Review Essay: The Bearded Chameleon
The Reverse Diaspora - An Australian Poet’s India
Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka), 1 January 2012
Chris Mooney-Singh’s new collection of poetry The Bearded Chameleon is the work of a new voice engaging with the ‘diaspora discourse’. As a Caucasian Australian who has converted to Sikhism, his is a kind of reverse-diasporic point of view. Mooney-Singh’s close empathy with the land of his adopted way of life and philosophy creates in the reader the impression of a second-generation ‘returnee’ to a familiar time and place, when in reality, he is a son of Antipodean soil.
This is evident from the dropped hints in selected poems throughout the collection. Otherwise, this is poetry that could have been written by an Indian with all its insider knowledge.
The title itself hints at Mooney-Singh’s chameleon-like position within the Indian landscape and the agility with which he writes about it. Thus, his example as a cultural convert needs its own reverse-diasporic category to differentiate it from mere travel writing.
It is evident that he has lived and breathed long and deep in Northern India and his considered work codifies the vivid and changing reality of the diaspora as he commutes between Australia, Singapore and India; along the way, he deals extensively with prominent themes such as nostalgia, memory and the imaginary homeland.
Ethnic, cultural and the micro-observation of regional diversity are some of the hallmarks of Mooney-Singh’s India poems.
As in the classical description of diasporic writings, this poetic exploration is not only a codification of individual experiences but also a poetic documentary of the ‘collective voice’ in a highly hybridised milieu. In a way, this hybridity is manifested in Mooney-Singh’s mixed genealogy: his Australian-Irish descent, a work life domiciled in Singapore (evident from his previous collection The Laughing Buddha Cab Company) and his ongoing transnational experiments with the Sikh way of life.
Poverty and deprivation in a typical North Indian village is brilliantly captured in ‘Punjab Pastoral’ the opening poem of the collection. Poverty is coupled with an inlander naivety on the part of the villagers who think the village tank is like ‘the Ocean’ that nobody has ever seen.
In fact, this is also a classical allusion to medieval Bhakti and Sikh poetry where the metaphor of the ‘Ocean’ represents eternal consciousness and is often applied to any body of water at hand.
In a traditional Punjabi context a ‘tank’ was a flat ‘ocean-wide’ expanse of water, rather than a small-mouthed well. In the Post-Partition days, however, the Central Indian Government created irrigation canals with pumps controlling irrigation within Punjab and controversially to other neighbouring states such as Haryana and Rajasthan, negating the old system of using village tanks for human and animal consumption:
I cannot hear the mermaid singing here
beside this irrigation channel, dug with hoes
and feeding sugar cane – a sudden crop
of sweetest cash, yet magical as staves,
and green-checked lungi , that is now hitched up
above my knees, so that my own wet soil
can drop and find its way back into landfill.
It sounds quite pastoral and yet
a place without a latrine, without a job
for every man, a place of raw mixed opium,
strained through muslin cotton, squeezed and drained...
The only way a young man gets to leave
is selling his plot for an agent’s dicy promise
of a stamped visa to a foreign sweatshop.
Yes, they all want to leave and yet I’ve come
to squat and shit and the chew the grass and spit
like village elders by the Panchayat tree.
For what? A cultural look and see and then
To fly back when the travel cash runs dry?
They look and talk of me, the grubby kids,
Dragging a stick of sugar cane in dust,
and mothers loading grass onto their heads...
...I hear no mermaid singing by the canal.
Panchayat: a village council of five
The poet contrasts an over-fertilised and toxic pastoral landscape with the impoverished human world relying upon it at a time when everyone longs to leave. Having come for ‘a cultural look’ this should be an idealised heaven - the land of his philosophical beliefs. The harsh reality is, however, that having endured centuries of Islamic invasion, partition, war and discord, including the militant decade of the 1980s, this is now a place in agrarian and social decline - with over-reliance on deep artesian wells and pumps in a State subject to water politics, land division, unemployment and social problems such as AIDS and massive drug addiction where the Government turns a blind eye and receives its bribes.
Like many diasporic poets, Mooney Singh explores with unclogged vision a place beset by man-managed tragedies, yet still attempts to link with the idea of ‘the original home’ and historic home of the ten Sikh Gurus and their disciples who created a spiritual, economic and political revolution in Punjab - the ‘Land of Five Rivers’ from the middle of the 15th to the 20th Century. Sadly, it seems such a haven seems now to exist only in the poet’s imagination and he is aware of it.
The term ‘pastoral’ for instance also carries with it all of the connotations of Western civilization, going back to the bucolic age of Homer and Hesiod in ancient Greece and Virgilian Rome. Now, however, the word ‘pastoral’ is clearly ironic in a post British-ruled sub-continent. The sources of problems for the Land of Five Rivers of the once undivided State encapsulating Pakistan run deep.
‘Punjab Pastoral’ is thus a poem which might well be catogorised according to the poetics of ‘return’. The poet visits a familiar landscape which is the ‘original home’. In his mindscape, there is still a mermaid who ‘sings by the canal’ which may allude to Eliot’s Prufrock where the mermaids sing ‘each to each’ but not to him. It’s a nod to Modernism that informs us that the author, despite his interest in Indian history is still a global poet of the post-industrial era with all its foibles and post-modern doubts. The ‘pastoral’ image of the village contrasts sharply with the harsh ground reality with ‘grubby kids, dragging a stick of sugar cane in dust’ while ‘mothers [are] loading grass onto their heads’. It is clear that the poet is not part of the landscape he wants to identify with and his cultural anchorage has almost foundered. Cultural loss is a major characteristic of diasporic life. The narrator of the poem has dual identities, but in the deepest sense is a stranger wherever he is. (Cont here)