2020 Saffron Masala Fruit Salad

The large rectangular mirror that hangs in the pergola reflects the encroaching foliage of the forest. Though I know this in some functional, logical way, it still tricks me. I find myself absent-mindedly attempting to look panorama across the landscape, assuming the reflected images are what is really behind the surface. My understanding of the landscape is wrongfully informed until the wind blows and the mirror pendles, the distortion to my perception triggering comprehension that what I am seeing is not real. That what I am viewing is behind me in the frame and what is before me is not made to be perceived from the same place that I have been standing.

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I have written before about Goa and it’s polarities, its capacity to distill the chaos of paradoxical cultures into reasonably peaceful interactions supported by the conditions of commerce, sustained by the imprinting of colonisation, and perpetuated, or augmented in small ways by the aspirations of us incoming aliens. Having only been reclaimed by India in late 1961, Goa’s Portuguese inheritance is never far from the surface. It is in the uniform array of tailored print midi-dresses donned by the local women. It is in the Christmas carols heartily rehearsed by families on the porch in late November. It is in the early morning and afternoon ‘pao-wallahs’. It is in the peeling lettering on the Mapusa market entrance, ‘Mercado Comunitario’, and the stunning Portuguese villas dotting Siolim and Assagao, sought after by Bombay and Delhi-ites. It is the porcelain Mother Mary standing on a street corner gratuitously doused in flower wreathes and disco lights. It is antique wrought-iron chandeliers. It is Fernandes and Da Souza.

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When the parade comes through it takes me by surprise. I am on the back of the scooter and we have just negotiated the bottleneck of traffic crowding the main exit down Ashwem-Mandrem Rd from Arambol. The mutated melody through the megaphone feels an assault in close-range; a voice accompanies it with an announcement I can’t understand except for recognising its monotone acclamation as akin to so those of political touters that come by during election time. But it is the saffron that gets me: the entourage of 60 or 80 motorbikes flying saffron flags edged in gold tinsel, emblazoned with a cartoon image of a man dressed in traditional Hindu clothes. After the first set of motorbikes comes a lorry normally used for construction, but today carrying several dozen young boys in turbans made from the same saffron textile as the flags. Crisp white kurtas, vivid vermillion circles anointing their foreheads, they appear with a theatrical superficiality, laughing and smiling and waving excitedly at whomever they are passing from their great height. More bikes come through behind them in tight formation and the passing gust and sunshine alights the gaudy refractions of the synthetic textiles. The force of it presses upon me, augments the axis of my balance. I find myself simultaneously unable to breathe and trying to cry.

– Later, I will realise that the flags are identical to the emblem of the RSS – ‘Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’ – a right-wing Hindu nationalist para-miliary organisation mobilizing civilians to the BJP-cause.

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In Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, his chapter on misunderstood words describes the way in which memories construct our understandings of words. Franz partook in the street demonstrations of the Great European Left in Paris, and recalls parades as a source of pride and belonging; of change and active citizenship. But Sabina, forced to participate in Communist parades from a young age, a witness to times of the Nazi swastika lining the street as an emblem of German pride, finds parades to be sinister, absurd. In the present of the novel’s story, a parade is passing in the street and he asks her to come and watch, excited and inspired by its promise, and she – repulsed, – refuses, seeing him through a different lens for his apparent affinity for such activities. Their relationship quietly ruptures along these invisible semantic mappings, connecting them to the histories of time and place, nation and ideology, despite their best intentions.

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Instagram berates me for my lack of political action against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizenship, so I share some useful diagrams on Facebook and hope that I will not be publicly hazed for any inferences made by this. I do so willingly, although some part of me is acutely aware that my brain is associating political action with sharing links on Facebook and the dissonance soon drives me away from engagement. Vaguely anti-muslim rhetoric infects WhatsApp groups shared by extended and ageing family members. My aunty walks down the street in Chennai beside an oversized plastic head of Shiva for a temple event: the shiny fibreglass statue is sat before an orange backdrop and driven down the street in a small truck for the ease of worshippers. Two priests recite slogams on either side of the head, blessing passersby in time with the motorised pace.

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When Y tells us about her parent’s ashram, she adds that such things are not unusual at all in India. That these are places you go to learn from your guru. That you don’t speak in the Ashram. That you don’t laugh and chatter in public spaces. That the classes are about Hinduism and meditation and how to perform pooja in the correct way. That you don’t discuss politics but the messaging is not ambiguous; that the intent is toward creating and enforcing an auspicious Hindu society, Hindu values, and a Hindu way of life.

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My father calls and says I should check the conditions of my Overseas Citizenship of India document because some change is happening to citizenship laws. I explain to him what the NRC and CAA are, briefly, but he shakes it off in the same way he shakes off anything I have to say about Hinduism or India. I am misinformed. A confused child of White lands that has absorbed a bastardised version of the culture, of our heritage. That has a misinformed and selfish sense of righteousness, spirituality and liberalism. They would never do that, he says with an immoveable certainty. With the embodied belief of a child who grew up amid bhais and Fatimas, went to work with Sikhs and Jains, and whose best friends were Joseph and Matthew. He denies my words with the unshakeable belief in the essential ‘goodness’ of the Hindu consciousness that he has held all his life. That, no doubt, bolsters avid Hindutva supporters across the saffron wave.

