Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Europe 2016 - vignettes

The calm and joyful atmosphere at the banks of the river Main in Frankfurt, where large and small groups of people sat together, chatted, drank beer, ate their picnics, played music and relaxed. The large Hauptbanhof with its constantly shifting flow of passengers, and innumerable small shops selling a large variety of sandwiches and other small eats at very reasonable prices. The large numbers of foreigners hanging out at the train station, with the station serving as a site of both recreation and reception for friends, family and other contacts.

The beautiful river Rhine with its ceaseless flow of ferries and cruises, carrying both passengers and cargo up and down the river. The constant rush of trains on the tracks along the river, connecting all the villages and towns in the Rhine Valley. The large numbers of old medieval castles dotting the hills flanking the river. The gorgeous villages of Bacharach and St. Goar in the Rhine Valley, with their old castles and old houses, each one intricately decorated – colours, wooden pillars and frames, and flowers in full blossom hanging off windows. The walks up to Burg Stahleck, the old castle that’s now a youth hostel, and the great buffet meals in its kitchen. The great views of the river from this castle perched on the top of a hill and surrounded by steep slopes covered with vineyards. The three enormous castles in St. Goar.

The historic city of Bonn, once the capital of Germany. Cute accommodation with a cool and relaxed host – German woman teaching IT at a training centre; with something of a glamorous past. The large crowds of people all over the city centre. The old churches and university, with its parks and large groups of students in various states of animation (outdoor zumba class) and relaxation.

The city of Cologne, with its post-war architecture and old Roman sites (Agripinna-Game of Thrones connection). The gigantic Cologne cathedral, which was once the tallest in Europe, at the very heart of the city – the only site that was not bombed by the Allies in the war, as it served as a target to estimate locations in the rest of the city. People, mostly foreigners, picking up recyclable waste from the recycle-able rubbish bins around the cathedral, and approaching tourists for their recyclable rubbish. These can be taken to supermarkets and exchanged for credit. The young, hip crowd of this city. Nice Welsh guy doing the walking tour.

The pretty Dutch towns of Nijmegen and Arnhem. Beautiful old buildings. Beautiful old market squares. Large train stations! Very calm. Cool host – Georgian woman who moved to the Netherlands as a kid. Nice large fields near the house with some cattle and horses. Giant sculpture in the park nearby. Friendly park official who chatted with us about the sculpture, and gave us bubble gum to stick on the sculpture.

Wow, the city of Amsterdam! Oh, my god. Canals, canals, canals. Bikes, bikes, bikes. Beautiful old houses all along the canals – centuries-old houses maintained in good condition. Biked all over the city and nearby North Holland over three days. Just amazing. Great parks. OK-ish food – a bit expensive. AirBnB accommodation nice and private but a bit oddly arranged. Average hosts. The sheer jam-packed-ness of the city! Pretty cafes, shops, houses everywhere. Cool people. Beautiful countryside – flat, green and expansive; seemingly never-ending. Quaint villages in the country – so pretty. Bridges that open out at many junctures all along the Amster river. Country built for boats. The modern parts of the city – astonishing architecture.

The capital Dan Haag (The Hague). Such an amazing coming together of the old and the new. Lots of lovely buildings, including very eclectic modern buildings. The long beach and its 1950s flavour. Astonishing beauty and accessibility of the palace and parliament. Nice kebab shops.

Ghent and Bruges in Belgium. Astonishing old medieval architecture. Truly, truly gorgeous – transports you to a different world. So beautifully maintained. Bruges is just so very pretty. Every stone, every brick is steeped in history. Probably the most gorgeous place in Europe. Cool host – very chirpy, and such a lovely old house. Perfect.

London! Family! The best time; so good to see everyone. Stayed with Raji Mahi and Dipankar Moha in Richmond. Dinner out in Richmond one day and at home the next – Raji Mahi cooked an elaborate meal for all of us, and Urmila Pehi, Neale and Zubin. Hung out with Isar and Tara; Isar took us around to central London for a day-long roam. Urmila Pehi came to St. Pancras to meet me before our departure for Paris.

The enormous streets of Paris with their uniform architecture stretching for several arrondissements – wide streets, 6-storey houses with intricate exteriors. Beautiful Paris, sparkling at night. The gorgeous Notre Dame de Paris at the very centre, painstakingly constructed bit by bit over two hundred years or so. The Eifel Tower, always in the distance. The endless lines of restaurants everywhere, serving all kinds of cuisines. Esgargots! Savoury crepes! Marche de Bastille. Sacre-coeur on the hill. The artists of Montmartre. Museums and other must-see sites. So many people from everywhere in the world. Never expected Paris to be such a melting pot of different geographies and races. Pretty accommodation and cool host.

The lovely town of Dijon. Pretty old village. Apartment in a quaint old and dilapidated building. Nice lunch at Flunch! Wandering the streets and sampling bits of Dijon fare.

Zurich. Clean, neat, crisp, organised and simple. Straight lines and neat shapes. Simon’s relatives were really kind and generous, taking us around town, and even on a hike in Stoos along a portion of the Swiss Alps. The view was astounding. Breathtaking. The vistas were just stunning. The five or so lakes at the bottom of the mountains – oh, my god. Amazing. A neat and clean city. 

