Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mr kian’s dilemma

There was a little bundle, wrapped up in a shocking pink Thai Airways blanket, on my seat. It was going to be a long flight from Melbourne to Bangkok and I was keen to settle down with my book so I gave it a gentle poke. Something moved, and from under the folds emerged a head that must not have been a day older than 60. He was tiny, not an inch or more above 5 feet. His skin had that typical South-East Asian quality that suggested that you could rub it with sand paper and a towel for ever and a day, and you still wouldn’t be able to rub the oil off it. Bald on top, his hair seemed to have taken final refuge around his ears, but literally rooted out from everywhere else on his shiny pate. He wore his wispy sideburns long and had a straggler of a strand or two sticking to his chin like a forgotten relic. A square jaw, a strong chin and the dark rimmed glasses that sat lightly on the bridge of a broad nose seemed to suggest that he was a man who knew how to have his way, in spite of his stature.

I smiled and told him he was in my seat. He smiled, nodded his head and turned towards the window and gazed at the busy little lights on the tarmac and the darkening Melbourne sky. I clenched my jaw and repeated my words with restrained emotion. The head didn’t turn. I was about to poke him again when I saw the wires of an earphone peeping out of the blanket. ‘Humph! Senior citizen…might as well let him be’, I thought. I slid into the seat next to his and started fiddling with the touchscreen in front. The plane took off. And soon it was time for dinner. My neighbour punctuated his meal with oft repeated requests of “mo’ wed wine please!”. In the middle of his meal, he dropped his toothpick and then kept looking at it on the floor rather sullenly. I asked him if he wanted mine, twice, but he politely bowed, smiled and shook his head. After a while, he asked me if I would need my toothpick. I shook my head and handed it to him. He nodded and this time he took it.

“Whey you fom?”, he asked, as he folded the table away. “Ah, India!” his thin eyebrows danced when I told him. “Vewee smart! Many vewee good brain! Vietnamese boys no can compete… Indian boy vewee smart!” So he was from Vietnam. I wanted to go back to my book but I thought I should ask him a few polite questions as a courteous gesture, from one traveller to another. And so I did…His name was Kian and he had been an engineer with the army. Had he seen action? “Yes…yes…but not as engineer. I fight in Ho Chi Minh campaign and second Indochina (war) with great General Giap. You not know but he great General.” He was surprised to know that I did know about the General, who has been called one of the greatest war strategists of all time. “My leg”, he clutched his right knee, “not vewee good. Still hurt from war.” A war hero! He had my respect and attention now.

Kian lectures in various universities in South-East Asia and sometimes Australia. I asked him about his family. He was quiet. I did not push him. I half imagined a tragic story of a family lost to war, when he said, “Melbourne college want me to move to Australia with my family. Can’t go. My wife not good! Her health…not good…she paralysed…no can move…if I move her, she die…what can do…” For a while, I did not know what to say. “I hope she gets well soon and you can then all go to Australia together”, I offered. Kian closed his eyes and shook his head. “You not understanding…she never get better. Never! Everybody in her house die like this. Father, brothers, younger brother…they all die. But she…she still not die.” He looked sad, but now I wasn’t sure why… “If take her to Australia, doctor say she die…she like this for so many years. I say I want to go to Australia with my children but Australian government say I inhuman if I leave her…I spend so many money, so many years…I need to work in Australia for mo’ money but no can do…everybody in her family die, she still no die…what can do?” He sounded bitter. And I was shocked. He sounded like he was hoping his wife would die and set him free. “I can fight with America but no can fight God…how can do?” He shook his head and smiled a wry smile. An awkward silence followed.

The lights dimmed and I went back to Michael Clayton on the touchscreen. After a while, I glanced towards his screen, and there was Hilary Swank bouncing about in a boxing ring. I did not know what to make of the man. I still don’ you?

Love them to death

While Kian was telling me his story, I was persistently reminded of Michael Schiavo, who for seven years campaigned for the removal of his wife Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube because she had been in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ and there was apparently no hope of recovery. Michael succeeded, through a court order, and Terri’s feeding tube was removed. She died after spending practically all of the last 15 years of her life in a hospital bed.

