Bring On The Dragon!


Another Lantern Festival comes and goes and New Zealand celebrates Chinese culture in this wonderfully multicultural land. Aren’t we lucky? Just the week before New Zealanders were having a collective seizure over selling the Crafar farms to the Chinese. All is now forgiven in the bonhomie of dragon lanterns and dumplings.

Just the week before, the Labour Party, that party which loves and propagates the presence of ethnics in Aotearoa and vigorously defends our rights for cultural maintenance, suddenly wanted the Crafar Farms to be kept in New Zealand ownership.  Then there is the National Party. Prime Minister John Key has said and reiterated that New Zealand will be welcoming more investment from the Chinese. At the same time converting TVNZ7, a truly public television channel, into a shopping channel. Money and investment from the Chinese is desired but that economic benefit does not translate into equity of representation for the ethnic minorities locally, for the rest of the country to know and understand their stories and cultures and to overcome racist attitudes. The hypocrisy on both sides is obvious, their lip service to multiculturalism. You wonder where the xenophobia comes from? Is the fear of foreign (non-white) investment connected or not connected to how ethnic minorities are perceived and treated in Aotearoa New Zealand?

But then we have events like the Lantern Festival (and Diwali) to give us that connection don’t we? That annual gathering, mixing and mingling of mostly local Chinese and mostly mainstream (white/Pakeha) where everyone sees each other, feels good, eats Chinese food, sings karaoke, watches the fireworks, checks out the imported lanterns and goes home. Until next year. If the aim of such an event is to bring in a zillion footfalls and therein be successful then that is fine. Any B grade movie aimed at the lowest common denominator does just that. It is called mindless entertainment.

Imagine this:  Within the interiors of a HR department:

Two Pakeha read the top page of resumes and throw them in a rubbish bin.

PERSON A :Wong, Leung, Kwok, Kwon, Yik … no, no, no.

PERSON B : Oh you’ve got Asians in your pile too?

PERSON A : Yeah, seriously…no speak Engrrish … I don’t even bother to read through. PERSON B : I know! I just wish someone worthy applied, makes things easy you know … so what did you do over the weekend?

PERSON A: We went to the Lantern Festival. It was so good. I ate so many dumplings and the lanterns they were amazing.

PERSON B : Weren’t they just? I look forward to the Lantern Festival every year. It is so much fun.

PERSON A : My family just love Chinese food. We go to yum char once a month for sure. PERSON B : I love yum char! Which is your favourite yum char place?                                                                                                                     FADE OUT.*

Does multiculturalism, as implemented by governments and related organisations, break barriers via events like the Lantern Festival (and Diwali) or perpetuate the other-isation, exotic-isation and ghetto-isation of ethnic minorities? I would argue that in the larger, multicultural context of this nation, an event like the Lantern Festival is aimless. Like giving popcorn and fizzy drinks to malnourished children so as to feed them but it is not the correct food is it?. Do we learn about Chinese people and Chinese culture at the end of it all? Do we know about their (and by extension other ethnic minorities) contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand?

How many of these visitors are going come away with more knowledge of the local Chinese?

Just another photo op.

Andrew Butcher of the Asia:NZ Foundation says that ”The immediate stuff in our neighbourhood I think that requires a wee bit more work and a wee bit more adjustment.” (In this article on overseas investment figures.) How much is ‘a wee bit more’? Theoretically, if the festivals organised by the Asia:NZ Foundation were meant to change perceptions about Asians, then, in the last ten years since these events began, New Zealanders would want to know about the dumpling-maker rather than just eat the dumplings ya? Unless of course the idea is to exhibit ethnic minorities as anthropological specimens on an annual basis and feel good about how diverse we are.

So, a wee bit more is actually work on a daily basis with everyday cultural existence and behaviour that is normalised and integrated. Not merely teaching Asia in schools or commissioning research that the media reports and forgets. A wee bit more is about the chaos at grassroots level that grows into a movement for sustained, constant visibility and finally acceptance. A wee bit more is empowering minorities and expanding their thinking not just engaging with community leaders and community elites.

Should white people be in charge of showcasing the ethnic minorities of New Zealand? Or teaching Asians about guanxi and how to be Asian or telling young Asians to go on their OE to Asia?  Asia:NZ is white people. (Pardon the English.) Perhaps it is about maintaining colonial, hierarchical power structures to keep ethnics in their place. Is there a wee bit where the ethnics get a say in their representation (minus the dumplings and Bollywood dancing)?

Let us suppose that these festivals are ‘soft power’ projected by New Zealand and packaged with economic incentives for China/India/Asian countries. To attract and persuade them that we are a multicultural nation and we take care of our ethnic minorities. (Look! We celebrate their festivals!) That’s great. We need more trade so why not. Then (a) why fake the concern for the communities and their culture? and (b) if the love for the local ethnics is genuine, is any of that money coming in be going to used to towards creating a robust, egalitarian society that is less racist and not so xenophobic?

Also, for the sake of argument, one can say these festivals are better than nothing. At least we ethnics get a chance to gather and show our culture. Sure. Does that mean (a) we shouldn’t try to improve upon the concept and (b) not question how, our representation, as shaped by white people, remains shallow and superficial? Or how their idea of multiculturalism is about reducing inherent complexities and preserve white supremacy? Where real, existential issues of ethnic minorities are overlooked in the name of cultural maintenance, where the elites from ethnic communities are deemed cultural representatives, where cultural certainty and ‘authenticity’ is the only thing allowed so white people can decide who you are? Multiculturalism which insists on staying static despite changing demographics.

That of course brings up the question of so called community leaders and patriarchs. Who, in most cases, are more interested in photo-ops with the Prime Minister and getting on panels and boards or becoming famous. Maybe these people agreed to the idea of ethnic festivals, to Diwali and the Lantern Festival ten years ago. How about seeking a review? In my experience they would rather be subservient to the government/Asia:NZ as long as their status in the community is maintained.

One way to move is to dismantle the hierarchical structures that insist on representing minorities. Then to rebuild. To separate international trade and business from local celebrations of culture and are yet connected because economic development is common to both. To restructure such as to engage with grassroots, where diversity is not a commodity within the soft power of our nation but a real value, where Asians are in charge of Asian culture, where young Kiwis of Asian origin have a say because this is their future. Asia:NZ is due for a new CEO. Maybe an Asian CEO? Perhaps a complete rehaul?

