F-i-r-e i-n I-n-d-i-a

In India’s highly patriarchal culture the eldest son enjoys a privileged position. Ashok, one of the central characters in Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire, fully enjoys the fruits of this exalted lot. He shares his household with his aged, widowed mother Biji, his wife Radha, his much younger brother Jatin and Mundu, the family servant.

Together with Radha and Mundu, Ashok runs a take-out Punjabi food business. His helpers are indispensable but Ashok is the undisputed king of the castle. He is the one who doles out the financial largesse derived from the business, which is in point of fact much less than might reasonably be expected. Ashok tithes a considerable amount to his guru, Swamiji, whose teachings he has held as sacrosanct for years.

Ashok, we learn, has opted for celibacy in married life ever since making the discovery that his wife is unable to conceive children. He has thus consigned Radha to a (physically) loveless union. At the same time he has insisted they lie by one another’s sides in the conjugal bed. In this way he can test his resolve to overcome temptation and expunge desire – ‘the root of all evil’ – from his makeup.

But this aesthete hellbent on accessing a higher truth is not in the most ideal of environments for such an endeavour. His much younger brother Jatin exhibits the hallmarks of a layabout. His video store has a clandestine stock of porn, freely dealt out to eager customers, young boys among them. Mundu, in his spare time, masturbates to some of the racier fare in full view of the scandalised but incapacitated (she cannot speak, walk or feed herself) Biji. Jatin’s lover is Julie, a hedonistic, starry-eyed Chinese-Indian who has rejected Jatin’s hand in marriage, not wishing to become a typical, tradition bound Indian wife, or, as Jatin bluntly puts it, ‘a baby making machine’.

Jatin is on her side but has no such qualms about putting the beautiful young Sita in exactly the same position when he is cajoled into marrying her. But Sita is as interested in that prospect as Julie, who Jatin continues to call on after the wedding. On first taking up residence in the house of her extended family Sita puts on music and dances around her room in a crop top and comically overlarge pants. If Radha is alarmed by her new sister-in-law’s rebelliousness, she downplays the fact.

The pair are kindred spirits and their souls and bodies eventually merge, resulting in an awakening of potential in Radha long repressed. Ashok and Jatin, caught up as they are in their own worlds, seem largely unaware of the transformation. Mundu, however, is more observant. When Radha one day catches him masturbating in front of Biji and orders him to leave, he makes it clear he is well aware of the ’hanky panky’ going on between her and Sita.

The sexual tension between the two women is already palpable by this stage of the film. Ms Mehta depicts it in tender, understated scenes. It gravitates to a new dimension with Mundu’s implied threat that he will inform on the two lovers to Ashok, though what precisely he stands to gain if he does reveal their ‘secret’ is never entirely clear. A brief scene in which he studies a picture of the family would suggest he has a yen for the long- suffering Radha, as subservient in her way as he is in his role.

Fire is a feast for the eye and the disparate cast are uniformly good. The director’s concern lies less with Ashok’s apparent failure to completely eradicate fleshly desire than it does Radha’s belated but decisive recognition that, as she tells her disbelieving spouse, ‘desire is beautiful’ and that in the years she lived without it she believed herself to be half-dead. Flashbacks to her girlhood imply that seeing clearly was something she struggled with then too.

Radha is an individual with astute self-knowledge. Having unsuccessfully prevailed on Ashok to sack Mundu, she later likens herself to the hapless servant. When he masturbated he was concerned with nothing but his own fragmentary pleasure. Was the woman she had now evolved into, as a result of her and Sita’s love, not just as selfish and beholden to her own pleasure? Ashok has work to do. He has misjudged his wife and used her for his own ends. This, not his high aspiration, is his gravest fault. Yet when the dust settles all in the fractured household may be better off and share as one Radha’s clearer vision.

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The Ministration of Loss

My story The Ministration of Loss has been published in Gold Dust Literary Magazine’s Winter 2016 issue. A free PDF of the entire issue is now downloadable at the following link:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/editors-adele-gerachty-david-gardiner/gold-dust-no30-winter-2016-free-download/ebook/product-22983500.html

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One More Line…One More Line…One More Line…!

