The Sound of Water

Eight-year-old Chuyia, the youngest and most petite of the heroines of Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), the closing film in the director’s Elements trilogy, has a hard road ahead of her on the death of her much older spouse. This child bride newly widowed still preserves her luxuriant long black hair in the opening scenes but it is destined not to last, like much else she has counted on in her desperately short life. With her regretful father by her side, she is conducted to a widow’s ashram in the holy city of Varanasi. The Hindu scripture-prescribed fate laid down for widows is bleak and austere in India in 1938 and Chuyia’s first glimpses of that world bring out her rebellious streak.

The other widows resident at the ashram, much older women for the most part, have long had any glow they might have once possessed completely obliterated, but Madhumati, the forbidding femme in charge, knows right away that she may have a battle on her hands to tame the feisty little girl. Chuyia gains an ally, of sorts, in the hardy Shakuntala and another friend of equal importance to her in the figure of the gentle Kalyani.

Kalyani occupies a position of both privilege and ostracism at the house. She has a room of her own at the top of a flight of stairs, keeps a pet dog and, unlike the other widows, has been allowed to retain long, flowing hair. The reason she has not been ‘de-feminised’ in this fashion is because the ganja smoking Madhumati, with the aid of a friend, prostitutes her out to wealthy Brahmin clients across the river in order to gain enough funds both to meet the household’s rent and bankroll her preferred indulgences.

In due course Kalyani commits the unforgivable ‘sin’ of falling for handsome Narayan, a Gandhi idealist attracted to the great reformer’s liberalism, ideas shocking to both Madhumati and Gulabi, the pimp who rows Kalyani back and forth across the river on the nights when her services are called for. Unbeknownst to Narayan, one of Kalyani’s client is his own father.

When this shattering truth dawns on her, the untenability of her situation leads Kalyani to drastic action. The step she takes serves to remind one of the dual nature of the sacred river Ganges. It is both the washer away of sins and uncleanliness and also the place where the Hindu faithful cremate their dead. Unrepentant, the practical Madhumati, who has been the pivotal decider of Kalyani’s fate since she, like Chuyia, came to the ashram as a widowed child bride, later enacts a plan to begin prostituting Chuyia similarly.

Witness to all these goings on, not unlike a chorus in a Greek tragedy, is Shankuntala (brilliantly depicted by Seema Biswas). What happens when your conscience conflicts with your faith, is the question that gradually takes on more and more resonance in her mind. Devout, dedicated and selfless, on the one hand she desires to embrace the lot of a widow faithful to the traditional code though she knows in her heart of hearts that it is the cruellest of unjust fates for a woman. Furthermore, with respect to Chuyia, the basest abuse, in the name of religion, will be committed if she does not act.

Ms Mehta’s sympathy is with the widows in a society where Hinduism is misinterpreted for fundamentalist, personal ends, specifically in this instance the warped misogynist view that widows somehow cause the deaths of their spouses and must subsequently become renunciants, thereby expiating bad karma. Consigned to dilapidated ashrams, with one meal a day to sustain them, they will be less of a burden on their families and society. Understated, beautiful cinematography occasionally explodes into flashes of lush colour, notably on the rare occasions when the widows are permitted the freedom to celebrate. It is counterpointed by the soundtrack, which features songs and a hauntingly lilting background score. The film is based on the Bapsi Sidwha novel of the same name.

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My short story Walls can be read at:


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Cracks in the Earth

Despite the apparent relative ease with which Sweden and Switzerland, as well as a handful of other territories in Europe, walked the tightrope of neutrality during the Second World War this must have been an exceptionally difficult balancing act to manage. On the one hand both were hemmed in by nations committed either to the righteous cause or that of the aggressors. On the other, the neutral stance often reeks of tacit acceptance of the actions of those who would seek to subjugate or, worse, quasi collaboration. Seven decades on from the Second World War, the Swedish nation has not yet had the courage to fully acknowledge the aid she directly, or less directly, offered the Nazis during their pillage of Europe.

The wealthy Parsee family at the centre of Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), the second film in her Elements trilogy and adapted from the Bapsi Sidhwa novel Cracking India, is caught in a position not dissimilar to a land that refuses to show its hand when all around it turmoil is raging. Lying by the side of his spouse one night, the bespectacled father of the family Rustom goes so far as to extol the example of Switzerland. They, meaning him and his immediate circle, will be all right provided they embrace that spirit, he tells his uncertain wife Bunty. In their current predicament aloofness is an unwise hem to cling to, as Bunty rightly surmises, but with World War Two having recently wound down her husband could be forgiven for having the Swiss approach fresh in the mind.

It is 1947, the setting the city of Lahore. Rustom and Bunty’s polio afflicted eight-year-old daughter Lenny is narrating the story of the time through her adult self. The innocence and peacefulness of her youth is being threatened in a nation on the brink of self-rule. The tragedy in the making is that India is not in a position to undertake the transition peacefully, a fact the ruling British conveniently sweep aside in their eagerness to depart and have done with what has for far too long been a losing proposition.

Theirs is a typically arrogant colonial power betrayal, epitomised in an early scene when a British policeman expresses views that so rile a Sikh fellow guest at a dinner in the Parsee household that the latter flies at the Englishman with one of his eating utensils. Lenny has a Hindu nanny or Ayah, Shanta, a young Hindu beauty who counts among her friends the Moslems Hassan and Dil. They are in turn part of a larger group of friends that includes Sikh adherents and other Moslems and Hindus, some of whom work for the Parsee family. Their ease with each other, over meals, in public spaces, smacks of tolerance and acceptance long fostered.

But the mutual goodwill is fraying at the seams with independence and the challenges of self-rule literally days away. The once relaxed friends come close to brawling as they contemplate the immediate future and all that the partitioning of their homeland into Hindustan and Pakistan will mean. Barbarous acts occur in their midst. A night train enters the railway station bearing the corpses of countless slain Moslem men. From a rooftop vantage point, Hassan, Dil, Shanta and Lenny witness the drawing and quartering of a Moslem man by a rabid Hindu pack. Shanta shields Lenny’s eyes but the girl has seen more than enough. Later, with the aid of her cousin, she destroys one of her dolls in like fashion.

Lenny’s loyalties are not exclusive. She hero worships both the ‘Ice Candy Man’ Dil and the masseur Hassan, knowing very well both are in love with Shanta. The two endeavour to win her in their individual ways. But Dil is the one who sets greatest store by his efforts. In a last-ditch attempt to gain her hand in marriage he confides to Shanta his awareness that there is a beast in him – he decries it as the same beast lurking in all men, Hindu, Moslem and Sikh alike – an animal he will be unable to tame without her loving understanding and help. But Shanta will not be swayed. She feels more naturally drawn to the gentle Hassan and by this time she has agreed to be his wife.

Dil is a reasonable man but Shanta’s decision rocks him and he unapologetically goes on to fulfil his prophecy for himself. As shattering as this denouement is, Ms Mehta closes the middle film of her assured trilogy with images the equal of any that have preceded it. It quietly speaks volumes about the scars bound to linger forever in the lives of innocent ones for whom sectarian divisions, or any divisions whatsoever, mean nothing, those who would much rather play, as the uncomprehending interned Moslem boy (he has recently witnessed his mother’s rape and murder) asks Lenny and her cousin to play marbles with him at the close of an encounter between the three. This is a story of purity shattered at a time of social and political upheaval.

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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:

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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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