And for all this ethnic communities have to reflect upon their own place and culture; to break the model minority myth, to build relations with each other even as we work through cultural maintenance and identity, so we have a say in the matters of this nation, to be seen as more than pawns by political parties and the white echelons. Remember what Uncle Bob said? Otherwise,

Most people think, great man will come from Wellington, Make a flash festival and make everybody feel high.…get up stand up…

*sorry for the wrong script format and apologies to my Chinese friends for using their surnames.

Passive Performance As Multiculturalism. (In New Zealand) Part 2.

In part one of this blog I introduced my argument and quoted Milton Fisk. Multiculturalism in New Zealand is based on a neoliberal model that recognises diversity but does not allow it flow over into the mainstream because that upsets the economic structure and global expression of the same. I used as a starting point an article by Henry Johnson and Guil Figgins that: (a)Examines the re-contextualization and transformation of Diwali in New Zealand with emphasis on performance (b) Explores the role that various organisations have and looks at (c) The ways in which performances are expressions of self-identity and part of a process of place-making.


The paper says Diwali Downunder is a secular affair that is recontextualised and transformed into a celebration.

Diwali, as celebrated in India, is a family affair. However it is still public in a way because the entire country celebrates it according to region and community. So it is a public-private affair. There is no place for communal performance of any kind especially Bollywood. The ‘transformation’ cannot be called secular because the very nature of the festival excludes non-Hindu South Asians-it is a Hindu festival within a ‘homogenous’ space as per organisers. Perhaps because India is a larger economy than other South Asian countries? In my film Jennifer King says that since the Chinese Lantern Festival was successful, they decided on Diwali. (So a non-religious Chinese festival is the same as a deeply religious Hindu festival?) Then the very nature of this does not offer any scope for re-contextualization. My questions:

  • Is a publicly celebrated foreign festival a true transformation when the space is predetermined by government organisations?
  • How can a culture be re-contextualized in that same space which only seeks passive participation from the local Indian community?
  • Isnt the otherness endorsed by the same and then to maintain that because it is about replicating and imitating from back home and that becomes representation.
  • You need local creatives to re-contextualize. Where are the local artists?
  • Why has Jacob Rajan never performed at Diwali?
  • Name one creative who has come out of this transformed/re-contextualized space to breakout on to the national stage?

Organisations and events:

The paper says that the role of the organisations is positive and Asia:NZ’s role (then known as Asia 2000) contributes towards developing visibility.

To a certain extent that is true but what has the role of Asia:NZ to develop visibility of the Indian community got to do with social integration? Asia:NZ Foundation was established in 1994 by the Jenny Shipley government (National) to help develop better economic ties with Asian countries. On 7/11/2004, the tenth anniversary of Asia:NZ, Phil Goff (Labour), then in government, said in a speech in Parliament Ten years ago, New Zealand had embarked on a policy of active engagement with Asian economies. We had expanded our ties with Asian countries on a number of fronts politically, economically and diplomatically. …”

When you have economic benefit as your core ojective then culture has to be shaped and presented accordingly. Diversity becomes a commodity instead of a value.

Then organisations develop mutually beneficial MOUs such as with Auckland City Council.

Self-identity and Place-making:

Expression of self identity means taking charge of who you are. Culturally, ethnically and in the present. It means challenging notions of being the ‘other’ to oneself and to the mainstream. That goes beyond recognition. It is about equality.

  • Expression of self identity is a form of resistance and that is anathema to neo-liberal multiculturalism. The Indian identity here is shaped within the context of Diwali-exotic and different. But equal?

Placemaking comes from telling stories by owning a place and you own a place by actively participating in the place/space. There is only passive participation in the Diwali Mela.

  • Real place-making can happen only when the past is not sought to be fossilised in the present. It is different from cultural maintenance.

Indian culture then does not spill into, flow into and mix with other cultures or even the mainstream. How then can social issues be addressed?

What multiculturalism then?

It is clear from the current neoliberal model of multiculturalism in New Zealand that migrants and their diversity are recognised for economic benefits. The inference in my film is the same. “Food, footfalls and festivals for cultural consumption…my identity reduced to song and dance to satisfy the stakeholders…” Here the stakeholders are the organisers and sponsors. The Indian community is clearly not perceived as a stakeholder in an active, participatory, decision-making manner except to please them about their presence and numbers at an annual Diwali Mela. As if seeing others like yourself once a year in masses is reassuring of your place and space in New Zealand.

I do not have a clear cut answer to which model of multiculturalism New Zealand should seek. It is a matter of korero, dialogue.

Milton Fisk: The cultural view of recognition stays within the bounds of neoliberalism. the social view of recognition does not counterpose recognition and equality; instead, it makes equality a vital part of recognition.

Amartya Sen: 1-Promote diversity as a value in itself. 2-Focus on the freedom of reasoning and decision-making positively supported through social opportunities.(Identity And Violence The Illusion Of Destiny. Sen, Amartya. Allen Lane-Penguin Books, 2006.)

Tariq Modood:1-Socio-economic opportunities and outcomes. 2-Socio-cultural mixing. 3Civic participation and belonging (Open Democracy blog)

New Zealand is unique because we have the Treaty Of Waitangi that no other country in this world has. Any form of multiculturalism cannot be propagated without involving tangata whenua. How does the Diwali Mela create a dialogue with Maori? What is the place of migrants as tau iwi? If migrant culture is seen as economically viable to sell the idea of New Zealand as blissfully diverse, to tell India and China that their people are loved here so let’s get on with the FTA, then Maori will become invisible to migrants. That would be perilous.

And after all this, I must make clear that I am not against the Bollywood dance competition or Diwali. It is the implementation and institutionalisation that is problematic. Besides, the Indian community in New Zealand, the youth need to take charge of their identity. Not just as ‘Indians’ but as New Zealanders. They need to question their space here. Merely doing an anti-Paul Henry dance at Diwali does not stop the racism. Neither is it resistance.