In some sublime sentences the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima once likened writing to farming. Both required vigilance, daily grind and unceasing dedication, he wrote. Yet at the end of a long season of indefatigable labour one could do no more than hope for the harvest of a plenteous crop.

For Mishima, writing was a relentless whip that brought with it struggling nights, desperate hours and endless toil, the memory of which, by his own admission, would have driven him insane had he ever paused to seriously reflect on the totality. But for all the pain, fear and uncertainty he could acknowledge there was no other way for him to survive but to go on writing one more line, one more line, one more line … ! Therein, perhaps, lay a certain joy.

If I were to choose an analogy I would liken writing to running. Throughout the otherwise meandering track of my life both have formed parallel streams. On an almost daily basis since my late teens, I have taken to the waters of one or the other – and frequently both in quick succession on the same morning or afternoon.

Where athletes were concerned, I was most in awe of marathon runners, whereas amongst writers it was novelists who truly captured my imagination. The novel was the broad canvas I wished to work upon, regardless of how hard it might be to construct a good novel, and I yearned to experience the ‘other world’, as the great Czech Olympic distance runner Emil Zatopek once referred to it, of the marathon.

Suitably inspired, I set myself the twin goals of writing a novel and training for a marathon around the same time in my twenty-first year. Adhering to Mishima’s daily vigilance, I achieved both before my twenty-first birthday. But, inevitably for one as young and inexperienced, when I began the separate but intertwined journeys I encountered obstacles that at times seemed insurmountable. Many years later I still recall the struggles of the time and everything I learnt, and continue to put into practice, as a consequence.

I caught a glimpse of the immense pleasure to be had from setting down a sentence, combining several to form a paragraph and shaping a number of paragraphs into the ‘long-distance writer’s’ pride and delight, none other than a chapter. What satisfaction can be gained from rereading something that has been worked on unstintingly in the past! How thrilling to marvel at the rhythm or the fact that one has said exactly what one aspired to say with the means at hand!

On the evening of the day on which I completed my first marathon, basking in the heady achievement, I reflected ruefully on the fact that I had run unhindered every step of the way. The weeks spent in training had been vastly different. Who among the spectators that morning would have guessed that during the long weeks of training leg soreness often reduced me to an ignoble parody of a runner’s gait? Who, for that matter, among readers can envisage the heartache often at the root of a novel or other piece of writing?

Marathons, like novels, were a hit or miss affair. There were no guarantees. A sore spot might flare up on the last training run or on the day itself. Inspiration might go missing on the final page. The onus, in that case, lay on the practitioner to proceed one step, one sentence, at a time, to render each as adroitly as possible. Viewed from such a perspective, joy was there for the taking. Every moment writing, running, living would then never be less than joyful.

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Whiskers was a Movie Star!

Upon leaving Australia for the first time in 1987, with the aim of travelling the globe as more than a tourist, I was clear as to my overriding wish – to help others if I could – but little inclined to stay long in any one place. I basked in the freedom to follow through on the worthwhile opportunities that came my way and also to wring change when it felt right.

Within weeks of first embracing life on the road I stumbled on a newspaper advertisement calling for volunteers to reside and work with homeless people in the United Kingdom. I wrote to England and received an application form and assorted details in the mail. After completing and posting the form I was advised that everything had been forwarded to the Glasgow Simon Community. A couple of months later I was invited to join them as a full-time live-in volunteer.

The UK Simon Communities operated under the umbrella of a group known as the National Cyrenians. The symbolism was clear and it was with this ‘helping to bear the cross’ ethos in mind that the first Simon Community was established in London in the early 1960s, expressly to address the scarcity of accommodation options available to newly released prisoners.

More than twenty years later the Simon served all manner of homeless people, whether temporarily or more permanently down on their luck. The residents in Glasgow were chronic alcoholics. Among them were many committed to trying out sobriety and others not yet capable of undertaking this step.

