kind of blindness or turning away from other situations of need).

Speaking of blindspots, I also made the acquaintance of VS Sunder, who has a fortnightly column in The Times of India (Chennai).  He’s a mathematician by profession, but the column delves into issues of accessibility and disability in urban India.  As you can imagine, if you have any condition that means you can only get around in a wheelchair or even with a stick, accessibility is a purely hypothetical idea in most cases, a chimera which is legislated for but almost entirely ignored.  Sunder’s column wittily and insightfully points this out.  His website is here.  Oh, and yes, in terms of blindspots, just the other week, opposite his column was another essay extolling the virtues of the Indian political system, which is premised on equality.  Hmmm.

Last weekend, I attended the 7th Indian Writers Festival, this year at Wardha, a small town near Sevagram, Maharashtra (where Gandhi had his ashram for about 12 years).  The Festival is organised by Indian Writers, and included participants from about a dozen states and six other countries.  While the majority of the festival was in Hindi, the gentle passionate avalanche of poetry and abstracts of papers, the interaction between people and just the fact of being present in a group of writers, was a tremendous experience.  Much of the weekend was taken up with reflections on peace, Gandhi and translation.  It occurred to me, observing the audience response to Hindi poetry, to sung ghazals, and other languages, that language itself is a community with deep roots reaching across states and continents.  It has been a revelation for me to realise, too, just how culturally-infused my own poetry is, how my Australian-ness is infused in the language of my poems.  For those of you who’ve been to India before, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that on the surface the festival seemed quite shambolic and loose, but also everything worked out fine!

Soon – lots of photos….

already?!

So, I’m about half-way through this residency.  It’s reached the stage now where I oscillate between blase and alienated.  A bit like rowing across a huge lake – you get used to the strain and rhythm of rowing, but now and then you look up and realise how big the journey is.  And you run the risk of becoming overly conscious of the task at hand.  Because in my experience, poetry is shy – it comes most often when you’re not approaching it head-on but sideways.  I can’t help now but wonder how much more progress I’ll make.

Anyway, stocktaking is boring.  So, what’s been happening?  I spent a week out of Chennai at Mamallapuram and Pondicherry, both gorgeous, charismatic and laid-back towns in their own way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mamallapuram is about 2 hours south of Chennai, on the coast – a small little fishing village that is surrounded by 6th century temples carved out of solid rock and by 21st century tourists.  Which means almost everyone is a stone carver and will offer to sell you something.  It also means there are lots of Ayurvedic businesses.  I had a chat with a practitioner, who told me 99% of his work is with foreigners, and most just come for massage.  A few seek out the more intense and in-depth treatments, but even then he finds that health success varies greatly with “Europeans”.  Apparently, since they’re on holidays, they don’t want to give up things like drinking and smoking (which kind of goes against the whole point of panchakarma…).  He also read my pulse – a fascinating process which felt both highly ephemeral and a little mechanical.  For the record, I am currently predominantly “vata”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondicherry, being a French territory until the 1950s, and currently a Union Territory, means it’s oddly un-Tamil Nadu in many ways.  Apart from the obvious French architectural flourishes, the infrastructure (roads, drains, etc) are a little less ramshackle.  The city itself is noticeably more diverse than Chennai, in terms of culture, religion and cultural background.

On a less picturesque note, I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by Dilip Menon called “The Blindness of Insight”.  Basically, it’s a series of four essays about the central, though often ignored or elided, role of caste in Indian society and literature.

there appears to have been [in the 19th century] an intimate connection between the social criticism of subordinated groups and an anguished and persistent engagement with the emancipatory potential of religious conversion (eg Ambedkar).  Elite groups too turned to a refashioning of tradition (eg Vivekananda), but for them it was easier to find a habitation within the resources of Hinduism…

Menon, to me, reminds us that caste shapes not only social interactions, but is a crucial element in how people experience religion, family, social support structures and health.  There is no monolithic, static experience of these ideas and institutions.  He also implies that marginal people, when they manage to find the resources to seek change, look instinctively to revolution rather than to recuperation.  This has been an illuminating element in my slow, long education in the complexity of this place.

Next week, I hope to meet a doctor who works at a Medical Tourism Agency.  Should be fascinating.  But I’ll leave you with this thought…

form and content in India

 

 

 

 

 

No particular reason for this including this photo – it just says Chennai to me.  It’s my local train station.  10 rupees gets me into the University and back.  There was a little panic in the news in Melbourne a while ago that some of the doors on our metropolitan trains could be forced open.  Here, the doors are always open, passengers leaning out of them as we hurtle through the city…

Anyway, back to poetry and medicine.  I just finished reading a fascinating book on “modern Ayurveda” by Jean Langford, called “Fluent Bodies: Ayurvedic Remedies for Postcolonial Imbalance”.  The title is good enough, but the exploration is brilliant.  To truncate its broad scope, basically she looks at how Ayurvedic training, knowledge and practice have responded to the modern world.  She concludes, among other things, that Ayurvedic practitioners have been torn between imitating the “scientific” and standardised approach of biomedicine and establishing Ayurveda as a valid and separate alternative.  The former seems to have predominated, but it is still haunted by the indefinability and mystery of the body as Ayurveda imagines it – this especially comes out in the (now fading) practice of pulse reading.  Anyway, a quick quote –