Passive Performance As Multiculturalism. (In New Zealand.) Part 1

This blog I have put together from a presentation I did at a Symposium in Dunedin ‘Interrogating Multiculturalism in New Zealand: An Asian Studies Perspective’ jointly organised by Otago University and Victoria University. It is still rough and there are some gaps to fully support my argument but I prefer to post it rather than write a longer academic article (and it is still in two parts). A friend advised me to read Foucault and Derrida but I do not have the time to digest such heavy reading. You can either agree or disagree.

The title comes from my documentary film DANCE BABY DANCE naach gaana hum aur tum that I made to examine the representation of the Indian community in New Zealand via the Bollywood dance competition at the Diwali Mela organised by Auckland City Council and Asia:NZ Foundation. The questions I asked myself and put to the viewer were ‘What does it mean to be Indian in New Zealand?’ ‘Who are the people that decide?’

When I first came to New Zealand and discovered that Diwali is celebrated as a publicly funded* festival through the organisations above, I was happy and excited. It was a way of sharing my culture with mainstream New Zealand. But the more I saw this festival the more uncomfortable it made me. Is this how multiculturalism is officially expressed in New Zealand? An annual festival that brings in footfalls and local Indians but to what end? How does this help in integration? How does it create a platform for querying your space and identity in New Zealand? What is the discourse around it? Is there a critical discourse? If not why not? The only way I could find out was by making a film. I interviewed the organisers and followed five different kinds of participants as they rehearsed for the Bollywood dance competition (since this was the ‘showstopper’ and heavily promoted and also the most problematic) . What did I infer at the end?

I needed academic backup to support my conclusion. My arguments come from the point of view of being an ‘ethnic’ media practitioner in the mainstream media of New Zealand who is on the fringe of the community and the mainstream by virtue of being neither or both and hence requiring me to be think in a critical manner. Outside/inside or inside/outside.

To begin, I referred to an article by Henry Johnson and Guil Figgins: Diwali Downunder-Transforming And Performing Tradition In Aotearoa New Zealand. This paper
a) Examines the re-contextualization and transformation of Diwali in New Zealand with emphasis on performance
b) Explores the role that various organisations have
c) The ways in which performances are expressions of self-identity and part of a process of place-making.

I’d like to argue that all three are limited and shaped by neo-liberal ideas of multiculturalism that converts migrant/ethnic cultures into soft, non-threatening consumable exotica to maintain the position of the ‘other’ rather than allow for integration. This then (a) Creates a space for passive participation (b) Continues to ghettoise the community (c) Sweeps social issues to the fringe or under the carpet because those are not part of this form of multiculturalism. Cultural differences are celebrated and accepted but rigidly maintained and not allowed tospill over into an effort to have equality of a form that would run counter to the economic norms the regime is expected in the global context to protect.’  I quote Milton Fisk, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Indiana University who wrote about Multiculturalism and Neoliberalism.…in the liberalism and the neoliberalism that associate closely with a positive view of the economic market, the notions of equal worth and equal dignity do not imply a right to economic equality but only a right to recognition. Here recognition implies…no more than an acceptance of others with their difference and of the task of maintaining that difference when they desire that their difference be maintained.”

Recognition of diversity is not the same as equality. It is a diversion from normalising and engaging with migrants and their lives and stories in New Zealand. Negotiating multiple identities and existence in New Zealand-they get lost in this ‘recognition and endorsement’ of popular Indian culture (Bollywood) and its economic hegemony. This recognition is like the carrot, it leads to the mirage of freedom and equity. But for the Indian community in New Zealand this multiculturalism continues to underscore and locate representation in food, clothes and performances rather than an exploration of their inherent complexities and space in New Zealand or creating a platform for democratic participation and open, critical discourse. Eventually failing to translate into wider cultural engagement or integration because it is always the ‘other’.

——————————————————————end of part 1——————

*The Diwali Mela is funded through various private sponsors, the Lion Foundation and advertisers but the primary organisations are government bodies who ‘raise’ the money, hence I use the term publicly funded.

Square Peg. Impressions of an exile. India. 1.

I see that I meant to write this on 17 October, soon after arriving back in Aotearoa but got occupied otherwise. So many times I ran the text of this intended blog through my head and edited it such that I could write short, sharp stuff rather than ramble on-which I tend to do.

Many times, in the weeks after I came back to Auckland, I caught myself just standing in my living room, in the silence that surrounds my house, staring at the little artefacts scattered, nah strategically placed all over. The shells from various Auckland beaches, the mini papier mache Eiffel Towers and Arc De Triomphe from Paris, the Ganeshas from Bombay and Banares, clapper board from Berlin, the books, Tibetan paintings from McLeodganj, the $30 couch from Salvation Army, the ‘donated’ television set on which I cannot watch TV One or TV2…I still do not have a proper coffee table and I dine Indian style crossed-legged on the floor. They all spoke to me. About my journey so far in life. That I am finally at a place where I can be comfortable with myself.

It took me a long time to figure out that I was/am a misfit. I was a curious child, always asking questions and not very happy with the answers. Consequently angry and disobedient. Hence bad. Not in a ‘black sheep’ way but someone who apparently needed to be firmly on a leash and kept within the patriarchy. Life was meant to be an education (a formal, school type education-for which I am very grateful), a job, a career making money, then marriage and kids. Until the day you die. No wonder I was a misfit. Going back home I am still a square peg in the round, all-sucking, Indian hole.

It took me a long time to figure out that it does not have to be like that. To get over the guilt of not thinking like everyone else, to reach this space and place that no one, not even me, thought could be a reality. Now I have to justify living this space; the unshackling and the so-called lack of responsibility in my life. I try to be blase and so does everyone else back in Bombay but the sub-text is too obvious to ignore. Then I just meditate to keep me calm.

Come back, they say. India has changed. You can be as free as you want. Be single, do live-in, shag around, whatever. As if this is what matters. What about the enquiry of existence? Or challenging the existing? Blackberry in one hand, vodka in another, designer mini dress  and preparations for karwa chauth. How is that a change? In a parallel universe I live this life. With straightened, bottle-blonde hair.