In spite of the name the Glasgow Simon was not an ecumenical or faith community in any traditional sense of those words. Nor was the situation appreciably different in any of the Simon Communities I worked in subsequent to Glasgow. But faith, of a kind, existed. The burgeoning of intentional communities in the 1960s arguably represented nothing if not hope that all can find acceptance in this world, even those most vividly different to the norm.

In time my sights became fixed on North America, specifically its Catholic Worker Movement communities. I wrote to several addresses around the time of my arrival in the region and ultimately received an invitation to join the community in New York City. I received a warm welcome upon stepping inside the group’s multi-storey East First Street house. After putting my things aside in the second-level room where I was told I would be staying I went back downstairs to the lounge / dining area.

A couple of young American volunteers were preparing the evening meal. On hand were several of the long-term residents as well. They included a man of Scottish / Irish descent affectionately nicknamed Whiskers. Usage of this moniker had become so ubiquitous that I rarely heard anyone refer to him by his Christian name of Richard. I understood he was from Boston. A speech impediment made him difficult to comprehend and yet his sociability shone through. He took me firmly under his wing during the initial phase of my stay in the community.

To aid my settling in process he chaperoned me on walks around the Lower East Side and Bowery neighbourhoods, tendering me food and drink as we went. The house doubled as a soup kitchen four mornings a week and during the frenetic serving period Whiskers habitually manned the downstairs side door, though which those who had eaten their meals went on their way.

Though aware of the film’s reputation I would not sit down to watch Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi till many years after its 1983 release. I was amazed when I did to recognise none other than Whiskers in the homeless figure seen shuffling toward the camera near the end of a particularly elegiac sequence in the last quarter of the movie. The trademark facial hair was in place. He looked younger but decidedly worse for wear than the man I came to know. He is on screen for a matter of seconds as he shambles, pauses briefly to check the small change in his right hand and shuffles on.

Reggio’s film is a meditation upon lives out of balance, or the search for less fractious ways of living, as the translation of the Hopi Indian title into English makes clear. It warmed the heart to realise Whiskers’ life, as the pictorial evidence glaringly portrayed, was one sadly unbalanced life that regained track and equilibrium. And that this occurred all thanks to a loving, accepting community of dedicated people. Later, as I discovered from my own experience, he would demonstrate to others the love and care he received.

Homeless people, the marginalised in general, were no different to anyone else.

They could even star in movies!

Whiskers was a movie star!

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Autobiography of a Yogi – Seventy Years

The following describes my encounter with Autobiography of a Yogi and is excerpted from From a Caregiver’s Point of View (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/428823). This coming December will mark the 70th anniversary of the first publication of Yogananda’s book:

A visit I made to an intentional community in Assisi, Italy at the end of 1988 was notable for various reasons, principally a fortuitous discovery made partway through a period of silence one evening. I was passing the time browsing a collection of books in a room that doubled as a common room and library. People read or relaxed in there undisturbed. One particular tome bore a cover familiar to me from past random browsings in theosophical bookshops in and around Melbourne. Interestingly enough, given my interest in Eastern spirituality, I had never leafed through the book.

The passages I went on to read set off alarm bells. I made sure to commit the title and author’s name to memory, so I would be able to consult it again in future. Three months later, hunkered down in a library elsewhere in Europe, I transcribed an excerpt of two or three pages, one that for me contained stellar insights.

Several months would pass before I read Autobiography of a Yogi from cover to cover, but the experience added weight to that first impact. The book posited truths on every page. I never doubted that for a second. And yet it was anything but a humourless, stodgy read. How timely this encounter at the stage I had reached on a spiritual quest that had lasted years.

In due course I read more of the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda. A burgeoning interest in his life and work gained headway in North America. I attended meetings offering a précis of his life and teachings in New York City and on a blue-sky Los Angeles Sunday months later explored the transcendent Lake Shrine Temple at Pacific Palisades. No longer could I ignore what my intuition had been telling me since bringing the book down from the shelf in Assisi: that, if I dared follow, with Yogananda’s guidance I would one day find my way home.

