Discussion, cont

 

“What makes Australians true blue?” was the question pasted across the front-page photo of a child waving an Australian flag in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. (Thursday 2/2/17) The answer was on page eight with the report on an international study from America’s Pew Research Centre. (What it takes to be truly ‘one of us’, http://www.pewglobal.org/2017/02/01/what-it-takes-to-truly-be-one-of-us/)

 

The study was conducted in 14 countries across 14,514 people during April-May 2016. 1000 Australians, aged 18 and over, were surveyed by phone, 50% on mobiles, 50% on landlines. The study reported on four factors that might be seen to contribute to identifying someone as “truly Australian”: speaking English, sharing national customs and traditions, being a Christian and being born in Australia.

 

According to the survey results, more than nine-in-ten Australians (94%) say speaking English is either very important or at least somewhat important to being truly Australian. Of these, 69% rated speaking English as very important.

 

Half of Australians believe it is very important to share national customs and traditions if one is to be truly Australian. Older Australians were reported as being likely to see customs and traditions as more important than younger respondents.  A similar divergence exists between respondents who placed themselves on the right of the ideological spectrum and those on the left.  Those with tertiary education are less likely to make a strong link between culture and national identity.

 

Only 13% of Australians believe that it is very important for a person to be a Christian to be truly Australian and only a further 16% consider being Christian is somewhat important. Roughly half (48%) think it is not important at all. Once again, there is a large gap between the perceptions of young and old Australians on this with 8% of 18-34 year olds and 6% of 35-49 year olds rating being Christian as important. Less educated Australians (19%) are also more likely than those with more education (9%) to rate being a Christian as important to national identity.

 

Finally, and not surprisingly, given the nature of Australia’s population with 27.7% of Australians born overseas, only 13% reported being born in Australia as being very important for someone to be “truly Australian”.

 

None of the responses is particularly surprising. What does this mean for us in the context of a discussion of identity within a multicultural society?

 

Firstly, language, which was reported as seen to be the strongest factor in being “truly Australian”. To state the obvious, there are many people who have lived in Australia, paid taxes, observed the law and contributed to community who would probably “fail” the language test. Does this mean they are less Australian? Of course not.  It would be interesting to pose this question in a multi-lingual nation, such as India. Which language, which languages, would determine “truly Indian”? It is, I understand, and has been over many years, a vexed question.

 

The second factor of “national customs and traditions” is a little problematic, precisely because Australia is such a multicultural nation. In February 2017, which customs and traditions can accurately be defined as the national ones?  It is one of the problems of the original entry test for immigrants. Surely, in February 2017, the celebration of Lunar New Year is as Australian as the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet, or Ramadan or Diwali. So the fact that only half the survey respondents marked sharing of “national customs and traditions” as important is probably quite healthy.

 

The same positive message can be deduced from the last two factors: being a Christian and being born in Australia. The low ratings given both these factors seems to point to a growing awareness of who we are as a multicultural country. True, the low rating given “being a Christian” might also be affected by a shift away from formal religious practice in Australia, but it could also point to a recognition that there are people of many faiths, and no religious faith in Australia.

 

These positive recognitions are to be celebrated.

 

20th February 2017

 

National identity and the celebration of national days

While debate about the appropriate celebration of our national day begins to fade and discussion about the most appropriate date to celebrate “being Australian” is forced out by other news items, I read Andrew Hamilton’s piece related to the issues at hand. (Andrew Hamilton SJ, Eureka St, 23 Jan 2017)

From the perspective of a beach-side vacation, Hamilton observed the simple delights of families and friends enjoying time together by the ocean and appreciated it for all of that. At the same time, he noted that for some in our communities, there can be deep pain and grief associated with the beach, the ocean.  While for many of us they are places of recreation, fun, friendship and inspiration, for others they can be reminders of death, invasion, defeat, exclusion and bitter memories.

No place, no symbol, no word, can carry a single association for different individuals.  It could be said that even a single individual has different associations with places, symbols and words at different times and in different circumstances. It is even more so for a nation.

What I find most refreshing in Hamilton’s article is that he does not try to deny the painful and the broken in our national relationships.  That is, he encourages us to bring the whole gamut of our responses, that is, the positive AND the negative, to days such as Australia Day.

National days, however, he writes, are more properly about memory and attentiveness to all the relationships that compose Australia. They invite us to notice and be thankful for and to celebrate the tenderness of our domestic relationships and the general amiability of our relationships with strangers and our international relationships.

