Robert Wood grew up in a multicultural household in Perth. He holds degrees from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a National Undergraduate Scholar and a Benjamin Franklin Fellow respectively. He has edited for Margaret River Press, Wild Dingo Press and Overland, and volunteered for the Small Press Network, Philadelphia Fringe Festival and Books through Bars. He has published work in literary journals such as Southerly, Plumwood Mountain and Counterpunch and a academic journals including Foucault Studies, JASAL and Journal of Poetics Research. He currently hosts a reading and conversation series at The School of Life and is a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. His next book, heart-teeth, is due out from Electio Editions later this year.
What is the hybrid to do?
I have passed as a white man for most of my life. I have a name – Robert Wood – that is invisible in the hegemonic Anglo society of suburban Australia. I have a body that if a little tanned, a little hook nosed, a little ‘Latin’ or ‘Mediterranean’, is nevertheless unthreateningly, benignly unnoticeable. I present in dress and language, in what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus, as white. But I am also a person of colour. My mother is brown. She is Malayalee from Kerala in South India. Although there are degrees of complexity and complexion in the vales and folds of family history, through her I participate in a network of colouredness. Colouredness means both the aesthetic reality of the body itself, how we look, and the political meaning of bodies, how we are represented. In other words my mother’s skin is literally not ‘white’ (or for that matter ‘pink’, ‘yellow’ or ‘black’) and we have a shared history of colonial oppression that is racially based, which involves the British, the Portugese and northern India.
When I was young my mother’s parents, in sari and tracksuit pants, migrated to Australia. They had come to die where their children had come to live. My grandparents were from adjoining fishing villages ‘close’ to what is now Thiruvananthapuram. They grew up in an era before Indian independence and had markedly divergent political attitudes towards colonialism. My grandfather, Winifred, dark as the ace of spades, was an Anglophile. When I went back to his village in 2012, people said I looked just like him, ‘except he was an African’. These old people – my distant relations and my grandfather’s friends – laughed about who my grandfather was: how he would wear white linen suits, how he listened to classical music, how he drank gin and tonics. He was attracted in part to my grandmother, Gertrude, because her skin was so fair. She meanwhile was an Indian nationalist, a passionate supporter of unions, a radical opposed to the British occupation. I don’t know enough to understand what bound them together but there must have been something to allow those paradoxes of body, of ideology to be united.
Their children – my mother and my aunts – had come to Australia when the White Australia Policy ended in 1974. Some of them were early international students at universities; others came and began work straight away. Their story over the last forty years resonates with the known narrative of migration – hard work, education, opportunity – and they have, in their own definition, been successful. But their story also has its particular idiosyncrasies and challenges. Before Australia my Uncle Eddie, for example, had moved to Singapore and was Lee Kwan Yu’s bodyguard for a number of years. A committed socialist, his contribution to a newly independent nation was to keep the leader safe. He read what Lee Kwan Yu read; he ate what Lee Kwan Yu ate; he slept on a cot at the foot of Lee Kwan Yu’s bedroom door. When he came to Australia, the only job he could get was at Midland Brickworks. The racism from other workers there was a long way from the multicultural, red left utopia he thought he was helping to build in South East Asia. These are the personal takes on a story, increasingly told, about what it is to migrate to Australia.
I knew I was not quite white from very early on. My mother’s family, from midnight to caramel to café au lait, was a chocolate box of brownness. There were gingers and blondes and brunettes in my father’s family, but Mum’s made me realise that diversity is skin deep. It was home to me. It still is. In other societies and times I would not be allowed to exist; the brown would be far away from the white. When my family went to South Africa in 2001 we often found we were the only mixed race, the only ‘coloured’ family in various bourgeois restaurants. Class was now doing the role of race. There was a palpable sense of unease at our presence. We were in a sea of tense, paranoid, leftover apartheid beneficiaries, many of whom have subsequently made sunny Perth their putative home.
But it did not take a trip to South Africa to realise I was not white and that being non-white was different. We knew this when our grandparents dropped us at school, when we opened our lunchboxes, when we went to friend’s family homes with their saccharine smell sans spice. This is not to say I had white friends only but that we were not people like them. But it was a source of strength for the most part. This is not to say there are not structural forms of racism that one experiences personally, but that one’s identity is formed partly by familial recognition, solidarity and validation.
In thinking through identity though, in thinking through what I am, I am first led towards clichés. The phrase that seems to be deployed most often is ‘walking in two worlds’. In Australia this is used particularly often for Indigenous people, but one can discern it in post-colonial conversations as well. I have a mata mata brother-in-law who is half Ngarluma (Aboriginal) and half white (mongrel Irish, French, English). Although people no longer use this phrase, he, like me on a different axis, is a ‘half-caste’. We could be forgiven for thinking that ‘we walk in two worlds’. In a more intellectual iteration, this might be ‘hybrid’. But hybrid unifies the duality of the two worlds phrase, it seeks to bring together the ‘double consciousness’ that half-halfs seem to have and so it is distinct. Hybridity too, in the literary theory of Homi Bhabha, seems to represent a process over time rather than a state of being. We are apparently creating a new mode of interaction that is neither here nor there. This may account for the either/or discussion that happens, whereby one says I am proud of my heritage or I am in conflict. But people feel various points at various times and I often think of myself ‘homonymically’.
A homonym is one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. It is about unity (of sound and spelling) and multiplicity (of meaning). It is then not about two autonomous histories coming together in one body, about my parents as individuals who come from separate, independent places, but about how they have always been linked dialogically and materially. There has always been a little bit of curry in Scotland, always a little bit of whiskey in Kerala. Water connects us all.
Passing, of course, has a long and complicated global history including for African American communities, for Anglo-Indian people, for Indigenous Stolen Generations. Colouredness used to be a secret to keep hidden because there were material advantages to presenting as white. That has most certainly changed due in part to the end of White Australia, Civil Rights, Land Rights, ‘black is beautiful’, United Colours of Bennetton as well as the material opportunities afforded to Othered subjects by a whole host of cultural, economic and political changes. Now there is cultural capital to be gained from identifying as a person of colour, even as we should think of it as a heuristic and imperfect category. In the Australian conversation, the myth we have of being white, of being a European or American society has been discredited, but it lingers in television, in corporate boardrooms, in advertising, in cricket, in mining. It is not only about placing people of colour in the conversation but about changing the frame of representation to begin with. We don’t need to assimilate to it; it needs to accommodate us.
Indians now have recently outpaced English people as the source of new migrants in Australia. This is only surprising to me in that English people had clung on for so long. Of course I knew there were whites arriving here, aiming for a slice of the good-Home-and-Away-sunny-side-of-the-street-hot-pie-cold-beer-roses-out-front-green-lawn-out-back-red-brick-own-your-own-home-life, but I had not believed they were still the source of so many new arrivals. That the biggest group of ‘illegals’ in Australia are backpackers from the United Kingdom who overstay their visa is a fact worth highlighting publicly, if only to reinforce the claim that Australia is structurally racist. Why one rule for someone fleeing persecution who happens to be brown as opposed to someone larking about on the beach who happens to be white? Australia still seems to be a paradise for the white working man.
I though in other conditions, conditions of my own making, see myself as a white man. It is not without some hesitation that I identify as such, if only because being a white man now means, in certain circles, prostrating for one’s historical sins. And well they/we should. What white men fail to see, what are invisible, are their forms of group solidarity, their shared experiences of the body, their political ideation as collective rather than as individual subjects. If us people of colour have historically been stereotyped and viewed as a group lacking individual identification, white men have rejoiced in the opposite. I do though reflect on my father’s position and heritage. I drink whiskey and think of the fatherland, I read Robbie Burns and think of the fatherland, I get angry at the fatherland as an interested and invested party.
I was living in New Delhi at the time of all the ‘curry bashing’ in Melbourne, 2009. Front page after front page in India was filled with commentary about racist Australia. It was shaming but it corroborated personal experiences. I remember visiting my teenage cousin in hospital when I was a child because a football team had beaten him up in a racially motivated attack on the streets of Cottesloe. In 2009 though, Indian newspapers showed Indians in Australia protesting and mass rallies against violence. As heartening to see this pushback, it was to my mind only the opening of a possible conversation about anti-violence has not yet been taken up in a lasting way. That initial energy has not coalesced into meaningful institutional and cohesive forms of anti-racism. That is surely the task now: To not only take these disparate experiences into the cultural conversation but then to politicise what it means to be coloured in Australia in a way that has lasting material impacts.
By virtue of shared experience and bodily aesthetics there are bridges to build between people of Indian origin and other communities too. When I visited Broome I was assailed by long lost family members from my mind. Who were all these South Indians I thought looking at the faces of local Indigenous people? That people of colour may translate well to certain Indigenous communities is important for allowing us to consider possibilities for addressing the ills of modern Australia. In my interactions in the Pilbara, locals respond very differently by virtue of skin. There is solidarity between brown bodies there that needs exploring.
For years I have been reluctant to identify myself as a person of colour. This is because I want to be recognised on my own terms, as an individual rather than as a set of histories or a position in the world. I have, in other words, wanted to be white where my identity is all but invisible and I can proclaim my universality without consideration or conscience. But the body returns, heritage returns. There is opportunity to think through what it means to be neither/nor, either/or, two worlds, hybrid, homonymic, dialogic, multiple. And in a style that breaks down the assumption that people can only be one thing, that identity is fixed and personal rather than mutating and structural.
George Michelsen Foy has worked as a commercial fisherman, a magazine editor, and chief cream-puff transporter in a pastry factory in England. His latest novels are Mettle and The Art & Practice of Explosion (University Press of New England); a non-fiction book, Finding North: How navigation makes us human, will be published by Flatiron Press/Macmillan in 2016. His short fiction has appeared in Notre Dame Review, Monkeybicycle, American Literary Review, et al.: long-form essays in Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, et al. He was awarded an NEA fellowship in fiction. He lives with his family in Southeastern Massachusetts and in New York City, where he teaches creative writing at NYU.
