The Closed Door

The door is closed always

It opens only twice a day

Every day

For my grandmother alone

We tiptoe around it

The tiles cool on our bare feet

Scarcely daring to breathe

No sound escapes the room

What does my grandmother do?

Our father hides behind his newspaper

Our mother smiles indulgently

‘She likes to pray, go and play.’

My grandmother emerges

Smiling beatifically

Offering sweet, sweet sugar candy

First proffered to the gods.

Do they have a sweet tooth

Just like humans?

Days melt into months

Months meld into years

We grow older

The door grows older

The paint peels, the wood warps

We cannot fix it

The room’s still out of bounds.

Why does my grandmother fear

To let us look in?

Then comes the day

When she goes in

And never comes out again

We find her supine before her deities

Nestled amidst the offerings of flower

And the oh so sweet sugar candy

There is an old notebook

Little and brown like my grandmother

Its title page says: ‘My place, my space’.

Now instead of sweet, sweet sugar candy

We have her offerings of songs.

close-up photography of teal door
Source: Unsplash: Martin Adams @martinadams






Indrani’s Inkblot

image
Image of inkblot: Unsplash, Nicolas Thomas@nicholasthomas

‘But my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know.’ Alan Watts, British philosopher.

The Rorschach inkblot is no longer used as a test for some mental health conditions and younger generations who have never used a fountain pen may wonder what an inkblot is, but I think it is still a powerful metaphor for how each of us views reality through our own cultural and personal lenses.

Some may argue that this understanding is irrelevant for those who write fiction (‘it’s just a story’), others that for conscientious writers, fiction, fact and ethics are inextricably linked.

The word fiction derives from the Latin word ‘fictio’ meaning the act of shaping’ and defined as a piece of work which derives completely from the imagination of the writer. It is often perceived as being totally opposed to factual writing, : ‘Fiction is made out of nothing and on the other hand non-fiction comes out of something’.[2]

A second debate centres around the relationship between fiction and ethics/morality. Those who accept this dichotomy of fact and fiction argue that the issue of ethics and morality is also irrelevant for fiction as it represents a totally imaginary world with no bearing on reality.

This was not the view in the 19th century when fiction was regarded by the moral police as promoting unrealistic expectations of life or even immoral thoughts and behaviours.

‘[Novel reading] cascades people into useless outcomes, obsesses them with unnecessary passions, while providing a distorted view of life.’[3]

Oscar Wilde on the other hand wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book… ‘Books are well written or badly written. That is all.’ His sentiments are supported by Milan Kundera, ‘A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality’[4].

Contemporary writers like Ron Hansen believe the first principle of the fiction writers should be ‘to do no harm’.[5] Similarly Musavi writes ‘fiction must be fair, honest and accurate’  and that ‘even if a writer is writing only to provide comfort and relief to [the] readers, … [the] work still should be factually accurate. Facts are the scaffolding on which the lies of fiction rest’. [6]

There is some research demonstrating that people may regard fiction as accurate representations of reality. In some cases, it may create or exacerbate negative perceptions of a particular group, culture or society. In others reading fiction contributes to a person’s moral psychological development and their ability to have empathy or understanding.   ‘

The issue of ethical writing has been keenly debated in many fields such as fictional narratives about specific communities or societies, debates on cultural appropriation, historical fiction, fiction drawing on one’s family and friends and children’s fiction. I don’t have the space to expand on these but will come back to them in future iterations of Inkblot.

Here’s what I’ve learnt are some essential principles of ethical writing.

  1. The first rule is to do your homework. Find a way to get information about the community that you’re trying to portray from a source that isn’t biased. This can be everything from reading books by writers from the culture you’re trying to portray to actually talking to people from a particular community or society.
  • Always acknowledge the sources of your ideas! As someone once said, we all know Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ many ideas but we are not Shakespeare!
  • Try to be aware of bias. All writers are influenced by their own cultural and personal lens.
  • Recognize you don’t always know what you don’t know. Doing the necessary research will often make us aware we have a lot to learn.
  • Get feedback from as many people from different backgrounds as you can. This will help to apply the first four principles.
  • Accept that negative feedback if done in a constructive way, is a good way to improve your writing.
  • Lastly always think of how you would like others to write about you, your family, community or culture! To quote the soul-stirring song by Elvis Presley:

Walk a mile in my shoes huh

Walk a mile in my shoes

Yeah, before you abuse, criticize and accuse

Walk a mile in my shoes.[7]


[1] Image of inkblot: Unsplash, Nicolas Thomas@nicholasthomas  

[2] http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-fiction-and-non-fiction/

[3] Quoted in https://slgtalkingbooks.com/2017/09/18/the-dangers-of-fiction/

[4] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/milan_kundera_152276

[5] https://ethicsofwriting.com/2018/10/are-there-ethical-norms-in-fiction-writing/

[6] Farhan Musavi, Should Fiction Be Factually Accurate, https://www.huffingtonpost.in/farhan-musavi/should-fiction-be-factual_b_7930070.html?ncid=other_email_o63gt2jcad4&utm_campaign=share_email

[7] Lyrics by Joe South, sung by Elvis Presley.

