Eloquent tales

EducationWorld February 2019 | Books

Chroniclers of the diasporic Indian experience are many — Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Meena Alexander and Chitra Banerji Divakaruni. Despite this crowded field, that Indian Australian writer Roanna Gonsalves’ debut collection of short stories Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney and Other Stories, manages to stand out is a testament to the author’s mastery of her craft and felicity of language. This collection of 16 meticulously crafted stories explores the displacement, complexity and alienation experienced by Goans who migrated to Australia.

With unsettling honesty Gonsalves narrates the sometimes subtle and frequently disturbing racism directed towards ‘outsiders’ in their adopted homeland. Perhaps her most powerful stories are those that reveal interaction among immigrants, between recent migrants and the established, between parents and children and between lovers at a church gathering.

The Catholic church and culture play a major role in the social and emotional lives of these Indian migrants. One of my favourite stories is ‘The Teller in the Tale’, in which a mother and daughter negotiate the debris of past animosities. The now adult daughter, a creative writing major in Australia, gradually uncovers uncanny parallels in their lives, both undaunted despite the many obstacles they encounter. Their mutual animosity is gradually resolved as the daughter writes a story — the last chapter of her Ph D thesis. Like women in classic Indian folktales, the final vignette shows the wall of mistrust between the two women come crashing down as they stand beside the Cooks River, “a handcrafted silver necklace in the sun”.

‘The Skit’ is set in the living room of an established immigrant couple who invite their Bombay gang to meet a white Australian guest, recently divorced from his feminist wife. The room is a shrine to the couple’s pretensions of being a cut above, filled with white furnishings and Ikea lights. Lynette, an MBA student and central character, asks to read her skit — a montage of newspaper reports of sexual assaults on Indian girls by Australians. Her protagonist’s persecution at the hands of an Australian student welfare officer and her further humiliation by the Australian police are an indictment of the Australian criminal justice system. The assembled guests offer well-intentioned advice, warning her not to jeopardise her chances of gaining coveted permanent residency. In this story, Gonsalves succeeds in capturing, pitch perfect, the dialects of Indian immigrants in all their nuances and variations.

‘Curry Muncher 2.0’ is an unsparing look at the recent spate of racist attacks on Indian students in Australia. The victim is Vincent, an Indian graduate student returning by train after working a late shift at an Indian restaurant, a job taken to augment his stipend and send money to his mother in India. When some drunken louts brutally attack him and steal his wallet and phone, he refuses to report the assault to the police for fear it would adversely affect his chances of securing permanent resident status. As the reader flinches at this account, Vincent’s female co-worker, the narrator, wonders how he could be a ‘curry muncher’ as the louts had called him, for curry is a liquid that is sipped or poured on rice! And just like that, Gonsalves conjures up the yawning cultural divide that separates Goan migrants and white Australians.

These are technologically savvy migrants who ‘friend’ and ‘trend’ on social media, who stay in touch through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email. The young mother in ‘The Permanent Resident’ tries to come to terms with the loss of her drowned child by learning to overcome her own visceral fear of water, turning the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre “into an upside-down place of possibility, taking the cruelest month and restoring it someway into self-forgiveness, and towards anotherness”. The story ends on a ray of hope arising out of turmoil and despair.

Gonsalves’ stories emerge from the yearnings, anxieties and regrets interwoven into the lives of 21st century migrants, negotiating their way through cultural confrontations, issues of faith and the trauma of racism. Like Sunita De Souza in the titular story, her characters avoid slipping down the treacherous slope of infidelity, with Sydney here representing a means of escape from the complications of life in India.

The eponymous soccer mom of another story, ‘Brownsplains’, explains herself as a brown person in a predominantly white society. In another story, an Indian family sits down to an Australian Christmas dinner.

The author is always alive to the numerous contradictions that underpin lives in this era of globalisation and she records such instances with sensitivity, humour, wit and compassion. Occasionally heartrending, frequently lighthearted, they present the truth and ordeals of an ‘outsider’ in modern Australia. This collection of short stories marks the debut of an eloquent Indian Australian voice, that deserves a place in the canon of Australian literature.

Anita Balakrishnan (The Book Review, December 2018)

Precious wisdom

This timely book by well-reputed writer, spiritual teacher and social activist Swami Agnivesh, articulates an understanding of spirituality that addresses many contemporary issues. Noting how religion has often been misused to justify oppression and conflict, this book strongly advocates rethinking on a number of theological issues even as it presents a relevant, universal and socially-engaged understanding of spirituality that transcends religious boundaries.

Swami Agnivesh distinguishes between religion and spiritualism, observing that they are quite often contradictory. He critiques institutionalised religiosity which is focused on personal salvation to the exclusion of social justice issues. On the other hand, the practical spiritualism that Swami Agnivesh advocates is inclusive, universal, concerned about the welfare of all religious communities and a force for peace and justice in the world.

A major focus of the book is the relationship between religion and its adherents — an issue of great import today. Although the author admits that religious faith is essentially about one’s relationship with the Divine, he argues that all religions should connect us to humankind and the rest of creation. As such, hostility and antagonism is a “contradiction of the very idea of religion”. Religions, says the Swami, should be “nurseries of the culture of hospitality”, rather than “fortresses of hostility”.

Arguing that people of different faiths must work together and regard each other as allies, Agnivesh opines that religions should “help each other in fulfilling their historic destiny as instruments of peace and human welfare”. According to him, the role of religious leaders in the global village is to foster “a sense of universal kinship among peoples of the world”.

This message preaching the virtues, indeed necessity, of inter-religious harmony — which goes beyond mere tolerance — is very timely because under the rule of the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre and in the Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh (pop. 215 million), deep rents in the fabric of constitutionally mandated secularism are becoming manifest. The cow slaughter ban, the Ayodhya temple dispute, triple talaq and other religion-centred issues have resurrected the spectre of intolerance and riots.

Against this backdrop, Swami Agnivesh’s insight that the “inter-faith movement needs to be erected on the foundation of spirituality, not of institutionalised religion” is very apposite. Agnivesh’s analysis is that inter-faith dialogue and harmony have remained elusive for decades “largely because clerics did not look at the horizon beyond religion that is common to all human beings and, therefore, to all religions: the horizon of shared spirituality”. Instead of seeking liberation through sharing, religious leaders have been engaged in “showcasing their religious wares or explaining away aberrations of their religious communities”.

Agnivesh offers some useful suggestions for taking inter-faith dialogue beyond polite theological exchanges. He recommends searching for the beautiful in other religions, and forsaking the competitive model of religiosity. He advocates religious harmony and human solidarity for addressing the serious challenges confronting Planet Earth — global warming, threat of nuclear annihilation and environmental disaster.

In the newly emergent globalised world, the need for a global consciousness based on regard and concern for all living creatures, is becoming increasingly necessary. In this context, Agnivesh’s reminder that “true spirituality is not the exclusive preserve of any particular religious tradition, but the common heritage of the human species,” is very pertinent, as is his advocacy of spirituality — “a call to practise justice and to liberate the oppressed”.

This well-argued book contains many precious gems of wisdom and has a very relevant message for peace on Earth, goodwill to men.

Roshan Shah

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