How wrong to walk the streets dressed how you dress and know those codfish eyes will follow you always, how wrong to know that voice with sharpened fricatives will slice a path to stop—hands pale as non-fat slap your thighs apart twist your head and depending on what you’ve done (and you’ve always done something) click chill around your wrists: and if you say no? And if you run or just move wrong? The voice that worms out, flattened by electrics and satellite, from your mom’s/ girl’s/ grannie’s/ dad’s cell phone will be a voice they do not know: that never said ‘Wait, I got a joke for you,’ nor ‘Happy birthday’ nor ‘Fuck you’ even: how wrong for someone they never met to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I must inform—
Tournan en Brie lies a little east and south of Paris. It was a quiet town when I was growing up. Nothing much had ever happened there. A minor lord or two bullied farmers from a tower. There was a church, two bakeries, two patisseries, a butcher shop, a pharmacy. Apart from wheat, the main crop was boredom. It was Kansas with good cheese. When my brother and I stayed in Tournan—we were there months at a time, visiting our grandmother, nothing to do but shoot gravel at each other with slingshots in the garden—we used to walk, with our parents, to watch cars hiss by on the highway running east and west. That was what passed for entertainment in Tournan. My grandmother called that highway la route des invasions, invasion road. She knew what she was talking about. The first time the Germans came from the East they killed her brothers, every one. Her husband’s only brother was also killed; he had come back from Australia to fight. Her husband, the town doctor, was gassed at the front. The gas braised his guts and he died shortly afterward, at home. Grandmère wore black, inside and out, for the rest of her life. She kept her husband’s surgery as it was the day he left for war, and raised their only child in a country of unrelenting loss. When the Germans returned, twenty-two years later, they billeted three officers in her house. Grandmère was pissed off. Not only had the bosches killed her husband and all the men in her family, they had given her son the excuse he needed to leave and not come back. Now she was expected to make their beds, sweep their floors and watch them brew coffee in her kitchen? They had real coffee, too, she said, a luxury in those days. All this was bad enough. What really made her sore was, these Nazi officers in their high conquerors’ boots would lie down on her mattresses, on the family’s lace bedspreads, without taking off their footwear. This was the last straw. Invasion and mayhem were one thing, but here was final proof the Germans were barbarians. So she joined the resistance. From then on she refused to acknowledge her lodgers. She declined to make their beds. She listened to the BBC in secret. And she sabotaged the coffeegrinder. This was a cruel blow. American B-17s were flattening factories—they would bomb Grandmère’s house toward war’s end—the maquis were blowing trains to kingdom come. And these three Wehrmacht captains were deprived of coffee. I still have her coffeegrinder, it still doesn’t work. I’ve tried to fix it many times and can’t figure out how she broke the thing. I suppose, as with most sabotage, all you need is sufficient rage.
Graham Akhurst is currently in his last semester of a Bachelor of Creative Arts in writing at the University of Queensland. Prior to this he completed an Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts where he studied music, and wrote and co-created several performances that were held at QPAC. Graham is of Aboriginal descent and hails from the Kokomini tribe in Northern Queensland. Graham currently resides in Brisbane, and has ambitions to further his study at the University of Queensland as a postgraduate student in writing.
The wind crept through in the early morning, blowing a gust by the time the sky was blackened. Dust etched its way into everything including the protective goggles I was wearing. It was impossible to stay clean in the desert. Our journey had led up to this moment, darkness in the middle of the day. I wondered if the couple of thousand people around me felt the same way I did. Awe at the beauty and scope of the natural wonder, but also a sickening for humanity.
We’d left Brisbane a week earlier, and we were proud of the Queensland license plates attached to the banged-up Mazda 323 we were traveling in. Others from our state were not so keen to traverse almost 2500 kilometres to go to a festival in the middle of nowhere. After two days on the road, all three of us had our right arms blistered, burned, and tanned from hanging them out the window as we took turns driving. We had all grown up together but travelling the long distance by road gave me a sense of freedom and solitude. The roads emitted a wave of heat that reflected the sun, which became hypnotic after a time, and seemed to conjure conversation with more substance than what we had been used to. The nights were peaceful, cold, and the clear sky and stars provided a reflective end to a day’s drive.
We were on our way to a small town called Lyndhurst, part of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. It’s home to one pub, one hotel, one house, and is surrounded by a desert so dry and unforgiving that each member of our party suffered from heatstroke. The symptoms of dizziness, fatigue, vomiting and confusion gave our travels a barbaric edge, and we developed a man versus nature attitude. We were lucky enough not to all come down with it at once, so that each time others of us could help the fallen. I must admit though that a lot of this danger was rightly avoidable. If it weren’t for the copious amounts of drugs and binge drinking, I wholeheartedly believe that we would’ve been completely fine. But don’t get me wrong, it was hot out there. Really hot.
The year was 2002. The eclipse was due on the fourth of December, and a festival had been organised. Over fifty international and Australian DJ’s were to perform. The Flinders Ranges evoked a nothingness that was both haunting and beautiful. The festival itself was a violation of this.
We arrived in the late afternoon of the second of December, and needed to scalp some tickets. Matt, my friend from high school, wandered off with five hundred bucks and returned three hours later, drunk, broke, and with three tickets that would have originally cost 75 dollars each. He spent the rest of the money on various forms of drugs that we took over the next three days.
The festival campsite was a cesspool. It consisted of gluten-free, wheat-free, overindulgent, drug-taking, fire-twirling, vegan people to the far left of any political scale, so far left it was almost to a fault. They were dirty, but that couldn’t be helped; we were all in the same situation when it came to cleanliness. I’d never before or since gone so long without a shower. There were three-pronged barbed bindies everywhere; each barb an inch long. To walk around barefoot was not to be advised. There was no safety in wearing thongs, as the barbs would go right through them. Our daily dress was solid shoes, shorts, and long-sleeved shirts. We started to soak t-shirts and wrap them around our heads like turbans for some small relief from the elements. Then, as night hit, we would put on layers upon layers. The temperature dropped incredibly quickly as the sun faded over the horizon.
I talked to an old Aboriginal man who was camping next to us. He played didgeridoo, and tried to teach me circular breathing – which I failed at comprehensively. He told us he had great knowledge of the land, although he was not from this area. He was adamant to assure us of this, which made me doubt it. He knew of the traditional owners of the land, the Adnyamathanha, which means ‘hills’ or ‘rock people’. I sat with this man, and drank beers with him under a tarp, dust floating in from the incessant wind. He became very quiet after we passed around a joint, and we listened to the thump of techno floating in and out with the direction of the breeze.
The ancestor spirits from the dreaming stories took on human form, and as they travelled the land they would create rocks, animals, lakes, rivers, plants, and all forms of life and geography. They created the relationships that groups and individuals had with the land and with each other. Once they had created the world, they took on the form of trees, rocks, stars, and other objects. The places that they now rest, in whatever form they have taken, have become sacred.
People danced, some naked except for sturdy shoes, in the marketplace at the centre of the festival. They were most obviously on drugs. They bounced around to thumping beats coming from a 10-foot-high sound system, and they worshipped a young man with long hair who would throw his arms up, and twist a knob on his DJ equipment every so often.
We walked past the marketplace on our way to the pub, stopping first at a mobile food stall to grab Chiko rolls. It was run by a smiling Greek lady, who was either that way naturally disposed, or excited by the riches coming her way. The line for her stall ran for 30 metres. We’d been lucky to get in line just before the long-haired DJ’s set had finished. As we were being served the line grew, and we overheard praise for the music in a fanatical tone. A religious experience was had. There was a swollen appreciation and joy for the thumping beats, made larger by narcotics. The faithful were now lining up for V drinks, lollipops, and hot chips.
The pub was not immune to the festival either. The festival crowd went to buy cartons over the counter, or take refuge in the one place accessible to them with air conditioning. There were locals present too. It was odd to watch so many young liberal-minded people darting between and around the small group of local barflies. All had worn skin from hard work in the desert, and from years of heavy drinking. We had walked in just as a raucous clamour went up in the pub; all eyes were on the small television above the bar. The inhabitants of the pub were on the screen being interviewed for a news piece about the festival. Their reactions to all this attention, given this isolated part of the world, was the focus of the story. I observed their surprise as they saw themselves on television; the embarrassed smiles, the jabs, the humorous remarks about having become famous, and the pride they exuded at the partisanship of being so unique in their remoteness together. To see their faces so alive in the midst of an expedition in which I was a witness rather than a participant felt fake.
We grabbed a carton and climbed up to a ledge overlooking the festival. We weren’t the first to seek out this viewpoint. There were empty bottles and refuse scattered around as evidence of that. Security patrolled the rock faces adjacent to the festival; it would be a dangerous prospect to venture out there without the proper equipment. They were there to monitor, as well as to remind us of the world we had left behind.
We settled and watched the sun set. It was the most vivid sunset I can recall. Sunsets are not things you remember. But the surrounding events forced this particular sunset to the top of my consciousness. I remember my growing disillusion, made stronger as I watched a man in black survey the land with binoculars. The temporary city bustled in front of me, to the soundtrack of my brother vomiting behind a rock. It was his turn to have heatstroke.
The next afternoon, people slowly gathered atop a long, man-made dirt wall, which acted as a barrier between the festival and the camping grounds. All were holding protective goggles for the eclipse. It became awkward on that hill. People were waiting to be awed. But such events take as long as they take, and the crowd was becoming restless. It reminded me of public transport. Then, as the eclipse slowly revealed itself, I felt anguish and a panic initiating. I wondered if the people around me felt the same as well. The pulling away from reality, the confusion of the mind, the nagging of identity. By the amount of yahooing, and the drugs being passed around, I doubted it.
