Democracy is when you keep the people in the loop. Not some people but an entire country.
Democracy is not just voting.
Democracy died today.
Now for the land grabs, Hinduisation and further homogenisation of a vast, deep and diverse mass.
But Krishna, she will be born. Maybe she already is.
The charioteer will paint a new universe
Where wars are not about killing your own and winning
Democracy died today
She will rise. From death only will come new life.
I lived in Hobsonville for almost a year when I moved to Aotearoa in Decmber 2001. It was a small suburb with Whenuapai airport and army homes towards the north and Massey towards the south. Westgate was a collection of Countdown, The Warehouse, some cafés, Burger King and Event Cinemas. A gaming pub. I sat my driving test at the Automobile Association there. It was hard to get to Westgate from where my sister’s house. You needed a car or waited aeons for a bus. I took a bus into town when I started my PG Diploma in film, television and media studies the University of Auckland. You took it from the back roads of Hobsonville and it went down Don Buck Rd towards Massey, came out somewhere Triangle Rd before it got on the motorway. The last bus back from town was at 11pm and too bad if you missed it.
I went to Hobsonville after many years today and the Westgate area is a mess. Rather a superb example of very poor urban planning. Of course the roads have been widened and the fields opposite of the old Westgate, along the old road to Helensville, where Garelja Strawberries used to be are now fancy shops. Beyond that more parking lots and new developments. Another Countdown.
And lots of cars. But no sign of public transport.
I did not see a single bus go by; I did not spot a bus stop.
I was in Melbourne last week. I love that city, I love taking the train, the trams, the buses, walking the laneways. Public transport is smooth and easy. Of course Melbournians will disagree with this LOL. The two days I went into town, the Frankston line was closed beyond Caulfield. We had buses take us from that station to Flinders St. It was cold, raining, my son was with me and it was completely painless.
Here in Hobsonville, Auckland we have car upon car and a supposedly unending supply of parking space but no thought to public transport. Whoever planned this development did not seem have given a thought to adding in public transport. For now or in the future. So many people out there on the weekend. I am sure they would have taken public transport if there was any. With good frequency too. Not every 30 minutes. I drove. From Epsom. My bad too. I would have taken a train if it was there.
Three weeks ago I attended the Diwali function at Parliament. I am always surprised when I receive invitations for events organised by government or related agencies or even political parties. Who could’ve invited me? Why have they invited me?
Some years ago, I received one for a meet and greet with Don Brash when he was the leader of the National Party. Those days of snail mail. I was a bit shocked when I opened the envelope. Me?! For a National Party event?! (Or a Labour/other Party event.) I went along. I mostly do. It is usually out of academic curiosity; as an observer of human behaviour. What do Indian migrants want? Why do they do what they do? Why do politicians say what they say? That is what drives me. Don Brash spoke the usual stuff. Numbers, immigration, law and order. Strong subtext perpetuating the model minority myth versus dole bludging tangata whenua. The Indians, mostly men all suited, talked about immigration, visas, direct flights to India, law and order. Some I knew, others I did not. All Very Important People. They didn’t see or did not want to see, that even if supposedly better than iwi, they were not quite Kiwi.
There were hardly any women and no youth; there was an early iteration of Paula Bennett. As is my wont, I stood in the middle and asked Don Brash why there were no women and youth. Then I asked him what the National Party was doing about the health sector and the creative sector. The TVNZ Charter was going to be scrapped and arts funding was iffy if National won the election. A senior, a pillar of the Indian community who edits an Indian newspaper, his eyes popped out of their sockets. Ah, there she goes again. Who does she think she is! It was a fun Sunday afternoon.
That was my intention when I attended Diwali in Parliament on 28/11/18. To observe. Besides I love to dress up.
I live tweeted. So much easier to rant.
The dear Pakeha lady sitting next to me, who told me I was entitled to my opinion is the wife of a very important, senior Indian New Zealander. She was perhaps not used to a brown woman opining about numbers being problematic. Or asking questions. According to Statistics NZ Indians were the fasting growing ethnic group in Aotearoa. There were 155, 178 of us here in 2013. What could our needs be exactly? Direct flights to India? Better law and order? Better education? Better visa conditions perhaps? Jenny Salesa said, I paraphrase, we were doctors, engineers, accountants, all sort of highly educated, high earning types. We should also go into public service. Priyanca Radhakrishnan said we should make submissions to the select committees and she praised the honorary consul general to India Bhav Dhillon for looking after migrants.