Back to Germany. Lake Konstanz. Pretty historical town. Lovely little shops and buildings in the Alt Stadt. Absolutely packed with people. Nice little breweries. Less English spoken than elsewhere in Germany. People continue to serve beer until you put your coaster on your glass/mug, which definitively indicates that you no longer want to drink anymore. Funny – the server at the restaurant we went to poured me another glass without any prompting, and that’s when I figured it out. Nice walk around the lake. Nice house, and cool hosts. We bumped into the mother of the host in the kitchen in the morning – her effusive greetings made our day.

Munich. The city of beer, history, innovation and recreation. Nice house in a busy area, but the arrangement was a bit odd – the AirBnB apartment served as a psychologist’s office during the day, which was a little disconcerting. Anyway, lovely apartment. Beautiful city centre and Alt Stadt – Karlplatz and Marienplatz, with their ornate historical buildings (especially the gorgeous Rathaus, the palace, and old churches). The famous and historically significant Hofbrauhaus brewery in the market square. The expansive English Garden with all its public nudity and general atmosphere of merriment and relaxation. The enormous beer and food area in the English Garden, where we drank Ratler and ate some dumplings, pork hock and some side dishes, and where we had a long and interesting conversation with a German couple. Extremely busy and popular, and very well organised. The people walking around in costume. The carefree atmosphere. The Olympic Park and BMW World. The Pegida rally we came across in Karlpltaz (where large numbers of young foreign men normally hang out), which elicited a huge police presence. Commotion. Walking around in Munich’s cool neighbourhoods.

Leipzig. East Germany. Large train station. Historical buildings in the centre of town. Many small cafes and restaurants in different corners of the centre. Nice accommodation and cool host – nice and reserved artist. Faust and Goethe. The restaurant and bar where Goethe wrote Faust: nice gourmet meal and intricate interiors; lots of murals and artefacts. Walking around in the city in the cool evening. Mostly empty at night.

Nuremberg. Gorgeous city centre. Beautiful medieval architecture reconstructed after the devastation of the war. Beautiful castle on the top of the bill. Numerous imposing cathedrals and chapels. Lovely market square – numerous shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. Winding, meandering paths. University dormitory in an old historical building. A few canals. Slopes and inclines. The Documentation Centre in the outskirts – the Nazi Party Parade Ground repurposed as a museum. Perhaps one of the most insightful and astute exhibitions I have seen. Very analytical, unflinching. As visually impactful as thought-provoking. A city burdened by the pain of the past but one that exudes such resilience. Wonderful time there.

Berlin. Complex. Hard to describe. Large. Grand and monumental Soviet apartment blocks in the east. Pockets of old architecture that survived the war. The grand new Hauptbahnhof. The centre of the city, and surrounds, has a 1950s dero chic aesthetic. The distinctive blocks of the Holocaust memorial. The modern parliament. The extensive train network. The hip neighbourhoods. The eccentric, chic and kinky underbelly of the city. The numerous bars, cafes and clubs.

Back to Frankfurt. Back to Melbourne.

Europe: calm, collected, organised, neat, and resilient. Monumental. Thriving and bursting with activity. Also utterly relaxed. Pleasure-loving. Utterly libertarian. Civil. Quiet. Also, sometimes, quite evidently strained. Great experiences overall. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Bad English – my journey with the language