This article was first published in SCOPE, Fellowship of Australian Writers Queensland, April/May 2021

All creatures great and small during COVID19

Dogs have loved it. Cats have hated it. Fish may not have noticed. But many humans have relied on their pets to get them through the last months.[1]

Around the world people reported the healing effects of having pet or wild animals around them. I can certainly vouch for this. My two rescue beagles, Bonnie and Clyde who joined our family just before the virus struck, provided incentives for exercise, opportunities to meet neighbours I had never met before and much affection and amusement.

However, I was also interested in how COVID 19 affected animals – wild, stray, captive and domestic – and how humans reacted.

The Guardian reported that animals around the world came into the lockdown in search of food or simply to play.[2] Many wild animals benefited from the reduction of pollution of their habitats and the quiet of urban centres and waterways as human modes of transport came to a halt.[3]

Zoo animals were variously affected. Some loved the quiet, others were visibly lonely and zookeepers had to devise many ways to keep them happy and stimulated. [4]

Not all human reactions were positive. In India, I read of people being harassed for feeding stray animals and pet shops and breeding facilities being shut down with animals left inside. The Welfare Board sent an urgent advisory directing officials to check these properties. And some people simply used the pandemic to abandon pet dogs.

At the same time, it was really heartening to read of the many ways citizens took the initiative to feed or otherwise help animals in need. In India, the Animal Welfare Board of India issued a letter two days before the restrictions went into effect, declaring feeding ‘companion and stray animals is an essential service’.[5]  Many cities issued ‘feeder passes’ that permitted to leave their houses to care for street animals and birds including dogs, cows, monkeys and various feathered beings, mostly through their own resources.

In one place, a stray dog was reported not eating anything because every person that saw it gave it food to eat!

In the United States, the anti-cruelty group Animal Wellness Action reported a surge in adoptions but also noted many people abandoning animals at shelters when they couldn’t care for them.

Animal rights groups in Europe warned the pigeons were at risk because the humans who normally fed them or dropped morsels of food on the streets were stuck at home. The group, while acknowledging that pigeons are a problem for many cities, says they should not be allowed to die a painful death. In Krakow, Poland, one animal welfare organisation is coming out specially to feed the flocks abandoned for the time being.

Australia doesn’t have many stray animals but it does have plenty in shelters. I was happy to read how many animals were adopted during the lockdown and hope that fears they will be abandoned due to the recession or once restrictions eased up and people can return to their workplaces won’t eventuate.

There were some unanticipated outcomes. Dog owners had to be warned not to over exercise and overfeed dogs while they were at home. And some cats were reported to be extremely unimpressed with the intrusion of humans into what they regard as their territory. One owner reported: ‘My own cat now sleeps in another room when I work from home, though he also demands dinner earlier than he would normally be fed.[6]

The effect of corona on animals affected by the devastating bushfires of early 2019 are still being investigated. Scientists have been forced to cease or scale back fieldwork, prompting concerns it could affect wildlife recovery.

Queensland’s Bindi Irwin voiced the feelings of many about people’s relationship to wildlife:

“I feel like I’m nothing without wildlife. They are the stars. I feel awkward without them.”[7]

Regardless of the country and kind of fauna affected, animal welfare activists around the world voice their hope the experiences during the outbreak have increased awareness that animal welfare and human wellbeing are inextricably linked. And many are hoping this will lead to the end of the global wildlife trade following the exposure of the links between the sale of wild animals for human consumption and corona.[8]

As Henry Beston says:

‘We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.[9]

Peace and quiet without those pesky humans around. They just need to come home at my dinnertime. Source: Unsplash: Chris Barbalis@cbarbalis


[1] https://warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/knowledgecentre/society/sociology/animals_and_covid19/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2020/apr/22/animals-roaming-streets-coronavirus-lockdown-photos   

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-52459487

[4] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-19/coronavirus-zoo-animals-some-miss-visitors-some-lonely/12261984

[5] https://twitter.com/Manekagandhibjp/status/1242048004841852929

[6] https://www.sbs.com.au/news/how-coronavirus-is-impacting-our-pets-and-how-they-ll-cope-when-we-return-to-the-office

[7] https://www.quotetab.com/quote/by-bindi-irwin/i-feel-like-im-nothing-without-wildlife-they-are-the-stars-i-feel-awkward-with

[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-52125309

[9] http://www.henrybeston.com/quotes.html

Cross-Cultural Capers: Divinities and the Corona Demon

‘The epidemic is a demon and we cannot let this demon hide’

Chinese president Xi Jinping, January 28, 2020.