Admittedly, it is impossible to put oneself in the same shoes as that of a Michael Schiavo or Kian, and may neither you nor I ever need to. And yet, one finds it impossible to believe that there can’t be hope. Incidentally, Robert Herring, an entrepreneur, had offered Michael Schiavo a million dollars to stop campaigning because he believed that stem cell research could have been a catalyst for Terri’s recovery. But now we’ll never know. Perhaps it is unfair but one can’t help but feel that maybe, albeit understandably, people like Michael and Kian just tire of waiting and that emotional exhaustion starts demanding closure. But does one man’s need for closure justify another’s demise?

We need more miracles to restore our faith in them, as do the Schiavos and Kians of this world. But perhaps what the miracles need are a bit of time and faith from us.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

In Black and white

In the streets of big city Australia, there lurk the shadow people. You don’t see them on the streets but every once in a while you find their tracks, on the billboards, in a name, in the souvenir stores, and at a game. They are ghosts of the Aboriginese, the indigenous people of Australia. Once spread all over the island continent, now only a relative handful remains, swept away under the fringes of white Australia. Symbols of their culture reverberate in the strains of the didgeridoo (the long hollow pipe that sounds like a musically inclined elephant in heat), in names of cities and streets (Yuendumu, Woolloomooloo), in the flight of a boomerang, and in the cheers at a footy game (inspired at least in part by the Aboriginal game of Marn Grook) and yet you can’t see them... for they’ve just vanished…

Then one day, near Darling Harbour, I saw a green flag pinned to the seat of a bicycle. It said, in letters big and black – White Australia has a BLACK past. I wanted to know what it meant, and what it meant to have been a part of that past. As the flag fluttered up a hill and disappeared, I heard the sound of an elephant in heat. I chased the sound and found a man dancing by the harbour. His features were unmistakably Aboriginal. Behind him sat another man, younger and lighter skinned, his swollen cheeks blowing away for all they are worth, into what looked like the trunk of a small tree – the didgeridoo. They told me that a man called Russell Dawson could tell me what it meant, because that past was also his past.

Dawson is the leader of an Aboriginese dance troupe; his tribe – The Kamilaroi; and his bush name – Waaji Wallu Doungu Thanni Bunjalong Goomaroi. He is a big man with a big heart. When I called on him in Melbourne, he called me ‘brother’, and I believe he meant it. He thought I would understand his pain because I came from India – a country he “loved”, a country that had been a colony; a country that believed in peace. And I believed I would understand…

With the words “Shanti! Shanti!”, Dawson began his story. “You don’t see my people on the streets because there aren’t many who are still around. And that is because up until 1967, merely 40 years ago, we were treated like animals. We, the oldest civilisation on earth, one that goes back more than 40,000 years, were classified as fauna, as vermin, by the white administration. White hunters would go out with their guns and hunt our people down in cold blood… for sport. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous Australian men women and children have been killed, and no one was punished. We weren’t even worth a butcher’s goat. You ask me, so I’ll tell you, but these are difficult stories to tell…

they are not old enough yet, and they churn our hate… In many parts of Australia, white settlers would go in groups, round up a tribe, gather all the men and cut off their penises. Our fathers would scream and run and thrash about in pain, while the white man would laugh as he saw them bleed and die. The babies and the young children would be buried alive upto their necks in the earth and then white man, with his heavy boots, would kick and kick till their little heads came off. Then white man would get drunk on rum, drag out our mothers and rape them till their lust was slaked. Then they’d take red hot iron bars and burn them into the women’s vaginas, and beat them to death…”

I was quiet. “I know what you are thinking brother...” Dawson said. “You are from India, the land of ‘unity in diversity’, the land of non-violence, the land of Gandhi, and you wonder if such barbarism is possible. But it happens. Remember the Nazi holocaust…” Dawson was wrong. I know such barbarism is possible. Because my land is not just the land of Gandhi, it is also the land where Priyanka Bhotmange’s 17-year-old body lay, on the infamous soil of Khairlanji, with ‘rods sticking out of her genitals’. It is also the land where every other day a dalit woman is stripped, a minor dalit girl is gang raped, and where dalit men are hacked and murdered, and in almost every case, there are no witnesses, and no one is punished. And these stories aren’t 40 years but four days old.

