1234 Check, 1234, 1234 Check

“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships – and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings” 

The day at Cronulla was the hottest ever.  Indian skin often  burns painfully and easily; it is  so used to air  pollution acting like many  layers of protection, and when we travel to 1st world countries, it cant cope with the sun.  So while the rest of the world at Cronulla is  in beach wear, I am dressed for rain.
It is beautiful. Quite picture-book perfect. People lying under  the shade with babies playing around them. Painters with easels, deeply absorbed     in their craft, blue water, gentle breeze, kids cycling alongside grand-parents and all the trappings of a tranquil beach town.  We have never heard of it. But the lack of any other color except ‘white’ is glaring. It crosses my mind very soon after spending time here and I dismiss it without a thought.
I love dogs – actually any animal and every single bird- so my immediate interest is in the various dogs    I can see all around. There’s one sharing a sandwich with its owner; he takes a bite from it, the doggie gets the next one. I wonder who takes the bigger bite. 

We are relaxed. And then Joe  plays  us the tape of the riots of 2005. 
It is unbelievable at  first .  Not just the horror that it is pre- mediated, but that it  happened not so long ago, and  in a Sydney suburb, one of the most global cities
 in the world. As Indians, the words ‘Riot’ & ‘Inter racial/ cultural attacks’ is hardly new. We have our own history with them, 0ne we aren’t proud of, and more importantly one we fear can repeat itself.
Amer is overwhelmed, breaks into tears  and walks away from the group. The crew follows him, leaving the three of us alone.  Gurmeet and I wonder why the law of the land did not intervene before it actually went out of hand. There was ample warning of trouble stirring. That is a stark difference between Australia and India- a country  that has a violent history of invasions, a long foreign rule, a bloody partition (based on religious ideology)  which separated neighbors and  loved ones  and took hundreds of thousands of lives, followed by wars, acts of horrific terrorism and religious & sectarian riots: The law of the land preempts, to whatever best degree it can, given our population & size, vis-a-vis our resources.
I spend that day pondering on how and why the word ‘intervention ‘ is different to each country, and how it is married differently to ‘human rights’ and ‘legal rights of individuals’, depending on the country, it’s history and it’s threats & fears. As we spend a large part of the afternoon walking through the  tragic events that transpired at Cronulla, I  constantly stop to admire the richness of  natural flora & fauna, and bird-life    .
Trev, our  Sound-in-charge  has gifted me a book on Australian birds. I love it and carry it everywhere. I think his patience may have been running a bit thin  with my requests to identify various species of Astralian  birds I hadn’t seen before.  However, with a thousand varieties of Parakeet in the book, I still go back to Trev for the i.d., since I cant lag behind id’ing birds  when the cast &  crew has moved ahead.
Trev is knowledgeable about nature. He also rescues creatures off the highway, or they’d be crushed. His eyes spot even the tiny ones like this . He spots this, insists we come to a halt, places  it off the road, and we are on our way again.


There is nothing more effective than a transmitter and its cables, to bring  the greatest level of familiarity between 2 races! On the 1st day of DDR we get ready for ‘mike-up’- We line up in front of  Trev, and he shows us how. We hold our shirts out at the neck and he scoops  down the mike-lead, pulls it from the end of the shirt/ tee, and  connects it   to the small transmitter  box he has already clipped to our  trousers, after discovering that our trousers don’t have pockets. He then  tapes up the mike just below the neck-line  of the shirt.
Reticent Indian women, white Aussie stranger – what better way to break the ice. No wonder we fell in love with Trev within the 1st few hours of DDR. ( Across gender- I heard ‘one’ of the 2 Indian boys say this more than once-” Trev, I love you” and thought how tough it must be to be Trev’s wife! )
‘Mike-up’  games and activities  may be our only hope at a peaceful world @ G-5 summits, etc. I have already introduced this as an activity in my corporate  training programs for multi-national organizations. For some reason the male participants seem more excited about it than the women. I wonder why…       