Not that I am not a misfit in New Zealand. Here I am a dark-skinned ‘ethnic’. Always classified as Indian-not that I mind it because I do not have to justify this or anything else. Such as being single, living on my own, working in mainstream media. No one tells me I ask too many questions or why can’t I be like everyone else. That is the difference. Palpable freedom with inherent responsibility and respect for choices. Of course it is not without problems, this society. It is still conservative and closed and racist and not as egalitarian as it makes out to be. But I am not judged by the money I make, the car I drive, the clothes I wear or the caste and religion I belong to. I can fully participate in the civic, democratic process without affiliating myself one way or the other.

It is true that I don’t do structure very well. Not structure imposed on me anyway. Because I work with the structure of the universe. Because nothing really is unstructured. That is where I fit in, in the bigger picture. For all my square peg-ness. New Zealand lets me be and I will go back to India only on my own terms. In conjunction with the universe.

Shrinking, dithering fusspots!

I was all ready with another blog (s) about good hair, meditation,  Maoists and Arundhati Roy haters when I changed my mind in reaction to the constant refrain from the New Zealand media about security at the Delhi Commonwealth Games. So the bomb blasts at Bangalore before the IPL cricket match were a shock. Of course. Yet the game was played and Indians carried on with their life.  If you know India then you also know that the blasts could have been the work of any kind of group. From the mafia to religious fundamentalists to even someone who wants to take revenge on Mr Lalit Modi (just an idea).  To terrorise is to intimidate by coercion and violence, as most dictionaries describe. How easily the New Zealand media is creating the space in which to ‘terrorise’ its own people about going to India for the Commonwealth Games.  By coercion, subliminal coercion. Just like any other mainstream media does in any country to keep its people in the realm of fear-for-the-self-and-mistrust-of-the-other.  Oh are our sports people safe in India? Oh, there is no security there. Oh our cricketers were outvoted over whether to abandon the IPL match or carry on. Oh there is such chaos in India. Oh the sheer madness. Tich and tach.

India has been the subject of terrorists attacks from homegrown as well as external terrorists for many years now. I cannot harp on enough about the 13-in-a-row bomb blasts that went off across Bombay on 12 March 1993. The first ever such terrorist attack anywhere in the world but then only brown people died so why should the Western world have cared? My sister was in the Sea Rock Hotel when it happened and one of my patient’s came home with glass shards lodged in his arms and tears in his eyes because he had seen his colleagues blowing up (in the Air India building). He was standing at that spot just a few minutes before! Innocent people died. They always do. But life went on.

On 26 November 2008, Pakistani terrorists went on a rampage in Bombay.  This time the images were broadcast all over the world. I wept on TV3 News. It was my neighbourhood, my city, my love. What did the New Zealand media want? They first called to ask if I knew any New Zealanders who might be in Bombay. New Zealanders=white people.  When word came out that the Deccan Mujahideen might be responsible, a bright thing from TVNZ asked me what ‘Deccan’ was. Oh and do you know of any New Zealanders there? As if the shock and loss of Bombayites, now New Zealanders, did not matter.

Would there be such a fuss if the Commonwealth Games were held in London? There is better security there no? Oh hang on, I remember something that happened on the Underground network on 7 July 2005 and later on at Glasgow Airport too.  Perhaps the Commonwealth Games should move to the U.S.A. Plenty of security. Except that Oklahoma City marked the 15 anniversary of the bombing two days ago and more Tea Parties are being held across the country than ever before. But New Zealanders will be safer in the Western world. India is chaotic and corrupt right?

Displayed in the Beehive is a tattered New Zealand flag recovered from the 9/11 rubble of the Twin Towers. What does that flag convey? New Zealanders might not be able to visit Gallipoli this year on Anzac Day because of the volcanic eruption and flight disruption. Why do New Zealanders want to pay homage to those that were commanded by colonial powers to be fodder in a losing battle? How did Sir Peter Blake die? Why is Sir Ed Hillary so revered? I have a mate who is in the Himalayas now planning to climb another mountain. He failed to make it to the peak of the Everest the first time he tried but then he did it the second time around. It is better to die trying than be afraid.

Would New Zealand media prefer if our sportsmen sat at home because of supposed lack of security or immerse themselves in the Commonwealth Games in spite of the lack of security and come back with medals?

This security business is just an issue created to make news. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi is a matter of prestige for the Government of India. Delhi will be chocker with all kinds of security. What is a minor bomb blast? You can die here when police cars take u-turns on roads or someone throws a beer bottle at you or from drink driving or just bad driving or drowning. Seriously. You can get dehydrated by the runs after eating spicy Indian food. That is more dangerous! Perhaps the fact that New Zealand and India are working on a free trade deal might be more persuasive to the media. A no show would be a bad look.

Yeah, best not be shrinking, dithering fusspots. Not only will there not be any medals, chances are economic benefits might slip away too. I don’t think the government would like that. No no.

Smug New Zealand and racist Australia.

<Do not take this seriously.>

At least not as half as the New Zealand immigration consultants who are smugly looking forward to Indian students coming to the good ol’ Land Of The Long White Cloud instead of Crocodile Dundee. Coz they are racist there. We are not here, supposedly.

So when I saw all the shit on telly and learnt how Amitabh Bachchan had refused a doctorate from Brisbane I called my sister. She lives in Melbourne. She is Indian, she should know :-). Yeah she said there have been attacks. Nothing new. Just that they all happened in a cluster this time. And the police reaction was pathetic. There are three things the police apparently said that are circulating in the Indian community.

1-The Indians are attacked because they flaunt their wealth.

2-The Indians are attacked because they talk too loudly.

3-The Indians are attacked because they travel on their own.

If true then none of the above makes any sense. I have been to Melbourne so many times. It is a great city; multicultural and dynamic. It is also Australia. The indigenous people are missing, banished to the desert and boondocks to become unemployed alcoholics and gamblers in a perpetual cycle. The media is full of white people with supposedly Ango-Saxon origin, Australian identity denying anything else. Indian students in Melbourne, the ones I have seen in town, loitering at Flinders Street Station and in the trains and buses are regular middle class kids, a little bit frightened, a little bit out of their depth and a little bit defensive. Wearing designer gear is an Asian/Indian aspirational thing. No connection to how much wealth a person has. Does not mean they flaunt it. I don’t agree with it, being happy in my op-shop-hippy-East-Asian-inspired-cute-grunge but that is the reality with most Indian students.