Dawson twisted the knife. “India is beautiful. Her people, wonderful. The red dot your women wear on the forehead is a symbol of the red land of Australia. Like you, we believe in peace, in nature. We too have never raped our land or our women. We live in peace with other tribes as equals. If you look at our people, you’ll see that you and I, we are the same… beautiful and peaceful”, he said with a laugh and a pat.

I smiled and walked away… with the realisation that it isn’t just Dawson’s hurt that needs understanding…

It happened one night

The Great American Dream must pale in comparison to the Australian Dream. For, compared to the former, the visions of the indigenous Australian people have to do with all of this world, and everything within and without.

Many, many groups of indigenous Australians, collectively referred to as the Aboriginals, attribute the constitution of our universe to a phenomenon called the “Dreamtime”, with just a little difference in definition between tribes. Dreamtime or the All-at-Once Time is a multidimensional abstraction believed to be the fountainhead of this Creation, wherein the ancestor spirits broke through the surface of the earth, then dark and flat, travelled through space generating the sun, land, trees, water et al out of their ‘Eternity’. For the Aboriginals, it implies that all of nature is a manifestation of their forbears, and holds a spiritual value. So, to cite certain characters from Aboriginal mythology, Anjea is the goddess of fertility to whom the souls until they get embodied again; Bahloo is the moon man and Yhi, the sun. Legends relate that Yhi coveted Bahloo but he had spurned her advances, and then Yhi had enjoined the spirits of the sky to not let him get away, else he would sentence the world to darkness.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

The honeymooners

Somewhere in the southern Australian bush, in a small room with a big window, there rocks a rocking chair. On it, facing the window, sits a man, eyes closed, mouth open and head pushed back over the head rest. He is a tall man with limbs that seemed to have known hard labour. A tall elderly lady, hair cropped close, walks in, looks at the figure on the chair for a while, as if to ensure that it’s still breathing. Then she walks up to the chair and puts her hand on the man’s forehead, runs her hands through his silver grey hair and smiles. The figure continues to sleep. She gives the chair a gentle push. As it starts rocking again, she walks up to the window...

The first time I met Nick and his wife Jo was at the Parliament café, Canberra. “Nick walked out of hospital in Adelaide. He wanted to watch Tendulkar bat one last time…” Jo had said. “And he got a big hundred too…” said Nick, grinning as he dug into a cheese pie they were sharing. Tall, tanned and sprightly, Nick looked the quintessential Aussie outbacker who would rush for the bush without dropping his hat. “He must really like you, Nicky” Jo patted his arm, looked up at him and smiled. “Nick played cricket for his state…” “Nick shook his head. “...only at school level.” Jo went on “…and Don Bradman once shook his hand after a game”. Nick nodded “… Yeah! Yeah! But only because he’d played golf with an uncle of mine”. He was still smiling, as if reliving that moment. “Jo and I go to see the Indians play when they’re in Australia; even our daughter never misses. And she always barracks for India. She loves India. She’s there right now in Shaynay, working with orphaned children? How do you say it? Shenai?...

Chennai? Right! Maybe she loves India because she was there even before she was born…” Nick had that faraway look again. His eyes twinkled.

“It was our honeymoon.” Jo piped. “We’d gone to England for the wedding after which Nick swept me away to Germany, bought a big Volkswagen van and drove off for our honeymoon. That was 44 years ago… feels like yesterday. After driving around Europe for a while, Nick..., maybe he thought I wasn’t impressed enough, said, he was going to show me that eternal symbol of love - the Taj Mahal. It wasn’t easy but boy, was it fun”

“One night” Nick continued, “we drove into Damascus. The city was quiet. No lights, no people. We reached a small inn and learnt that there had been a coup. Some days later, while driving out of the country, we had to avoid certain streets because there were bodies hanging from electricity poles. We were scared… both of us.” Jo seemed to remember something “And.. and we picked up that dapper Italian on the Afghanistan border. He said my pasta was better than his mother’s. However, at the Pakistan border, he left, saying he was heading for Lahore. The border-guards asked about him and then produced a list of Interpol fugitives. He was on it! He was a musician in a restaurant and had meddled with the owner’s wife. A murder was committed and he had fled.”