I had never really thought about being Aboriginal, about really being Aboriginal until this moment. On a desert plane, upon sacred land, amongst a city of tents with a bone-dryness in the air, the weight of my ancestry cemented itself in the form of the dust enveloping me. This was such an affront. A sea of liberal-minded people, most of whom would have supported Aboriginal rights and freedoms, were themselves unthinkingly using Aboriginal land to take drugs and party, while watching a natural wonder at the cost of nature itself and the sacred element of the dirt beneath their feet. Each head tilted upward, each eye focused skyward was an admission of guilt. Just before the sky went dark, I turned my head away from the eclipse; some small gesture of rebellion against a sea of diminished respect.
Sharyn Belcher lives in Melbourne with her husband and three sons. She teaches piano part-time and is currently studying literature at Monash University. Her great loves are her family, nineteenth-century Realism, writing, and playing the grand piano she bought instead of replacing her worn-out car.
It was built of wire and paper and board, but we called it the mud house. It certainly burnt with an unholy rush like it wasn’t made of mud. We all stood up the paddock a bit while Dad and Uncle Ken poured kerosene inside the doorway and then whoosh, the old place—crammed with its ancient mattresses and broken bed-heads—went up in great fumy flames, and hundreds of rats and mice and a couple of snakes scrambled for their lives.
Grandad stood a little way from us all. Tall and bent, he seemed to be looking at the ground rather than the burning old house. My older sister Alison was hopping all around in the grass and ferns, fidgety like she always was, and Mum was telling her to look out for rats or snakes. I was amazed, looking from my vantage point of three, maybe four years old, that the grown-ups would do something as daring as burn down the old house. Even Nana laughed and took quick steps. Everyone was excited. Everyone except Grandad.
I was sad, too, to see the mud house go. It was old, old as the hills, and though they said it was derelict, with rotten floor boards and stuffed with rubbish, on tippy-toes I could peer through the dusty windows and see mystery and opportunities for exploring. The stripy and stained old mattresses leaning sideways, ancient chairs with legs missing and seats chewed out, and newspaper-stacked cupboards with their doors hanging open and crooked. The old place sat, brown and small, on Nana and Grandad’s land over the paddock from their own house. They all said it was a dangerous eyesore and a haven for snakes. If I was lucky I got to pick my way over the rotten verandah boards and poke my nose in the front doorway; if Mum and I were taking a walk in the paddocks, I would always lead her over to it. I was fascinated. It smelt like dust and ash. A chain with a hook hung down from inside the chimney of the fireplace. Mum told me it was to hang pots over the flames, to cook back in the days when they didn’t have stoves. I would ask, ‘Who lived here? Was it Nana and Grandad?’ but Mum would shake her head and say the house was from before Grandad bought the land, and then talk about something else.
Grandad was always as old as Methuselah, peering out under his bushy white eyebrows. He was sick. Most of the time he was in bed in his stripy blue pyjamas, an oxygen bottle nearby on loan from the hospital, and if he was up and about he was bent and slow. And stern. We kids would get shushed if we got too excited in our play, and I was always dying to plonk away on Nana’s piano, but I wouldn’t get too many notes in before I would be told, ‘Quiet! Grandad doesn’t want to hear that.’
Nana always had an apple pie ready when we came to visit on the weekends. Our Falcon 500 would scrabble up the washed-out driveway, and just as we nosed round to the back of the house Nana would rush out through the plastic door streamers onto the back verandah. ‘I thought you might turn up today,’ she’d say.
She must have baked a lot of pies. We always expected that Nana would be delighted when we arrived, and of course she never let us down. ‘Old Cinna! Old Cinna!’ she’d cry at our terrier Cindy, who would bend herself into ecstatic shapes and moan with doggy joy. We’d leap from the car, sniffing the eucalyptus and ferns, and then the peculiar old musty smell of inside Nana and Grandad’s house.
Their house was small. Just one main room, the kitchen, with four smaller rooms, two to the right and two to the left. One of the rooms didn’t even have floorboards. They had a pair of old wooden-armed easy chairs in front of their wood stove, and a green Laminex kitchen table with six chairs, those chairs from the 1950s that got so fashionable again. We’d all sit at the table and Nana would shake hot tea out of her enormous teapot into our waiting cups. If we stayed the night us kids would sleep on lumpy mattresses on the floor. During the night so many Christmas beetles would buzz their way in that in the morning Nana would brush around our beds with a broom, sweeping their curled up little bodies, with their legs waving faintly, out the door, off the verandah and onto the grass.
Nana had a slops basin. I was both fascinated and repulsed by the word ‘slops’, and by the basin itself. It sat by the sink, and all waste liquids, including the tea leaves from the teapot, were eventually slopped into the basin. When it was almost full, one of us kids could carefully balance it against our chest with our tummy bent underneath, fearing the increasing ripples bouncing from end to end of the basin, as we took careful steps out through the screen door and down from the verandah. Just before the increasing slops waves broke their bounds, we triumphantly dumped them in a crazy avalanche over Nana’s little plants.
One Christmas, some years after the old mud house was burnt down, Mum and Dad brought us kids and a caravan up to Nana and Grandad’s so we could stay for the whole summer holidays and Mum and Dad could work on finally finishing Nana and Grandad’s house. They pulled out the ancient wood stove in the kitchen and replaced it with a new gas stove, a sink with proper plumbing, built-in cupboards, and tiles on the wall.
Grandad was too sick to sit up for Christmas dinner, and on Boxing Day Mum called an ambulance to take him to hospital. I last saw him waving to us all as he was wheeled on a stretcher over the grass and into the back of the ambulance. I was sad because he didn’t get to unwrap the box of hankies we’d bought him for Christmas. The next few days the grown-ups were in and out of the hospital, and then Nana got a phone call to say she should come in straight away as Grandad was dying. But before she had a chance to even find her handbag they rang again to say he had just died. Nana cried and cried, and said there was no point us working on the house now. But Mum and Dad said she was the reason they were doing the house, not for Grandad.
The room with no floorboards was finished and carpeted, and became a lounge-room for Nana, a proper place for her piano which until then was in one of the bedrooms. Nana got to choose a lounge suite for herself, and one of the other rooms was turned into a bathroom-laundry. Nana actually had a toilet and a shower and a washing machine right there in her house. The old toilet had been a smelly tin box over in the disused dairy.
As I grew into an adult myself, Mum told me more about Nana’s life in the house on the hill, and about Mum’s childhood, too. I learnt how when Mum was nine, Grandad suddenly sold up their lovely suburban house just over the fence from the swimming pool in Pascoe Vale, and bought 100 hectares of bush in East Gippsland, looking over the lakes. How an old woman named Mrs Moss and her middle-aged daughter, Nell, were living in the mud house when Grandad bought the land, and stayed living there, renting it from Grandad. My uncle Ken slept in a small caravan, while Nana and Grandad and Mum and her sister were in the house Grandad was building but never finished. In those early days Nana cooked their meals on a little primus stove in the room that later became the front bedroom.
Later, when I was in my thirties, married with my own family, Mum told me about Grandad’s affair with Nell in the mud house. About Nana’s cry of grief when she found out, and how she ran out from the house, into the paddock and down the hill to sob alone. How Grandad actually made Nana and Mum and her sister and Ken eat their dinner each night in the little mud house, with his lover and her mother. Like he had two wives and one big family. And how one night, after their dinner in the mud house, Nana and the kids left Grandad there, as they did every other night, but instead of going back to their own half-built house, they packed the car, and Ken, who was just old enough to drive, rolled them silently down the drive and out onto the road before he started the engine, put on the headlights, and drove them to Nana’s father’s house in Melbourne. How, after some months making a new life in Melbourne, Grandad convinced Nana to come back, so they went back—except Ken, he didn’t go back—and there were still problems for years afterwards with Grandad and Nana and the women next door, who, at last, moved out and the mud house became derelict.
Children are surprisingly blind to the adult world. And just as well. I can still hear the pops and explosions as the mud house and its mattresses went up in flames, the grown-ups’ voices slightly raised in excitement and concern that we kids would get too close; and I can still see Grandad standing off a little on his own, his bent body pointing at the ground.
Our house used to be frequented by poets. They were part of the rough fabric of the Sydney arts scene in the 1970s, along with the painters, musos, actors and other assorted souls who were regular patrons of my mother’s impromptu salons. Mainly they seemed to be young(ish) men who consumed flagons of wine and, when empty, threw them at each other. Sometimes when they were pretty plastered, they’d have pissing competitions in the kitchen sink. Often their banter was punctuated by equal measures of misogyny and romance. Women, it was clear, had a thing for poets, and they knew it. They were lads – with pens.
Really the poets were lucky to make it inside our Jersey Road house. Beyond the sedate front door there was simply a hole. Unknowing visitors stepped over the threshold and straight into a muddy pit. The hole where a hearth should have been was part of one of my father’s endless renovation plans. No one was in a hurry to install floorboards. Observing the hapless literary victims of Dad’s talent for demolition was all part of my adolescent enjoyment. We were different, and the only way to survive that knowledge was to watch as the chaos and the Ben Ean moselle flowed; to smile wryly as another unwary aspirant to this heady scene fell through the ever widening gaps.