Point number two. Indians are a cacophonic people. We are like this only, what to do? So we talk loudly. Point number three-totally opposite to the point before. If people are by themselves are they going to talk loudly? You tell me.

While it was not okay to throw stones and break the windows of the clocks at Flinders St, as the Indian protesters allegedly did, the anger is not without reason. I look at the number of Indian students and education as an industry and wonder if there is any platform that mediates between the visitors and the hosts? Are these students given an idea of what Australia is? Not all pretty for sure! Does anyone prime these students for a life in an alien culture that is different from what they see in American television programmes or Hollywood and even Bollywood films? (This is another thesis altogether-about how Bollywood films show the exotic Western ‘other’ to Indians in India and within the diaspora. In that world there are more Indians that white or other people.) Life in Melbourne is not all Salaam-Namaste. Universities and the police as well as the communities need to create a space for understanding these issues if there already is not one. On the other hand though Indian students need to try and get out of their silos. Living in a global world means not just combating white colonialism or appeasing white people it also imperative to co-exist with non-white folk. Do these students empathise with the Aborigines? Or other refugee and migrants? One thing I have learnt living in New Zealand is that if the tangata whenua, the people of the land, are given their rights and respect then other colonised migrants will also get their recognition as equal humans. 

Does that make me smug? Sorta. I realise that. Racism is different in New Zealand. It is subtle and devious. It is about contained multiculturalism. It is about ranting how obese, non-English speakers and smokers line up at the GP and use the health system, it is about complaining how the attendants in hospital are all Asians…that kind of stuff. Migrants are good as long as they shut up and show the money. That is why Immigration New Zealand sees a silver lining in the attacks on the Indian students in Melbourne. They can come here, we are cool and accomodating. I know the universities here have checks in place against racism and there are authorities you can talk to. YET! The simple presence of so many migrants and ethnicities from all over the world are denied except in exotic terms or not at all. Example being the latest Big Little City campaign for the Heart Of The City; to bring in tourists into Auckland CBD. Someone said to me the other day that tolerance does not mean acceptance. So this advertisement, in the main business district of Auckland, the biggest city in the South Pacific, which is actually Diversity Central does not show any ‘ethnics’ at all! First of all it shows an old man cycling (without or without a helmet is another argument); who can cycle in Auckland CBD? Then there are only designers and expensive restaurants! The one ‘Asian’ Boh Runga, I will argue here, is not really an Asian in that sense. She is a celebrity who just released a new music album. Alex Swney was so defensive on his Media 7 interview Alistair Kwun can’t stop himself smiling at the load of nonsense. Where was Swney’s acceptance of the diversity and multiculturalism? Where was the reflection?

Anyway, I digress. What I am trying to say is that just because there have been racist attacks on Indian students in Australia does not make New Zealand holier-than-thou. There is a lot of dialogue to be had here. And there is a lot of dialogue to be had in India too. About our attitudes to others within the country and outside. Perhaps it is time to reflect on our own inherent racism that is the caste system and the violence that goes with it. If we go to live overseas then how do we try to integrate and demand our rights with the understanding that if we expect the goras to treat us well then we too should treat ‘others’ with respect. It is as simple as that.

Here And There And Everywhere.

I  watched  Dancing With The Stars-our local NZ version of course-and I rooted for the charming, handsome Tamati Coffey. Not that Barbara Kendall was bad at all. Just that Tamati is such a gorgeous dude 🙂

Just back from Australia, Melbourne to be precise and I keep thinking about the crap media in that country. Nothing that reflects the diversity on the streets, nothing. I love Melbourne. It is a great, photogenic city, lots of buzz, many things happening, the public transport is superb and the shopping is great fun too. Then I look at the television shows and I see crap. Big haired blondes and blokes going yeay-yeah (that is my bad version of the Australian accent).  I always look forward to visiting Melbourne. This time I decided to check out places I had not been to. One day I went all the way to Heidelberg. This is a northern suburb and you have to change to the Hurstmere line at Flinders St. Station, take a train going towards Eltham and get off at Heidelberg. Then I took a bus-on a Sunday afternoon too-to the Heide Museum For Modern Art. There is an exhibition on modernism in Australia. I love travelling by trains. The stations, the graffiti on the walls, the passengers, the railway stations…these stations in Melbourne are a delightful mix of old, colonial architecture and new fangled structure. Wrought-iron railings, the odd iron filigree on columns supporting the ceiling, electronic signs, clipped announcements and the people. I also like walking the streets of the city. I hung out at St. Kilda and thought it was cool. Except that the Tasman Sea is out of bounds. Imagine living in a seaside city fringe suburb and not  being able to walk over to the beach easily. That is one of things I would miss if I ever lived Melbourne. The easy access to the ocean, the bush and the mountains. Yeah so Melbourne is one of my favourite  cities but Australia? Nah full of Australians mate! And where is black Australia? I visited the Koorie Heritage Trust Cultural Centre on King St and cried at the stories of the Stolen Generation Kevin Rudd apologised but what after? For every Tamati on NZ television and for every Maori word spoken colloquially, I wonder when I will see an indigenous Australian as a normal, regular person on their television? Maybe there is, I just have not seen it.


I tried to say gl-o-b-al- wa-r-mi-ng through my numb lips but only managed to pout, sexily I hope. This was perhaps the answer to botox and lip plumpers. Mwah mwah. Cheap and easy. All it takes is to be up bright and early on a cold Saturday morning at the Tongariro National Park, to do the Tongarirro Crossing. I could not do the summit of Mt Taranaki-Egmont at the beginning of this year but I was determined to do the crossing. Seven mad hours of hiking with 300 others. It was super!. It is always good to go into the wilderness in New Zealand and get away from it all. With strangers thinking just like you are. To cross a volcano, queue for a pee, tramp across mountains and streams, into the bush. Yeah. Next on the list is Mt Ruapehu…I think.