Published in Peril
From school to my Master's in India, English served as the only language that I could read and write reasonably well – the only language that I could express complex thoughts in; the only language through which I could feel deeply; the language that I could argue in; and the language that formed the basis of my critical faculties. My grasp of my two other primary languages was always less than adequate for any of those higher-order tasks. The foundations for this were laid during school.  
However, in school, even though English was the medium of instruction and we studied English Literature quite seriously, our learning of the language was flawed. The absence of an organic link between what we read and how we spoke reflected this most markedly. While we read (or were supposed to read) Wordsworth, Dickens, Shakespeare, and all the rest of the “traditional” canon—our curriculum was developed by English classicists in the early twentieth century, and changed very marginally in later aeons—we spoke English in school in a grammatically inconsistent, free-flowing and highly idiosyncratic manner. While it was mandatory to speak in English at my school, the English that was spoken was a hodgepodge of improvised grammar, idiom and syntactical forms. (Many fellow students were the first in their family to receive an education in English. Most students spoke what we referred to as our mother-tongues at home, but there were a few who also primarily spoke English at home.) This state of linguistic formlessness was, in retrospect, a reflection of broader, ongoing historical and cultural shifts, our little social habitus serving as a microcosm of the wider society.  
History and politics
English came to South Asia with British colonialism. If you are someone who is interested in the history of the region, you will at some point encounter what may be regarded as the manifesto of colonial cultural indoctrination – Lord Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), which memorably stipulated, among other things, that a key aim of colonial education in India ought to be to produce an intermediary class between the colonial governors and the native governed—“a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.
Lord Macaulay’s observations and exhortations went on to decisively shape the English Education Act that was passed that same year by the Council of India under the stewardship of Governor General Lord William Bentinck. The Act envisaged a swift end to official support for Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic education in India, and marked what may be regarded as the beginning of the ‘Age of English’ in the subcontinent and, indeed, in the broader region. Since Independence in 1947, English has only more decisively established itself as the dominant language—officially, legally, economically, academically and socially—in India, its ascendency underpinned as much by Indian realities as the verities of globalisation. English divides as much as it unites, and it remains a site, instigator and marker of vast and seemingly irreconcilable differences in the country.
Without a doubt, growing up, I was conscious of the politics surrounding this language. Everyday life engendered a subliminal cognitive dissonance – ever-present but unobtrusive. English constituted and opened up an imaginary and habitus that at once alienated and also felt completely natural. It was the language of aspiration. One could not but be aware of its status, its power, its dominion, and its all-encompassing and all-pervasive influence. Growing up where I did, and in my particular cultural and educational milieu, one could not but live on within the language, taking it for granted. It was powerful—educationally, economically and socially—but its power felt utterly unexceptional. The status quo was not something that you wanted to raise too many troubling questions about, particularly questions to which you had no answers. The power of English seemed to accord with the natural order of things. Every act of speaking or writing was imbued with this power, and every act of expression was also an act of consolidation of this power. Every utterance was meaningful in that it betrayed your place in society – your education, your family background, and perhaps even your professional background. In a chaotic cultural landscape, the English language served as a seemingly coherent marker of status.  
Therefore, it goes without saying that for someone like me to discuss the English language here and now, understanding the socio-political framework of its dominance is crucial.
But the average mind tends to gradually despair of the burden of politics.
Mastery over form
Politics is one thing; mastery over form is something else entirely. No amount of political analysis, interrogation and reflection could help me achieve what I’d like to achieve, and what I’ve always wanted to achieve – to overcome my truncated linguistic heritage, to master this one language that has formed the substratum of my intellectual development, and to use it well. To inhabit the language fully, and plumb the depths of complex ideas and fields of knowledge competently and adroitly. To master new knowledge through mastery over language. To generate new ideas through mastery over language. To delve headlong into ideation and thinking, and to do so dexterously.  
As a student of the social sciences, I find myself confronting questions about language daily, perhaps more so than I’d like. Everyone else seems to be able to get on comfortably in life without experiencing the slightest pang over their linguistic ability. I, on the other hand, feel constrained by the incompleteness of my knowledge. I suppose that in this field, where language is—and ought to be—key, becoming more circumspect about language is inevitable. I am now more than ever aware of my incomplete knowledge and grasp of English. In fact, interestingly, flaws that were invisible or unacknowledged earlier have thrust themselves into attention now. If I used to take liberties with word-usage, syntax and meaning earlier, I am now less careless, or rather less confident about throwing language around without being certain of its appropriateness.
My gripe with the English language is that I can never quite master it completely. I can never quite know all of it completely. I can never quite get it absolutely right. I can never quite make it do adequately what I want it to do. I often fail to produce the exact effect that I intend to produce. Even as I write this sentence, I am aware of its incomplete-ness, its inadequacy. It is almost the lexical representation of a half-formed thought. The thought that I am conveying now is only a mere fragment of the real thing. I want to convey my sense of helplessness at being trapped within the confines of the language, but the sense that emerges here is only a refracted version of that thought.
Of course none of this is exclusive to the English language; it would be foolish to believe that what I’ve just said here is anything but universal to the phenomenon of Language itself. Yet something about the English language—about my tortuous journey with/in this language; about my irredeemably incomplete knowledge of it; about my sometimes half-hearted and sometimes refractory attempts at mastering it; and about my feelings of inadequacy within it—something about the wondrous, powerful and utterly mysterious English language accentuates all those feelings and experiences, all that I’ve talked about here.
Foreign masters
Perhaps this is why I have an abiding fascination with ‘non-native’ writers who mastered English so well and so completely that they surpassed the best of their ‘native’ contemporaries. There are a handful—just a handful—who came to the language as outsiders, or as peripheral-knowers, and eventually inhabited it so fully that they made the language their own. Fully in control of the language, and fully capable of effectively demonstrating and deploying its beauty and power, they produced insuperable art.
One such is the Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s writing stuns with its precision, discipline, power, richness and seeming boundlessness. For someone who came to the English language as an outsider, his skill was amazing. Both the tautness and the expansiveness of his writing pierces with its excellence. Conrad’s psychologically penetrative novels are also literary masterpieces – their literariness is as stupefying as their incomparable probing of the human condition.
The early attempts of foreign masters
Recently, I found myself wondering about Conrad’s learning arc, and how he reached the apogee of his skill. What was his learning curve like? How did he write while he was still learning and developing his skills? It is difficult to find out about this because what we have today are these masters’ triumphant works and successes, not their early (and presumably flawed) tentative endeavours in the language.    
The permanence of our flaws
A peculiarity of our time is that everything that we write (on the computer) or do today will likely get stored somewhere. In the endless galaxy of information that is the internet, every time we publish something online, we leave a small but seemingly permanent trace. A consequence of this is that you can never fully outlive your flaws – while still evolving as a writer, the messy writing of your past doesn’t quite disappear. It’s still there somewhere, not fully discard-able. The past lingers as a reminder of your inadequacy. You’re still constantly learning and you’d like to believe that your best is still ahead of you. Nevertheless, you can’t help looking back when it’s all there for you to scour. The reflexive embarrassment that accompanies every ill-judged attempt to look back over your shoulder gets to be a bit annoying. You can see the flaws, but you can’t go back and change them.
Recently, for the first time, the ‘right to forget’ came to be conceptualised in internet law in the European Union. Impractically, I wonder if we could extend that concept to our past writing as well?
Back to form