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This is my Husband

My story This is my Husband is one of the works featured in the anthology ‘On the Back of a Motorbike: Stories and Poems from Southeast Asia’. Available at smashwords and also in kindle and print editions.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/671221

 

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Sunstroke – Translation of Quiroga story La Insolacion

The puppy, Old, went out the door and crossed the patio with an upright, lazy step. He paused at the boundary of the pasture, craned his neck in the direction of the mountain, half-closed his eyes, and sat quietly. He looked at the monotonous Chaco plain with its alternating mountains and fields, fields and mountains, colourless except for the creaminess of the pasture and the blackness of the mountains. The view enclosed the farm to a distance of 200 metres on three sides. Toward the east the field broadened into a clearing marked nevertheless by the inescapable shady line farther on.

At the early hour, the confines, washed in blinding light at midday, possessed an air of repose. There was not a cloud or a breath of wind. Beneath the silver sky, the fields exuded the freshness of a tonic that brought to the pensive soul, aside from the certainty of another day of drought, dreams of better-paid work.

Milk, the father of the puppy, crossed the patio in his turn and with a lazy moan of well-being sat beside Old. Because there were no flies both remained unmoving.

“It’s a fresh morning,” observed Old, gazing at the edge of the mountain.

Milk followed the puppy’s gaze and looked fixedly, blinking with absent-mindedness. “There are two falcons in that tree,” he said after a moment.

They turned their indifferent gazes on a passing ox and went on looking at things out of pure habit.

Meanwhile the eastern sky commenced glowing in a fan shaped blaze of purple and the horizon lost its early morning precision. Milk crossed his front paws and felt a slight pain. He looked at his toes without moving them, deciding finally to sniff them. He had removed a flea the day before. In memory of what he had suffered he licked the full expanse of the toe.

“I can’t walk,” he exclaimed at last. Old did not understand what he was referring to. Milk added: “There are a lot of fleas.’

This time the puppy understood and after a long pause responded in like manner: “There are a lot of fleas.”

One by one they quietened down again, convinced.

The sun rose and in the first blaze of light the mountain turkeys cried out with the tumultuous trumpeting of a musical instrument. The dogs, golden in the oblique sun, half-opened their eyes, further enhancing the sweetness of their lives in a blessed blinking. Their friends arrived one by one: Dick, the favoured silent one; Prince, whose teeth showed behind his upper lip, once split by a coati; and Isondú, an indigenous name. The five fox terriers spread out on the ground, deadened by their lives of ease, and slept.

After an hour they raised their heads. They sensed the footsteps of their owner on the opposite side of the large two-level ranch, the lower level of which was made of mud, the upper of wood, with corridors and banisters on the stairs fit for a villa. The owner stopped for a moment at the corner and looked at the sun, already high. A solitary night of whiskey drinking, a night more prolonged than usual, showed in his dead gaze and protuberant lower lip.

While he washed, the dogs approached and smelled his boots, lazily wagging their tails. Like trained wild animals, dogs can sense even the least indication of drunkenness in their masters. They slowly removed themselves and lay back down in the sun until the increasing warmth drove them into the shade.

The day continued precisely as those of the entire month had done: dry, clear, and with fourteen hours of burning sunshine that maintained the melting cycle and that in an instant scorched the damp earth, leaving it encrusted with white. Mr. Jones went to the farm, examined the work of the day before, and returned to the ranch. He did nothing that whole morning. He ate lunch and then went up to take a siesta.

Despite the heat and because the cotton was not yet free of weeds, the farmhands returned to work at two in the afternoon. After them followed the dogs, who had taken a liking to the cultivating process the previous winter when they learned how to fight the falcons for the white worms the plough brought to the surface. Each of the dogs waited by a cotton plant, panting along with the dull blows of the hoe.

In the meantime the heat intensified. In the silent landscape the dazzling sun vibrated the air on all sides, distorting the view. The turned over earth exuded an oven-like steam that the farmhands coped with as best they could, wrapped in flowing scarves up to their ears, as their silent work continued. The dogs changed their location every so often, determined to find cooler patches of shade. They lay down lengthwise until fatigue brought them on to their back paws, a position that enabled them to breath better.