But let’s go back to clipping the black box to the trouser pocket. No big deal  for almost everyone, but for Indian women it can pose a problem. Our Indian trousers (salwars)  are generally  thin cotton, and there is a cotton  cord that acts like a belt. This poses a technical problem- the clip either travels at will  all around the circumference of the waist, or  keeps slipping off that thin cord. But that is the easier garment. The other kind we wear (and both Mahi and I had brought mostly those for their comfort value) are cotton-lycra tights called churidaars, which have slippery narrow  elastic waist-bands. It’s hard to look cool when there’s a black box trailing you, or dangling from under your shirt, and you don’t even know. And generally there is an announcement for that ‘slip’.
Trev:  ” Now lets see whose mike is …/ Radhiika, did that box slip off darlin,’ again!? Yeah, I  could hear it fall off when you…”  So much for  sophistication!

The only time Trev’s  receiver didn’t do its work was when one of us managed to drop the black-box in the toilet. I hate to break this to you via a blog, Trev, but ..  okay, it was code-‘yellow’, not ‘brown’.  Lighten up Trev. It’s the color you would prefer out of the 2, right! Hahaha. You said you loved Indians, didn’t you? I know you wouldn’t let color come in the way!

I wonder if ‘color’ was the issue at Villawood, the Detention Centre*. Muslim’s are generally not white. One lady from the protesting party foamed at the mouth about ‘Muslim women wanting a seperate bathroom from the men-folk’, among other things .
It was the smallest demonstration that ANY Indian would have seen. But what astounded me was the small- mindedness of the protesters, given that many of them were 1st generation immigrants themselves.
Sure, the opinion that the government should take care of it’s own citizens first  is reasonable, but it is the venom they spewed, their open loathing towards the refugees  that made this experience an unforgettable one. For me it wasn’t about Australians, it was about the break-down of humane-ness.  Where is this over-powering  hatred emanating from, because that is what many of them willingly gave out. And ‘hatred’ is such a powerful emotion. Coming from India where our exploding population and desperate  poverty stares so starkly at us despite the modernization and reforms, their  small-ness of spirit  seemed  even more magnified as  I stood in this  land of plenty.  

The  group of young  pro-refugee advocates were zealous, intensely involved and committed. In just a few minutes they got down to action and brought out pens and paper and created posters
And guess who picked up a telephone number in all of the heated exchanges that followed? Our man in the hoodie is a charmer, and no demonstration can change that!
*(Waiting  there is the Australian Protectionist Party, a group of people who believe that multiculturalism is a failure & that Muslim immigration should be stopped altogether. As they are talking/ yelling/ hissing/ spitting in rage, a group of pro-refugee advocates arrive and tempers flare further, as we Indians find ourselves in the middle of a heated argument about refugees.)

 

‘Scoring’ had another meaning altogether at the soccer game with the amazing  all women, multi-ethnic Lakembaroos.

We have a friendly match, and what may have saved us Indians  was Gurmeet collecting a pass with his hands. And why not.. it was a friendly game, right!
I love their stories of the fight to play football inspite of wearing the hijab and I love their yellow jerseys, 
Mahima & Gurmeet love that they have specially prepared vegetarian food for us, and Amer simply loves one of the pretty girls who teaches him the intricate techniques of  playing ball and who claps when he scores a goal.
Some things stayed a constant in the DDR  journey, thankfully!

Note- The construction of the 1st  Joe-stupa in India was almost complete, but suddenly it collapsed. There is rampant mixing of sand in cement in some places in India, but luckily no one was hurt. Considering it was 2 feet tall, that is a relief.
Whatever the Australians may say, we Indians stay true to our word, and we don’t give up. Taking this forward, and since the Wall Street Journal has made Joe famous in America too, ( Who cares about the 4 Indians in DDR  anyway..) some of my Indian friends there have already constructed a part of Joegod’s statue.
Like any sensible folk, we start building from the ground, but because all our gods (including Sachin Tendulkar whose wife Anjali currently favors “Ferrari Kii Sawaari) have their own favorite steed they sit/ ride* on, there’s  a lot of healthy discussion on what would be a good choice for Joe. Ranking high are Sugar glider Possum, Bridled Nailtail  Wallaby, and because Joe  has hit mid-life recently, Northern hairy-nosed Wombat.