Priyanca might become a minister one day, she is ambitious, makes all the right noises although the korero is empty but Jenny, Jenny should know better. What would she have said at a festive gathering of Pasifika peoples? Praised leaders and shining stars across the spectrum but also addressed the acute needs around health, social support, education, domestic violence, poverty, lack of housing? Encouraged the community to engage in finding solutions? Talked about the wonderful Pasifika creatives telling amazing stories about the communities and sought more? Acknowledge the racism, the resistance, the self-reflection. Yet also be fully aware of the intra-community beliefs and perspectives, the rebels, the feminists, the patriarchs.
I mean, it was a Diwali celebration. Good versus evil, illuminating light, happiness, good versus evil. That singular myth about a triumphant Rama returning to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. Best time to re-iterate the model minority myth so why shatter it?. That four days of celebrating different traditions and myths coming out of an ancient agrarian society to mark harvest and new beginnings is also a time for introspection and reflection. Most opportune to look beyond the facade of high education and silk sarees. The issues, Jenny would find, are the same. Health, social support, domestic violence, poverty, lack of housing…exploited migrants…
Priyanca worked for Shakti and the Ministry of Women. Shakti’s Wellington Refuge has been struggling to get funding for some time now yet not a peep about domestic violence. Not before she became an MP, not now. Guess that sort of activism to create awareness and push for empowerment of her coloured sisters does not fit with her political goals. Then about Bhav helping migrants. I have young Indian migrant patients who are exploited by their employers and whom I have directed to unions. I suppose this does not happen in Auckland and north of then? Or maybe these young migrants with immense financial burden have been helped by the office of the honorary CG?No harm in mentioning that evil exploitation then?
There is now enough research to show gaps in health requirements, accessibility and outcome of the pan-Asian diaspora in America. That the model minority migrant is wealthy, generally healthy, can access health providers and services and have their supposedly fewer health needs met has been proved to be wrong. The Asian-American Health Initiative, the U.S. Office of Minority Health and this NCBI article are just some simple examples. It is not much different from Aotearoa and there is enough anecdotal evidence to warrant academic research and maybe those Very Important Indians could potentially fund it in partnership with various ministries themselves. So when for Diwali, one wishes happiness, long life and prosperity is it just related to material wealth? Maybe no one gave Jenny the memo even though Jenny should intuitively know. Because that is the problem with numbers. 150,000+ Indians in New Zealand will tell us their superficial needs and what governments can do. Such as organise Diwali to make them feel Important. Join the public service but who will weed out the casteist right-wing Hindus, the patriarchal men, the misogynists, that get into the public service? The numbers will not tell you such outlook and ideology exists amongst the Indian here will they? Because you will only see, for example, ten Indians pat yourself on the back for being inclusive.
I don’t expect invitations to any political party/government/parliament events because, you know, the ‘angry brown woman’ mars subservient, grateful gatherings of Very Important Indians. And that’s alright. It is not like you need to be seen by and known to ministers and MPs to make change.
Back in La Paz overnight for an early morning flight to Rurrenabaque. Into the Bolivian Amazon.
El Alto airport is the highest airport in the world.
It has a micro climate of its own and prone to fog. So I waited and waited for my flight to Rurre. At least I was not vomiting from altitude sickness. I was more worried about missing my boat ride into the jungle. I had booked a two-day-three-night stay with Madidi Travels in their Serere Reserve. It being Bolivia officialdom no one wanted to give me an exact time of departure. Until we were suddenly called to board.
Then it was to a muddy, humid village that could have been along the Konkan coast in Maharasthra. Except that it was the Beni river and the women did not wear sarees/salwars.
The lovely people at Madidi had kept my ride waiting. Just for me. Solo. A very Indian looking female came up to greet me. She asked me where I was from.
She said ‘I’m from New Zealand too’.
We both looked at each other thinking exactly the same thing. “But you look Indian to me”
‘What’s your name’? I asked.
‘Nalini. What’s yours’?
We both started laughing. She moved to New Zealand from the U.K. when she was a child. I gave her a Whittaker’s L&P. She was there when I returned from the reserve. She spoke fluent Espanol, was backpacking her way across Sud America researching ecological movements, environment, economics. She was a UNESCO global youth leader. She told me it was rare to see an Indian doctor backpacking anywhere. But I am also a writer and filmmaker, a creative. How else would one travel if not intrepid?
It was a two hour trip down the Beni river. Along the shores were clear signs of extreme poverty, environmental degradation a.k.a ‘development’, and just the sad plight of where the Amazon is heading.