As the world increasingly moves towards a more utilitarian and perfunctory approach to language, I find myself pondering the question of formal beauty even more. My bad English reminds me of how much further I could go into this one language that I know well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The furore over cultural appropriation

Published in Southern Crossings

American writer Lionel Shriver recently delivered a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writer's Festival where she discussed cultural appropriation, authorial autonomy, social expectations around works of art and a host of other subjects that have arguably been at the forefront of much critical debate in recent times. Her speech provoked a lot of debate, as well as the usual outrage, grandstanding and squabbling on Twitter. I read the speech as well as some responses to it, and also listened to a discussion about it on the radio. I thought the speech raised many valid questions and argued convincingly against certain contemporary trends. In this blog post, using Shriver's speech as a point of departure, I want to discuss four distinct ideas or areas of concern that I think are pertinent to the conversation at hand. 

Authorial voice

Shriver's speech, at its core, was about authorial autonomy. However, from what I can gather, most people's responses and reactions to her speech have been predicated on what may be characterised as the concept of authorial responsibility. Authorial responsibility is a relatively new concept. A traditional understanding of the creative arts would perhaps privilege the former over the latter, but the zeitgeist seems to place responsibility and care where freedom and autonomy would have previously been. This is especially so in respect of the critical-commentary work that creatives habitually engage in outside of their creative endeavours. At conferences, seminars and talks, for example, the creative is scrutinised and assessed by a set of amorphous but easily recognisable criteria that valorise and emphasise goodness rather than critical rigour. A new schema has emerged that circumscribes the artist's social-critical voice within predetermined bounds. In this schema, the author is expected, above all, to offer commentary that is responsible and socially beneficial. Iconoclasm - that quaint concept that Shriver invoked in her speech - is looked upon unfavourably or with mild amusement. Any diffidence, rebelliousness and irreverence on the part of the artist can be dismissed as self-indulgence and arrogance, rather than recognised as an expression of genuine discomfort with the social consensus. Provocation is passé. 

A key feature of Shirver's speech that provoked much outrage was its emphasis on the author's proprietorial autonomy. An author/artist can do with their creation and their creatures, so to speak, exactly what they'd like to do, Shriver averred. This truism - an assertion of an unquestionable truth about the creative process - provoked outrage because it was seen as evincing 'arrogance', 'entitlement' and even 'colonialist' attitudes. 

Therefore, it can be argued that what we are witnessing - and perhaps this is not entirely unexpected when a particular art form goes into decline - is an intellectual push towards the disavowal of the agency of the author, and its replacement with bland conformity. Shriver makes this point succinctly: not only is it difficult today to do and be sustained by writing as a vocation, you must also constantly grapple with internal misgivings about and external pressures on your agency as a writer. These may not always be apparent or obvious but they are indeed often palpable, further etiolating or rendering toothless what Shriver characterised as the most irreverent of vocations (or avocations). 

American hegemony

So-called American liberals have for a long time now been dictating the terms of cultural engagement for the rest of the world. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of determining how people think about the concept of cultural appropriation. It is not so much that we are told what the correct thing to espouse and believe is. Instead, the actions and manoeuvres of so-called liberal students and sundry others demonstrate to us the limits of our engagement. Certain things are verboten, and we know this not because someone or some movement came out with a cognisable set of rules, but because hostility, skepticism and purblind censorious rage hounded those who did not abide by these unspoken rules. Shriver's speech refers to one illuminating essay written by a so-called 'liberal professor' using the pseudonym 'Edward Schlosser' that highlights this but any number of such essays documenting the rise of liberal intolerance (I am almost tempted to write 'tolerant intolerance') can be found. It is the act of protesting and making impossible certain thoughts, acts, works, practices and what-have-you that eventually determines what people understand and think when the accusation of cultural appropriation is invoked. As most of these protests and acts of proscription take place in the US, this newly re-inflected concept of cultural appropriation embodies and perpetuates American hegemony in the intellectual arena. And make no mistake, in many instances in the US (again, relevant references may be found in Shriver's speech and elsewhere), when protesters and proscribers accuse someone of cultural appropriation, it is an accusation rather than a criticism - the intention is to demonstrate the accused's venality rather than debate their judgment. American sentiments, American race relations and American problems suffuse and overwhelm all conversations about cultural appropriation, rendering this concept a peculiarly and quintessentially American export. The rise of cultural appropriation as a tool of protest and analysis marks the coalescence of a range of phenomena that cannot be summarised or delineated in a short blog post, but it also most definitively signals continuing American hegemony in the field of ideas. 

The concept of harm

Harm is an idea that is very much at the centre of many recent debates relating to culture, education and a host of other areas, and it is one that I find most difficult to grapple with. The idea of harm that pervades literary and artistic debates is perhaps its most nebulous version. To me, the claim that someone has been harmed by a work of art is a contentious claim - it is not one that should expect to go unquestioned. It is not one that should go uncontested. Harm is a concept that has decidedly serious connotations, and when it is used to characterise the effect a work of art has on someone, or, even more problematically, a whole group, it should be used with caution rather than reckless abandon. Taking a concept that is intrinsically objective and verifiable, and rendering it nebulous and unverifiable, and then using this against creatives, is not something that I consider particularly laudable. 

