Sunday, 12 July 2015


Today I sucked on a mango seedling
and asked my mother for instructions on
how I did it as a child

I wondered how I had forgotten or
perhaps my mind thought my body had
deliberately mislaid that information

That piece of affective memory which
cannot really be relegated to the margins
of a childhood lived in another land

Today I was rained on in the market
by a monsoon cloud turning grey
and I laughed and remembered

The joy of dancing with wet hair and
then running indoors to dry it under a fan
whizzing past a white ceiling

That rush of air now comes back with
a flash that was stored and has been
restored at least for the journey back

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Gods of Big Things: Cities, Storms and the Palpable Loneliness of Migration

I like cities. I like writing about them, wandering through them, taking photos of banal moments in them. A busker in the mall here, a reflection of a nearby architectural feature in the rear window of a car there. I have particularly appreciated the unremarkable instances of observing this affective everydayness during the past year and a half of living in Sydney. And this week, just as I thought I was beginning to get into a rut like your average Sydney-sider, the Gods of Big Things took matters into their own hands.

When I was unable to get to work due to transport chaos in the wake of the 'storm of the century' on Wednesday, I thought my highlight of the day would be being driven through flood waters by a friend, or napping at the exact time that I would have ordinarily been taking a tutorial. By Friday, the worst had passed and we were commuting, working, and congregating around pub counters in the evening as per usual. As Saturday (which also happened to be Anzac Day) approached, I safely assumed that the top of 25 degrees forecast for the day meant I could wear a stringy top, leave my fourth umbrella for the week at home, and begin an expedition to document the sunset service and surrounding activities with a group of photographers in the CBD. However, not only were we rained on again and heavily at that, but a hailstorm left parts of the city looking like a Siberian landscape. I was on a train to Newtown when the storm arrived, and was fortunately able to take shelter and many an Instagrammed photo while waiting. 

By Sunday, the storm had passed, and the hail had melted, but the rain continued to run a grey tint through our weekend activities. I took a call from my closest friend, a woman of similar age and background in Adelaide, who was upset about the hoops that first-generation migrants have to jump through to forge strong support networks in places where they have no history. This has been a topic of conversation between us for as long as we have been away from our birth cities and the places of residence of our immediate families. It has, however, moved to the forefront of our consciousness since turning 30 and accomplishing many of our long-cherished professional, lifestyle and travel goals. Therapists and pop psychologists might be of the view that this is not a feeling particular to migrants. Still, there is a palpable loneliness to knowing that even if you entrench yourself in a new city and its affective everydayness, that even if you have a job you love and a doting new family, your storms have been a little bit fiercer, and your shelters a tad weaker. 

My latest umbrella just about managed to shield me as I walked to a Chinatown restaurant for yum cha with a supportive group of Asian Australian friends and colleagues. As we chatted about wars and memorials, race and films, food and beauty, I knew I had found a tribe of sorts, and a new way of looking at storms. This city will never be banal to me again, even though I will always be a migrant.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Coconuts and Bananas: Cosmopolitan or Deluded?

On Australia Day (which also happens to be India's Republic Day), I interviewed my friend, the maverick writer and radio presenter Sunil Badami for the cosmopolitanism project. He walked me through the main streets of the western Sydney suburb of Merrylands, where he narrated many a tale of growing up as a 'westie'. Sunil now lives in the hip inner western suburb of Rozelle with his wife and two daughters, and refers to himself as a 'coconut'. 'I'm brown on the outside, and white on the inside', he tells me, and adds that people's expectations notwithstanding, he cannot claim to take on any ethnicity-specifc speaking position.

As a resident of Sydney's inner west myself, I have often pondered over what makes me reluctant to move to the west, where the vast majority of those who share my ethnic descent live. I visit on a regular basis for the odd cultural festival, and to meet family and friends, but perhaps my own coconut-ness prevents me from looking at plots of land there, or spending a leisurely Sunday evening eating chaat in Harris Park and commenting on the outfits and general demeanour of fellow 'desis'.

 This sense of ethnicity-defined perception not matching everyday reality is also evident in the character of Simon Chan (played by Lawrence Leung), the artist son of a Vietnamese migrant shop owner who returns to the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta in the new ABC2 series, 'Maximum Choppage'. While Simon is expected by his mother and the local Vietnamese community to be a warrior who will defend them against local thugs, all he wants to do is paint in peace. A scene that particularly struck me in the first episode was when Simon's mother knocks on his bedroom door, and he hastens to hide the canvas he is working on in his wardrobe. It made me wonder if this kind of 'closeting' of personal preferences and talents, often demanded by the older generation, the migrant community, and the wider society, makes one believe that one is not being Vietnamese enough, and hence being too white.