Ride*- Indians don’t like the sexual exploitation of such a perfectly ordinary common-place word, so lets not even start.

Next-Hijab, head scarves,  and the hot-pink  DDR purse



 

Sergio- Sculpting a burqa-free world

“If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a great deal faster than it does.” The Duchess

We 4 Indians learnt really soon that the only constant on the Aussie road trip would be 

SURPRISE!

 At the beginning of the journey we made diabolical plans to get our hands on what we called ‘God’s master plan,” the DDR  schedule sheet,  to get a sense of some direction for what seemed to be the rest of our lives.
By the middle of the second week we were so conditioned to the ‘Secret Service’* that we couldn’t care less.
Personally, it was liberating: I  felt like Mary’s lamb- basically just follow. We could have been called Aaron’s** lambs- which sounds almost biblical!
Wake up ( mike-up 7am on the  really easy days ),  get out,  follow.
50 thousand km’s of  ‘follow’.
I hope the Aussie crew was suitably impressed.
Halfway through the journey ‘someone’ accidentally left that precious cargo in the car for a few minutes, and NONE OF US EVEN PEEKED INTO IT. It just lay there neglected like a faded super-star, just a bunch of  ordinary printed papers. The ‘following’ became our life as the bubble around us grew bigger by the hour.
Yes, one  of us four sometimes  ‘followed’ in a bit of a haze, that dreamlike Kublai-khanesque mind state, where the night before was such a blur- but that is another blog altogether.

This is about Sergio, the glass-sculptor. 

I like the  walk to Sergio’s wall of shame. It is  the 1st time in days that I have seen a shop, and here we are walking alongside a whole lot of them at touching distance. Ahhhhh.
Mahima & I emit one  excited squeak at some pieces of clothing that Joe would have  disdainfully  labelled as  ‘Hipster’, but we are gently herded away before the second one can find its way out.
I didn’t  know that this  would be my closest  brush with Aussie consumerism.

Sergio begins by telling us that story about his designer friend’s show getting disrupted because models wear a burqa & that leads to him painting the mural- or something to that effect.  We are in the midst of Sergio’s web of silken stories about how the mural is a starting point for debate and discussion, and  that’s when Muhammed joins us.
It is sudden.

His  F*** infested rant   throws us off completely.
In the first few seconds the  only words I can catch are F*** and wog.
Many times.
Incessantly.
I can smell fear/ anxiety. Only for 10 seconds maybe, but that is the reaction it elicits from us 4.
Our eyes meet and we  mirror each other’s  split second pupil-dilation.
Racial  riots in our country have started in a similar manner, and with an interaction like this, we sub-consciously go back to that.
I know I do. We grow up learning that an encounter  like this  is to be avoided. Like the plague. 

 Mahima instinctively moves a step closer to me,  Gurmeet  shifts closer into the group.  Amer and I look at each other and look away.
And then it passes.
We would sense this again in a few days,  this time in the Aussie crew, even though we all go through the same experience. Even though we are the travelers in an alien territory, and they belong there.

I can’t help thinking Muhammed needs those yoga lessons he was headed out for.
And that Joe, our host, hasn’t blinked an eyelid. He stays  cool & unflappable. It must be the coffee he guzzles. But doesn’t coffee result in just the opposite?
It must be the airport sandwiches.

It is interesting how we start of by siding with Sergio, but very soon see through his “I want to communicate” spiel. 
There is this  other older white person helping Sergio paint that mural who didn’t make it to the final cut. He  senses the shift in positions, slides up and whispers in my ear-
“The muslims are your enemies; they killed you Hindus in hundreds of thousands in 1947. Why are you supporting this muslim man?!”
I tell him we have tried hard to have those wounds heal up. We aren’t going there any more. It’s history, it’s over. He moves back and glares at me.

And then Sergio pulls out that red car. He reads out the words on it with pride.
That rankles.