Speaking back to history

The rage against cultural appropriation can be seen as rage against colonialism and western hegemony. It is a expression of anger about historic injustices - anger that, perhaps for the first time in history, can demonstrably shape the cultural or artistic practices that are perceived as being intertwined with those historical injustices, and make these accountable. This is the only point on which I am in agreement with the proponents of the concept of cultural appropriation. The charge of cultural appropriation belies long-held animosity and resentment at racism, conquest, dispossession, theft, loss, misrepresentation and several other phenomena. However, I am almost reluctant to characterise it as 'long-held' resentment, because this animosity is not really something that transcends generations - anger about cultural appropriation is as much a culturally- and temporally-specific phenomenon as it is one that can be said to transcend time. While anger against injustice may transcend generations, this particular manifestation of the anger that we now see before us, pervading protests about costumes, songs and the occasional yoga studio in the US, is something that emerges from the specificities of the wider contemporary socio-political conjuncture. On one level, it is an anger that is empowered with the means of affecting outcomes, and is thus perhaps more virulent than anything authors, artists, musicians and other creative practitioners have encountered before from their intended audiences. On another, more fundamental, level, it is an anger that feeds into the zeitgeist underlying contemporary policies, norms and practices around recognition of historical injustice. In that respect, the charge of cultural appropriation is one that is altogether appropriate. However, my gripe is that I believe the targets are poorly chosen and, in many cases, the manner of protest (again, protest, and not just criticism) is just plain ridiculous. Overzealous American millennials with inflated egos have turned a conversation about history into a shouting-match replete with foul histrionics. They have taken what is still in large part a conversation about historical injustices as well as historical ebbs and flows, and turned it into a farce with disturbing authoritarian undertones. There are many who deride criticism of these antics as something akin to hyperbole - 'You are exaggerating!' - but the truth is, you don't need to exaggerate the transparent unfairness of the many recent instances in which cultural appropriation has featured as the central crime.

Question the criticism

There is now a tendency to countenance the excoriation of certain works of art or the maligning of the intentions of certain authors as 'legitimate criticism'. However, as noted in Shriver's speech, in the US, the heartland of all culture wars, the line between de facto proscription and criticism is one that is constantly shifting, and the arts are hardly immune to these shifts. In such instances, 'criticism' belies far less legitimate tendencies. But putting these aside, questions need to be raised even about the validity of such criticism. Debates need to occur that are free of moral posturing, grandstanding and, worst of all, reckless mudslinging about the intentions and character of authors, creatives, critics and others. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Living with millennials

Living with millennials can be tough. I think I count as a millennial too, but I think my upbringing disabused me of a lot of the sense of entitlement I see underlying millennials' conduct in Australia. 

Allow me to generalise. 

First, they are quite unreliable when it comes to confirming meetings and timings. I remember receiving texts from a number of people when I was looking for housemates earlier this year - texts confirming meetings with them - only to have no notification (or only last-minute notification) of their intention to cancel. The fact that this inconveniences the person you're supposed to meet - that they, in fact, absolutely need to be told that you can (or intend to) no longer meet them - does not seem to occur to some people. 

I suspect this is partly because of the sheer volume of communication that millennials habitually engage in. They are constantly on their phones, texting out hundreds of messages daily, and it does not occur to them that some texts and some messages are more significant than others. For example, informing someone (even if a contact you made while searching for a house) that you are no longer able to meet them, and that they can then do something else with their time - this is essential. Instead, everything is treated with a kind of bland indifference: 'Oh, I can't make it anymore. Meh, forget it.' 

Then, millennials have very little appreciation of the expectations and norms of house-sharing arrangements in Australia. For example, houses are usually rented out for six months or a year or so -  and there is usually, if not always, a contract involved, with a contract period stipulated in it. Therefore, it is necessary, even for later housemates (or housemates joining the original lease-holder), to commit to or stipulate a minimum length of time for their stay. It is quite essential that you commit to something. Yes, I must admit that most people know and understand this intuitively, and respect that custom. However, I have encountered some people who do not seem to comprehend the need for commitment. Instead, their approach is essentially - 'I like this house. Can we do, like, a trial period of a few weeks, and then decide?' This may be a reasonable approach in other areas of life, but housemate-searches involve time, effort and money. Why would I be interested in wasting my time doing so-called trial periods if I can't have some kind of a minimum commitment from you? Such ditzy behaviour reflects naivety and poor judgment, and a lack of appreciation of the norms of house-sharing. 

Finally, when you do end up living with millennials, you are very likely to experience behaviour such as: leaving dishes to pile up in the sink; leaving dirty dishes in the room because they're too lazy to wash them or to even take them to the sink; leaving clothes on racks for days on end even after they have dried; having their friend/date/what-have-you stay for days and days on end, etc. Conversations about house etiquette do not go down well with millennials. They don't know how to respond when concerns are raised with them, which I attribute to a lack of experience of communicating, listening to and resolving concerns. Instead, they prefer to skip the conversation altogether, and offer perfunctory (and perhaps empty) assurances. Further, although this is nobody's business but their own, they eat poorly, and they stuff the fridge with a carton-worth of bottles of Coke. 