Another of my journeys between the long time writing this blog and the previous one was to South Auckland. I went to Manurewa (instead of Mangere where I was supposed to be). It was between two appointments, one at the Nathan Homestead in Manurewa, so I thought I would sit in the local library and blog. The library was shut, it was getting dark-not yet the end of daylight savings but getting there, so I sat in my car.  Paranoid, afraid of some South Auckland type wrenching open my door and mugging me or something. Yes I am ashamed. I sat in the car hunched over the eee PC, hungry and almost fainting. I did not want to get out and look for food but I did. Walked to the local shops at the town centre after asking two school girls for directions. It was an interesting place to be. There were buildings that must have been around for a long time, I thought. An old settlement with a colonial history now in the news only for the murders, killings and muggings. On a normal day I would not venture into Manurewa. I have been to the Otahuhu shops but why would I go to Manurewa? I am secure in my middle class, pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-liberal existence in the city fringe. One day I was at the bus stop with those tall, hulking teenagers just out of the local boys college at 3pm and felt intimidated. They spoke a language I didn’t understand. Some kind of hip-hoppy, New Zild, Bro’town accent. These guys are going to get into a fight or do something to me, I thought. Not true. When the bus came they stood aside like gentlemen and let me get in first. After you, they said very sweetly. These are fears I create myself. That evening in Manurewa was revealing. I thought I was cool and inclusive and liberal. How can I explain the cowering little woman in the car? Here is room for improvement and this is going to be one of my tasks. If there is an ‘Other’ then that has to be respected because there is nothing to fear. That is all I can say for now.


Fifteen days into the new year and I read about the resolutions everyone has made. I haven’t made any. One day is the same as another right? One year is the same as another except that we get older…and wiser perhaps? 2008 was an interesting year for me personally. A lot happened. I travelled quite a bit and started this blog amongst other things. My road trip over NYE 2008 was the most liberating experience of them all. It all started with my need to just be alone and reflect. Not necessarily at my Vipassana centre. So I planned the trip. Sort of.


I pack my car boot with my tent, sleeping bag, lots of food, walking shoes, hiking boots, my plastic Bata chappals Bata Sandak(that only ‘maids’  wear, according to my desi friends), my jandals, warm clothes, summer clothes, swimming togs, ‘brolly and a big bottle of sunscreen. Got the map, lots of cds, cassette tapes, the petrol tank is full, checked the pressure in the tyres, two cameras, mobile phone, charger, batteries, flashcards and water. It is 2.45ish. I am heading to Waharau Regional Park on the south-east of Auckland, just on the other side of the Hunua Ranges. It is a ninety minute drive and I don’t want to risk NYE traffic headed wherever on the highway. I have checked out all my routes over Google Maps and Google Earth. I know exactly where I am going. I am pleasantly surprised to find complete absence of traffic. Maybe people have left in the morning? The weather is glorious. I look forward to camping out by myself. Never heard of Waharau before I called Auckland Regional Council to book a place at Awhitu Regional Park past Manukau. It is full they say but there is space at Waharau. Yeah cool I say. Costs $10 to stay overnight. I am game to change of plan and easy with a different location. Isn’t life about things never going according to plan? So I drive along, excited. Along highway 2 , taking the Mangatangi exit towards Kaiaua,through pastoral New Zealand. Suddenly…JFC!!!!! The water shows up on the horizon Beckoning from afar. I can’t wait to get to Waharau. It is now about 5pm. The Auckland Regional Council booking office emailed me a code for the padlock on the gates to the camping grounds. I struggle to pen it until this dude comes along and rescues me. He has to go in too. (I like being rescued by handsome dudes, I tell myself. Maybe some damsel-in-distress situations might hit bullseye in 2009?) Once inside a find a place to set up the tent, put it up and go for a walk/hike-a short one. I want to get back and read. I take more photos and think. That is all I will do through my road trip. Take photos and think. Take photos and think. Or read or drive. I like it that I don’t have to work so I can think about anything else but work. Just dreamin’, that’s what I do as I walked through the bush marvelling at the ferns and the various reproductive systems of them. Spores 🙂 I get back to the tent, eat leftover fried rice I’d carried with me and lay back on the chatai to read. It is still daylight and very quiet. Other campers do fry-ups, play badminton and listen to music. Suddenly the sun goes down and it becomes cool. I get inside by sleeping bag, within the womb of the tent, and fall asleep right away.


The new year has begun. It is 6.30am, the sun shines, the birds tweet, the world is up and getting about. I pack up the tent, slap on the sunscreen and head out. It is a big day and I have to reach Waitomo before 11.30 to begin my Blackwater Rafting adventure at 12 noon. I have never driven so far out of Auckland on my own.  I just don’t know how long it will take me to get to the other side of the country. So back on highway1 past Ngaruawahia on to highway 29. That is a good short cut because going through Hamilton takes up more time. It is hot and I am hungry. I have not really had breakfast so I keep munching on baby carrots, plums, bird food (my healthy mixture of pumpkin and sunflower seeds roasted with red chilli powder), drink heaps of water and hope to reach Waitomo on time. New Zealand is such an interesting country. You can go from the east coast to the west coast in just a few hours. You can see hills and dales and treacherous country all at once.  It shines bright under the sun, without the ozone layer. I reach Otorohanga. No time to check out the town but I do notice the flower baskets hanging outside the shops and a big sign that says Kiwiana with a picture of the Buzzy Bee.  I keep on driving until I reach Waitomo.

I feel like Indiana Jones coming out of the caves. I have plunged into cold water, jumped off waterfalls, floated along underground streams, banged my helmeted head against stalagmites and wondered at the surreal beauty of the glow worms. Green things seeming to hang and glow from…ummm… nothing! No sfx can create this! Now it is time to go for a walk in the bush.  No rush to reach New PLymouth. It takes tow and a half hours from Waitomo with plenty of daylight. Besides, I don’t want to drive in the heat. The first day of the year and it is unbearably hot. That is the sign of a good summer? The bush is cool and soothing.