While Amer is out for a ride he may never  forget, we wait it out  in Sergio’s home.
It looks interesting &  has that unruly  untidiness that every artist’s home must have. His sculptures are everywhere.
His wife is pretty, friendly and welcoming. 

Sergio hugs us when we leave. That is odd. Has he just not felt how intensely disgusted we are, or has he chosen to  become immune to this reaction ? It has been verbalized so clearly, so how does he continue to act  as if  everyone was in this together?
Or is he just a nice regular  guy who’s stuck in this awful persona of his own creation, and just keeps getting entrenched  in it worse because he enjoys the resultant (in)fame?

For once the de-briefing is quick because everyone has the same reaction to Sergio’s show of confused intellect & a sense of  righteousness in inciting a dangerous reaction . This may be a first.
We 4 are so completely different in our conditioning that quite often there are 4 different points of view. At least.

It is past lunch-time, and one of us says in Hindi- “Bas yaar. Bhuuk se mar rahe hain.” Roughly translated- “Enough spoken mate. Dying of hunger.”

The only advice we were offered by one fixer back home was “This  Aussie crew just  doesn’t eat. There is just no knowing when they will stop  filming to accommodate a meal, but their digestive  system is used to it.  If you want to survive the 3 weeks out there, say clearly that you are hungry. Right from day 1 insist on a  lunch & dinner break.”
Looking back I  remember never having to insist. I think our starved expressions made an impression. They stopped for lunch and dinner without us ever having to ask.  

But meal-times during DDR  were never  simple.

Will Mahima & Gurmeet (the vegetarians) find food they like?
Will Amer order something I will like so I can sample a tiny bit  of the huge meat-y servings  and offer him some tamer fare  in return?
Is today the day Amer will finally be able to end his quest to find the juiciest steak ever?
Will Gurmeet find a milk-shake, even in a tiny eatery near Meandarra?
What will I eat when I  think  a “fillet” in the menu is de-boned fish and it turns out to be a steak?
Will a strictly  vegetarian Mahima agree to eat vegetables today?(!)
Will Amer eat the fries on my plate so I don’t visualize my mom’s face from when I was 5  telling me about so many  kids going hungry while I waste food/ Why can’t they agree to not add the fries?
Such  profound questions that needed  serious attention every 2 times a day!

(*Everything was a secret so that our genuine first- reactions could be recorded)
(** Our immensely talented director, whose seriously gorgeous looks never ceased to surprise us… why hasn’t someone urged him to get in front of the camera??  I think he won our hearts completely when, in spite of staying up all night, he still came to the airport at 6 am to say good-bye. We were all exhausted, he perhaps most of all. He really didn’t need to.  We were surprised to see him, and when we said  that to him, he simply said, ” I wanted  to.” )

Next post- Mike-up & other important stuff



Travel Part 1: Inside Dumb Drunk & Racist

 “Begin at the beginning,” the king said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”

Into  Sydney- Episode 1 (part 1 )
It moves so fast in the 1st episode I just saw!
The tightest editing possible. 50k miles of experiences and footage condensed into a few minutes- the edit suite must be full of really determined  talented scissor-hands. 

I’ve been to  Sydney before but this time around is  different. Anticipation, 3 strangers as fellow travelers, a crew,  cameras and a brain exploding with questions. 3 Strangers and Joe Hildebrand. So it’s actually 4 strangers I’m traveling with on the Aussie road trip for the next three weeks.
The four of us meet for the 1st time  on a roof-top of  a typical old-Delhi  house  with the famous Jama Masjid in the background. The flight is just a few hours later.
First impressions: Amer- Young, smart, confident,  out to have a great time.
Mahima- First time out of her home, excited.
.Gurmeet- Politically suave, worldly naive, nice guy.
We connect instantaneously. It  may be the result of the collective apprehension  of the unknown and safety in numbers, because ordinarily, we are as different as they come.