I could not be snap happy on this leg. There was no electricity except at the casa grande and that was used only for daily crucial requirements. The camera is such a first world luxury. Anyway there I was on a boat with two strange men and food and water supplies for the crew in the jungle. Then a thirty minute walk into the jungle with more strange men who also carried my backpack. Not for a moment did I feel fear. I would never have done this in India. I have in the past wandered through the streets of Gangtok and hiked alone in West Sikkim but that was then. It is hard now to walk the streets of my own city Mumbai without uncouth young men staring at your breasts.
That evening our guide took us across the lake rowing his little boat. I am unable to encapsulate the diversity of the Amazon. From pink fluorescent dragonflies to noisy red bottom monkey and every bird in between. Tarantulas, beautiful and very dangerous snakes, life saving flora that the local indigenous peoples have used for centuries, knowledge about the land and connections with nature, our wairua, our whenua, our breath. Living. Life itself. Words fail me. It is incumbent upon us all to treasure, to be care-takers.
Later, after dinner, we went back to the lake. It was pitch black, the moon danced with the clouds, softly silhouetting the trees, silver rays teasing the water as it rippled under the oars. The milky way glittered like the star party it was. We were looking for caiman. We were not allowed to talk. It was magnificent. Then we saw them. Baby caiman with glittering orange eyes.
The mother is around, the guide said. For a moment I thought I was going to die in this lake. I imagined Mother Caiman jumping out at me from under the boat, the orange gaze of anger and death. I shivered. It was clammy. The mosquitoes were a more imminent danger. When in the Amazon, not only be fully clad but spray insect repellent on the clothes as well. Their probosces penetrate thick fabric. Next morning young Zara (Indian-Pakistani-Australian living in London) informed us about the cockroaches running riot on her bed. Now if you have lived in India you know to tuck your mosquito net right under the mattress before dusk. Prevents larger pests from encroaching as well.
But it does not stop the monkeys from jumping on the roof first thing in the morning. I was in a cage and they were making fun of me 🙂
I had interesting conversations with Rosa Maria Ruz, eco-warrior, conservationist, kaitiaki who turned the barren Serere into a lush jungle. She talked about how Evo Morales is not really doing anything for the indigenous peoples. China is allowed to plunder even while he takes aims at Western capitalists.
There are special places in this universe and while all places I travel are special, this one, the Bolivian Amazon, Madidi Travels, Serere Reserve was like going into the womb. (I know, Africa awaits.)
How can the world order be re-established to bring back the balance?
Travelling, as always, reiterates how I can be any person and live anywhere in the world. I will always be an outsider, I will never ‘belong’ (what is belonging…), and yet I am here. Of course I indulge in such existential questions and analysis because I can afford to do it. If I was struggling on a daily basis, trying to earn a living, support other people, pay the bills, if I was a minority where I was not allowed to be live with my beliefs, my culture, if I did not have a voice at all then the idea of travelling seems distant and alien.
Even my minimalist backpacking is a privilege because I can afford to do it. I have the choice to do it. As an academic friend who studies multiculturalism and international students pointed out to me, such kind of travelling is an upper middle class indulgence. It is not just me trying to make do without certain travel luxuries because they are beyond my budget (well, some are) or in a non-consumerist manner; it is because I have the freedom to do so.
That said, travelling is a very humbling experience for me. I don’t see myself living in hotels and seeing places with travel groups. Intrepid is my word, my thing. Simply because in this space I meet the locals, I get to have conversations with fellow travellers on a similar journey, I see my place in this world. A nothingness, an inconsiderable speck, a spectre of self-centredness in her daily existence.
As I waited in the lounge to board my flight to La Paz I saw this tall, dark man, very distinctly Indian. I strained to look again. I had seen many ‘Indian’ looking (not indigenous) people in Santiago. I am one of them but I rarely get recognised as Indian. I am from everywhere but there. Except other Indians who stare at me suspiciously. Is she? Isn’t she? But she has no designer gear on her, she is in rags…and she is alone…Indians don’t travel by themselves, not women…I can see the emotions flicker across their faces…so I fit among the locals in Santiago. Never mind that me no hablo Español, hablo only poquito.
This man was definitely Indian. I placed him as either from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or interiors of Maharashtra. He had a moustache, a red thread on right wrist and a gold chain around his neck. All external markers of a Hindu male from India. Then I noticed the Indian passport. Bazinga! He looked at me suspiciously as I seated myself opposite him trying to eavesdrop. 😉 It was a group of four with the other three very possibly Chilean. I am pleased to report our man spoke impeccable Español. Rarely on my travels have I encountered an Indian speaking the local language or being so comfortable. It was quite cool.
On the flight sat next to me a man who kept peering at my book. He was, he seemed Chilean. Is that Arabic, he eventually asked me. No it is Marathi, my mother tongue.
