Perspectives by Indrani Ganguly
Thoughts from two cultures
‘What thing I am I do not know
I wander secluded, burdened by my mind
When the first-born of truth has come to me
I receive in that self-same Word.’
Rig Veda 1.164.37
‘The most fascinating thing about origami, compared to other arts, is that it is always about a singular piece of paper. It isn’t added to or taken away from. What’s more is the ultimate challenge of origami being the continued pursuit of the infinite possibilities of what one flat square can become.’ Brent Lambert 2010
People are like the piece of paper. Life is like the Japanese art of origami that continually defines what that piece of paper can become.
How would I sum up my journey through life?
Recently I came across a very interesting concept: the ‘experience diet’ Just as our food diet affects our physical and emotional health, so does our ‘experience diet’. This refers to the day-to-day mix of the things we do, see, hear and feel. Like our food diet, the experience diet needs to be of the right quantity, quality and balance of a wide range of opportunities. A good experience diet should include not just getting enough exercise, food and water, but connecting with others and experiencing beauty and nature.
I found this concept a useful way of describing my journey through life, though I would add it also needs to fit in with changing life experiences and requirements. As a writer, academic and adventurer I constantly evaluate my experience diet, retaining elements I consider to be useful and consciously trying to discard those that are irrelevant or harmful. I admit I am not always successful in this, particularly if I’m in a time and place where I haven’t achieved the correct perspective.
What do I particularly value about my experience diet?
Of all the elements of my experience diet, those I value most are the ones which have helped me to move between different worlds.
Growing up as a multilingual person (by the age of six I could speak, read and write in Bengali, Hindi and English with varying degrees of fluency) was an early step in this process, as each language has its own vocabulary and idiom. Like all multilingual people who live in a context where multilingualism is considered to be an asset not a deficit, I was quite comfortable flitting between languages, often in the same sentence. I was also used to hearing the many other Indian languages as we had a wide circle of friends from the different language and cultural groups though I understood only a few words or none at all! Many of us also learnt some European languages like French, German, Italian and Russian which added another dimension.
Being raised in a progressively liberal Hindu family was another important element. My parents’ generation had begun to question and discard many of the restrictive and discriminatory beliefs and practices of Hinduism while preserving the positive aspects such as acceptance of other religions and cultures. As a child, my consciousness of my Hindu background developed through attending the many festivals and reading about the gods and goddesses in both traditional and modern (comic-book) formats and the festivals. My parents attended the festivals to meet up with friends and family but did not regularly attend temples, conduct rituals or observe particular dietary restrictions. We were the only members of our family that did not have a domestic shrine. This did not contravene our identity as Hindus, as Hinduism teaches that there are three paths to liberation:
- The Jnana Margaor the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection and contemplation. It involves deep exploration of the nature of our being by systematically recognizing and setting aside false identities.
- The Karma Marga or the path of action where one does the action without being attached to the fruits of action. At a practical level, it comprises service to others without seeking any returns.
- The Bhakti Marga or the path of devotion, to a deity or deities of one’s choice.
I learnt about this three-fold path late in life, though I subconsciously followed my own interpretations of the first two. I have not spent much time reading the scriptures but rather committed to continuous learning about people, cultures and societies and basing what I say and do on the best possible evidence. In this process I have of course learnt things about myself as well.
So too with Karma Yoga where I have sought to serve others in my own small way through working with organisations committed to social justice and also through supporting friends where I can. I am happy to say this has not been a one-way street though I don’t seek returns. I think my friends and I can relate very easily to the words of Khalil Gibran:
‘Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity.’
The path of devotion hasn’t attracted me though I like the ambience created in Hindu festivals through the use of colour, incense, flowers, bells and cymbals and chanting in Sanskrit. I enjoy reading past and present stories about the many deities, particularly because they are often underpinned by a gentle humour, as well as more serious discourses on the history and philosophy of Hinduism.
I particularly like the Hindu symbology of god being both man and woman, ‘Ardhanareswar’. While flesh-and-blood women have yet to attain their rightful half of the world, it remains a powerful symbol for me.
