Yes, another book. I’m humbled and excited to announce the imminent release of “Immune Systems” through Transit Lounge. “Immune Systems” is the result of two trips to India, and a lot of percolating. The first half is kind of verse novella on the uncanny and fraught world of medical tourism. The second half is a suite of ghazals on travel, desire, estrangement and (yes) bodies. For some insight into the process, check the posts here.
The launch is on Tuesday 17th March at 6pm (for a 6.30pm start) at Collected Works Bookshop, Nicholas Building, 1/37 Swanston St, Melbourne. The book will be launched by the multi-talented poet and artist Luke Beesley. I would love to see you there.
Thanks to Transit Lounge publisher Barry Scott for his faith in the poems; and to Anjum Hasan and Ali Alizadeh for these generous quotes:
‘Andy Jackson has made a most delicately probing poetry out of the detritus of urban India. This is a humane and moving book.’
‘Andy Jackson writes exceptionally well about India. But, as though unsatisfied with merely writing about one of the world’s most wonderfully complex social scenes, Jackson is drawn to the country’s medical system. This focus perfectly suits his terrific poetic gift for fusing the clinical with the affective. The poems in Immune Systems are succinct and absolutely engaging expressions of a humanity caught between the demands of the body and the vagrancy of the mind.’ – Ali Alizadeh
There’s a Facebook event set up for the launch if you’re that way inclined. If you can’t make it and would like to buy a copy, you can order it through Transit Lounge or of course drop into Collected Works any time after the launch.
A micro-post this time – just to mention I have a guest post on “Guncotton”, the new blog on that superb poetry website “Cordite”. They’re doing a series on poetry and place, and in my post, I think out loud about my time in Chennai.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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…
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”!
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.
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).
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.