A bleak plateau that had never been ploughed shimmered into view before them. There, the puppy suddenly saw Mr. Jones sitting on a trunk gazing fixedly at him. Old got to his paws, wagging his tail. The other dogs rose too, their hair bristling.

“It’s the owner!” exclaimed the puppy, surprised by the attitude of the others.

“No, no it’s not him,” replied Dick.

The four older dogs growled dully, without shifting their eyes from Mr. Jones, who continued to sit unmoving, looking at them. Incredulous, the puppy started approaching but Prince bared his teeth:

“It’s not him, it’s Death.”

The puppy’s hair bristled and he rejoined the group.

“Is the owner dead?” he asked, anxiously.

The others, without responding to the question, broke into furious, frightened barking. But Mr. Jones had already vanished in the undulating air.

On hearing the barks, the farmhands raised their eyes and turned their heads to see if a horse had entered the farm. Unable to distinguish anything, they bent over again.

The fox terriers made their way back to the trail leading to the ranch. The puppy, frightened still, led the pack and covered the ground with short, nervous steps, aware from the experience of his friends that when something’s going to die the signs appear beforehand.

“And how do you know it wasn’t the patron himself that we saw?”

“Because it wasn’t him,” they responded, peevishly.

After Death would come a new master, misery, and kicks! They passed the remainder of the afternoon at the side of their owner, sombre and alert. At the slightest noise, without even being sure of the direction it came from, they growled. Mr. Jones felt at ease in the company of his anxious guardians.

Finally, the sun sank behind the black palm tree by the stream and in the calm of the silvery night the dogs positioned themselves around the ranch while on the upper level Mr. Jones recommenced drinking. At midnight they heard his steps and then the double sound of his boots tossed upon the floorboards. The light went out. The dogs felt closer then than ever to the reality of a change of master and alone, outside the sleeping house, commenced whimpering. They whimpered in a chorus, releasing their dry, convulsive sobs as if they were chewing, in a grief-stricken howl that Prince’s hunting voice sustained while the others sobbed again and again. The puppy could only bark. The night wore on and the four older dogs, in a group beneath the moonlight, their snouts extended and swollen with their moans – snouts so well-fed and caressed by the master they were going to lose – continued whimpering their domestic misery.

The following morning Mr. Jones himself went and got the mules ready for ploughing, working until nine o’clock. He wasn’t satisfied though. Besides the fact that the earth had never been well ploughed, the blades of the hoe lacked an edge and with the rapid movement of the mules it jumped out of the ground. He sharpened the blades. But a screw that he had already noticed was bad when he bought the machine broke when he tried to put everything back together. He asked one of the farmhands to go to the nearest mill, recommending that he take care of the horse, a good animal but one that had seen a great deal of sun. He raised his head to look at the fluctuating sun of midday and insisted that he not gallop the horse for even a moment. Then he ate breakfast and went upstairs. The dogs, which had not left their owner’s side that morning, remained in the shade below.

The siesta hour hung heavy, weighed down with light and silence. The surrounding area had become misty with the intense heat. Around the ranch, the white earth of the courtyard, dazzling beneath the heavy sunlight, appeared deformed into a tremulous boiling that made the fox terriers’ eyes heavy with sleep.

“It hasn’t returned,” said Milk.

Hearing the word ‘returned’, Old’s ears rose with alacrity. Incited by what the word evoked, the puppy rose and barked at that. In a moment he quietened down and, together with his friends, began defending himself against flies.

“It hasn’t come again,” added Isondú.

“There was a lizard beneath the stump,” Prince recalled for the first time.

A hen, its beak open and its wings spread out, crossed the incandescent courtyard, trotting with heavy step in the heat. Prince lazily followed it with his eyes and then jumped.

“Here it comes again,” he cried.

The horse the farmhand had taken entered the courtyard from the north without its rider. The dogs arched upon their paws and barked with cautious fury as Death drew nearer. The horse walked with its head lowered, apparently unsure which route to follow. Passing in front of the farm it took several steps in the direction of the well, slowly disappearing in the harsh light.