Where is that from? So we got talking. He was going to La Paz on business and offered to help me find a taxi to go to the hotel because the Bolivians might swindle me. Does not cost about seventy Bolivianos? I had done all my research. Nah, he said, they might charge more. He said he had been to La Paz a couple of times on business. He had a factory in Santiago and made industrial chemicals. He was, he finally told me, third generation Chilean-Lebanese. His grandfather had moved to Santiago from Lebanon. He could not speak or read Arabic except for a few words. Habibi, I said. He laughed. Yalla! He laughed more. Do you eat fatoosh, hummus, falafel? How do you know, he asked. I don’t, I said. I assume you do. Food is the great memory from and of your ancestors. Fifth generation New Zealand Chinese still have Chinese food at home. Curries and mango pickle, Yorkshire pudding, pho, sushi/kimbap; different flavours, same desires and yearning. Putting down roots does not mean belonging. Putting down roots does not mean permanence.
So I travel. Seeking home. It can be India, somewhere in East/South-East Asia, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and now South America. Wandering, encountering, believing in the oneness and diversity of humanity.
Here is an inspiring post from a yogi. I often laugh off skinny white women in their Lululemon Athletica and spray tanned skin talking about ‘yoga’ because I believe that the truth cannot be appropriated, that for every such instant-nirvana seeker there are yogis who, with their truth, will carry on and that stream is ever flowing. (I don’t mean the angry Baba Ramdev types who propagate Hindu extremism through their teachings, that is equally corrupt.)
Maybe I should defend yoga more often when the next skinny white woman rubs it into my face?
This is from one of the blogs I love to read. I have shared posts from here before because I believe in disseminating interesting ideas and stories that generate discourse. The eternal search for identity, not based on the singular concept of a nation and yet many times tied to it fascinates me endlessly. That it is not a fixed constant, anywhere in the world, contradicts concepts fed to us by politicians and media.
In this post about the documentary Beats Of The Antonov, which won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at tje Toronto International Film Festival, Dylan Valley writes:
“The Antonov of the title comes from the Russian planes that are used by Omar Al-Bashir’s regime to bomb villages in Sudan. Instead of a dry journalistic account of the ongoing Sudanese conflict however, the film is a deep exploration of a nation in an identity crisis, with its ruling elite pushing an Arab nationalist identity onto a diverse African citizenry. The title of the film makes a correlation between the bombs of oppression and the resilience of culture, the music of a people and the suffering they endure.”
Amazing things that happen when you travel. A golden sunset over the French countryside turns it into a dreamlike landscape. The green of the trees and the grass reflecting multiple hues of this universe. Seems unreal.
Two days ago, back in Strasbourg, I had to pass some time as I waited for my ride back to Gerstheim. I had noticed an art house theatre near Homme De Fer, the big tram station, whenever I was in that part of Strasbourg and since that day too I was browsing through the shops around I thought it might be a good idea to watch a movie. I inquired at the box office, are you showing any movies with English subtitles. Non, she said, but we have a movie in L’Anglais. (Or so I deduced from her French.) Well then, may I have a ticket please.
I had no idea what the title meant. It was time to be surprised. And that I was. I spent one of the most magical one hour and fifty minutes watching a classic in one of the most beautiful art house cinemas I have ever seen.
Cinema L’Odyssée was built in 1914. It is owned by the city of Strasbourg who outsources the operations to private enterprise. It must have been grand in the old days and still has that air about it. Red velvet seats, carvings on the wall, an old projector, old film posters hung nonchalantly, and art house films. A real hang out place for snooty French cinema geeks discussing auteur cinema. There is an underground library dedicated to cinema and you can buy film posters. To me this was paradise, one version of it anyway.
And then the film I watched, that I came upon by chance. Who knew. Grand Prix Special du Jury and FIPRESCI Award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Johnny Got His Gun is a brilliant watch. Donald Sutherland plays Jesus Christ and is so cool 🙂
But another amazing experience awaited me. Reiterating the vast and myriad connections of humanity and culture.