They invite us also to allow these good things to measure the prejudice, gross inequality and violence in our society and the brutal self-interest in our dealings with other nations. They also measure the historical relationships that have shaped Australia, and particularly the violence, dispossession and subsequent discrimination and neglect in our relationships with Indigenous Australians.

Such an attentiveness calls for nuanced celebrations and more reflective language, ceremony and symbol in our celebration of such national days. In some ways, we have begun to do this in our celebration of Anzac Day, in which we try to balance the honour due to the brave, not only of our own country but of those against whom we once fought many of whom are now part of our nation; a balance, too, between the heroic and the horrors of all warfare – the best and the worst of humankind; between solemnity and iconic larrikinism.

Recent events suggest that we still have some way to go in developing such a balanced attentiveness in our celebration of Australia Day. The challenge of this is finely stated by Hamilton: Whenever it is celebrated Australia Day should evoke memories that make us thankful and memories that make us ashamed. Its celebration should also encourage us to reform what has been bent.

The challenge posed by Hamilton is one worthy of a mature nation. At the same time, a adjustment of date in the celebration of Australia Day might serve as a small acknowledgement of the distress stirred by the association of 26th January with colonial invasion and some of its terrible consequences. Shifting the national celebration to another date will still demand of us regular reflection upon the noble and less noble within our history and society.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Posted 9 February 2017

Women + Education = Hope

This article appeared today in the Aurora Magazine

It’s a line as straight as an arrow: educate young women and you can expect a brighter future for their families. Nowhere have I seen this more clearly than in India.

After my marriage, I lived and worked in South India for over three years. Since then, I have visited regularly. On one occasion, I met a young woman called Jodi in the mountains of Southern India, where the eastern state of Tamil Nadu rises high up into the Western Ghats near the border with the western state of Kerala.

Jodi was studying in Grihini, a school designed specifically for poor women in the remote villages around the hill station of Kodaikanal in South India.  At 19, one of eight children, none of whom attended school, Jodi was learning to read and write.  Over the next few weeks, I visited a number of villages and met with around 70 women like Jodi, who were either current students or who had completed the Grihini program.

The Grihini experience has been lovingly nurtured by a group of Indian and expatriate educators since 1987. It is hosted by the local Jesuit community in Kodaikanal and supported by donors in Australia and elsewhere. After their mothers had been persuaded that it was safe to let their daughters leave their village to take part in the six-month Grihini residential program, about 30 women, aged between 13 and 23, were selected for the pioneer cohort. Some were Adivasi (or Tribals); some were from Dalit colonies (or “untouchables”, those whom Gandhi called “Harijan”); some came from colonies of Tamils repatriated from Sri Lanka; some were from “caste” colonies. All were poor with limited or no education.

As with all education programs, the proof of Grihini’s effectiveness is in its graduates. Teachers are called Akka or “big sister” and young women are invited to take on new roles as women in charge of their own lives. The teachers do not educate the girls out of their villages, but equip them to return to their homes and to practise what they have learned about hygiene, nutrition, the environment, superstition, caste oppression and empowerment. Women who had been through the program enthusiastically ensure their own children receive a good education.

Maheshwari, 29, employed by the Government as a nurse’s aide, completed Year 10 by correspondence. Completion of her nursing required that she attend university once a week, a three-hour journey each way by bus, which she undertook with her brother. “If I had not gone to Grihini, I would not have taken this opportunity [to complete 10th Standard and her nursing training],” she told me.

When I caught my first sight of the village of Poombari from high above on the winding narrow road, it looked bucolically picturesque, terracotta tiled roofs contrasting with the narrow terraces in a spectrum of greens which edged down the mountain towards the village. Close up, however, Poombari was built on the ingrained oppression of poverty and caste.  Our car took me to the Dalit colony, a segregated settlement within the larger village reserved for those who were “out-of-caste”. The homes here were small and dark, with no water. Women had to bend to enter.  The women told me that before they went to Grihini and learned their rights, their children were treated differently in the local government child care centre and made to sit in a different place from the “caste” children. They showed me a monument to their new-found power: a toilet block, large and imposing, with carved wooden doors, in a central place in the colony. Before the women had pressured the government to build them this facility, they had had no private place in which to bathe or toilet.