Mr. Jones came downstairs. He had not slept. As he prepared to continue assembling the hoe, the farmhand arrived unexpectedly. Despite the order given, he must have galloped to return so quickly. Unfastened, its mission completed, the poor horse, whose flanks bore the marks of countless beatings with the whip, shook and lowered its head and collapsed on its side. Mr. Jones sent the farmhand, still carrying the whip, away; he would fire him if he had to keep listening to him apologising like a Jesuit.

But the dogs were content. Death had looked for their owner but satisfied itself with the horse. They felt happy, free of worries, and were preparing to follow the hand to the farm when they heard Mr. Jones in the distance, shouting out for the screw to be brought to him. But there was no screw. The store was closed; the manager was sleeping, etc. Mr. Jones, without replying, removed the casing and went off himself in search of the part. He stood up to the sun like one of the farmhands and the walk did wonders for his bad temper.

The dogs left with him but sought the shade of the first carob tree they sighted; it was too hot. From there they watched the owner move away on steady feet, frowning and observant. But fear of solitude overcame them and with heavy step they followed on after him.

Mr. Jones obtained the screw and returned. To shorten the distance and avoid the dusty bend of the road, he followed a straight line to his farm. He arrived at a stream and penetrated the straw field, the flooded Saladito River straw field, which has followed a cycle of growth, drying out, and new growth since straw came into existence in the world, without once having been destroyed by fire. The bent brushes formed a vault at chest level and transformed themselves into solid blocks. The task of crossing it, difficult enough at a cool hour, was very hard at this time of day. However, Mr. Jones succeeded, waving his arms between the cracking, dusty crescents of straw as he made his way through the mud, suffocating from fatigue and acrid nitrous vapours.

He got through finally and stopped at the boundary. But it was impossible to remain still in this sun and feeling so tired. He went on again. The heat, which had increased without let-up for three days, now became enjoined with the suffocating effect of time corrupted. The sky was white and there was not a breath of wind. The shortage of air was such that it was hard to breathe properly.

Mr. Jones became convinced that he had passed the limit of his resistance. He felt the throbbing of his carotid artery in his ears and sensed that he was floating in the air as if the skull inside his head was being thrust upward. He became dizzy looking at the grass. He resumed walking so as to remove that feeling once and for all … and soon came to his senses and found himself in a different place; he had gone half a block without noticing anything. He looked behind him and experienced another wave of dizziness.

Meanwhile the dogs followed after him, trotting with their tongues hanging out. Now and again, suffocating, they paused in the shade of an espartillo plant; they sat and quickened their rate of panting but went back out into the tortuous sun. As soon as they came near the house, they trotted faster.

It was just then that Old, who went ahead of the others, noticed Mr. Jones behind the farm’s wire fence. He was dressed in white and walking toward them. The puppy, suddenly remembering, turned to his owner and confronted him.

“Death, Death!” he cried.

The others had seen him too and barked, their hair bristling. They watched Mr. Jones go though the wire fence and for an instant believed he was going to take the wrong direction. But after proceeding five metres he stopped, looked at the group with his heavenly eyes, and went on.

“May the owner not step so lightly!” exclaimed Prince.

“He’s going to run into him!” they all cried.

In effect, the other had advanced after a moment’s hesitation, but not right above them, like before, but in an oblique line that appeared wrong but led right to Mr. Jones. The dogs understood that everything was over because their owner continued walking with an even step, like an automaton, without noticing anything. The other arrived. The dogs lowered their tails and ran from the side, howling. A second passed and what resulted from the encounter was that Mr. Jones spun around and collapsed.

The farmhands saw him fall and carried him with haste to the ranch. But all the water did no good; he died without coming to. Mr. Moore, his brother, arrived from Buenos Aires and spent an hour at the farm. He needed just four days to settle everything, returning at once to the south. The Indians shared responsibility for the dogs, which lived from then on thin and itching all over. Bearing a secret hunger, they went every night to steal ears of corn from other people’s farms.

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