In a similar vein, the famous Chinese-Australian photographer William Yang speaks in his new film 'Bloodlinks', about growing up in an era that favoured assimilation, and consequently referring to himself as a 'banana' (that is, yellow on the outside and white on the inside). As an adult, Yang endeavoured to learn more about his Chinese heritage by studying the philosophy of Taoism, and withstood friends' jokes that he was a 'born again Chinese'. His story of moving from North Queensland to Brisbane, and finally finding 'his tribe' in Sydney was gripping and one I can somewhat relate to.

Still, I continue to feel that we are missing a nuance or two in referring to ourselves as coconuts and bananas. These names make for great satire, and even better, relatable storytelling. But perhaps the harder task is to realise that not everyone who lives in the inner city is white, and not all practices and lifestyles that revolve around caffeine consumption and social interaction around milk crates, sipping cider in a dingy bar while listening to an undiscovered band, and browsing through the contents of any shop that announces itself as retro or vintage are non-ethnic. I am not sure we have the vocabulary yet to talk about the vagabonds amongst us who take the road less travelled, and have to figure out whether polka dots and pearls look good on coconuts and bananas. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

Becoming Cosmopolitan - The Citizenship Ceremony for the 21st Century?

On the 29th of October 2014, no country was led into Tagore's 'Heaven of Freedom', but I did become a naturalised citizen of Australia. While desiring of this piece of paper for largely pragmatic reasons, I was also acutely aware of what my citizenship certificate and subsequently-granted passport meant in terms of my collusion in the dispossession of Aboriginal land. As a largely symbolic gesture, I decided to wear a scarf on my right wrist that had been designed by an Indigenous artist, and to later pose for a photo in front of the Aboriginal flag rather than the Southern Cross. I told myself that these black armbands were all I could manage under the circumstances, and hoped that this was an opportunity to ally with old and new Australians who continue to re-define Australian-ness and hold our political representatives to account in regards to our participation in the global civil society.
Photo Credit: Owen Leong
However, a few months on, in the wake of globally significant events such as the Sydney siege, the Peshawar school shootings, the Air Asia tragedy and the Charlie Hedbo attack, my questions regarding whether a cosmopolitan consciousness can co-exist with a locally-rooted identity (often understood through the lens of ethnicity or religion) have re-surfaced. During this time, I have also been tentatively putting together a new proposal for a sole-authored monograph on the subject of cosmopolitanism. In the course of reading philosophical, sociological, cultural studies and inter-disciplinary takes on the matter, I have realised that a sense of civic consciousness and being empathetic towards those different from us on account of colour or creed is in fact rooted in one's own personal histories and emotional geographies.

The generic association of cosmopolitanism in the popular imaginary with a kind of class privilege that bestows intellectual and aesthetic openness to other cultures does not tell the whole story. Then there those researchers who have argued for the existence of a kind of 'vernacular cosmopolitism' than may originate, for instance, in the not-so-privileged playground of a primary school in Western Sydney with kids from varied ethnic descents sharing the contents of their lunch boxes. This, in my view, is an important counter-henegmonic story to tell, but is again only part of the picture. I am interested in what happens to these children when they leave the western suburbs to go to a university closer to the city centre, and often share houses in locations such as the inner west of Sydney that are more readily associated with cosmopolitanism. Does this mean that we have those hailing from non-Anglo and working class backgrounds added to the pot of a relatively educated inner city mix? If so, how does this change the practice of being cosmopolitan and the spaces where it is practiced? Also, how do spatial and temporal movements (and the changes in dominant cultural phenomena that they entail) impact individual and collective affinities and cosmopolitan practices?

It is no secret that my own trajectory of being an international student in Australia from 2003 to 2010, a 'temporary' worker moving half-way across the continent for academic work in 2011, a permanent resident gaining a foothold in yet another new city in 2013, and then a citizen of late have impacted my own cultural and political association with the notion of cosmopolitanism. In previous years, I have more readily associated, both in my work and in my personal life, with the idea of being 'diasporic'. However, I now find that my points of cultural reference and emotional attachment are much more dispersed than implied by the term diaspora. These references and attachments don't just belong to India, where I was born and went to school, or to Adelaide, where I spent a formative chunk of my young adult life. In fact, they are both more specific and more widespread that those place names indicate. Growing up in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India meant an early initiation to ethnic strife and its impact on innocent people, while starting university in Adelaide the same year as the beginning of the Iraq invasion felt like a preordained beginning to the overarching themes and questions of my academic and creative routes thus far.

Similarly, I have come across many an international student turned 'skilled migrant', first-generation migrant turned returnee, second generation migrant turned expatriate in a third country, Indigenous Australian turned asylum seeker advocate, and many permutations and combinations located between the extremes conjured up by a white cosmopolitan man in an airport lounge, and a non-white woman in a kitchen, a temple, or a remote community. The purpose of my project, then, is to shed light on the 'cosmopolitan becomings' of people and groups whose stories are grossly under-represented or mis-represented in our popular media and culture. Such becomings may not fit the brief of an Australian tourism marketing campaign, but they may just be more indicative of the meaning of citizenship in the 21st century.