As I entered the gates to the grounds of the Strasbourg mosque (see my photos here), two men and a young woman stepped out. My friend asked in French if we could go in and they welcomed us. Somehow the conversation continued in English, they asked me where I am from. I always say New Zealand but this time, I think it was their brown skin that made me do it, I said I am originally from India. One man started talking to me in Hindi. Namaste, kaise ho? The other said, ah Shammi Kapoor. I said, yeah. He died last year. The man replied that he was visiting London that time when he came to know. Then he broke into a song. Dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho ji…yu to humne lakh haseen dekhe hai, (I joined in here) tumsa nahi dekha, ho tumsa nahi dekha. We all laughed, hi-fived and went our way. Strange how human beings connect. Not strange that commercial Hindi cinema, before it was exoticised by the Western world and became Bollywood, had a massive audience from North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, even old Soviet Russia. This man was from Morocco. The young girl with them was amazed at the conversation. My young friend Laura, a local and Alsace, was amused. Just before that I had been telling her that she should persuade her teachers at Strasbourg University where she is doing film studies, to include Indian cinema in the course. 🙂
Recently I had a bit of a harangue on a closed forum on Facebook about facing racist attitudes everyday, all the time and how identifying someone with their religion or ethnicity as a lead in to a story reduces the person to a singular thing. Yet. I know, as any other diasporic non-white ethnic, that stereotypes can be positive too. It is how we negotiate that within ourselves and project it to the rest of the world that matters. I have pointed out many times how government created agencies that work to supposedly perpetuate and empower ethnic communities only maintain the hierarchy via food, dance, exotica, otherness and getting white people to tell us what we are. Or do research that does not mean anything to us. One moment Asians are well perceived by mainstream and the next moment not. This ‘they-love-Asians’ report and this ‘they-actually-know-very-little-about-Asians’ very clearly show what a waste time the Diwali and Lantern Festivals have been. But this is not another rant about Asia:NZ Foundation. 😉 Done plenty of those here, here and here. On the other hand I keep looking for whether and how this daily negotiation is expressed to the world. That fine balance between being a tax paying model minority and cheap labourers who are bad drivers. How the world perceives the Asian diaspora is up to us, how we project ourselves. The answer is within the community. So when a group of young professionals like Future Dragonz decide to have an event it is, like, hallelujah.
Young Chinese professionals, on the face of it, would be the classic model minority stereotype. Highly qualified lawyers, accountants, engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs…I know ‘coz I’ve hung out with them, I was at the launch in 2010. Then why would they bother to challenge that? It is good to be a highly qualified professional. Because it does not mean the stereotype of the bad driver will go away! Because it does not mean jobs will be be easy to find! Because it does not mean the artists and the creatives will be recognised!
This particular event was inspired by a discussion at the Museum Of Chinese in America The Yin And Yang Of Contemporary Asian American Culture. While this discussion was on a larger scale because America is larger than New Zealand, the topic has global resonance. I don’t really want to go on and on about it.
Contemporary diasporic existence, whether they are fourth-fifth generation Asian or recently migrated in global, transnational times, is different from those gold miners, rail gang, fruit shop, potato farmer images that the Western world still harbours. Or even the pictures from the native country. Diasporic lives encompass multiple identities that move and switch easily from one to another, being Asian, being Kiwi and all in between. We can play on being the other and yet not. Very easy to do so but we also need to and should have critical discourse that we drive. That is the only way because we know that we are the change! It is of interest to me, never mind I am Indian. One of my identities is a global, transnational, diasporic citizen.
This discussion does not apply if you have not seen The Mindy Project. The discomfort that I felt therein but convinced myself that at least it is helmed by Mindy Kaling, smart as woman.
The same sort of discussion one can have about the character of Rajesh Kuthrapalli in The Big Bang Theory. Does it make me uncomfortable that his Indianness can be the butt of jokes or that every character is given equal treatment in that sense. So if Sheldon’s social inadequacies are the source of much amusement, why not Raj’s inability to pick up women?
I know that it is a hard balancing act. Getting gigs to write, to produce, commercial considerations and being a person of colour who has fought and fought to even to be there. Diversity? Representation? Or keeping the job and getting more?
When I produced for Radio New Zealand I had to be very mindful of not making all my work about ‘ethnics’ but all New Zealanders. That I am Indian and speak in a strange Indo-Kiwi-down-with-the-bros accent was enough ‘representation’. That I could do mainstream stories without anyone questioning their legitimacy AND could then go on to tell a story about Muslim women, which no one dare question. I was lucky.
But when it came to producing an independent gig it had to be about Asians. I mean, I could not do the blokey New Zealand humour and get funding could I? The trick then was to bring a huge dose of irreverence. (Hail Jon Stewart!) The Asian Radio Show was on air from 2008-2012. I was lucky.
So I feel for Mindy yet I know what the ladies are talking about in this post from Neelika Jayawardane. The thing for Mindy Lahiri now is to have a East Asian nerdy boyfriend and for him to dump her because she is too frivolous. Yeah even if she and Danny have kissed as we knew they would from the first episode.