Back on highway 3 I am cruisin’. Faraway pine trees stand out in a silhouette on the horizon towards Awakino. Until I get my first, fleeting glimpse of the Tasman Sea. I gasp. OMG! The drive is curvy now. I really must pay attention to the road but I also want to see the Tasman Sea again. As if in answer to my prayer I only see water from Awakino onwards. The Tasman Sea is so different from the Pacific Ocean. One is blue and deceptively calm, the other full of waves and froth. I stop at Mokau for a stretch.  From here through Urenui onwards there is no break until New Plymouth. I have to cross the gorge and go through steep roads in the  mountains. I am tired and a big tanker tailgates me. I don’t understand drivers that tailgate. Why? Especially if the next bend says 25k and you are on my arse wanting me to go faster. I don’t want to die dude.

Kraftwerk play on the cd. AU-TO-BAH-NNNN. Electronic music on the New Zealand highway. Yeah! I also recommend Latin Jazz and of course good old Hindi films songs. Mere haathon mein nau nau chudiyan hai…reverberate through the mountains, pile on the colour. I see Sridevi do her thing 🙂 The tanker still breathes down my neck. I am mad at it but road rage is a tool for the impatient. I am going to learn to be patient this year. It is not a new year’s resolution exactly but….


New Plymouth. I am at my flatmate’s parents home. I was meant to go for a hike on Mt Taranaki Egmont. The weather is shite. So Jennifer, my flatmate’s mum and I go into town.  To Puke Ariki, the museum cum library (on the other side). The Maori section is well laid out. I like museums and art galleries. Something about the past, something about the future..It is windy and raining. The New Plymouth waterfront is pretty cool. Better than the Auckland waterfront-any day. So far I have seen the Wellington waterfront and the NP waterfront and both are better than Auckland. There is just no character to the Auckland waterfront. The apartment buildings are un-aesthetic monstrosities and one can’t take a walk along the ocean anyway. There is a great coastal walkway in NP.  The buildings are interesting too. That apart NP is a small town. I can’t imagine living here. Only five cinema theatres. That is a good reason for my mental death. All establishments are closed too-this second day of 2009. Everyone is on a summer holiday. We go back home and I take a siesta.

It is still early in the day to just layabout. I go back into town and to Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The home of Len Lye. Entry is free. Unlike Auckland where we have to pay to get into the museum and the art gallery. I guess the scale and scope are different? I mean I have to pay to see some exhibits at National Gallery Of Victoria, Melbourne but I have to pay to get into Auckland Art Gallery, period.

Later that I go to Pukekura Park for the Festival Of Lights. Overflow, a rock group, plays cover versions. Not quite the head banging I expected, yet… It is an open, free event for families. Only in New Zealand can you see groups of people bringing out their mats and picnic blankets, smiling and giving space to each other.. There are babies in prams and hyperactive little girls who sing loudly to all cover versions of AC/DC. Or is it Metalhead? I have seen rock nerds in movies but for the first time ever I see them in real life. Middle-aged men, some balding,  do the air guitar and head banging oblivious to everyone else. It is sweet and funny. I go closer to the stage. They have their wives/partners and indulgent kids singing along too. Good on them!


The weather still Scheiße. It will be worse on the mountain. So I stay put and read my book. ‘The World Is Flat’ by Thomas Friedman. I am bored by the avo. There has got to be something to do! It is not raining any more but the sun continues to hide behind the clouds. I drive to Oakura. I want to get into the water. Surf’s up as the wind blows and the flags are close to each other. I stare at the grey water. WTF! I change into my togs, slap on sunscreen and dive into it with the boogie board. The water is surpringly warm and every time I get out of the water the cold wind bites  into my skin. Still…


Early morning in the ‘Naki. It is a bright, beautiful sunny day. Just as I had prayed for the previous night. You can’t come to New Plymouth and not go up the mountain ya? It is my last day this side of Aotearoa. I want to get back into my work in Auckland tomorrow. And I am going to get my wish of going hiking on Mt Taranaki Egmont. I pack my stuff into the car, bid farewell to Jennifer and Peter and drive towards the mount as it summons me. Towards Egmont village I proceed. Suddenly-the mountain looms large. OMG! How beautifully imposing is that? Not quite as majestic as the Himalayas yet regal in its own way. I can’t wait to get up and go on my hike. It is a winding road towards the Egmont Visitor Centre, through Egmont National Park.

You have to take all precautions when going on an adventure. If the weather is bad, don’t do it; if the conditions are treacherous, don’t do it. Stick to the designated path. Equip yourself with water, food, suncreen, proper shoes, protective gear…the sun drops down here and it becomes cool. Etc. I go into the visitor centre and enter my details in ‘the book’. Just in case I get lost they know where I went and what time. In case the situation is dire they know whom to contact.

A friend of my flatmate who is a regular on Mt Taranaki Egmont has suggested the Maketawa Hut Loop. First through the bush towards the hut where one can stay overnight or more, up towards the summit but not quite and then back down a gravel path made for 4-wheel drives. I love walking in the bush. This vegetation is so ancient, it whispers secrets I can’t decipher. I can peek up at the summit as I tramp on. The clouds form a curtain around it. When I was at the foot of the Kanchenjunga in Pelling, West Sikkim, the mountain was swaddled by clouds. A local told me then that she (the mountain is a deity for the locals) would reveal herself only when she wanted to.  Past Maketawa Hut, into the sparse new vegetation so different from the bush, I climb in hope the volcanic deity will reveal himself to me. (This mount is a man ya?) But nah. Not this time. I take photos, chat with other hikers (so many Germans…) and go down the gravel road. At least I had an adventure. Now to drive back to Auckland.

On my way home I stop at Otorohanga for a quick visit to the Kiwi House and for the first time ever see a live Kiwi bird. Very cute.


I am back.  I realise that I am such an integral part of this world, this universe. I have the power and ability to make change, to sustain resources, to make sure I leave behind a beautiful, peaceful world for those after me-however transient everyone’s journey on this earth. Respect of and immersion into this universe, the laws of nature is what will make it a better place. Peace. Now to make some money.

Beauty, politics and ‘our Indian culture’.