Nick’s voice boomed. They weren’t talking to me now. They were talking to each other, as they had 44 years ago, travelling back in time, hand in hand. “Finally, India. But the Taj had to wait. Driving into Delhi on a very hot day, we were stuck in a terrible jam. For miles, all one could see were heads bobbing. It was a funeral procession. India was paying her last respects to Jawaharlal Nehru. We joined in …”

We sat quietly for a while. Then Jo said “We were blessed to have seen so much. It was beautiful. The Taj, the people... India. A few months later, our daughter was born…”

I was getting late for a meeting. They invited me to their farm. I said I’d love to and meant it. I got up to leave, when Jo walked up to me. “You made his day. I hope you really come. He’ll be very happy. But if you do, do come soon. He doesn’t have long to live... a month, maybe two … lung cancer!” From her window, Jo can see the gum trees that line her porch, the sloping meadow where the cows graze and the little creek that gurgles into the woods. On the porch, to her right, with his head on his paws, sat Thomo, their Border Collie. Thomo was a present from Nick. “He’ll walk with you if I can’t…”, Nick had said. When their eyes met, Thomo thumped his tail on the porch boards. Jo smiled again. They had lived a good life… a full life…

“When the time comes, he’ll go a happy man. It has been a wonderful honeymoon. We couldn’t have asked for more… of each other or of life. I just wish it wouldn’t end. Who knows, maybe it won’t… maybe I won’t be waiting for long.” Maybe you won’t Jo, maybe you won’t. God bless you both.

Till death do us part

“Our wedding was many years ago. The celebration continues to this day.” That’s what a rare few couples would happily state of their marriage, until Fate got envious.

Superman Christopher Reeve was one of those incredibly generous and positive human beings who never failed to touch the hearts of whoever he came across, including Dana Morosini. Married in 1992, their love endured a tragedy when Reeve suffered a spinal injury paralysing him neck down. Had it not been for Dana’s words: “You’re still you. And I love you”, Christopher had claimed, he would’ve long given up. Together they stood up not only to the great challenge in their personal lives, but also contributed immensely to spinal repair research. Chris died in 2004. Dana Reeve followed him out of this world just two years later, in 2006.

No superman, but certainly charming superstar, Shashi Kapoor courted theatre partner Jennifer Kendall and married her much against family opposition at the unsure age of 20. In love and in it as deep as deep can be for 26 years, the two had to but bow to the wishes of fate, when Jennifer succumbed to cancer in 1984. Crediting all that he is to Jennifer, Shashi Kapoor never remarried.

The theatrics of music has also created some abiding symphonies of love. Having personally groomed the music career of Celine Dion – even mortgaging his house towards it – manager René Angélil became husband to Dion despite a 26-year difference in 1994. She more than merely returned the favour when the two renewed their nuptial vows in 2000 in an elaborate ceremony, a year after René was detected with throat cancer.

May their hearts go on and on…


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ozzie tales

I reached the Australian capital (nah, not Sydney, though I dare say, it should’ve been…) hours ago and I haven’t seen a living soul yet. Just manicured gardens, wide roads, parked cars, a white hot afternoon sun… and me. The city square sits in the middle of a million square miles of fields and forests – the Australian ‘bush’. Walking around, I’m struck by the uncanny similarity with the opening images of the Will Smith thriller, I am Legend.

Ah! There’s someone…! A tall figure standing on an empty street. I wave. ‘Hello! Which way is…’. The figure turns around, and then… boing, boing, boing… disappears into the woods across the street. A kangaroo! A kangaroo?! Definitely exciting, but what on earth is a wild kangaroo doing in the middle of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory - and no it isn’t Melbourne, if that’s your next best guess). Gosh! This was beginning to look just like the film (remember the deer hunt in Manhattan?). An hour later… another figure. Shorter, and since it was pushing a perambulator, was unlikely to be a kangaroo (they have pouches, remember?) Perhaps a young mother and her child, out for a walk and a tan… I approached in hope. Tough luck! Our angel-to-be had wrinkles on her wrinkles, and in her pram, a pair of toy poodles instead of a baby, and worse, walked right past my smile and my questions. Now if that isn’t a zombie, pray what is...? Or maybe she’d just lived for far too long in Canberra (There, I’ve let it slip…).