Once inside, there was plenty to keep poets occupied. For a start, there was my mother and my sister and me. And there was an ostentatious gold velvet sofa, adding a strong dose of bordello to the interior decorating scheme, along with the brocaded and tasselled lampshades. My mother would recline on this sofa and ‘tell stories’. This is actually an occupation in my family. I’m told that in some households parents go to work. But my Mum and Dad were better than that – they entertained. Often they seemed to be competing over who could be the most outrageous. Mum would start talking about her lovers, and schmoozing up to some potential candidates, tossing her head back and laughing drolly while ostentatiously smoking in a style befitting a 1940s movie queen. Dad adopted a different tactic. Like a New Guinea highlander engaged in a culinary prestation of charred pork that would outwit the most conniving masculine rival, Dad would cook. Huge slabs of meat would emerge from the kitchen – a side of corned beef, a few dozen chickens, some legs of lamb for good measure. Occasionally nice women, who appeared like unwilling extras, would incline their heads and cluck ‘You are so lucky to have a husband who cooks, Dorothy’. If Merv still felt he hadn’t adequately conveyed his message, he would stand out in the Woollahra street and crack his stockwhip, a wild smarting sound rending the suburban night sky. I recall one hapless poet attempting to imitate my father. He stumbled, inebriated, out on to Jersey Rd and heaved the whip, flaccidly, on to the bitumen. A petulant silence ensued. He never tried it again.
When the poets really got going, you were in for a good time. Leonard Cohen would be played on the turntable, and the lyrics floridly repeated, as though nothing more could ever be said, or sung. Occasionally Bob Dylan would muscle Leonard out of the way and we would all be transported, feverish, to Black Diamond Bay. When the night really got underway, we might go and listen to our local version of Dylan. Driscoll had a regular gig in a city pub. At 15 my favourite drink was cherry advocaat with a dash of lemonade. ‘Blue blue angel’ he would intone huskily into the mike, laconically strumming his guitar, a mop of curly hair lending a disreputable air. His lyrics seemed, at a minimum, exquisite.
Later we’d pile in a car, ready to party on. One night remains vivid. I was in the front seat squished on the lap of a painter, who I may have slept with once or twice. A poet was driving. He had a fast car. In case we didn’t know this, he was driving the car very fast down Sussex St. He screamed to a stop at a milk bar, demanding that they add his flask of bourbon to the milkshake. It was not like Grease. He would race through red lights, and then suddenly brake, just for the hell of it. My mother always referred to the seat I was sort of sitting in as the death seat, at least in conversation with my father. (With poets she had a more devil-may-care personality.) As the fast car screamed to a halt and then lurched forward, like a rocking horse on steroids, I began to cry. The painter told the poet to cut it out. Although the poet was clearly in the grip of mania, he still maintained a hazy awareness that the painter was at least twice his size. His driving became more benign, and in my grateful teenage mind the painter became an artist who had rescued me from the jaws of poet-inflicted death. I started to think of him as my boyfriend.
We arrived at someone’s house, possibly Driscoll’s. It was a narrow terrace furnished haphazardly with throw-outs from back alleys. Everyone was slugging down those flagons. Romances and fights began to break out. My parents were nowhere to be seen. This is really living, I thought. The poet got me up against a wall. He kept telling me that if I would just go away with him – for a weekend – he would change my life. I looked around for my saviour. But he was busy beating up his younger brother, a weedy man who had almost been a pop star in the sixties and never had another moment in the sun since. Even the poet was impressed with the Oedipal battle being enacted only a few feet away. When the painter had demolished the passé recording artist, and a little blood decorated the skirting boards, we all broke up, retiring to eat platefuls of lukewarm rice-a-riso. This was not something I ever consumed in my father’s kitchen.
My relationship with the painter never worked out. At fifteen, he was twice my age. His compellingly crazed portrait of my mother won the Archibald Prize in 1990. I can find no hint of myself in those thick trails of glossy oil playfully demarcating enormous unbound breasts and unfettered zestful imperium. My mother ended up writing a slender book of deeply romantic verse about the poet. Apparently he did change her life. Indeed, he was her chosen tragedy. Although the volume was slender, the havoc it caused in my family was immense. Driscoll eventually died, as people do, his health ruined by heroin. At 93 my father still attempts to slay women into submission through rhyming verse. ‘You are my biscuit girl’, he might address a missive to one of the women who now shower and feed him daily, hungrily hoping for some action. Usually I am the only person who reads these intended appetisers.
Poetry, I think it would be fair to say, has partly written my life. When poets want to seduce someone, they write them a poem. In the 70s, they actually used to post them. Occasionally when I am overcome with longing, I still reach for my pen or, less poetically, my keyboard. But email just doesn’t have the same cachet. Last year I recited some of my mother’s poetry at Sydney Writers Festival. She had passed away a decade earlier, and my sister, Kate, had organised a tribute. There’s a special tent you register in if you are performing. They have free beer and wine. Inside you feel a little superior to the crowds queuing along the wharf, waiting for their artful encounters. When I approached the desk and named the session I was involved in the attendant looked me up and down, taking in my pink-checked skirt suit. ‘You are a publicist’, she announced. Evidently my efforts to appear an intimate part of this febrile world had been instantly exposed as fraudulent. I remain, at best, an observer.
Looking back, it’s hard to find the right words to describe that period of time when, if you got up in the morning, and went downstairs to cobble together some breakfast, you’d stumble across a composer passed out on the velvet lounge or a guy who had recently completed his first feature film script petulantly drinking tepid coffee or an actress, still leery from the night before, draped across the chipped mahogany sideboard. Some mornings it was hard not to trip over them. I’d quickly wash my socks and undies in the outdoor laundry, putting them on still damp, and raid my mother’s bone leather handbag, which smelled of 4711 eau de cologne and sadness, so that I could buy some lunch at the school tuckshop. There was no one I knew to say goodbye to. It was so simultaneously exciting and awful.
I suspect children of the talented and famous often feel like pastel reflections of a more colourful presence. It is easy to resent the neglect that accompanied my mother’s relentless imaginary. The harder task is to make sense of it. In my 20s, a de facto relationship ended. Anthony had been my first stable relationship with a man my age; he was gentle and reliable. Restless, I pursued someone else. Despairing at my own fecklessness, I visited Mum, hoping for solace. She was lying in bed, a notebook propped on her lap, writing. This was her usual position. As I told her the story of my infidelity, she glanced up, tears of genuine compassion rimming her eyes. ‘Oh Rosie’, she exclaimed. Then she looked back at her spirax companion, her lips moving in the slight mutter that always accompanied her creations. And that was it.
I know now how hard it can be to find the right words for daughters. I know, too, that the Sydney arts scene in the 70s was a difficult place to grow up. For Dorothy, it was a dream interior where she could make her oft-repeated longing to be centre-stage come true. Her daughters were her props. When I was a teenager, she tried to incorporate me into her world. She, literally, wrote my parts. I would stand before a microphone, given a leading role in her radio play. Or I would be captured on film, playing some dishevelled girl desperately desired by others, acting out her romances.
My Aunt Dessie tells this story. When she and Mum were girls, growing up on their isolated wheat farm, they used to roam the paddocks together. Dorothy would invent long and convoluted narratives and command her little sister to write down all of her words as soon as they returned home. Forged in the midst of all that brazen self-reflection, I’m still struggling to dig myself out. My own still-life has a more muted palette. It’s a comparatively quiet place of calm and order and, in good times, constancy. But if you look carefully, there in the recesses of the deep shadows, you can just glimpse a poetic undertone of striking scarlet.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. Her book The End of the World was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Her short film The Escape was accepted to the Berlinale Talent Campus. She has a BA from Brown University.
Date: October 23, 1998
Black mounds of trash outside buildings that are crumbling, peeling. Punk and blue shutters and iron grilles in every balcony. Six balconies on each floor. What I take to be four storey houses, on closer inspection, have grilled openings above doors and between floors, with shadowy figures of women combing their hair with long, brisk motions. Little girls in frilly pink dresses pace back and forth.
“Children are good to have sex with,” says Kalu, with his weasley smile, a smile sticky with apology, promise, deception. “Their minds are not formed, so you can do whatever you want with them.” Kalu sits in a little wooden laundry shop on the 14th Lane in Kamathipura. Kamathipura, the city of love. Our translator and guide, Shailesh, has taken us to him, promising us that Kalu is a well-known pimp who can procure us the child prostitute that we are looking for.
“We are looking for some komal maal,” Sailesh says. Sailesh, a journalist from the local newspaper, who’s been recruited to take us along and act as our guide in the redlight district. In the words of international journalism, he’s a fixer. And that’s precisely what he’s doing right now—asking for a soft thing with the casual inflection of a man used to asking for soft things. I don’t think he necessarily frequents child prostitutes. But his tone makes it abundantly clear that whatever we are after, he’s willing to procure for us—and if it’s a soft thing, he’ll get us a soft thing. He is big and solid, dressed in casual clothes, speaking the local dialect like he’s one of the locals.
I try to act cool and go along, although every nerve in my body is telling me to move away from these people who are on their quest for a child prostitute.
Of course, the two women who I am translating for have an excuse for their vicarious glee when Kalu says he can find us many komal maal. The two women are in Asia to write a story about child trafficking. One is an award-winning photographer, and she urgently needs photographs. One is a writer—she urgently needs stories. They have been sent by the biggest, most important newspaper in London. They are both desperate for a child prostitute. I, their gullible translator who has flown in from Nepal on my own expense to accompany them, look at their greed and hunger and feel a physical sickness.
Perhaps it is the methodical way in which journalists try to get to their subjects, rather like hunters tracking down prey. Or perhaps it is the impatience that the two women are exuding after being stuck for a week in an expensive hotel in Marine Drive, with one fixer after another promising them girls that haven’t materialized. Perhaps it’s the combination of both, mixed in the Mumbai heat, that makes me feel the way I do.