On Sunday evening I attended the Miss Indianz beauty pageant. Of course I went for the cheap thrills and because I had a free ticket. I am totally against beauty contests. They degrade and objectify women firmly placing them within the patriarchy. Did anyone see the sketch of an Indian man going into spasms when he sees a scantily clad gori rolling out chappatis on A Thousand Apologies? That is the ultimate Indian male fantasy. That is what beauty contests do. This is not to disparage the young participants. Mostly sixteen and seventeen, the ‘follow-your-dreams’ drill indoctrinated into them, they were obedient Indian girls probably unaware of feminism or the post-feminist world or that the right to vote was hard won. I seriously doubt if they know who Arundhati Roy/Vanadana Shiva/Medha Patkar are. They were merely showcasing Indian culture!

And wherever there is showcasing ethnic culture the politicians turn up. To smugly revel in the multicultural nature of our Aotearoa New Zealand. So Phil Goff, Chris Carter and Rajen Prasad were there. I’d seen Chris Carter the previous evening at the Ethiopian New Year celebrations. Him, Ashraf Choudhary, Farida Sultan and Helen Clark, lots of grateful refugees even more beholden in the presence of the MPs  and funky young Africans who want to represent themselves. Multiple identities and all. tyipcally Chris Carter mentioned, the pan-African-New Zealander website as if it would not have happened if these people had not been supported. Nuredin, one of the founders and very articulate, emphatically told me they did not want government funding or bureaucrats appropriating them. They wanted to do this themselves, as they deemed fit. Imagine another showcasing of culture in the hands of government officials!

Not that Miss Indianz is there yet. But Rajen Prasad promised more ‘celebrations of Indian culture’ when he got into parliament. That is before he removed his jacket and walked the ramp.

Utterly, utterly vacuous.

Someone tell him Obama he ain’t. And, if as he says, he is a novice at politics, then he should maybe get Sarah Palin’s speechwriters or John Key’s spin doctors to do his spiel. Or it does not matter because the copy-paste ethnic Indian media is beholden to him anyway?

The phrase ‘Indian culture’ was thrown about so much at this event it was like vomitus after excess indulgence. I know, terrible analogy but the words have lost there meaning. What does Indian culture mean? Whose Indian culture? What version? Should not there be a discourse to argue about and qualify this phrase? Different meanings for different people ya? And all legitimate ya? Yet this singing-dancing exotica that ghettoises the ‘ethnics’.

At least that is what was showcased at the pageant. Out of the seven finalists in the talent round, one did her version of Stupid Cupid and another spunked out in a coconut bra. The rest all did Bollywood dances! Even the girl who came out dressed in a nine-yard saree. Ah, I told my colleague, she is going to do the lavni, Maharashtra’s folk dance. Instead she just did a Bollywood version of the lavni. As if there is a dearth of lavni songs-even from Marathi films. (Seriously I wanted to shout Jai Maharashtra!) Then an entertainment item had very young girls opening their legs wide open and shake the pelvis. Our great Indian culture! Such dance steps so normalised now that perhaps neither the parents nor teacher thinks it is sexual? Or I have a dirty mind? 😀

I guess we are floundering in the whirlpool of mediocrity letting others, especially politicians and bureaucrats, decide what our culture is. Popular culture is one thing and fine in its place. What about other aspects? How and where do we create spaces to integrate into the mainstream and develop ideas coming out of that? Or do we remain the performing monkeys that come out once a year for Diwali/Lantern Festival and go back to the ghetto after that?

The Nats have no clue about the multicultural demographics in this country and putting Asians on the list does not mean anything. On the other hand Labour is stagnating and talks only to those community leaders that are subservient (or invite them for dinner or whatever). And all men too!

So how does one assert the need for creative spaces and cultural interaction? Move out of the ghetto mentally. Take charge. Ask questions. Have a dialogue. Democracy does not mean just voting. And being a minority does not mean just feeling perpetually grateful. We are more than ‘our Indian culture’ (as defined by others). Be brave. That’s all I can say.

And to end this classic lavni from the Marathi film Amar Bhupali. 🙂

Taxiing through…responses and more

This one I just had to write as a separate note. Not really a blog. First of all it never ceases to surprise me that someone/anyone actually reads this blog. Well, thanks. For me this blog is a self-indulgence of sorts but also an exercise in writing. A disciplined sort of writing. I force myself to write; to think; to compose sentences that convey meaning and an image; to develop a style that I can call my own. It is what writers do I believe and if anyone does read what I put out then it is sweet appreciation. Whether anyone agrees with me or not. I don’t really care to be anyone’s favourite child and it is fine to be hammered for opining too. I find it funny how one is not supposed to ask questions of those with whom you share political ideology. I fund it funny how all those-who-want-to-save-the-world actually have no sense of humour. Although the posterchild of the ethnics did say to me that I don’t have a sense of humour neither am I funny…sorry about that. I can’t be disdainfully funny about right-wing types. I’d rather be uncomfortable, awkward and introspective on my side of the political spectrum. Self improvement is what I aim for. And it is stimulus when someone harrumphs ‘Sapna is a loose cannon/big-mouth/loud-mouth.’ Honestly. 😀

Anyway. ‘Nuff ranting. This note is just an update. First a response to Balochie for his (her?) comment on Jesus being a Jew. Yeah dude. Thanks for that. I meant he was from the Middle East and ‘Arabic-looking’. Maybe I need to write better? 🙂

Another, an update on the lack of response in Aotearoa NZ about the nuclear deal that the Indian Government is pushing for. India is meant to become a power to reckon with if the world recognises the deal. I happened to run into Michael Field from Fairfax soon after I wrote my blog on the nuclear deal. He had just returned from India and told me about how Indians are divided about the nuclear deal. I ranted, as I do, about the lack of analysis and scrutiny in NZ media and the government. And hey, Michael did some digging. (Not because of me!) Here is an interesting twist in the story…to the happily-ever-after ending and world standing that India is looking for. I wonder who is lobbying for and against this? I mean it is not like the relationship NZ has with China is it? Despite cricket, despite Sir Ed (Hillary), despite being colonies and part of the Commonwealth India and New Zealand are, at best, ‘acquaintances’ not friends. NZ is too small for India and India is too complex for NZ (especially bureaucrats who prefer the simplicity of yum char and the singular nationalistic representation that Chinese Government officials give to China).

I can only wait and watch. How the nuclear deal shifts the balance of power and ‘friendship’ in the world and at what pace and cost India develops.