Until that  evening of the day we leave for Aus, none of us know what kind of people the other 3 are, and have no idea about  the host of the series, except that he is famous.
I have been hoping he is  not  a cricketer ( am so un-Indian in my disinterest in the game),  and the mental  check-list reads a bit like this- Okay, Russell Crowe? Heath Ledger- Not possible. Hugh Jackman? Steve Irwin- Sadly,  again not possible,  Mel Gibson- Cordell did say “He is famous”, Eric Bana- YES!  YES! You get the drift?
Basically a very stereotypical list of famous Australians . And somewhere on the plane to Sydney I ask  Amer-“Tell me the host’s name again..”
Amer: “JOE HILDEBRAND” The man in question looks up from the seat in front.
Me: “Shushhh, but can you spell it for me, can’t get that second part..”
I have absolutely no idea who he is, in fact none of us Indians do. All that  is  about to change of course, many  Indians across the world will know his name after the show.  Who knows, there may soon be a temple built in his name- Some  Indians,  a small minority,  like to deify people, and I can visualize that uniquely Indian perception- “This really white* man has taken care of  our 4  fellow Indians while  in his country,  and even though we can’t understand a word of that accent, we can see he is one of us.”  hahah.
Joe you chose well- a show with Indian travelers. Can Q & A, Sunrise …, (and all those hard to count Australian shows you pop up in) get you your own  temple? I sense a dejected “no.”
 White*- A color of skin many people in the sub-continent (not only India)  would want. Just as any white person would want a tan. A growing population in the sub-continent is wont to using fairness creams, just as a growing population of white people take tan-showers. Is there any difference? Not really. Although fading and on the decline, the colonial hang-over still exists in some pockets,  and that has added somewhat to the desire for white*. But a new crop of  dusky Bolly heroines have changed perceptions towards the color bias. Caste system dictates Fair/ Dark color- No longer applies in India. We have moved on a few steps from that stereotype. Slowly, but surely.

Day 1: Joe leads us through the touristy bits around the harbor, and everything seems nice and simple.  We pose with the painted  aboriginal (faux?) person playing music, there’s that boat ( is that too low- down a noun for that vessel?) ride and  basically it is all fun and games.
Calm before the storm? Joe Hildebrand has this look in his eyes, and I haven’t found out yet that it is his favorite look. I think he cultivates it.

As I sit in the shade (while Amer goes chasing waves at  Bondi ) on the curb alongside an older couple resting there,  we start talking , pretty much what I love best- talking to strangers (ma, you thought you did such a good job with all those warnings, but..),                        and  the lady goes-
“Lovely here isn’t it? You from ?”
 Me: ” Guess ?
She: “Latino?”
Husband: “Middle East?”
Me: “India”
She: “No! You speak normal English. And you’re wearing Davidoff  Cool Waters! My favorite perfume” hahhahhaahhhhh.  Indian not wearing a perfume called ‘Curry’-  inconceivable?  Racist?
I don’t think so;  just speaking her mind.
There’s a fine line between this and racism. Is it  about the attitude behind the words, the intent?
But it is just the first few hours into Dumb Drunk…, and many of the namby-pamby ideas I have about the R of the DDR are yet to crumble. “White pride motherf*****” from the promo’s  is still an encounter away. So is the Hitler salute. There’s a name for it from all those  books I read in my teens, but it just won’t come when I need it for the 1st time ever since.

And then Amer and I go for that thrilling Shark-Dive. How could the DDR editors cut out the best part of the show??? I am so disappointed.  I wanted my friends to see how brave I was. Thankfully I have that cd. I can still   post all those scary- sharks- just- an-inch- away- from- me  pictures.
My grand-dad thinks I posed with wax-replicas. He says to me “Better to pose with them than those actors. Only tourists pose with actors.”  Basically we all  love wild-life  more than actors, so these words are  no surprise to me.
I wish it was you Steve Irwin ( but Joe I love you too!)
I still wonder why those humongous creatures  didn’t chew us down. They have to be vegetarian like Mahima and Gurmeet who ironically opted out of the shark dive. Well, too bad these sharks don’t live in a tank in India; they’d

fit right in.              (Next post: Sergio the Burqa-phobic & his assistant you didn’t see on DDR)