Why am I here with them, you may ask. The reason is simple. A hard-smoking, hard-drinking friend of mine named Vidhea had called me one day and said to me: “Sushma, there are two journalists here from the UK. They need a translator. Are you interested?” I was at that time employed by the Harvard School of Public Health, and I had made several trips already to Mumbai, where I had visited the red-light district and come to know of the situation of Nepali women there. When I said “yes,” it was more out of scholarly curiosity than the need for employment.
Besides, Vidhea said, the two journalists were about to visit the famous rehabilitation home of Anuradha Koirala, who some had likened to the Mother Teresa of Nepal. Mother Teresa had recently received a group of girls rescued in a high profile raid from Mumbai. The raid had been done by one Balkrishna Acharya of the Rescue Foundation. These girls were now at her home. The only problem was that she didn’t like Nepalis to visit the home, but foreigners were very welcome. This, I thought, was a very good moment to see what was going on inside that institution. Mother Teresa had also recently received a million pound grant from Prince Charles to do her work, so British people were especially welcome.
Sometimes luck favors the bold. We had arrived an hour early. “Can we start our interview?” Mary asked. Mary, as the writer, felt sidelined by Olivia’s constant need to get her photographs, and the reminder that: “A photograph is worth a thousand words.” A young man there, with a rather militaristic demeanour, frowned, but he decided to bring one young girl into the room anyway. She was young, shy and fair. The interview started off well. The girl started to tell us about how she had been taken to the border, how she had been sold, how she had ended up in the brothels.
Then Mary broke in and asked a sympathetic question. “Did you know the man who was selling you?” she asked, flirtatiously. It was girl talk and girls knew how to get confidences out of each other. At the moment, I rather admired Mary’s interview skills.
The girl blushed. She was all of fourteen. “Yes, I knew him,” she said. “We went together. We were in love.”
“Ah, your boyfriend?” Olivia asked. “Boyfriend” sounded radical in this small room, with Anuradha’s man frowning from behind the chair where the little girl sat. The concept of “boyfriends” don’t exist in Nepal. It is as if people only get married at an appropriate age, and any relationships before that is considered non-existent.
The girl giggled.
The man stepped in. In a rather harsh tone, he said: “No, she didn’t know this man who took her,” he said. “She didn’t know him. He was a stranger.”
Anuradha Koirala’s institution soared to the skies telling the world Nepali girls were carted off to India by criminals offering them drugged mango Frooti drinks. The fact that adolescent girls may be having relationships with men and getting sold through the trust factor would besmirch their image as innocent girls in the hands of great danger. The young man left the room abruptly. We continued our conversation with the young girl. The young man returned and said very stiffly to Olivia: “You have a phone call from Anuradha.”
Olivia blanched. We were clearly in trouble. She left the room. When she returned, she was very agitated. “She screamed at me over the phone. Who is that Nepali? She asked me. We have to leave immediately.”” And this is what we did.
This was Kathmandu in 1998, where even the idea that teenagers may have had sexual relationships with men was an unthinkable idea. Young women could be virgins only, innocent victims of criminal gangs, never individuals with desires to travel the world, get jobs, take care of their families or have boyfriends.
It is often these desires, and the ways in which they cannot fulfill them in a safe manner, that land girls in bad places, even now. Fourteen years later, young Nepali women can now be found in Lhasa nightclubs, instead of Kamathipura. But I have no doubt those in the rehabilitation business are still insisting that women are being drugged rather than going of their own accord.
Now lets go back to Kamathipura, where we are still seeking our Nepali child prostitute.
“Hah, hah,” says Kalu. “I’ll bring her out to a hotel and you can do whatever you want with her. Whatever you want.” His “whatever” falls along a continuum of rape, defloration, torture and photography. You can do whatever you want with her, he promises, allowing the women perfect leeway to violate virginity, body, and privacy with equal access.
The negotiations continue. Olivia is willing to go to the guesthouse to see the girl. She says she cannot go back with the photographs she has—they are useless. I raise my eyebrows, and try to tell her, without opening my mouth: Maybe we should be careful. Kalu, with his knife scar, his greasy laugh and his assurances are not a guarantee I want to trust my life with.
Kalu sees my raised eyebrows. He turns to me and addresses me directly: “Ahhh.” He exhales his breath, considers me, pauses. I look at him, defiant. “Where are you from?”
“America,” I lie. I try to hide behind my glasses and my American accent. I am not one of these Nepali girls he is used to selling for a hundred dollars. I am different, I think in panic.
“You should take off your glasses,” he says. “You’d look pretty without them.” I don’t want to take off my glasses. Without glasses, my vision blurs and I feel helpless. I glare at him.
I take a deep breath, try to look intimidating. Inside, I feel the dreadful sinking of fear. Olivia looks at me with scorn, as if to say: toughen up. He’s just a pimp. If we can deal with him, so can you.
“Here,” he says, getting up to get what looks like a plastic album down from a ledge in the rafters of the wooden box. “I have many college students like you. Many college girls who are available. All kinds. Very well educated. English speaking. They are available, with photos. If you ever want to work, leave your photo with Kalu.” And he grins that khaini, tooth-rotting smile. He flips open the album. Photograph after photograph of women in pretty kurtas and college outfits peer out.
“Okay,” I say, trying to hold on to my last bit of cool. What answer is there for a pimp who’s just offered you a job as a low-paid prostitute? “I don’t think I’m interested, though.”
Kalu gets interested now. “Ohhhh… Memsahib,” he says, smiling some more. “This is Kamathipura. Its united. If we didn’t like you, you can enter here and never leave again. Nobody would ever find you again.” He looks at me directly in the eye, making sure I have understood what he’s just said.
I give an offhand smile, and pretend I haven’t understood his threat. I smile, I shrug. I move slightly away, suddenly aware of the slit in the back of my dress, the blue and black flowered dress that I had bought in Colaba and which had seemed so innocent, and now in the heat and stench of Kamathipura suddenly takes on sinister connotations. I take out my Konica, and fiddle with the lenses. My big fat solid Konica, which I’d bought for a hundred bucks in Providence, Rhode Island, and which had stood me in good stead for so many years. I pray I won’t have to use it as a weapon.
Last night, we have just been taken to a tour of Kamathipura by a flamboyant man who has taken a fancy to us, and wants to act as tour guide. His name is Ramjee, and he says he’s a local. We find him at an open air building where he’s taking an afternoon nap, along with other well-oiled, scantily clad men. It looks like they’ve all recently had a massage–their bodies glisten with oil. The male energy is palpable—I wonder if this is the local version of a gay club.
“Do you know where we can find a young Nepali prostitute?” Olivia asks with brazen desperation.
And he looks at them, sees the white skin, gets up slowly, and enunciates: “Hello Madam.”
Ramjee is pleased, indeed, almost happy to see us. He sees the two British women and instantly his demeanor becomes grand and flowery. He starts to declaim. He demands that he be allowed to take us around. He insists. Somehow, somewhere, he asks the questions: “Are you in any way connected to the British Royal Family? To the Queen?” It’s a setup, but we play along.
Almost flawlessly, as if to fulfill this deception that we all know we are participating in, Mary, the smoother one, says: “Yes, we are sent by Prince Charles. He’s very interested in stopping child trafficking, you see. Yes, we are sent by the Royal Family of England.”
That’s all Ramjee needs. “Madams, tonight,” he explains, “is Laxmi Pooja, the night of Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth. All the brothels, by a stroke of luck, must keep their doors open tonight so that the Goddess doesn’t feel offended by the close doors. We can go wherever we want to go.” The women look at each other and shrug, trying not to show their glee. “Yes, please. We would like a tour, thank you,” they say, as if this is not something they had not been dying to do for the last fortnight. This is a rather staggering stroke of good luck for journalists who’ve flown thousands of miles and spent a helpless fortnight trying to enter the infamous but inaccessible brothels.
Ramjee takes us from one brothel to another, all the while announcing that we have been sent by Prince Charles. “These people are representatives of Prince Charles!” He announces in big florid accents each time we enter a brothel. The transvestites on Lane C welcome us with open arms. They are putting on their makeup when we make our way up the narrow stairs to their room upstairs. There is a gaity and festivity in the air.
As we walk through the crowded streets, a transvestite in a red blouse and silver sari tries to pull Olivia along with her. “Sweetie, come,” he says. Olivia resists with a smile and a tough: “No, thank you, darling.” “I’m used to the streets,” she explains to me, when I marvel at her apparent coolness. “This is the same as my neighbourhood in London.”
We walk up and down narrow staircases of a dozen brothels. Ramjee introduces us in his florid accent, in each instance, as Prince Charles’ envoys. In many places, we get scowls and angry looks. In many brothels, we are ignored. In one brothel, a madam with a classic Nepali face looks down, see us and slams the grilled door in our face. As the grilles shut, I can see young girls scampering to get out of sight. Olivia, with her big camera, seems not to notice. In her head, she has this ideal child prostitute, and it seems that she doesn’t see the young girls who litter the brothels.
There are fifteen hundred brothel owners in Bombay. They are ready to kill the people who come and tear apart their stables of young girls. Many of the top ones are Nepali, women who worked their way up and now own their own stables, as they are called.
In one brothel, we we enter a green vinyl and mirrored disco room where the Nepali girl, only twenty-four, tells us that she was sold by the man who married her after her Bachelor’s degree examinations. “I was deceived,” she says, as if being deceived was the most normal thing in the world. “I didn’t know he would sell me, that I would end up here.” She is from Darjeeling, and has the sweetest accent. As we walk out, we see her a twelve year old girl looking at us as we walk out. The girls are everywhere—hanging out in familial packs, doing girl things, playing with dolls, plaiting hair. Just being little girls.
