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.


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