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I figured it should be clearer to those who grew up here, but whenever I raise the topic a mutual identity crisis becomes apparent. A Swedish-Indian boy we meet raises his voice in Bihari-accented Hindi when we daringly joke that he is not ‘really Indian’. He offers me a ‘hare yaar!?’ but I shake my head and reply that I can only speak Tamil. That I wasn’t born here, nor have a lived here, and for both of these reasons my political beliefs and/or agency here is shadowed, enshrouded in a Western penchant for (neo)liberal values and righteous cosmopolitanism that makes me hesitate from asserting my claim upon this land in any overtly political sense. Despite this, I have noted my conspicuous shift to identifying as ‘Indian-Australian’ when asked by foreigners. The tendrils of old roots, the wheels of another golden nationalism, seem to tug at my feet and I can’t help but reach towards them amidst the turmoil.

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Patrons visiting the restaurant tend to agree that the country has lost its way, but voices always ascend to chaos when the reasons why and their associated ‘solutions’ are raised. India has always been ‘lead’ one says: ‘It is a country accustomed to being ruled and it’s people seek rulers. It does not know how to be free’; India has always been Hindutva, one says: ‘It has lived this hierarchy quietly for its whole life. It is there every time we walk down the street. It is not new’. ‘I think you would find that many Indians think the British should never have left.’ I know he is not wrong: customers in the bar on vacation from Delhi and Bombay sit and discuss the Royals over their gin cocktails, flustered from the impropriety of my mistakenly offering their selwar-clad villager nannies a drink.

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The women next door are wearing their midi-print dresses and standing by the gate when we reach. It is then that I realise they too would have been on the street as the parade came through. The Saffron Wave echoing static and slogans into their loungerooms, reverberating through their open doors otherwise adorned with glass statues of Mother Vailankanni and Jesus; statues of the gods already embedded into their stories, a faith imposed, a bloodline integrated through a purposeful dogma of racial, sexual and religious appropriation, and eventually – apparently – transformed into the peaceful dwelling of their home and heritage. But this isn’t the history of Goans alone. How defenceless we are to violent domination. How ceaselessly we subsume into whatever is thrust upon us in an attempt to survive, to again, and again uncover spirit and purpose in our fortunes, despite the scarred traumas that may lurk beneath them.

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Didn’t you have parades growing up? I thought of Australia Day and the toothlessness of its performative force; the transparency of its construction and its inability to connect ‘the Australian race’ to a vision the way India was its ‘Hindu Rashtra destiny’. I reply to her that we don’t have that kind of nationalism. That our history is too fractured, our society too pluralised to ever travel so far back into the supposed ancestral line of our nationhood as something like the Hindu Rashtra. That doing so would deny, not confirm, the Australian identity, and the latent knowledge of this manifests as a certain dislocation; a displacement of the soul that we attempt to triage with consumerism, work-hood and vanilla assertions of family and community values. The British were considered ghosts when they first set foot on Gondwana-land, and it might be this that still haunts at us – as it does any place in the world taken by force; this manifestation of nationhood that is seeded in a bond forged from terror, worn with an implaceable and roving grief and, where possible, relieved in small acts of apology and forgiveness.

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At the fruit stand, B asks me about the kangaroos. The ones that have burned alive. He asks me about the Australian Government and how they could let this happen. My apparent perplexity reminds me that I have never been queried with this kind of concern about Australia from a local Goan. The narrative, previously, always ended with ‘I’m from Australia’ (read as: America/UK/Canada/rich-Western-constructed-nations-et-al). Because Australia has not been quite so interesting to the rest of the world until these images of scorched national treasures, caught in barbed wire and encrusted with ash, became the face of its brand; panorama clips of apocalyptic skies and children in gas masks filling global headlines and perhaps fulfilling the nihilist need we all quietly had to know that this is where it would get to.

B will go to Moscow over the monsoon season. His brothers and he speak fluent Russian, having run their fruit stand/restaurant/bike rental/taxi businesses in the little Russia of Goa for more than ten years. They will stay with the friend they call simply ‘Papa’, and this makes me smile because it highlights my own assumptions about the men who sell you fruit on the street in India. About who they know and whether they can go for holidays ‘like we can’ or how large or small their world is. I’ve been taught to relate this perspective to the cultural hegemony of ‘Whiteness’, but here I am a ‘brown-skinned’ pluralist identity that is constantly confronted with the manifold symptoms of the thought-virus that is colonisation running through my synapses.

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James Baldwin says that we are trapped in history and that history is trapped in us, though he was not the first and will not be the last to assert the truth of our inevitable existential cycling. By the time I review these words a week later in Lisbon, Portugal, the news headlines have filled with images of Hindu men beating Muslims in the streets of Delhi, photographs of Trump in front of the Taj Mahal have gone viral and his bid for the Indian-American vote has commenced. BJP members call for ‘Tiananmen-style’ crackdowns upon the protestors, and John Oliver has laid out the fascism of the Modi government on Youtube. But my relatives’ WhatsApp group has again detoured away from politics and habitually returned to exchanging birthday and anniversary wishes, touting their volunteer campaigns for local schools or NGOs. Their shifting interests are not unlike the social media feed that roulettes dance videos and animal memes amidst the latest on coronavirus and graphic footage of Delhi lynchings. The schizophrenic digital shuffling feels an actualisation of our innate desire to exit the experience of mundane daily realities and engage in fantastic fictions of nation- or identity-creation stories. Online, each of us have the chance to see ourselves as part of something ‘greater’ before returning to the trivial and disquieting equilibrium of normalcy.

The zenith of the mythological arcs that seduce us are identical to those that preceded each one of our most tragic historic downfalls as a species. Yet it is difficult to find a resting point between the digital and banal where we cannot be co-opted into this theatre of malady.

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I fly away from India but its politics is not far from me. Despite how the hyphenation moves with context from ‘Australian-Indian’ to ‘Indian-Australian’, I wear a consciousness of its violence as I enter a new continent gripped with identity crisis and pandemic threat.

Welcome 2020.

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