At the very end of the evening, we enter a gigantic brothel that looks like it has a thousand women living inside it. The brothel’s entrance is covered with shit as a broken sewer overflows the entry way. We jump over the yellow liquid and walk up warren ways of passages in which iron bunk-beds have been put in every corner. There are women inside the curtained bed-frames, whispering, smiling, laughing, talking. There are men dressed in humble outfits, walking in like they are there to buy their daily bread. The women in their blouses and saris look only slightly tousled, as if they have been caught in their homes entertaining guests rather than clients. Some of them look indifferent. Others look like they are enjoying moments of intimacy. Mostly, they look businesslike and practical, as if its all in a day’s work.
We are on a quest for a Nepali prostitute, Ramjee explains. Ah, a Nepali. The women, chattering and curious, escort us to where the Nepali woman lives. Her name is Radha.
Radha is thin. She looks tired. She has a smile on her weary face. Radha says: “I pay Rs. 80 a day rent for this place.” She waves her arms around the small three feet by six feet cubicle balcony, with a small bunk that rests halfway up. Her room is open to the elements—there is a roof but not much else. I sit on the broken ledge and listen to her tell her story—how her husband sold her to the brothel, how she can’t work much now since the accident, how she wished she could send her son to school—all this with the calm detachment of an ordinary woman telling an ordinary story. As if, in her mind, this is how life is supposed to be.
“I can’t work much now since the accident,” she says. A lorry came up behind her and hit her. Now she walks with a limp. She is in her thirties. She has a three year old son who she had with the man who sold her after he married her. She takes a few clients each day these days, but her clients are drying up because of her disability. She fetches a small price, but its still enough to live on. She looks at me with those eyes and asks me to take her son to Nepal where he can go to school. The small boy pretends not to understand his mother’s entreaties, and looks down as he plays, all with the intense self-conciousness of a little child eavesdropping on important talk.
On our way out, Ramjee stops at what looks like a wooden box in the middle of a dark passageway. This, says Ramjee, is where another Nepali woman lives.
We see the girl as she comes in—big, dark, perhaps a Dalit. She doesn’t say a word as she disappears into the box. Its like she doesn’t see us. We are appartitions, we don’t exist in her numb mind. The wooden box, shaped like a telephone booth in London, looks like it’s big enough to hold a human being upright. That’s her home? I ask. That’s where she sleeps, a young man says, eager to show us around the brothel. The man, I realize, must be her owner.
We are back in the sunlight. Radha, dressed in immaculate pink silk, comes down for us. She rests on a pole outside Kalu’s laundry shop. I know that inside that poise her legs, the legs that got run over by a lorry driver, by a drunken lorry driver, is getting tired… Olivia clicks, and clicks, and clicks. She takes a thousand photographs.
Kamathipura, I think with a shiver, is about death, the death of trust and the death of illusion.
Kalu goes back to bargaining with Olivia and Mary. “Nepali girls,” he says, “are very fashionable. They are like film stars. They wear good scents. Men come to them for fashion. For sex, they go to South Indians. They go to Nepalis for fashion. For honesty. Even if the wallet fall out of his pockets, the Nepali girls keep it for them so they can come and get it later. It happened last week with one customer.”
Olivia checks her digital camera, and realizes that she still doesn’t have photographs she came to get. “But I don’t want any Nepali girl,” says Olivia impatiently. “I need a little girl. One that is eight or nine.” She has two more weeks before her editor recalls her back. If she goes back to London with photographs of teenaged girls, she is screwed. She is depending upon this money from the story to pay her mortgage. She has already wasted two weeks visiting brothels and seeing the women in it. They are all too old for her.
“Ahhhh…” Kalu closes his crafty eyes. “Too many raids these days, Madam. Many little girls have now been moved to Surat, across the border into Gujrat, because the madams in Bombay are too afraid to keep them here. They lose too many of them. So they are all hidden away in Surat.”
Finally, they agree on a deal. At night, Kalu will bring a little prostitute to the Oberoi Hotel for us to do as we please.
I will not show up for this event, because it sickens me. Later the women will tell me the girl came but she was a disappointment. In what way, I cannot tell. Perhaps she wasn’t sexy enough.
The shutter speed is slow, closing, capturing the light. I look at Radha and see that look of betrayal in her eyes. The look of someone who thought they’d seen a friend but instead seen just a camera.
Kanchi, the first prostitute we met in Kamathipura, sitting outside in the threshold of a one storey brothel, had given me that same look of betrayal. The men had stared at us as we walked into Kamathipura. Hundreds of men, just staring at us with big eyes. Then we’d seen her, sitting in that little threshold on a bamboo stool, just waiting. All dolled up, waiting for her first client.
And the clients were us. Sailesh, moving towards her like a hunter who’s seen his first prey, had whispered to me, “Talk to her, distract her!” So I, numb, panicked, distracted her while Olivia took her photographs. Click, click, click! Each photograph a violation, taken without permission, without due diligence, without notifying the subject where her image would end up. She had looked at me with that remote, detached face, the beautiful young woman who knew once again that she was being betrayed and told me: “My name is no longer Kanchi. After I came to Bombay, I became Hasina.”
Then as the cameras clicked, she told me: “I used to have a lot of clothes, a lot of jewelry. But now I no longer want them. I give it to the beggars who come to beg. I gave it all away.” And I sit there, feeling the reproach, knowing at once that I am the beggar, and again she is giving me all that she has, over and over. Her image. Her face. Her youth. Her beauty. All this will appear in a magazine in a faraway place, and make money for other people. She knows this.
Hasina lives in a stable with her brothel-owner, who trusts her now not to run away. She’s too broken down, too dead, to run away. She has no possessions. She wants nothing. Her best friend, Aarti, looks at me with beautiful eyes and purple marks of melanoma on her arms. She will soon die of the dreaded disease, like all the rest who went before her. “There were many of us here,” she says simply. “But many of them are now dead.”
After she was done taking photographs of Hasina, Olivia, in the glee of snagging her first young prostitute, went to the bazzar and bought the cheapest makeup kit she could find. I tagged along, suddenly exhausted by heat and depression. I’ve talked with Hasina for the last half hour. She’s treated me like a visitor from far-away, someone who she’s trusted with her life’s story. She ran away with a friend when she was sixteen, ran across the border to India. After she paid her debts to the brothel-owner, she decided to set up her own shop here in this little threshold, and not be owned by a madam. No she is never going back. Yes, she had another name in Nepal, but in Kamathipura she is known as Hasina.
The two journalists know nothing about her other than her profession.
Only one quid for all this!, Olivia said, marveling at the cheapness of the makeup kit.
The makeup kit was a big red plastic case filled with garish powders and potions. Silver letters say: Hasina on top. Something in me screams “No!”, but Olivia is implacable. Sailesh says: “Yes, these women like makeup.” We take it back, and I am pushed forward to handover the gift. Olivia beams, pleased by the cheap deal, and pleased by her own gesture of making a prostitute happy.
With the greatest of embarrassment and sickened fury, I hand the box to Hasina. She extends her hand and takes it without a word, neither happy nor displeased. She looks at the Hasina embossed with silver letters on top. I don’t know if she can read, but she looks down at the letters for a while. Then she puts it down, gets up and enters the building. She vanishes in silence, as if she is happy to be released from our presence.
ONE OF THE BEST PLACES IN THIS COUNTRY
Texas takes twenty-four hours to cross by train. ‘Under The Tree Bob’ tells me there is more drinking in this state than in other southern places. Bob has been sober since 1 December 1979, when he sat under a palm tree and made that decision. He is moving to Tucson, where he says there are good AA meetings. Says only the weak can stop drinking: it is they who will ask for the help they need.
But I am happy with a drink on a Saturday night, and go to the Lone Star Saloon, for live country music, for fiddle and mandolin and slide guitar, for that pitcher of beer, for the dancing in his-n-her jeans, cowboy hats, studded belts. To hear the drawl.
Trophies, near Houston, Texas
At bayou-like lakes, we see lotus, deer, duck, egret, catfish, cormorant, bald cypress, Spanish moss hanging down like soft beards, alligators hibernating, maybe two million chattering small black birds and one huge hawk with white-tipped wings. By the time we leave the scenery, the moon is fat, above farmland, prison, refinery.
In the morning, students pledge to two flags: USA and Texas. A ten-minute walk from school is fast-food Mexican, Chinese, fried chicken, and Fountain Firearms, a shop with military weapons and cowboy guns. There are manicures next door, and in the parking lot, a man tries to sell perfume out of the back seat of a car. I see no pedestrians all day.
Many of the new homes in Texas, and across the South, and maybe across the USA., are in large, look-alike communities. Gated, fenced, with names like Grand Mission, Waterview, Bella Terra. I am staying in one of these homes and open all the windows to the warm and the wind and say to myself, this could be tornado land.
We hear a story of a boy who has never seen a mountain. East Texas can be flat as flat, and the car a center. Train lines have been proposed between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, but have been fought by car and gasoline conglomerates. Whataburger has been serving since 1950s, and Sonic serves burgers on roller skates, direct to your car in the parking lot.
Preservation Hall Jazz Club, New Orleans
In this city, there are three-hundred-year-old trees and the older Mississippi River, neither Creole, Black, Cajun, White.
We read a Black newspaper, read about policemen burning a Black man just after Hurricane Katrina. They laughed as they burned. A city with much poverty and crime, with or without a hurricane, and in the few days we are here, there is a murder. And one late night, we see a man run off with another person’s wallet.
Music and food and booze and church and sport and sex. They seem to heal some of the people some of the time.
We meet a clarinetist who was mentored by some of the jazz greats, all Black. He says he is one of the very few Whites to have had this privilege, and during Jim Crow time.
Mural in Ward 9, New Orleans
We meet a man who has been a driver for fifty-one years. I like the way he talks, slow, a little extra time between his thoughts, and I could listen all day. He says that out by The Lakes, it’s been hard to put life back together. ‘The Lord. He takes the time He needs.’ He says he likes Dixieland music best, that he’s been with it for a while now. Fingers tap the steering wheel.