My knowledge of other religions and cultures has occurred through my schooling, reading, visiting places of worship and participating in festivals in both public and domestic settings. I studied in several Catholic schools for the pragmatic reason my father was transferred every few years and these schools had much the same syllabus and had English as the primary medium of instruction (though it was compulsory to do Hindi and Sanskrit) regardless of where he was posted. Otherwise, I might have had to learn a different language every few years! However, only Catholic students, who were the minority, had to do catechism. The rest of us had to study ‘moral science’, which is the quaint old British name for ethics. I did enjoy reading the Bible stories and dutifully sang ‘Jesus wants me to be a sunbeam’ at morning assembly along with Indian songs, though I was never tempted to ‘change sides’.
We had many holidays dedicated to the religious festivals of all the major religions (India probably leads the world in the number of holidays for the festivals of the different religions) and it was commonplace for people in our circle to invite each other for their specific festivals. We were fortunate that we were never in circumstances where these bonds would be broken through tensions and violence.
Travel, literature (fiction and nonfiction), art, cinema, music, food from around India as well as other countries, East and West, and the growing number of marriages within my family and circle of friends to people from other religions, cultural, and linguistic groups provided many avenues to explore different worlds.
These early life experiences in multicultural India were a good preparation for migrating to multicultural Australia.
When people tell me ‘everything is different in Australia’ my response is there are similarities as well. To understand this requires lateral thinking and a knowledge of the shared history. The lateral thinking is through recognizing that both are multicultural societies though there are differences in specific elements. The shared history is of course colonisation by the British. While India was never a settler colony like Australia, the English language, the Westminster system of government, sports like cricket, hockey and tennis, English nursery rhymes and literature and even some food items like trifle and Christmas cake are some shared elements, though Indians vary in their familiarity with these.
I remember my mother saying ‘it’s nice they have the same rhymes’ after hearing our children recite ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star!’
Who has inspired me the most?
A full list of those who have inspired me would be too long. Here are the main ones:
- My father who believed ‘it’s best to take milk from a cow; to strive to get wool is foolish and fruitless’. He also supported me to follow the road less travelled. We did not always agree as I grew older but the bond never broke.
- My maternal grandmother and grandfather who shared(?) their knowledge and experiences, jokes and anecdotes to entertain and inspire.
- Diverse women, both the high-fliers and those who remained under the radar, who displayed exemplary courage in adversity and never forgot their humanity.
- Friends of all genders and backgrounds.
- Poets, writers, musicians, artists and leaders through the ages.
What do I revel in?
- An inspiring piece of music, prose or poetry.
- The sight of a beautiful creature of nature, two-legged, four-legged, winged or finned, animal, vegetable, mineral, it doesn’t matter.
- Unusual ideas like learning about the therapeutic benefits of feeling small in relation to something like mountains, the enormity of the universe or the scale of time.
- Overall, I exult in the rush that accompanies the sudden gaining of insight.
What do I dislike most?
- People who focus on one aspect of my being and don’t try to see the whole.
- Those who appropriate bits of other people’s cultures without understanding their content and context, show no respect and make no effort to connect with the creators.
- People who intrude into other people’s lives for their own profit but often give nothing back.
What makes me sad?
- Cruelty to another being which becomes especially poignant at times when we should be celebrating
- The end of friendships or relationships.
Do I feel lonely?
Yes, I do feel lonely from time to time. I learnt to manage loneliness from an early age as I grew up as an only child. Reading and writing when I was alone and cultivating a wide range of cultural and social activities which helped me meet and connect with others were some of the ways I dealt with this. The two may seem antithetical, as reading and writing require solitude. To me, solitude complements the social side as it helps to recharge my batteries and reflect on what I have seen, heard and done when I’m with people.