I am not religious but have always been fascinated by the myths and legend that proponents of every religion have created to depict the fight between good and evil. I read with equal avidity the stories of the Hindu, Christian, Egyptian Norse, Roman and Greek deities and their battles with demons or evil in general.

The stories which were most alive to me were the Hindu ones as these goddesses and gods are still widely worshipped in different settings not only in India but in every country where there is a sizeable Hindu population. My favourite festivals even now are Durga Puja (worship of the goddess Durga who descends to earth to defeat the demons the male gods couldn’t vanquish) and Diwali (the festival of lights which also commemorates the defeat of the demon king Ravana and his followers). There are many enactments of these battles by human actors which both entertain and inform.

Since the advent of the world-wide coronavirus pandemic I have been perusing the reactions of some of the major religions to this twenty-first century ‘demon’. In a recent article in The New York Times, Vivian Yee writes, “Religion is the solace of first resort for billions of people grappling with a pandemic for which scientists, presidents and the secular world seem, so far, to have few answers. With both sanitizer and leadership in short supply, dread over the coronavirus has driven the globe’s faithful even closer to religion and ritual.”[1]

While Xi Jinping is an atheist who simply has used a religious image, adherents of every major religion appear to be divided into two camps. There is one group which believes corona is an evil spirit that has come to earth in response to the perceived sins of some groups or humanity in general. The closure of places of worship and the cancellation of pilgrimages, ceremonies and festivals are seen as signs of evil forces taking over the world. Some groups have been made scapegoats for the pandemic and subjected to verbal or even physical abuse.

Thankfully, there are many others who have said the fear the corona virus generates must not be used as an excuse to marginalize and mistreat. As one Christian commentator says, ‘It is not a “foreign virus” but endemic to our common nature as humans and thus a means of drawing us together for the good of all.’[2] Similarly, the Dalai Lama and other senior monks and Buddhist organizations in Asia and worldwide have emphasized that this pandemic calls for meditation, compassion, generosity and gratitude.

Technology has provided a vital way for the faithful to stay connected with their religious leaders. Many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have offered worship through livestream amidst the pandemic. One study has shown that devotees of a particular religious organisation reported that the social and collective dimension of the ritual has in fact been enhanced through these webcasts. As Rebecca Irons notes ‘The digital has become sacred!’[3]

Hindus have come up with their own unique take on this phenomenon for the festival of Dussehra. October-November which celebrates the goddess Durga defeating a demon that the gods couldn’t vanquish. The images of the goddess show her wearing a mask with sanitiser and other ‘weapons’ while the face of the demon is often made to resemble the corona virus!

Durga showing the way with mask and sanitizer
Photo: Indrani Ganguly 2020

[1] Rebecca Irons, ‘Hinduism and Coronavirus: How the Digital Becomes Sacred’, https://medanthucl.com/2020/04/13/hinduism-coronavirus-how-the-digital-becomes-sacred/

[2] Daniel Harrell, ‘Is the Coronavirus Evil? Or is this part of life in the world God made?’

| https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march-web-only/coronavirus-evil-covid-19-disease-theology.html

[3] Rebecca Irons, op cit.

‘Twas the Christmas before COVID

Christmas 2019 has become an extra special memory as we spent it in the beautiful Indian city of Bengaluru, often called the air-conditioned city because of its superb temperate climate. While some of this has been eroded due to urban growth and deforestation, we found the weather in December dry and cool with day temperatures in the low 20s and night temperatures around 16 degrees, quite a change from hot and humid Brisbane. However it was the events we attended that made it especially memorable. The first was the wedding of our close friend Rajan’s son. Rajan had organised for his guests to stay at the historic Bowring Institute established in 1868 with lovely well-kept grounds, comfortable rooms and delicious meals. The wedding held in the equally historic St Patrick’s Church was just before Christmas on the 23rd of December, the only time the groom could get leave from his job in the USA.

Jozef and Indrani relaxing in the grounds of the Bowring  Institute before the wedding
Inside St Patrick’s

         

Christmas Eve was spent wandering around the streets of Bengaluru looking at the lights and displays and sharing the fun filled atmosphere with people of all backgrounds.  