To summarise, living with millennials is hard because: 1) they don't respect your time, or do not know how to communicate responsibly - for them, leaving people hanging is OK; 2) they don't appreciate the norms of house-sharing; and 3) they have poor house ettiequte. The first reflects a self-centred approach to communication, where all that matters is that you get what you want, bugger everyone else. The second can be put down to a lack of experience of life outside their parental home perhaps, or a lack of awareness of how things are done in the share-housing scene. The third is due to laziness and, again, self-centredness, where you do not care how your actions affect others. For example, if you pile up dirty dishes in your room for days on end, you prevent others from using the same cutlery for their needs. This is discourteous and irresponsible. 

Of course all of us have our idiosyncrasies and bad habits. Far be it from me to tell anyone to be perfect, and to behave wonderfully at all times. But some things - some qualities, some values, some forms of decorum - are foundational, and essential for harmonious living. And you cannot do without them. Unfortunately, my experience of sharing houses with millennials in Australia - and I specify millennials because, in my experience, older folks have a better sense of these requirements and qualities - has led me to believe that, as in other areas of life, there's a selfishness that pervades millennials' conduct in relation to their housemates. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What is community?

I know that a lot of people have asked this question before but I find myself asking it again: what does the word community mean? I am currently writing a short piece in which I'm using this word liberally and confidently, and yet I'm uncomfortable with its implications. Do I really mean to imply what the word traditionally implies? Or am I using it because it is now the norm to use the word rather indiscriminately? The word community is now used as a substitute for 'demographic' or 'population'; it is a much more pleasing and much less clinical word. It evokes a sense of togetherness and commonality. But therein lies the rub. The word can be misleading. Often the sense of togetherness and commonality that the word suggests is insufficiently found in that which the word is seeking to describe. Community suggests (some degree of) coherence; a defined boundary that encompasses a range of people who really can be understood as 'belonging together'. In its current usage, the word continues to suggest coherence and togetherness but it does so without any substantial basis. The writer often assumes that there is coherence and homogeneity within the category so described, but that assumption is often flawed. It cannot be anyone's case that a community should be entirely without differences and internal diversity; that would be ridiculous. However, when the variety, diversity and heterogeneity within that category overshadows any commonality, using the word community to describe that category is inadequate at best and misleading at worst. That said, the next question that comes to mind is this: who decides whether a group is adequately coherent for it to be described as a community? This is where individual perspective comes in. How you view community is a subjective matter, shaped by whether or not you see coherence, commonality and togetherness through your lived experience and based on empirical grounds. If you don't, you will feel uncomfortable with current usage of the word, and slightly strange while using it yourself. On the other hand, if you do see coherence, etc., then you will be content to accept the validity of that label.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Time to look ahead. Time to take the next step. Time to plan. Time to organise. Transitions have always been very difficult for me. Perhaps I overthink things and make myself more restless and nervous about transitions than I ought to, but I can't help feeling anxious about transitions. And why should this one be any different? Having said that, I know that I have grown and matured considerably over the last few years, and I cannot imagine that I will feel the same as I did the last time. I remember the last big transition very clearly. It was incredibly exciting but also incredibly nerve-wracking. It was also a time of relief, rejuvenation and rediscovery. I was and am today so grateful for it. Over the next few months, I will have to work hard. But just now, I want to take some time to reflect, take stock and express gratitude for everything. The journey ahead will be challenging but it's up to me to give it the best that I can.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


After the tragedy, there is sadness. There is sorrow and there is remembrance. But all of it feels completely inadequate. It is so difficult to go on Facebook after atrocities such as this one. The words that people express and the feelings that they share are simultaneously overwhelming and inadequate. It is as if there is a shadow looming over their words. This is the shadow of uncertainty and learned helplessness. The prayers and the sorrow belie the reality of our utter helplessness in the face of violence. There is nothing that can be done about it. There is nothing new that can even be said about it anymore - all that had to be said has already been said. The prayers have been said many times before. The vigils have been held many times before. The sorrow has been expressed many times before. They say that love conquers hate. I don't believe it. I absolutely do not trust that it does. Violence seems unconquerable. Saying and doing nothing after an atrocity such as this seems, at first, indefensible, but perhaps we are effectively saying and doing nothing despite our many words of protest and sorrow. I can't bring myself to say or do anything anymore about these eruptions of violence. Somehow it just feels dishonest.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Elder journeys: a reflection on two stories of survival

Originally published in Peril magazine. 

Sometime ago this year, I received a video file by text from my father. At first glance, it looked like an old black-and-white recording. When I opened the clip, I found it was a British news report capturing the historic moment of the 14th Dalai Lama’s arrival in India after his escape from Tibet in 1959. The year 1959 was a watershed in Tibetan history. 

In 1951, the 14th Dalai Lama signed an agreement with the People’s Republic of China granting the Communist Party effective control over Tibet. The introduction of socialist reforms in the Kham and Amdo regions of eastern Tibet from 1951 onwards led to social unrest and ultimately the eruption of armed resistance in 1956. Lhasa, which was granted greater autonomy than these other provinces, was, at least in the early stages, unaffected by the reforms programme and the unrest. However, after the rebellion in the eastern region was suppressed and quashed in 1957, and brutal reprisals against guerilla fighters, monks, nuns, monasteries and villages were carried out, Lhasa was inundated with people from Kham and Amdo fleeing the crisis in their lands.