I have found these strategies equally useful in Australia, where apart from being away from family and friends, I had to deal with being part of a minority by dint of skin colour, ethnicity and religion, make new friends and learn new skills. Fortunately, I did not have to learn English and I haven’t met many people who say they find my accent difficult to understand, though some of them would prefer me to Anglicise my name.
The people I get along best with are those who themselves like to balance company and connectivity with creative solitude. Overly needy people are greedy people who drain others’ energy but do nothing to replenish it.
‘But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.’
How do I deal with prejudice?
Dealing with prejudice is an inescapable part of living in any society. I’m not a believer in exacting revenge. There is a great deal of truth in the saying (often attributed to Gandhi) ‘an eye for an eye would leave the world blind’.
However, I do believe it is important to speak up and actively contest stereotypes and prejudice. I came across this poem when I was reading up on World War II. It has always remained in the back of my mind:
‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’
Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
Fortunately, I have never been in such a dire situation, but I do frequently speak up. Though this often gets me into trouble, I think it is better speak up than to fret silently and let resentment gnaw away at me.
How I choose to speak up depends on the situation and the person. Most often I offer evidence to back my position. Sometimes I try humour when the comment is patently ridiculous. My favourite memory is of speaking to a colleague of Dutch origin who couldn’t stop commenting on India’s huge population. ‘I bet you guys have to stand on one leg to fit in,’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but that’s better than standing on one toe given the Netherlands is more densely populated than India according to the World Atlas’. My colleague was unaware of this and was silenced, but only alas for a short time.
Over the years I have learnt the fog of prejudice which emanates from deep-rooted insecurities is more noxious than New Delhi’s notorious and much-publicized smog, and almost impossible to dissipate.
Some of the most prejudiced people I have met are those who are in the busy of ‘saving’ others in a religious or secular capacity. They generally intensely dislike people who do not need or wish to be saved as this hinders their empire-building activities posing as altruism. I prefer partnerships and often quote Lilla Watson:
‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’
The battle goes on.
What are my life’s watersheds?
Every month in each year provides opportunities to test my life’s learnings, though there have been some watershed years. The ones that come to mind most readily are those when I moved from school to university, made my first trip overseas, got married, migrated to Australia, my first stint in working in the private, not-for-profit and public sectors, the years our family expanded to include our two children, our daughter’s wedding and the birth of our first grandchild.
Mid-2018 is when I ended 34 years of full-time work to move to a more flexible life and work pattern. The start of 2019 is a good time to reflect on the experiences in the year I had in the transition to the Third Age.
We were on our annual visit to New Delhi, Mother Nature was been very kind to us. There is no smog or even fog and rain which is common at this time of the year. We watched the Beating the Retreat that marks the end of the Republic Day celebrations, under a clear blue sky with a soothingly warm sun. The military bands marched down the broad boulevard from the President’s Residence which once housed the British Viceroys.
Most of the foreign tunes have been phased out except for Abide with Me, a favourite hymn of Gandhi and for many of us. It is an abiding symbol of India’s ability to combine traditions, embrace the new while preserving the old.
The 26th of January has a triple significance for me. It is Australia Day and Invasion Day in Australia and Republic Day in India. The start of British occupation in one country and the end of it in another. History moves us around like chess pieces. No one can say checkmate forever.
Like all humans, there have been many moments when I have felt insignificant and small. So I was quite interested to learn these profound and often fleeting experiences have been proposed as moments to not only make us feel small, but also make our anxieties and worries feel small! Psychologists are now trialling how positioning people in awe-inspiring vast natural environments can promote a feeling of connectedness with both nature and others around them.
I felt this very strongly when we were up in the mountains near Darjeeling waiting for the fabled Tiger Hill sunrise. The night was cold and dark. Tourists and locals shivered in collective anticipation. Women darted amongst the crowd selling welcome cups of hot coffee while men offered shawls and gloves. We listened to crows cawing and children squalling. Suddenly the sky began to change chameleon-like from black to dark blue, pink, red, and finally a glorious gold. The sun’s rays shimmered off the snowy peaks of the beautiful Mount Kanchenjunga and other enormous mountain peaks that comprise this part of the Himalayas. We gasped in collective appreciation of the sight in front of us and the warmth infusing our bones and hearts, raising our spirits to the heavens above.