We meet a vocalist who dances with shoulders, hips, fingers, as she sings: her whole body in the sound. Muscle-toned and white-haired, she slaps her right thigh in beat, and does a quiet, slippery hand-wave clap. The hostess who guides us to front seats says she herself is a student of the vocalist, wants to sing as joyfully. We drink a beer called Lazy Magnolia and I think just maybe I could stay in this city and change into someone like her too. Music can make us brave.
46 HOURS OF TRAIN
But I leave. Travel coach class. Live for forty-six hours in my seat, observation car, snack car. Two times I pay so that I can also sit in the dining car, with its long low windows. I choose the last shift, so I can stay for a long time, reading, writing, thinking, feeling, humming.
New Iberia Train Station, Louisiana
Over one meal, a man who works with the train company tells me a story. A couple is traveling home, from Seattle to Chicago. The man dies in his sleep, and the woman keeps him dead, under blankets, for two days before she notifies anyone. Not wanting to inconvenience, she says, or wanting to grieve alone, or using the service of the transportation of a corpse. These are her rights.
Near Antonio, Texas
I listen to a different language on the train. ‘You hear what I’m saying… Whatcha saying, girl, that don’t make no sense… Don’t you mess around with me, boy, I got you figured out…’ There is guts and directness, empowerment and assertion. The man a few seats away talks like this non-stop with his wife and family. I find this language so alive, so certain, but I leave for a while and find, make, different sounds.
I meet a security guru of the computer world in the snack car with a stiff knee, a replacement knee, of metal. Out of kindness, he calls me his daughter. I meet a woman from Florida who wants to talk with me and her sister, suddenly a sort of family. A guide tells us about the land, in English and Spanish. The javelina is the only wild pig in the country. The Chihuahua is the largest desert in North America. Livestock are fed the ‘blind’ kind of nopal, the prickly pear cactus with minute spines. The road runner runs about twenty miles per hour.
The passenger beside me says this is her first train trip and that she is scared. She stays under her Pittsburgh Steelers jacket-blanket and only leaves her seat once during the long train ride. She is missing several teeth and slurs some of her words so we cannot always be clear in our conversations. She grew up in East L.A, and as we come into that part of the town, she looks out the window and says she knows each street. Graffiti is on almost every vertical surface, and one long wall reads: H-U-R-T-S.
‘Someone from Rehab will pick me up,’ she says, and when we arrive, we walk to Alameda Street, where she waits, holding a small piece of paper with a name and telephone number.
Downtown Los Angeles
Cold morning, grey, many people homeless. We see one man being handcuffed. He is shaking at the curb.
I stay in a home near Universal Studios. Fifty-inch TV, security system that beeps as you walk down the front path, a telephone that identifies the caller and says the name aloud.
Outside, bougainvillea, jacaranda, palm, lemon, smog. The river on the other side of trees may be a freeway.
Lookout near Hollywood sign, Los Angeles
Many of the buildings on the main streets are stucco, with bars on the windows: do not enter, do not jump out. The green crosses at shop fronts mean: here is marijuana for your healing.
Then I stay in a Chinese part of town. That large television again, the telephone that screens, the home alarm system, and in the family room, a table ready for mah jong and many framed photographs, including of a wedding.
A social worker tells me the state is going bankrupt. She has lost her eight-hour-a-month job; the community agency had no budget. She used to take the Blue Line to work, and along the way, a man would pop out his glass eye, ask for coins, then pop it back in.
It has been 23 years since I lived in the U.S.A., in Los Angeles, the city where I began as a writer, where so many people come and try themselves. About 21 boxes had been stored in a garage for this time. The books, LPs, memories, intact, with the super-dryness of this semi-desert city.
Office table, Los Angeles
Maybe poetry is one of the best places in this country. The yearning. The clarity and courage and optimism, particularizing.
Otherwise, when I return to the country of my birth, I see loneliness. I see the sense of entitlement. I see the automobile, the home, and the other self-enclosed, purchased, spaces. Protected.
The train is a place where, for a while, this loneliness seems less. Space shared, trusted. Public.
Later, on the plane, a Marine, 21, sits on my left, a widow of a Marine on my right. They know a different language. Bulldog is mascot. Motto is Sempre Fidelis. C.O.P. protects the rifle from dust. She says his shoes are also dustless and ‘Dress Blue Charlies’ the most elegant uniform.
Shrapnel from a landmine was never removed from her husband. One eye sightless, one ear silent, he would wake shouting for years. I tell her I have campaigned against landmines, against violence, against misgovernment, but she seems to believe. Sempre Fidelis, Always Faithful, she seems to be thinking. The 21-year-old boot camp graduate says, ‘Yes, M’am’ to everything I say.
Found graffiti, Monterey Park, Los Angeles
Madeleine Marie Slavick is a writer and photographer. Her books include Fifty Stories Fifty Images (prose and photography from Hong Kong, 2012), Something Beautiful Might Happen (poetry published in Tokyo, 2010), China Voices (a study of farmers, women, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, elderly and youth; with Oxfam, 2010), delicate access (a bilingual edition of poetry with Chinese translations, 2004) and Round – Poems and Photographs of Asia (1997). She has held exhibitions of her photography in Egypt, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the United States. She is based in New Zealand, where she maintains a daily blog: touchingwhatilove.blogspot.com.
Blue Veined Hand
A friend read her poems to me the other day. Beautiful, deft, cultured verses that rippled across my heart. We sat at a wooden table in her kitchen, coffee cups steaming, a sunny cool autumn morning. I closed my eyes, listened. One image especially moved me, evoked the past from nearly thirty years ago: the image of an old blue-veined hand stretching out to reach a delicate vase.
My mother, Fay, her skin so dry, paper thin as she aged. How it would bleed, that skin. One nick seemed to lead to another, like a sombre medieval procession, bright but pained. The ulcer on her leg, near her ankle, cratered, never completely healed. Visits to the doctor, the same one, the surgery set back from the busy main road. Trees out the front, a path winding to the front door. A fine, early blue stone villa. At St Peters, the Adelaide suburb in which we had first settled.
The cancers that had to be cut out from different parts of her body; others burnt off her face, the wounds erupting into pinnacles, volcanoes, she said, turning away.
We’d always been tanned. Days at the beach. Shek O, Deep Water bay, Stanley, names which flow into me still, remembered and yet at times, unmoored. Black and white photographs of my mother on the beach, white blouse, beige shorts, knees tucked up. No hat. Tropical sun unabated. Others of her in China before the War. Wispy, so young, a wiry attractive woman with a sense of flair. Various men smiling, cigarettes in hand, dapper before the unforgiving advent of war.
As a youth I’d sometimes leaf through these photos, seeking my own roots, trying to find the sap that would moisten the sun baked days of Adelaide summers, life on the dry borderlands of a growing suburbia, relentless in its hunger for more land.
We’d come to Australia to avoid what my parents feared would be a Communist takeover in Hong Kong. During the War my parents had been rounded up by the Japanese in Shanghai and interned with other fellow British subjects and their Allies. There they’d remained, malnourished for three years, cooped up, often ill. Conditions in all camps were bad, resources few and stretched. Weight losses of thirty to forty pounds in the first few months of internment were common. My father kept my mother alive by working in the camp kitchen. He learned how to be a butcher. The most honest person I’ve known, he would sneak small pieces of meat that he’d later feed to my mother. There’d be roll calls where internees might have to stand still in the sun or whatever type of weather, perhaps for hours. Daily life was subject to the caprice of guards, to disease and illness, to lack of privacy, stress, boredom, and towards the end of the War, the danger of Allied bombs going astray. Some people lost hope and gave up; some went mad; some were executed in full view of the rest of the internees. Many of my mother’s health problems started here.
In the late 1950’s a number of family friends and my father’s work colleagues decided to leave Hong Kong and settle elsewhere. England was the preferred destination and New Zealand also figured. My parents chose Adelaide in South Australia because of its hills. My mother especially could not bear the thought of living somewhere ‘flat’. Flatness for her meant entrapment in a featureless plain. Mountains and hills could provide a backdrop, a place which could contain urban growth, could act as a way of positioning her in the world. They were landmarks, invitations to move into another world too, the world of fields and trees, the green wonder of nature.
Adelaide was also less densely populated that Melbourne or Sydney. My parents dismissed Bideford in England as too cold and Nelson in New Zealand (the last of their three choices) as too isolated, too far away from what they had known.
My mother and I struggled the most with the Adelaide heat, with our house which became ‘like an oven’ in summer. Then the heat would be unrelenting. It seemed to bore in, swirl, settle like a blanket, at once claustrophobic and dulling. The kitchen became a place of tyranny and burden for my mother. There was no window in the kitchen; the trapped heat thickened. On hot days the back door would be closed as the heat swept in with the hot northerly winds. We’d come from a humid climate where fans might be enough, but here we’d put bowls of water in front of fans. I’d wet a handkerchief and tie it around my neck, put ice cubes in them as well, or rub ice on my wrists, my mother’s forehead.
Her body, increasingly thin, became a whisper of itself. Her dark hair thinned, became flecked with grey. She rarely complained about pain. Some days she’d put on records on our battered record player, or turn up the radio, tilt her head in such a way I’d know she was feeling sentimental. She loved the music of Louis Armstrong, his signature tune, ‘Hello Dolly’, and would click her fingers in tune with his song, or to Perry Como, other crooners. She’d reminisce about her days in Shanghai, the years before the war, the Bund, International Settlements, the all night clubs; hit tunes, hawker food on the way home. Yummy she’d call my Dad then. They’d dance together in our tiny kitchen, swish past the chairs and table, in rare moments of closeness. I’d relax into that, another side of my parents, my father’s tenderness, sometimes join in, dance with my Mum, I, increasingly taller, my mother, just under five feet inches.