Christmas Street and Nativity Scene

Then came Christmas Day which we spent with a cousin who I hadn’t seen for 15 years and his wife and son who I’d never met. My cousin took us to a famous restaurant, SodaBottleOpenerwala, which featured the cuisine of Parsis, a group that came to India to escape persecution in what is now known as the Middle East. The Parsis are renowned for their business acumen and concern for social justice but the cuisine is less well known so this was an unexpected treat. Their names also reflect their occupation, similar to English names like Smith and Carpenter. Apart from the food, there were quirky cocktails which added a special touch.

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The fabulous cocktails

The last thing we did before leaving Bengaluru was have coffee and plum cake at a famous bar and bakery called Koshy’s. The cakes made great Christmas gifts for friends at our next stop, New Delhi. I leave you with an image of elegance and taste which are the everlasting memories of our trip to Bengaluru.

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Our Pawfect Christmas Party

The Christmas season for 2020 started on a very different note for us with Beagle Rescues’ Annual Christmas party for beagles on 8 November at Alexander Clark Park in Loganholme. It was held early this year due to some unavoidable factors including the forecast of a bad cyclone season.

I was keen for our two lovely beagles Bonnie and Clyde who we adopted in February this year to attend. They are generally good with people but not with other dogs due to Clyde being bitten by some dogs when he lived with a previous family. Going for a walk with them was quite stressful when we first got them as they would bark and lunge at every dog walking past. They have now calmed down and remain quiet as long as the other dog maintains a suitable social distance.

It was time for them to engage in some controlled canine social activities I thought. But I had to find a way to ensure they didn’t frighten any other dogs and their families.

Muzzles were the answer. It took three goes to find ones which Bonnie couldn’t pull off in a few seconds. We practised making them walk around the neighbourhood as advised by PAWZ, our friendly local doggy grooming service and seller of colourful attire, treats and a few other doggy items including the muzzles. Both dogs tried some emotional blackmail to get us to take them off by looking super sad and refusing to do their usual ‘business’ but we have learnt to harden our hearts when necessary and refused to give in!

On the day of the party it was great fun dressing up Bonnie and Clyde in a mix of Indian and Western Christmas gear. Bonnie’s outfoot was the more glamorous as she has the more flamboyant personality, but Clyde looked pretty cool too. Both were surprisingly calm about it, though not quite sure what was happening. A dash of doggy deodorant and a brush down and we were good to go.

It was good for us the weather was overcast and cool. We arrived at the park armed with plates to share with both humans and other dogs hoping there wouldn’t be any rain.

I have never seen so many beagles in one place before. Big beagles, small beagles, old beagles, young beagles, males and females…they were all there, yapping excitedly, greeting old friends, making new ones, competing for a turn on the play ramp with their human families. The cool weather meant energy levels were high. The dog biscuits disappeared very quickly.

We let Bonnie and Clyde run around without leash or muzzle as advised by the organising committee. To our surprise, Clyde leapt into the activities with great gusto, even making a new friend while Bonnie growled at every dog that came near. We had to muzzle her and take her to a little side park where she could run around by herself and calm down.

The other families were quite relaxed about Bonnie’s behaviour as there was no danger of any dog or person getting hurt. We had a lovely morning tea ourselves and made friends with both two and four legged participants.

At the end of the party all the beagles got party bags and a Christmas stocking filled with toys. And our grumpy Miss Bonnie was judged to be amongst the best dressed beagles! We’re not sure if she appreciated this honour but an extra treat was gobbled down with gusto. Clyde got one too as a consolation prize.

The ride home was uneventful with two exhausted beagles snoozing snuggled up to each other. My husband and I agreed it was the perfect start to the Christmas festivities and we’re definitely going back next year if we’re around!

Bonnie and Clyde all ready to party
Our muzzled pooches
Clyde finds a new friend
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Rest time after the party

Is Barbie a good role model?

I was invited to be on the negative team at a debate on ‘Is Barbie a Good Role Model’ hosted by the Lyceum Club on 22 September 2020. My team leader was Di Fingleton, Queensland’s first ever female Chief Magistrate. This was my take on the debate which I thought I’d share with SWWQ members.

Barbie is one of the most controversial dolls ever. While some argue that she was a great role model, others felt she presented an unrealistic body image which was really harmful to young girls. The message we got from the original Barbie was this: ‘You can do anything and you can be anything—as long as you look like this: very tall, very thin, very Caucasian,’ and you have to be rich.