The modern state in its various brances cannot it seems enframe and enclose the social ethos.  Similarly, many practitioners seem to feel that modern Ayurvedic institutions cannot enframe and enclose the practices by which Ayurvedic knowledge is actually transmitted…  In modern Ayurvedic institutions, the illusion of an alignment between form and content seems to be less fiercely sustained than it would be for instance in the U.S…. Could the difference be partly that in modern India the dualism of form and content is more a syntagma to perform than an episteme to protect?…

Now, when I read this, apart from having to go and look “syntagma” up (it’s a linguistic arrangement), I really felt like Langford touched on something really crucial about the contemporary Indian mindset and way of being.  I’m still thinking what that exactly might be and mean, so any of your thoughts (or examples) will be welcomed with open arms. 

So, while my project does revolve around medical tourism, there is also a lot of interest in Ayurveda from foreign travellers (certainly in the massage, a little less in the blood-letting and purging…).  That angle is fascinating to me – the sense that Indian people are giving Westerners what they believe we want – there’s some kind of “feedback loop” going on here I’m interested in unravelling.  I’ve just arrived in Mamallapuram, which has a little tourist enclave, so I’ll see what I can find out.

Last week I also gave a poetry reading at the English Department of the University of Madras.  After being generously and capably introduced by Professor Armstrong, and by Assistant Professor Ms Supala Pandiarajan, I read a series of poems from “Among the regulars”, interspersed with a few words about my background, the themes I’m drawn to, publishing in Australia, as well as pre-emptively translating some Australianisms. 

I have to say, something about this event made me feel at home.  I’m very glad to have been able to read poetry to a group of intensely thoughtful (and thoughtfully intense!) young students/writers/academics.  What was particularly interesting to me is that there was a lot of questions about the creative process and about how a poem is worked on, shaped, finished, and how it can be assessed.  These are perennial questions, yes, but I suspect this is related to the University system also, how institutions baulk at marking creative work, leaving students to pursue those avenues externally (or not at all). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One more tiny thing I want to mention is my “Steripen Adventurer” – a little battery-powered UV wand that kills bacteria in water.  I’ve been using it for about a month now, which is a lot of plastic water bottles I haven’t been responsible for leaving behind.  I totally recommend it.  It comes with a solar charger, which I haven’t used, as my room hasn’t had sunlight coming in (probably a good thing that), but you can still charge it (slowly) from the wall.  The only real down side is that in some places and times, you can make the tap water safe to drink, but it still tastes awful.  After so many years of being separated, welcome back into my life – “Tang”!

“how can you write poetry about medicine?”

A few days ago, I met Dr Rajan from Dr Smilez, a dental clinic in Chennai.  There was a brief article in the Times of India about a happy UK man who’d travelled to India to get some work done on his teeth.  So, how could I not call?  They agreed to meet me, even though the receptionist and the doctor both seemed a little perplexed at my explanation – that I was writing poetry about people who travel for medical treatment.  “How can you write poetry with a medical theme?”, he asked.  Fair question really.

We chatted for a while, and they both laughed and relaxed when I told them how shocked I was at my hotel the first night.  The good people at Dr Smilez try to convince patients to not cut any corners financially, to stay at the best hotels, ideally allowing the clinic to facilitate their travel while here, too.  I, of course, was not staying at the Park or the Hyatt.

Of the many fascinating things that came out of our chat, I just want to mull over this one – there seems to be a peculiar paradox going on with overseas patients when they come to India.  I keep reading and hearing that they want the absolute best treatment, which I’m sure is true – we all want to save money, but not of course at the cost of our health.  Still, the other theme that keeps coming up is how anxious non-Indians are about hygiene, how when they see the overflowing rubbish bins, the plastic and sewerage in the streets, these images risk spilling over into and upsetting their faith in the medical profession here.  As Dr Rajan said, the clinics are sterile and clean.  But it seems some kind of fear haunts them or their experience.

I’m keen, of course, to talk about this with a real live patient, but all things take time, especially here.

view of campus and beach from my university room

Over the weekend, I also attended some of The Hindu newspaper’s “Lit for Life” festival – a weekend of literary talks and interviews.  The Hyatt’s function room was absolutely overflowing for the session with Bollywood star Shabana Azmi talking about the translation of her mother’s memoir (Shaukat Azmi writes in “Kaifi and I” about her partnership with the famous Urdu poet, about activism, art & poetry in 20th century India).  The organisers chalked it up to Chennai’s literary enthusiasm, but I could cynically say it would have something to do also with their love of film and fame.  Looks like a fascinating book, though.  Anyway, the highlight for me was the session with Karukku Bama, K Sivakami and Susie Tharu.  The former two are Dalit writers, poets and activists.  There is much for me to learn about India, a lot of which I feel has to do with caste and its power and persistence.  I know very little.  But what blew me away was the strength, insight and courage of these writers.   Bama at one point said “who decides how human I can be? who says, this far, no further?!”.  In a more gentle tone, Sivakami said something to the effect of “I follow my words and they take me to interesting places”.   Interesting indeed.

