Short pieces

Review, “Fossils” by Paresh Tiwari

My reading of Paresh Tiwari’s haibun ‘Fossils‘ published in the current Haibun Today has been well received. Paresh’s haibun is a beautiful piece.

Paresh wrote: “Thank you Anne, your critique is heartening and heady. It would not only fuel me to write more but also strive to write better.”

Here is what I wrote about ‘Fossils’.

On Paresh Tiwari’s ‘Fossils’

I was not previously familiar with the poetry of Paresh Tiwari but I found the choice of ‘Fossils’ an easy one when enjoying the contributions in Haibun Today, Volume 10, Number 4, December 2016 .

Was it the language of the piece that attracted me or the sentiment conjured up by that language? Perhaps, it is a needless and distracting distinction. Suffice it to say, I was immediately present to the images that are as strong as they are simple.

The definiteness of the opening declaration, “I decide to put roots in the garden of my house. I spread my arms like branches and dig my heels in the soft, loose soil,” immediately places this reader within the mood of what is to come.

In the second paragraph, there is a sense that the poet is having a little fun with the image he has created about the speaker in the haibun: as though he has said to himself, “let me take this idea a little further and play with it.” And we are given the lovely images of a songbird that builds a nest in the old man’s hair, a light-footed squirrel completely at home with his stillness, and a woodpecker who “keeps knocking at the cage of my heart.” Such a lovely image. And then, the added touch, just to underline the sense of settled-ness, the man’s beard reaching into the earth itself.

Then, in the third paragraph, the poet takes us to another place, into his own story (or at least the story of the voice he has chosen in this piece), and we learn about a wife who has “withered away,” the arrival of a granddaughter and the joy that she brings to the elderly speaker. The images in this paragraph are delicate, intimate and breathtakingly gentle. They prepare us for the haiku, just as the haiku takes all these images further . . .

dandelions . . .
holding my breath
for an eternity

In these fourteen syllables, Paresh captures the beauty of the moment for the old man in the closeness of his granddaughter and the fragility of it. After all, he knows: he knows about change; he has resisted change (in the opening paragraphs); and surely knows that this moment will also pass too soon. It is as poignant as it is charming.

There is more in this short piece. For me, it is so evocative of another poem by another Indian poet—the great Rabindranath Tagore. In Tagore’s poem, “The Banyan Tree,” the poet chides the banyan tree to remember the “little chile” that nest in its branches.

Do you not remember how he sat at the window and wondered at the tangle of your roots . . .

And later in the poem,

The child would sit still and think. He longed to be the wind and blow through your resting branches, to be your shadow and lengthen with the day on the water . . .

How true of small children and beloved elders.

The banyan tree is revered in Indian cultures. It is a symbol of long life and can be seen by devotees to represent Lord Vishnu, Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva. While this poem of Paresh Tiwari does not name the tree-image as a banyan, the very nature of the images he has used suggests the age, the spreading branches, the hanging roots of just such a tree. So, too, his piece carries references to creation, preservation and death. Read this way, “Fossils” (a title with a touch of wryness perhaps) could be interpreted as a reflection on wisdom. Perhaps, my reading is not what the poet intended, but if it is, there is a special sadness in the closeness of the poet and child because, in Tagore’s poem, the small child, “like the birds that had nested” in the banyan’s branches, leaves the tree and goes away.

The voice of the old man in Paresh Tiwari’s piece captures this sadness elegantly:

dandelions . . .
holding my breath
for an eternity

You can read Paresh Tiwari’s ‘Fossils’ and much much more in the December issue of Haibun Today at

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

Who We Are: Identity in a Multicultural Society

Language and Identity

“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’,

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.

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.


A week or so ago while travelling overseas, I caught up with a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a long time – decades, in fact. In a very short time, our conversation turned to issues relating to identity, quickly becoming one of the most stimulating discussions I had enjoyed over the holiday season. How do we determine identity in a modern multicultural, pluralist, society? Are we able to articulate our confusion and uncertainties about where we fit as individuals within such a society? What are the dangers in NOT articulating what is unstated, sometimes, even taboo? And to what extent is support for politicians of the extreme right a factor of this identity confusion?

My friend, like me, lives in a highly-multicultural society, in his case, India, in mine, Australia. Despite obvious differences between the two countries, we found common ground in our conversation.

I arrived back in Sydney in time for Australia Day – and entered back into the largely unresolved issues relating to our national identity. In current discussions, these unresolved issues are being phrased, simplistically, almost as a coded statement, in the question, “Should the celebration of Australia Day be moved so as to separate it from the painful association of 26th January with colonisation of an existing Aboriginal nation by the British in 1888?”

It was refreshing to watch Aboriginal broadcaster and author, Stan Grant begin to open up some of these questions with a panel on ABC TV on 27 January. Here is how he posed them:  We marked Australia Day this week and, again, it’s thrown up all those unresolved questions about who we are as a nation. Should we move the date from January 26? What is the state of black and white reconciliation? Has a multicultural Australia come at the cost of a traditional Anglo identity? This is an uncertain time…There is a return to populism, a retreat to fixed borders, and a resistance to rapid immigration…It’s also a time of economic uncertainty, terrorism, cyberwar and sectarian hatred and radicalisation.

I agree with Grant that ALL of these factors are part of the identity and should be part of discussion about identity. While Australians in past decades have bemoaned our uncertain cultural identity, the questions of 2017 are not the same questions as those of the 1960s-1970s, for example, and Australia is not the same Australia as then. Life-giving discussion about our identity demands considered, courageous and respectful working-through.

I invite readers to contribute to this discussion. In doing so, I declare some of my own starting points: as an educator committed to the future of society through investment in our children, I come with a perspective that is essentially hopeful; similarly, I bring the perspective of someone whose immediate family crosses cultures and countries, who lives our own kind of multiculturalism; and as a student of history, I honour and respect our national story in all its complexity.