Silent stories curled in cigarette smoke drifting across the room.
In later years the pills gathered around her, various medications, some working against each other, bottles of them that she carried from room to room. Stacked up on the coffee table near the sofa where she’d lay, TV on, eyes closed, ashtray nearby.
Slowly, even the booze let go of. No more those regular afternoon drinking sessions, cheap wine, first from casks, then bottles, beginning in the kitchen, moving to the lounge, the inexorable steps towards confrontation, conversations like interrogations.
I’d drink too, join in as I moved through my teens. Beers, bourbon, Scotch; more beers. She’d point at me, cigarette always in hand, stab the air with point after question, question after point. Debates would slide into accusations which became slurred into exhaustion and upset, denial, futile rebuttal. At times I no longer knew who I was, feared what I might be, might become. I learned to be more analytical, sharp, knowledgeable, to thrive on studying History and Politics, turning her arguments back on her. Surviving.
Living in the cauldron, I came to call it. Life through a truth serum.
Or she’d sweep me up, her comradeship, uncanny sense of knowing, look at me with pained eyes, as if she were looking through me. She’d pull out playing cards, gather them, tell my fortune. These were no frills cards, worn from use. She would discard all the two’s through to and including the five’s. The six of hearts and six of spades were kept, the six of clubs and diamonds were left out. I didn’t notice at first, the structure of her pack. I was drawn by the mystery, the strangeness, the different capacity of cards, their ability to hold and reflect aspects of life, to be cards that were normally used for games, yet here, unveiled, to be something so much more.
My mother would clear the table I front of her. Perhaps she’d put down a special cloth. She’d shuffle the cards, cut the deck three times, put them back together again, and then lay the cards out in six sets of three. Shed put on her glasses; they’d perch just above a ‘volcano’ from a skin cancer on her nose, draw on a cigarette, put the cigarette down on an ashtray, exhale the smoke. The reading would begin. Bits and pieces of my life plucked out as if from a dream, rearranged, then reinterpreted. She’d ask questions, especially about any girls I’d was interested in. I’d be diffident, casual, shrug my shoulders, eventually break, smile, say yes, mention a name or two. Sometimes she’d raise an eyebrow, reach out for that cigarette, light another, look back at me, thinking, eyes searching. There was always enough in what she said to keep my saying yes when she offered to do a reading. Some occasions in my mid teens I’d say no; she’d ticker her chin out, ask later, the next day.
One day I asked where she’d learned to read cards. And she’d replied, ‘from Jean, my friend, when we were interned’. From the cards the two of them could follow camp intrigues, discover who was going with whom, she continued, before turning over a card, tell me what I was really thinking.
When I was a student at University I asked her to teach me the cards. Months later she told me their most rudimentary meanings. Slowly from that I began over time to build up my own understanding, basic at first, then gradually, deeper and more flowing.
She was unerringly accurate. When I went to clear up the house after she had died, I found a newspaper cutting on her dressing table. It was an advertisement for the very firm of funeral directors – and their exact location- that I had independently chosen.
There’d be games of Mah Jong too, my wife and I, father and mother, playing all night, betting with small coins, laughing, joking, smoking, drinking, with little breaks every now and then for snacks and stretches. We’d start just after dinner and go all night, sometimes until five or six in the morning. These were unbeatable times, a comradeship rarely surpassed. All of us would enjoy the banter, clacking of mah jong tiles, the building of walls, silence of concentration, strategic pauses. I’d listen for the Cantonese and Mandarin names, smile inwardly at my father’s frustrations when he lost as he banged his remaining tiles down on the table; enjoy my mother’s quiet sighs whether she won or lost, her glances at me, one eyebrow raised, when my father, so competitive, got irksome.
Mah Jong was another link with our Asian past. I was captivated by the dragons, the four directions, the design of the flower and season tiles, the different characters, colours, symbols. They became more and more a moving mosaic of sound, form, poetry for me. And, in a quiet way, they introduced my maternal grandmother into my life. She’d returned to her birth place in Devon after the war, introduced mah jong to a small but loyal coterie of friends in Bideford.
Her presence in England became snagged in my mother’s long, critical comments about my father, what she saw as his failings, the decision to leave Hong Kong, the move to Adelaide, the heat, flies, humdrum food (then). The quaint names of North Devon, like Ilfracombe and Appledore, their softer nuances unfolding with visions of green hills, closeness to the sea, became romanticised as lush natural embraces of nature far removed from the relentless heat of Adelaide summers. That I was born in Bideford only added to this longing.
My parents, increasingly isolated, never developing close, deep friendships in Australia that could sustain and ground them here in our new country- and take the pressure of my sister and I.
Cigarettes, Camels, unfiltered, too many. Nicotine stained fingers. Spluttering lighters; searches for matches, boxes of them, Redheads. Trips to delis. More supplies. The poverty we’d fallen into as soon as we stepped off the boat at Outer Harbour. My parents, running down their financial reserves, staying in an expensive City Hotel too long.
My mother, not yet recovered from internment, nearly dying giving birth to my sister right after the War. Looked like a ‘shrivelled apple’ she said, eyes moistening. My sister, born in Melbourne, all of us born in different countries. My parents, leaving Melbourne, settling in Singapore, then back in Hong Kong.
Walking up and down the High Street in Bideford and across the tors past Northam and Appledore, my mother, making certain she’d be fit for my birth. Refusing pain killers. If I was going to die, I wanted to know I was dying, she told me once.
The click of the silver cigarette case, opening, shutting, the Bideford crest on it; another cigarette lit.
Asking me to play golf with my father, par three courses as he got older, after he had retired. Something for him to do, she said. Get him out of her hair. Upsets when I didn’t call or drop around once a week. Smouldering like one of her cigarettes when I moved to England for awhile.
One day I got her a wheelchair, had it delivered. So my father could take her out. I have to get out of the house, she’d cry. ‘I feel trapped indoors, can’t stand it, like a tomb’.
We come from generations of people who’ve moved around the world. On both sides of the family. Traversing. Different countries, continents, new beginnings, ventures, exits, places of no return. My mother, born in Peking (then). Her father, half Belgian, half Scot, born in Dundee, a man who often spoke German and enrolled my mother in a German speaking school in Peking. He and my maternal grandmother met and married in Bideford before moving out to China before the First World War. A skilled tailor, my father did some work for the Imperial family, took photographs for national Geographic, and resolutely drank himself to an early death. I have some of his photographs, deftly framed, pictures of old China, some of Englishmen wearing topis, women in their voluminous dresses, picnic baskets nearby. My maternal grandmother never came to terms living in China. She didn’t learn Mandarin, knew no other dialects.
My Uncle and my mother, at ease with the Mandarin they learned from the amah, using it to keep secrets from their mother. My Uncle, fluent in Mandarin, Shanghaiese, Russian, working on the borders of China and Russia, somehow getting to Australia, joining the RAN, liberating my parents in 1945.
Years later, his death from throat cancer in Hong Kong, us living here, me listening to my mother crying, my father’s efforts to comfort her, hands on her shoulder. Newspaper cuttings instead of a funeral; no grave to visit, funeral to attend, money to travel.
My father, born in Hong Kong, his father American, mother German, brought up by his Uncle after his parents’ early deaths.
Travelling was in the blood. Now it was trips to K Mart and Target, asphalt parking lots. No more walks around Morialta Falls in the Adelaide Hills nearby or holidays in the Flinders Ranges, time by the coast at Robe in the south east.
My wife and I spending weekends cooking food. Going through recipes, determined and dedicated, each cooking a number of meals, chopping veggies and roasting and mixing spices; sometimes my wife’s best friend would join in. Red wine would flow, stain a recipe book or two. Then the long wash up, the half hour drive from one side of town to the other, the familiar road past suburbs and shopping centres, getting closer to the Hills. Chinese food; curries; Brazillian, Caribbean, Korean, Arabic, we all loved food from different places, cultures, far from the Anglo norm. Meals that could be frozen, defrosted, reheated. Meals my father could manage easily.
My mother, shrinking, shrivelling up. She, so invincible, brave, dulled now by pain killers, other medications she didn’t tell us about. Nodding off.
In May 1982 an immense peace came over me, like nothing I had ever experienced. It lasted for several days. My worries about my mother’s health, my own post graduate studies and work, drifted away like clouds called by a different breeze.
My wife and I decided to take a holiday, to drive up to Queensland to see her family, began that long drive up past hay and Goondiwindi.
While we were away, just a day or two later, I heard in my mind my mother’s voice, as clear as day. My wife was driving, so I closed my eyes, saw my mother’s face, smelt the Devon violets perfume she so enjoyed, listened. My mother asked me what I thought, whether she should hang on or let go, die. Time to go I whispered, time to go. Did you say something, my wife asked. Thinking about Mum, I replied, left it that.
When we reached my wife’s brother’s, I knew straight away from his facial expression what had happened.
The peace I had known just before we’d left had presaged her passing. It began the process of opening up my own clairvoyance, a different path, far from the academic path I was then travelling on, something more my own.
You know, my father told me when we flew back to Adelaide, she pulled off her oxygen mask. That’s how she went.
I open a cupboard door, look at some Mah Jong tiles, touch them, run my finger along them, the bamboos and flowers, hear my mother’s laugh, the cough that would invariably follow. I press a tile against my forehead, the green dragon, my mother’s favourite, smile. I have learned to read Mah Jong tiles, can use them as divinatory and spiritual sources of understanding.
I put the tile back, close the drawer, pick up a vase, a Chinese one. It’s been around all my life. Run my hands over it, feel the texture, remember an old blue veined hand reaching out.