International Women’s Day had come around again, a day to remember the past, reflect on the present and prepare for the future. For me it is a day to remember my foremothers without whom I would not have the fortune of being born as a free citizen and being able to access the education and many other opportunities we often take for granted. Top of my list are my maternal grandmother, one of the most beautiful, kind and intelligent women I have ever met, and Sarojini Naidu, poet, politician, and wit, ‘the jester in the Mahatma’s court’ who walked beside him, never behind him.
I also pay homage to the many Indian men who led or supported the fight for women’s rights, often at considerable peril to their own safety.
Australia offers many fabulous opportunities to link with women and men from the First Nations who are part of the world’s oldest surviving cultures. It also offers opportunities to meet women and men from an amazing number of backgrounds.
Our International Women’s Day celebrations showcase a smorgasbord of all these wonderful women and men. We all know we cannot be complacent. There are many, many miles to go before we sleep.
The role of all the women in different lands came to mind again during the ANZAC Day celebrations in April and domestic and family violence month in May. There are many unknown women soldiers, not just on the battlefields but at home, in the fields and factories and government and not-for-profit sectors. I wrote on the role of these women which was published in local journals. Hopefully some readers took note.
I recalled this poem I wrote a while ago:
The winter morn
Turns my breath into white puffs.
Like the smoke that rose
From your funeral pyre.
My floors are red
Like the ruby blood
That sprang from your finger
When you picked the red rose
And pinned it to my breast.
The warrior queen you revered
Clutches her sword.
Calling all to follow her.
Many bards sing her tale.
Who will sing for you?
Your battles were fought
With pen not gun.
The eternal flame
Burns for the Unknown Soldier.
Does it burn for you too?
Many friends lie buried deep.
In the cold, sad earth.
One day their dust
Will mingle with yours
And scatter with the pensive wind.
My toes tingle
With the icy chill
Of the blood red floor.
Your eyes smile gravely
As I place a red rose
I light a candle.
I sing your song
To your million daughters.
Lest we forget.
Lest we fail
This is the transition period marking the voluntary ending of my engaging in full-time paid work. I am touched by the many friends who cannot attend the farewell afternoon tea who take time out to have coffee or lunch with me at another more convenient date and time.
I am equally taken aback at queries about whether I will now spend more time caring for my grandson! I doubt my husband would be asked this when he retires.
However, I don’t have much time to ponder on this antiquated attitude. A week after retirement I was drawn into action in the worlds of academia and creative writing, two arenas I have long wanted to be able to devote more time. I am determined to make the most of the Third Age. My writer friends who are in their seventies and eighties and still writing, travelling and demonstrating a great zest for life despite ageing bodies, remain a great inspiration.
We celebrated India’s Independence Day in the lush Roma Street Parklands. Sometimes these celebrations seem to be an anomaly in Australia. I comforted myself with the thought that Gandhi, to whom a statue has been installed at one end of the park, has something to offer people here.
Roma Street Parklands also has the memorial to commemorate the Forgotten Australians, children whose mothers were forced to relinquish them for adoption. I walked past it and thought Australia may have moved on, but have countries which are now the sources of overseas adoptions?
Months of birthdays and celebrations for Durga the great mother goddess. Despite being non-religious, I like the idea of powerful but benign female deities and the Hindu concept of the creator being half-man-half-woman.
I also manage to finally attend a Writers’ Retreat where I reconnected with many friends who have encouraged and inspired me over the years.
We celebrate Diwali in Delhi, often described as the victory of light over darkness. I prefer to think of it as symbolising the victory of good over evil. I don’t subscribe to the popular imagery of darkness being intrinsically evil. There would be no rest or sleep without night. We would not be able to see the moon, stars and comets or even the brilliant firecrackers, in the light of day. There would be no respite from the heat of the sun either.