Incidentally, Australia’s founding fathers couldn’t decide between Melbourne and Sydney, and plumped for Canberra as a ‘capital compromise’ instead. Named after the Aboriginal name Kamberra, which apparently means ‘meeting-place’, more thorough etymological groundwork might’ve revealed that the name actually means ‘meeting-place of the dead’. I mean, it’s been hundreds of years since, and the place hasn’t gotten any livelier. (Some reckon the word kamberra in the Aboriginal dialect actually refers to a part of the female anatomy, but I doubt that a place as dull as this could’ve ever meant anything remotely interesting). It took me a while but I eventually did find someone who remembered, I suspect, with a mild sense of relief, what a ‘conversation’ used to be, and thus I finally reached the hotel. Next day, I realised I wasn’t the only one new to the city.

Practically everybody else in the city, relatively speaking, was new too (except for some of the cab drivers and perhaps the old crone and her poodles), including the government. During tail-end of 2007, Australians elected a new Labour government to office. Kevin Rudd became the new Prime Minister. Now Ruddy’s a colourful character who’s spent his years in all kinds of unlikely places, from schools in Taipei to strip clubs in New York, which explains why he, unlike his predecessor John Howard (who in 1996, petulantly insisted that he’d rather live in Sydney and commute to Canberra than live there), looks happy in the ACT.

Rudd, incidentally is the only vibrant thing about Canberra, and quite a draw in Parliament. Watching Rudd go red and see red as he debates is perhaps all that can keep you awake in this city. But the Australian Parliament is a tame affair compared to the Great Indian Democracy. Heads, chairs and mikes are screwed on to their foundations, and therefore not much gets thrown around, so after watching Prime Minister Rudd strut his stuff from the viewing gallery for a while, I stepped out for a bite on the terrace café. With plans of burying myself in Alan Nixon’s Aussie tales through the afternoon, I picked up a sandwich and strolled over to a table. The view took my breath away. Leafy avenues and pretty bungalows; venerable memorials and the untamed bush; and through it all runs a river as blue… as blue as… well, Nicole Kidman’s eyes aren’t blue enough and Mel Gibson’s wouldn’t sound straight enough but I’m sure you’ve got the general idea. Standing by the ledge, I realised that although Canberra might not have the cultural riches of Rome or the vibe and vigour of New York, this surely was the most sensitive, the most conscientious and definitely the most naturally beautiful metropolis in the world. It’s just that I was so busy looking for apples that I didn’t realise I’d climbed an orange tree… not the same, but delicious nonetheless.

The terrace was now full. School kids, Caucasians, Indians, Chinese and Arabs, all in the same uniform, had taken up all the empty chairs. And that’s when I realised that this country was in a chrysalis – a rainbow nation nurturing its future. I headed for my seat, but hey, there was someone in it – a big white man in a hat. He had pushed my stuff to the table’s edge and put in two more chairs… Visibly irritated, I walked up to the table. The man looked up, smiled warmly and said, “There were no tables free and I’m getting on a bit. Thought you wouldn’t mind if my partner and I joined you, son.” Aww… This country would take some figuring… I smiled back.

Capital connections

While Canberra may have derived its name from things to do with the dead, the etymologies of some other country capitals are certainly a lot more livelier.

One wonders if some kind of British humour was at work that their capital came to acquire such a ticklish symmetric-syllabic name like that? Actually, one of the earliest founders and developers of London – King Lud – who reigned in 73 BC had named it Caer Ludd, or Ludd’s Town. The royal nomenclature soon twisted to become CaerLudein, which the Romans further disfigured to Londinium. A few more lingual assaults later, it was ‘London’.

To be home to some of the most beautiful people on earth may have something to do with the name of the capital of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, translating to a delicate ‘new flower’, was proposed by the wife of Emperor Menilek II in the early 20th century. And Havana, many say, is after the name of a Taino chieftain Habaguanex, while others speculate it is a Spanish take on the English ‘haven’. Fidel Castro would know.