Has Barbie moved with the times?

 Sadly no.

In a desperate effort to combat falling sales, Mattel has started adorning her unrealistic, sexualized physique in culture specific dress styles, teaching her songs and dances from different cultures and showing her participating in diverse festivals not just Christmas.

It hasn’t worked!

The modifications are superficial and unconvincing:

Barbie in India wears saris

And her skin is a suitable tan.

Never mind her face seems Caucasian

And her legs an unnatural span.

Indira Gandhi burnt her British made doll as a symbol of protest against cultural imperialism.

Today’s Indian girls have forced Mattel to focus on gender-neutral products like board games which far outsell Barbie.

In China and other Asian countries Barbie sales trail far behind Lego.

For the famous Tiger mums, getting a high distinction is more important than getting a boyfriend.

African-American women have rejected the Oreo Barbie.

Black women who like dolls have come up with their own.

Nigerians have created the Queens of Africa dolls, which far outsell Barbie.

Australian Aboriginal women have come up with Aboriginal dolls with  ‘beautiful Aboriginal eyes, full lips and a natural look. The makers can’t keep up with the demand.

For many women and girls in need around the world Barbie is just too expensive.

In sum, there are many girls around the world who do not go around singing:

I wanna walk like Barbie, talk like Barbie…

How could a plastic doll be a role model for anyone? A role model is a woman, successful in her own way – a living human being, who has experienced the ups and downs of life and career and wishes to share her experiences with others, particularly young women.

Girls of today want something that is edgier!!!

The Winning ‘Nay Team’ – Pamela Deakins, Di Fingleton, and Indrani Ganguly

First published in Ring of Bright Water, The Society of Women Writers’ Queensland Inc. October 2020

Poppies, Marigolds or Hibiscus? How should India remember its forgotten soldiers?

Remembrance Day is commemorated on November 11th each year and marks the end of World War I in 1918. The intention of the day is to remember the fallen on both sides in the ‘Great War’.

Remembrance Day has evolved in different ways around the world. Depending on where you are in the world, it can be known as Armistice Day, Veterans’ Day, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day and may not even be celebrated on November 11th.

Few people anywhere, including India, are aware that a one and a half million Indian soldiers fought in World War One, in lands that were far from their own and in conditions with which they were completely unfamiliar.

Many more fought in World War Two. It is estimated that by 1945 over two and a half million Indian men had signed up to fight for the Allies – the largest volunteer army in history.

These comprised around 800,000 Hindus, 400,000 Muslims and 100,000 as well as soldiers from other faiths (e.g. Christianity and Zoroastrianism).

More than 160,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives.

India also contributed over $20 billion in today’s money to the war effort, including 3.7 million tonnes of supplies and 170,000 animals.

Because these wars were fought when India was still part of the British Empire, they have tended to be ignored by the British who tend to repress what they did to their colonies and the Indians who regard them as part of the colonial past.

In recent years, a new campaign, India Remembers, has been started.   Squadron Leader Rana Chhina, who is in charge of the India Remembers effort says remembrance should not be a call to jingoistic fervour but a time for silence and reflection.

“Each number added to a stone memorial, each gravestone, represents a life lost, a family forever bereaved and a sacrifice, which must never be forgotten.”

His words echo those of well-known Indian freedom fighter and poet, Mrs Sarojini Naidu:

Lo! I have flung to the East and the West

Priceless treasures torn from my breast,

And yielded the sons of my stricken womb

To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabres of doom.

Gathered like pearls in their alien graves

Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,

Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,

They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,

They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance

On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.

Sarojini Naidu The Gift of India, 1915

There are also debates about the date for Indians to remember and what should be the emblem.

For Indians, the key official annual event dedicated to soldiers is the Armed Forces Flag Day, which has been observed on 7 December not 11 November since 1949. On this day, funds are collected from the public for the welfare of the Armed Forces.

Indians have also adopted the marigold instead of the poppy as the most appropriate symbol of remembrance.  Yellow marigolds are widely used in India to celebrate and saffron marigolds are used remember courage and sacrifice and to mourn. Countries like Britain and France have followed suit in all India-related celebrations. wear both.

Some choose to wear both flowers. You can see this on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snDCmTVAjd8

Yet others believe even the marigold is not appropriate as it was brought by the Portuguese to India from South America. They say it would be more appropriate to adopt the hibiscus which is not only sacred and popular and ‘a red-blooded native of India’. This debate is yet to be resolved.

Unsplash, Ian Taylor@carrier_lost Unsplash, Hans ivek@oneshotespresso

First published in Writers’ Grapevine, November 2020