Nallamma was 14 when I met her in Poombari.  She was one of four children and had dropped out of school after Year 7. Around this time, her uncle had died, leaving four children. With the strong sense of family responsibility one often sees in India, Nallamma’s parents had assumed responsibility for these children as well, bringing the household to eight children and three adults. Around this time, textile mills in the area began aggressive recruitment for young labour.  At festival times, the recruiters would visit places like Poombari, bringing alcohol for the men. If a villager agreed for his daughter to be taken to the textile mills to work, he was often given a cash handout.  So Nallamma had become a worker in the textile mills, even though the legal age for such work is 18. She needed to stand for long hours, the work was dirty and the supervisors sometimes abused the young women.  Nallamma wanted to return to school.

Of course, Nallamma could have done what most of the other women in the Dalit colony in Poombari did: work for daily wages as an agricultural coolie.  The soaring sides of Poombari are sculpted with tiers of commercial gardens. Garlic, carrots, cabbages and peas grow in these narrow ledges up and around the mountains.  The work of planting, weeding and harvesting is the work of the poor, especially women.  It is not well paid and it is seasonal, paying possibly around 2000 rupees during the months when there is work. Before beginning her seven-hour shift, a worker might walk up for to two hours to reach the field. (By way of understanding salary relativities, young graduates who live in cities can earn up to 50,000 plus rupees a month.)

In Mooliyar village, the girls and young women met me with bunches of marigolds and trays of papaya and bananas.  We climbed up a steep pathway through the village. A single pipe carried water to the village from the river across the highway. Finally, at the top, we reached a meeting room. The forest continued to climb beyond this point further up the range.  The room was filled with women sitting cross-legged on the floor or standing around the entrance. Toddlers climbed from knee to knee. One of the speakers was Leelavathi who had only a few years’ schooling when she joined Grihini in its early days. Building on what she had gained from the program, she successfully nominated as a local government councillor and spent five years in this role. She set up her own organisation to protect the rights of (women) workers.   As I was leaving the village, the white-haired village president pointed out the solid single-room houses of rendered brick and tiled roofs. “The women got us these good houses from the government,” he said. “The women did it.”

As I said goodbye to Grihini, Jodi gave me a scarf of double thickness that she had knitted on circular needles. Only afterwards did I notice her hands, twisted like the shattered foot of a seagull.  It is with these broken hands that she produces her beautiful handwork.

This is the kind of story that inspired Anne’s recently published memoir, Saffron and Silk. To find out more about Saffron and Silk, please visit Anne’s blog. Learn more about or support Grihini. This story has been rewritten from one published as “Kurinji”, Stories for International Women’s Day, ACU website, 2011.

Published in Aurora, 1 February 2017

Grease and Grace

 I wrote this following a recent visit to some friends from way-back…a delightful visit.

As a young man, my husband rode a Royal Enfield 350cc motorbike known as a Bullet:  a single cylinder, four stroke, 17 HP, four-speed, air-cooled Indian icon of the roads. With a top speed of 110 kilometres per hour, the Bullet was part of our courtship and became our family vehicle. Bullets have a distinctive pulsing exhaust thump, so I usually heard my husband return home 300 metres before he rode into view.

he takes me

to meet his family –

I hang on

wind in my eyes

and six metres of sari

 Thirty years later, on one of our regular trips back to Chennai, we visit an old college friend of my husband’s: a fine leather craftsman and an exceptional photographer who, having turned sixty, has just invested everything into restoring and selling Enfield Bullets. His wife greets us on a gloomy wet evening at a narrow entrance.  She guides us under a dripping roof along planks placed above pooled water.

The workroom-cum-showroom is filled with motorbikes – all Bullets – in various stages of repair and re-construction. We pull up chairs, chat and take tea and cake from a table cluttered with tools and paraphernalia.

wrenches, wheels

disassembled chrome bits

from a chassis –

rear-view mirrors reflect

a jigsaw dream

My husband’s friend and his wife have difficulty finding mechanics with sufficient specialisation for their business; they both spend long days at the workshop. The man eats his cake with hands engrained with grease; enthuses about being able to indulge his passion for the Bullet; is cheerful about his lack of business acumen. His wife shrugs at the “showroom” her husband has turned into a work-pit; at the fact they live in a partially constructed home.  She is dressed in loose top and long pants, her hair caught up in a soft twist. Her skin is flawless, without make-up. She is charming, elegant and radiant.

incessant rain

drips through cracks

into a dark pool

rainbowed with oil

a single lotus

                                                                                                     India, October 2015

Published in Skylark, 4:1, Summer 2016

Recent reviews of Saffron and Silk

I’ve been most encouraged by two recent reviews of Saffron and Silk.