I enjoy the freedom of being able to walk around our suburb by myself at midnight without worrying about safety. We are mindful of how this contributes to pollution but hold our view that banning firecrackers will not solve the problem. There are more insidious causes which need to be tackled.
Bangladesh, to which we travel next, is a poignant reminder of the recurring battle of good over evil. This is a people who have risen phoenix-like from the ashes of their culture and country over the centuries. Three times in the twentieth century alone, 1905, 1947 and 1971. Each birth was more terrible than the previous one. I still remember the stories that came out from the last one in 1971 and the Indian role in accommodating millions of refugees and finally intervening directly. Since that time, floods, coups, torrents of refugees have frequently disrupted the life of the people in Bangladesh. Yet the country moves forward and we can appreciate the beauty of the countryside and the courtesy and hospitality of the people.
Christmas overshadows all else in December. I wrote this to sum up many discussions with Christian friends.
‘And how do Hindus celebrate Christmas?’ asks Malcolm, the earnest young man from my husband’s church. ‘The same way Christians celebrate Diwali and other festivals.’ Malcolm looks nonplussed. ‘Please explain.’ ‘We participate in each other’s festivities though not usually the rituals. We admire the lights, decorations, and festive clothes, enjoy the special foods and the music. We remind ourselves these festivals are also a time to care and share. To commemorate the victory of good over evil and strengthen our common bonds.’
‘Makes sense,’ said Malcolm biting into a spicy samosa.
We raise our glasses in a joyous toast to friendship.
Sadly, for some it is a time of darkness and despair.
‘The Christmas tree is brown and sere
Santa will not come this year
Is that the wind rattling the door?
Or the spirits of the woman and children
Who once lived here?
Now they hide in a house far from their own
Their dog howls in the RSPCA cage
The love of strangers cannot meet
Its need to belong.
Will Santa call them naughty when he hears them cry?
Or will he bring gifts of hope and strength to survive?’
There is one happy note for me as I am able to negotiate some funding for a women’s refuge I have been supporting.
I was sitting at a multifaith event, sandwiched between a rabbi and an Islamic leader from India. The rabbi asked me what faith I practised. ‘None,’ I replied.
‘Then how do you know what you are?’
‘Very easily,’ I said. ‘I am a person with many layers. I am constantly adding new ones and discarding the ones that are no longer relevant. I do believe in the oneness of beings that rise above dogma, which is why we’re all sitting here together in a spirit of mutual respect and harmony.’
The rabbi looked unconvinced. The Islamic leader smiled and deftly deferred a potential theological spat by engaging me in a short discussion on the absurdities of politics in India and Australia.
The entrees arrived. The rabbi declined these and everything that followed. This sparked off a discussion of religious and cultural beliefs and practices about food and food preparation. I learnt more about kosher practices in this short discourse than I ever had in all my life. Some kosher practices were similar to Muslim rules about halal, others were similar to orthodox Hindu practices and some were in a class by themselves!
We also discussed the practical reasons behind these dietary restrictions. The ban on pork stemmed for health reasons as pork can transmit tapeworm. The ban on beef from the need to preserve cattle for farming and a supply of milk and milk products which are very important in Hindu rituals.
I generally don’t like food anecdotes, as food is often held up to represent the sum total of multiculturalism, minority cultures and skillsets. A question I intensely dislike is whether I am a good cook! This experience was an exception as the discussion went beyond cultural practices around diet to the historical and practical reasons that underpinned them. To me rational religion involves understanding the reasons behind beliefs and practices and being willing to discard those that are irrelevant or harmful.
I follow my maternal grandfather’s advice that I did not need to believe in any particular deity, simply have a consciousness of a world spirit that binds us together. This is how I think of the world spirit:
I am the world spirit
Unbound by space or time.
I’ve befriended men and women
In every land and clime.
I come in many forms
And have many tales to tell.
I’ll laugh with you in heaven
I’ll cry with you in hell.
I am the songs in your heart
The poems in your mind.
I am the world spirit
Unbound by space or time.