In early 1959, rumours of a plan to abduct the Dalai Lama (prompted by a series of unusual missives from the Chinese military) began to circulate in Potala Palace and eventually amongst the people of Lhasa, and fear, trepidation and an undercurrent of dissidence spread through the city. In the ensuing insurrection, pro-Chinese Tibetan leaders, who were seen as traitors, and Han Chinese were attacked in the streets, and barricades were erected in and around Lhasa. Declarations of independence reverberated through the city as Chinese troops and Tibetan rebel forces fortified their positions in anticipation of an imminent confrontation. Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, was surrounded by Chinese troops and shelled on 17 and 19 March 1959. Fearing the worst (the uprising would be quashed by Chinese troops in three days and reprisals would follow), rebel forces cleared a route through Lhasa for the Dalai Lama’s escape.

As Stephan Talty’s Escape from the Land of Snows documents, the Dalai Lama, with his family and a band of followers, under the protection of hardened guerillas known as the Chushi Gangdrug and with the assistance of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), journeyed over 17 days towards the border with India. On 30 March, fatigued and ill, the escape party reached the border. John Greaney, head of the CIA’s Tibet Task Force, sent a cable to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s office in New Delhi seeking permission to enter India. Greaney tells Talty in Escape that it was fortuitous that the journey commenced over the weekend and proceedings in the US commenced under his supervision; if the bureaucracy of the State Department had been involved, the Dalai Lama might have never left Lhasa. From 30 March onwards, the Dalai Lama journeyed further inland and was finally received by Government of India (GOI) officials on 18 April in Tezpur, Assam, in the north-east of the country. From there, he was escorted to Dharamshala, a town perched in the foothills of the Himalayas in the state of Himachal Pradesh, a town that would ultimately become known as the home of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile or the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). 

Approximately 80,000 Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into India and were re-established in agricultural settlements by the CTA and GOI. Over 50 years, over 150,000 Tibetan refugees arrived in India. The 1959 Uprising, according to a 1960 People’s Liberation Army (China) document cited in a 1990 CTA report, resulted in the “elimination” of “87,000 enemies”, although both the meaning of the term “elimination” and the given figure remain disputed.

Now, coming back to the video file that my father sent me. The news clipping showed the moment of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in Tezpur: a somewhat dilapidated town; a contingent of Indian police officers and government officials superintending the chaotic proceedings; a bevy of foreign journalists eager to relay back images of the final stage of a journey that governments and newsrooms had spent weeks tracking and poring over; a crowd of 7,000 or more gathered to receive the Dalai Lama’s blessings; a train station bustling with activity in preparation for his onward journey; and a smiling pontiff whose seemingly unperturbed countenance belied the ravages of a month-long journey. In that video was a Sikh police officer who could be seen superintending the officials and journalists, escorting the Dalai Lama and managing the nitty-gritty of this historic event. That officer was my maternal grandfather, Bahadur Singh Baber. 

It is a remarkable coincidence that one of the officers who received the Dalai Lama in what would become his adopted homeland was himself someone who had fled home and land just over a decade earlier.

In 1947, when British India was partitioned and India and Pakistan gained independence, riots erupted on both sides of the newly demarcated border. Fuelled by longstanding communal animosities, and tensions and rumours about the impending division of land, coalescing waves of targeted ethnic cleansing and retributive violence swept through the north-west of the subcontinent. The result was the biggest mass migration in human history – 14 million people were displaced from their homes and at least half a million (some estimate up to a million) were killed. As Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and Muslims from India fled across the border, homes were demolished, possessions were looted, land was seized and occupied, and large swathes of villages, towns and cities burned. Hordes of exiles attempting to flee were slaughtered en masse.

Both my maternal grandparents were survivors of this genocidal catastrophe. While my maternal grandmother’s family, who were wealthy business people, secured early safe passage to India some four months before the actual partition, expecting to return one day to their homes and businesses, my grandfather, who was poor, was trapped in the maelstrom until the very end. His desperate escape was marked by two ineffable strokes of good luck. He first tried to reach Delhi by climbing onto a truck departing Lahore, but when it was his turn to get onto the truck, he was refused entry and the door was slammed shut; there was no more space inside. Each and every person in that truck was later shot dead. Immediately seeking the next means out, he managed to slip into a train. No sooner had the train left the station than militants stormed its packed compartments and fired indiscriminately at the ensnared passengers. They shot everyone in my grandfather’s compartment but fortuitously he emerged unhurt. He had sprawled on the ground and pretended to be dead, thus making to the other side.

When he reached Delhi, he found a city engulfed in chaos. He had no money in his pocket, no knowledge of the whereabouts of his family and nowhere to go in this city teeming with refugees. (It is estimated that between 1947 and 1951, around a million refugees settled in Delhi, with individual camps in historic locations like Purana Qila, Red Fort, Kingsway Camp and Kurukshetra holding tens of thousands at any given time.) Around dusk on his first day, he met a friend of his from Lahore who took him to a man called Panna Singh. Singh worked as a supplier of milk in Delhi and had very little money, but he and his wife, confronted with the magnitude of what was unfolding before them, took five or six boys in and put a roof over their heads. For the next few years, my grandfather lived with this couple of little means but endless generosity.

