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...

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….

Home > Poetry > News

Finally. How long has it been since my last confused and bemused post on returning to the grey streets of Melbourne? Too long. So, of course, there’s a bit of an unhealthy build-up of news. I myself don’t like to read long tracts of text on the internet, so I’ll try not to afflict you too much with the blowing of my own trumpet.

Before that, a few reading recommendations.  First, Robert Pinsky’s deceptively deep and broad short book, written in reflecting on the impact of the USA’s Favourite Poem Project, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry.  Pinsky has a lot of intelligent things to say about exactly what it is that poetry is and does, in distinction to other artforms, but especially in its unique role in the culture, its ability to reconcile the individual and communal.  Read it.

I’d also say hunt down, at any cost, the poetry of Eunice De Souza.  A wise, courageous, precise poet from Pune, India, who I read in an Oxford anthology while I was in India.

And, go and see Kafka’s Monkey at the Malthouse.  A provocative, multi-layered allegory, performed in stunning physicality by Kathryn Hunter.  If you want it reduced, it’s about the process and cost of becoming human.

OK, so now me.  I’ve just come back from the Woorilla Poetry Prize.  Congratulations Bob Morrow on winning.  I carried away the runner-up certificate, but also the glow of being in good company.  Kevin Gillam had two poems commended (Hi, Kevin, if you’re out there!).

The other thing that’s just arrived this week is confirmation of the Australian Poetry Centre’s Cafe Poet in Residence program.  It’s extended to (now) five of us in Melbourne.  After A Minor Place in Brunswick mysteriously baulked, I approached a little joint on Albert St, La Paloma.  Actually, perhaps I shouldn’t say who they are.  They’re not interested in publicity.  It’s a lowwcal place for lowwcal people…  Great coffee, and a place to sit regularly and write, and watch, and write, and listen, and be…  Thankyou APC.  Check out http://www.australianpoetrycentre.org.au/?page_id=379 or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cafe-Poets/6899549657 for more.

I also won the Rosemary Dobson Prize for an unpublished poem, for Secessionist. http://www.arts.act.gov.au/pages/images/Secessionist.pdf

Oh, please, that’s enough!… 😉

post-India post

Before I reminisce and debrief myself, I’ve put up a few photos – go back to the individual pages, and you’ll see photos on most of them…

India leaves me with distinctly Kolkatan memories.  Rachael is leaving a day before me, so we take a taxi out to the airport, organised by where we’re staying – the Sunflower Guest House.  They load her luggage into the boot, then realise they have a flat tyre, so immediately set to swapping it with their spare.  Lungi-ed men stagger up to the car to watch and scratch themselves.  Nearby, a hjira propositions a truck-driver.  Piles of rubbish burn.  On the way back from the airport, 2 am, the taxi stops at a mechanic to get the flat tyre repaired.  Ah, India.  Maddening and wonderful.

Kolkata International Terminal is hilariously slapdash – it has a strong 1960’s vibe to it, there are very little actual counters and signs, there are I think four shops…  The local terminal is much more equipped and welcoming.  Even the pre-paid taxi sign is more obvious.  Intriguing.  Makes you wonder if Kolkata expects any visitors.

After waking up at 6am in Ali and Penny’s loungeroom in Dubai (thankyou so much – it was a superb stopover), I packed myself into a smooth, air-conditioned, conversationless Emirates taxi, then into a smooth, air-conditioned, conversationless Emirates airplane – for around sixteen hours of limbo.  The land around Melbourne is yellow from a harsh summer.  The light is yellow, somehow more open, broad.  As the plane lands, burly airport workers punch each other playfully.  At customs, a peroxide-mulleted woman shouts in her best “Kath & Kim” accent to a man filling out his declarations form at the front of a queue, “yous carn’t fill that out thayre, sur!! You’ll haf ta go over thayre!!”.

Walking around Melbourne with India still in my body is strange.  Everyone seems slower, fatter, bigger, more cumbersome and clumsy, yet also self-consciously “cool”.  I ride a tram and there is only one conversation happening; the others strain to surreptitiously listen in, keen to somehow assuage their boredom and detachment.  The streets are impeccably clean.  There are footpaths.  It’s windy and cold.  Lunch at an organic cafe costs as much as a double room at Hotel Derby, Puri.

It was definitely time to come home, and being in India reminded me of how Australian I am, how it is in my bones and muscle.  But I don’t feel I’m at home.  I feel alienated.  It’s as if I slipped into another time entirely, and have slipped back in to Melbourne and nothing’s changed.  I go straight back to my RMIT course, our home in Coburg, our bills in Coburg, and because I’m sick (a throat cold from someone on the plane, I think; how ironic!) I’m spending my time indoors and lethargic.  Maybe my soul is still lost in transit, circling some lonely baggage carousel somewhere.  I’m sure it will catch up with me someday soon…

So, was India what I’d hoped, expected, planned?  No.  It’s completely confounding and astounding.  It has its own agendas and energies, which force you to accommodate to it.  I’d wanted to go to the International Poetry Festival in Kolkata, but we got stuck in the West Bengal Hills.  I’d wanted to meet some friends of friends in Hyderabad, but they were away when we were there.  I’d wanted to go to Varanasi and Bodghaya, but underestimated how huge the country is, how “little” you can fit in in three months.  I’d wanted to find qawwali, but even the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department don’t know anything about the Deccan Festival.

We did somehow, with only a few days notice, manage to meet up with a lovely Bangalore-based writer, Anjum Hasan.  Her poetry is evocative, lyrical and restrained, quite beautiful.  We had a very civilized dinner at the Jayamahal Palace with her and her partner Zac, talked about the arts and literature scene in India and Australia, cultural nuances and annoyances.

Would I go back?  Yes.  Not yet, but hopefully soon.  Next time, I’ll plan in advance, get some solid contacts, base myself in one place, do less trekking.  India reminds me of the luck of birth, how our futures are shaped so much by where we’re born.  Being born into my life, I have the mind and sometimes the financial ability to travel.  I’ve caught the bug, I think.  Who knows what it will do to me!