  1. The first from Bookabuy. 

https://www.bookabuy.com.au/blog/saffron-and-silk/

SAFFRON AND SILK

Anne Benjamin

Anne Benjamin’s Saffron and Silk is the incredible personal account of an Australian living in India. The author writes about the massive life changes she combats when she moves from suburban Sydney to Chennai, the capital city of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Benjamin’s memoir commences with a fast-moving romance and wedding with Susai – a man that she met at an education conference in Canada. We are then taken on her journey from Australia to India, where the vast cultural differences between the two countries are beautifully portrayed.

Benjamin does a magical job of weaving both her own personal memories into important historical moments that we have all read about in textbooks, but have failed to truly see through the eyes of ordinary people. I especially appreciated the detail Benjamin went into when discussing the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the catastrophic impact this had on the people of India.

As a woman who has lived in two polar opposite worlds, Benjamin is able to share her experience in the most authentic and eye-opening way. Saffron and Silk will give you insight into life in India from an Australian woman’s perspective that you have never seen before.

2. The second review from Indian Link, a Sydney-based publication linking India with Australia since 1994: newspaper | radio | digital

 Indian Link, November 18, 2016

LAKSHMI NARASIMHAN reviews Anne Benjamin’s new memoir Saffron and Silk: An Australian in India

Anne Benjamin, an academic from NSW, shares her experiences of life in rural and metropolitan India in the 1980s through her brilliant new memoir Saffron and SilkAn Australian in India. The book was launched in Blacktown in September by former NSW Premier Bob Carr, who is known to Anne and her husband, Susai Benjamin, a Blacktown councillor.

The book starts with Anne’s first meeting with her future husband Susai at an education conference in Edmonton, Canada, in 1983.

During the question time, Susai responded with the phrase, “There’s another world and another perspective.” He knew how to capture authority in his tone.  Needless to say, Benjamin was enamoured by Susai’s his passion and his commitment to the neglected.

Sharing the ideology of being a “voice for the voiceless” and providing support for the marginalised, Benjamin describes her marriage ceremony in Sydney, the first time Susai had set foot in Australia, and subsequent wedding reception in Chennai.

She vividly captures the culture, tradition and uniqueness of India through many Sanskrit words, a few of which will be arrestingly new.

Benjamin provides graphic details of their development work in Cheyal Nagar (Place of Activity) in the outskirts of Chennai, which had a very minimal infrastructure by way of road, water and electricity.

Benjamin confesses (with perhaps some humility, a great credit to her upbringing) that she held no more than a stranger’s perspective in a complex India.  She reinforces this view by a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru, “To endeavour to understand and describe India would be the task of a brave man. To say anything about tomorrow’s India would verge on rashness.” Indeed throughout the book it is evident Nehru’s and Tagore’s views are strongly implanted in the author’s mind.

During her three-and-a-half year stay in India, Benjamin bore witness to catastrophic events which, even some 30 plus years later, have not been redressed. These events included the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, where Sikhs were at the brutal receiving end; and the Union Carbide gas leak at Bhopal, resulting in the death of thousands of people and paralysing life in the city for decades to come. The incidents did no credit to the politicians and bureaucrats who were lethargic and failed to act swiftly. There is a poignant quote from film-maker Safina Uberoi which ends, “For we had looked into the eyes of Mother India – we had seen the dark side.”

In the chapter ‘Taking Sides with Poor’, Benjamin portrays the plight of Indians working in unorganised sectors, which probably amounts to more than 80 per cent of population. She recaptures the scene of India after liberalisation and becoming IT savvy in the 90s and just how much things have changed.

As Benjamin writes about a flight from Singapore to Chennai in 2008, some 25 years after her first trip, there are “No longer one of handful of non-Indians on the flight. Now nearly half the flight is passengers from Canada, Australia and Japan… The commercial world has discovered India.”

Benjamin must be still be wondering with a contemplative mind – notwithstanding the opening of free markets and the world becoming global village – when the commercial world will really discover the rural poor in India and make attempts to ameliorate their condition.

Admittedly it is no easy task. Anne Benjamin is no stranger to the struggle against vested interests, bureaucracy and entrenched corruption. Her fervent hope with Saffron and Silk is to provide people with unique insights into the world of India that may trigger a positive attitudinal change.

‘The morning after’

I was delighted to be awarded Second Place and Best Poem in this year’s ZineWest 16 competition for my poem, ‘The morning after’. This competition is run by NEW Writers’ Group Inc who produce an anthology of prose, poetry and art each year for artists from Western Sydney.

The ‘Zine also features very exciting writing and art from young artists in Western Sydney. I look forward to reading more from these writers in the future.

zinewest16