Over time, he was reunited with the rest of his family; he found them through announcements on the radio. His siblings had made it to Delhi as well but his older sister’s husband had been killed during the riots. She was pregnant with their third child at the time.

In the meantime, the Government of India announced that all students who had appeared for their final BA exams in Lahore at the time of Partition could repeat it under the University of Delhi. My grandfather did that, cleared the exams and quickly found a job as a government clerk. He then enrolled in an evening classes programme for an MA in Economics. After finishing his master’s, he simultaneously appeared for the civil services exams, sought to enlist in the army and applied for a job at a private company called Lever Brothers. He successfully passed the civil services exams, was accepted into the army and was also offered a job by the company. The Singhs advised him to take up the services and that's what he did. He joined the Indian Police Service and was assigned to its Assam cadre. 

Over the years, the Singhs accrued considerable wealth and even invested in properties in Old Delhi. As children, my mother and her sisters visited them regularly and were showered with gifts. Till the time of Mrs. Singh’s passing, my grandfather sent her a monthly money-order with a token amount as a mark of gratitude. They tried to dissuade him from doing so but my grandfather was a man of tenacious will. He had an indefatigable spirit and an undeniable instinct for survival but he had no doubt that it was the kindness of these two souls that had given him a new lease of life. He felt connected to them in ways that perhaps cannot be plumbed and he tried to express his gratitude in whatever way he could. In his career, he ultimately retired as the director-general of Assam Police.

In that video my father sent me, I saw two distinct journeys intersect. One of those journeys has of course over the years been meticulously researched and recorded for posterity; the other has been passed down privately from parent to child. My grandfather when he was alive would hardly ever speak about the past. He was very much a man of the present and the future. My grandmother, though not at all reticent like my grandfather and always happy to regale us with tales of her childhood, is still quite unsentimental and only ever reluctantly nostalgic. I would describe her as a pragmatist and a thorough optimist. With our elders having defined their lives by a resolute and steadfast commitment to the future, it is sometimes our lot and privilege to remember. And to reflect on their perseverance and achievements.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

To my grandmother

Dear Nani, 

The last two years were a struggle for you, and for the family. Towards the end, the struggles of everyday life and the endeavour to maintain your health took over completely, and perhaps it is with this in mind that we are so blessed that when you left us yesterday you were completely at peace, completely serene. You persevered for so long, and you were loved and looked after in your time of need so well, I could not have been more proud of my parents, aunts and uncles than I am today. But yesterday, as I said goodbye to your spirit, it was not the memories of the last two years that were foremost on my mind. It was the memories of you in your prime, of you as I knew you when we were kids, that flashed before my eyes. I remembered with so much gratitude the love that you had showered on us all all through our childhood. I remembered the long summer and winter holidays with you and Nana. I remembered your bright smile, your joyful face, your laughter.  I remembered your early morning walks and prayers - the hum, the sweet incense, and the serenity and sanctity of that little room in the corner. I remembered you restlessly moving through the house, getting everything done, getting everyone on their feet. I remembered the constant churning in the kitchen and the wonders that would emerge from there everyday. I remembered your comforting hand on my head as it lay in your lap, as we watched TV - sometimes the cartoons and action thrillers that you disliked, sometimes the family dramas that I disliked, and sometimes the sad love stories that we both liked. I remembered you neatly wrapped in your shawls and woolens in the winter cold. I remembered the fireplace in the lounge room and the glow of the embers that would linger on until bedtime. I remembered the many friends who'd visit and who we visited, friends from an earlier time, evoking memories and stories that never ceased to entertain and enthrall. I remembered your fortitude in the face of Nana's illness. I remembered your devotion to everyone you loved at every point in our lives. All through your life you gave us so much love and care. We are so fortunate to have had you as our grandmother, to have loved you for so long. I know you are at peace now. Love you lots.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Go, Dami Im!

You know how every once in a while you come across a genuinely talented artiste whose work speaks (sings?) for itself, and who's got no need for any frills and fancies to enhance her impact on the audience? That's Dami Im. Her voice is powerful. She performs beautifully. And her singing is what shines through in her performances - it's solely her voice that carries the performance. I hadn't really heard her music before her Eurovision nomination but having watched her X-factor 2013 performances and the music videos she's produced since, I can say that I really like her! Her singing and the lyrics of her songs cut right through to your heart - the feelings that she conveys through her music are impactful and beautiful. There's that mesmerising mixture of love and pain, movement and stillness, daring and vulnerability (listen to 'Gladiator'). She also comes across as very grounded, humble and personable. Quirky, thoughtful and lovely. Like Adele and Sia, two other great artistes. It's a bit unfashionable to talk about 'soul' and 'genuineness' and all that jazz these days, but really, you get the sense that they're all soulful, complex, vulnerable, genuine people with a real love and passion for their art. Not overwhelming personalities but overwhelmingly mesmerising artistes whose music is so deeply moving, affecting and so goddamn poetic. OK, go Dami! Here's to your Eurovision awesomeness! I hope she wins. Deserves it big time.