What’s interesting too is the response.  One audience member asked why they have to keep writing about the negatives, why can’t they write about all the good things that are happening to Dalits?  Hmmm.  Questions like this are often thrown at many oppressed people, variations of a desire for silence, to not be reminded of ongoing suffering and inequality.  It also reminds me of the backlash against “Slumdog Millionaire” in India…  As we were often reminded in this session, society needs the broken perspective, the outrage, and militancy is a healing movement.

Speaking of pleasant surprises, I also found Oasis books – 29 Kutchery Rd Mylapore, run by the gentle, informed VRJ Prabalan.  Oasis stocks some fascinating political books, left-wing philosophy, books on caste, feminism, ecology, organics, poetry, and a lot more.  It’s not a huge store, but it’s very rich, and to me an affirmation that there is counter-cultural thinking going on.  If you’re thinking of dropping in, best to call in advance – it’s not always open (ph 044 2461 3445).

local train station

ambulance and shrine, both essential

It hasn’t all been wondrous though – I’ve been sick, bored, frustrated, sweaty, drenched with rain, and homesick.  Reliably, India, in all its enigma, contradicts me as soon as I think I know it, infuriates me as soon as I’m getting comfortable, and embraces me just when I’m about ready to run away.

the queue (if you could call it that)

Two weeks in, and I have yet to step foot inside a hospital.  Well, ok, I did walk into the Apollo, but more on that later.  For now, let’s just say the mood is ambivalent.  I’ve been writing poems, and I think some interesting things are coming out, but they’ve mainly been about the initial frisson of arrival, the spectacular differences and the struggle of bridging cultures.  Nothing yet about “medical tourism”.  All the contacts I have either don’t get back to me, or are in meetings, or want me to send them emails…  But, as India teaches you, you have to keep pushing – with a soft fluidity as well as a vigour.

University of Madras

 

 

 

 

The staff at the University of Madras have all been gracious and welcoming.  I have a room set aside for me on the rooftop of the main building, which overlooks Marina Beach and fills up with the sea breeze.  They’ve also continued to reassure me that the extent of my involvement at the University is up to me; that my poetry-writing is the priority.  We’ve organised a few things though, all at the University’s English Department –

  • Poetry Reading – Thursday 3rd November, 1pm
  • Creative Writing Workshop on Embodiment – Monday 5th December, 10am.
  • Lecture/discussion on Recent Australian Poetry – Tuesday 3rd January.

Apart from the Uni, all my contacts with people have been accidental.  I met a lovely guy from Hyderabad who was staying at my hotel, who shouted me lunch (“it’s our duty”) and asked me what I hate about India the most, and what I love.  For the record, I said its poverty and its strength.  Which made me wonder about the relationship between the two…  While I was at my room at the Uni, Syam Sudhakar waltzed in to meet me.  He was actually at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2009 (I was there in 2008 and 2010!) – he’s a fine poet, too – while we were chatting, he got mail, a copy of a journal with two poems of his in it.  Oh, and I was also (gently) harrassed for money by a group of hijras, laughing as one of them took my hat and wore it…

Approaching the Apollo Hospital, Chennai

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, so, as I was saying, I did walk into the Apollo Hospital the other day.  I took a long, tiring walk to Thousand Lights (a few suburbs away from my hotel) to get a sense of what this renowned hospital is like – who goes there, what surrounds it, etc.  At a distance, I thought I saw it, but it was actually a luxury hotel – oops, Andy, don’t get carried away.  Apollo is of course a large medical complex, and it clearly has some money behind it, but it looks more like a standard country hospital.  The main difference being the huge crowds.  Hundreds of bikes and motorbikes are out the front.  Autorickshaws cruise the exit for customers.  Families wait in groups outside.  In the waiting room, it’s hard to move – dozens and dozens of people sit, stand, lie, pace, all without much apparent distress or frustration.  I can’t imagine everyone would be seen on the day they come.  But it seems accepted that this is just how it is.  In the corner is a sign that directs “international patients” to a separate cubicle.  Which reminds me of the time I went to a doctor in Kalimpong, West Bengal, three years ago – I was rushed to the front of the (albeit small) queue, and felt acutely relieved and ashamed.

The other thing I’ve noticed is the number of gyms here (which I didn’t notice in the north or centre of the country).  Wondering what that implies…

Oh, and where I’m staying – Sangeetha Residency in Mylapore – is pretty good.  It’s got all the basics you need and the buffet breakfast is part of the deal (mmm, idli…).  The choice you have to make is between a room with a window onto the inner car-park, which makes it feel like a cell, and a room that overlooks the road, which is almost always a cacophony of vehicles honking (and now that it’s Diwali, so many crackers and fireworks exploding through the night, which makes the air look like a thick fog and sounds like a small war!).  I prefer the latter.  You may prefer neither.

And below, some important places for Deepawali – temple, and a shop for fireworks…!