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Australian Indigenous Voice referendum: Why we are here.

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A couple of weeks ago, as I was coming out of Hornsby’s (a Sydney suburb, 25 kms north of the central district) shopping centre, I saw a group of volunteers handing out leaflets around the Hornsby fountain. Now, more often than not, these are the usual evangelists and I steer clear of them but one old lady came towards me and out of sheer politeness, I could not say no.

As I took a closer look at the leaflet, I noticed it was about the “Yes23” campaign. I knew about the upcoming referendum that has been in the news here in Australia. “I am not a citizen yet, but if I were, I’d be voting a yes”, I told the lady.

The lady’s name was Beth McLaren. She was a volunteer for the “Yes23″ campaign.

The referendum which is going to be held later this year is about a recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first Peoples of Australia and establishing a body called the Voice which may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive government of the Commonwealth of Australia on matters related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This can only be achieved by a modification in the Australian constitution. The referendum, if voted “yes”, seeks to do just that.

The last time Australia changed its constitution was back in 1977. There must be a pressing need for something as fundamental as a change in the constitution. To understand that we should go back to the late 18th century, when Australia was settled.

Australia was settled in 1788 by the English. There are no authoritative numbers, but it is estimated that the indigenous population then could have been anywhere between 300,000 to 1,000,000. Such was the impact of the settlers on the Aboriginal community that the number of Aboriginal peoples, by the end of the 19th century, was reduced to around 50,000.

Throughout its history, Australia has always been an island, which means that the first humans here did not have the advantage that the rest of the world had – sharing borders, and with that, knowledge. So, when the English settlers came in, they brought in diseases like smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis. These ailments were the biggest cause of Aboriginal deaths. However, with the diseases, the English settlers also introduced a lot of cruelty.

There are numerous stories of how the English sanctioned large scale massacres of the Aboriginals peoples over centuries, starting from their arrival in the 1780s until the 1920s. So much so that there is even a wikipedia page detailing every massacre of Indigenous Australians, per decade.

There are many books written about such massacres but Bill Bryson’s otherwise cheerful book on Australia, titled “Down Under: Travels In A Sunburned Country” devotes a chapter solely to the atrocities sanctioned by the state. For example, in 1805, Bryson tells, the acting judge for New South Wales, declared that the Aboriginals did not possess the mental capacity for courtroom proceedings and thus, should be refrained from bothering the court. Instead, he recommended that the “settlers should feel free to inflict any punishment on the natives, as they thought may merit”.

Amongst the many massacres that happened then, the most notable was the Myall creek massacre. On 10th June 1838, a group of eleven settlers (‘stockmen’) murdered 28 Aboriginal people, largely consisting of women, old men and children. They had their hands tied, and were later, most of them, beheaded (barring a couple of young girls, one of whom later formed a relationship with one of the stockmen).

What happened at Myall creek was not unusual but things changed when the manager of the cattle station (where this happened) decided to report it. The massacre eventually became the first and only time the colonial administration intervened to punish those who committed such heinous crimes against the native Australians. In the first trial, the jury acquitted these eleven men in less than fifteen minutes (One juror said, “I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys and the sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better. I knew the men were guilty of murder but I would never see a white man hanged for killing a black”). However, a second trial was ordered and seven of those eleven were found guilty and hanged.

One would think that such a landmark event then would have had some kind of an impact on the civil society of that time. After all, such judgements are passed, many times, to set a precedent. Unfortunately, that did not happen and Aboriginal massacres continued for at least 9 more decades.

What I find unsettling, if not more damning, is what Bill Bryson further describes in the same chapter, about Myall creek. Drawn to the site of the massacre, our author drove four hours from the coastal town of Macksville to Myall creek, expecting a memorial to the slaughter. Indeed he did find a Memorial Hall – a memorial for the dead of the two World Wars. Talking around, he barely received any proper answers about the massacre that happened there. Bill Bryson published that book in 2000, so he must have been there just before that. Bryson writes, “I pulled the car into the shade of a river gum and got out to have a look. There was no memorial, no historical plaque. Nothing at all to indicate that here, or at least somewhere in the immediate vicinity, was where one of the most infamous events in Australian history took place.”

Australians had had 160 years to build a memorial.

A memorial, though, must have come up soon after Bryson’s visit. A quick google search mentions a memorial at Myall Creek which was built in 2000. Still, it took 160 years? If that does not show the apathy of successive Australian governments towards Australia’s indigenous people, nothing else possibly can.

The massacres were undoubtedly the cruellest things inflicted on the Aboriginal peoples but they were not the only ones that reshaped the social fabric of the community. From 1910 onwards, for the better part of the century, the Australian state sanctioned large scale removals of kids from their Aboriginal families so that they could be raised in state run “training centres”. The idea was that this assimilation of indigenous kids into white culture would make them “civilised”. The effect was that for generations, many Aboriginal peoples did not have rights over their own kids. Often, a government van would show up to take the kids away and place them in one of the 480 odd state-run institutions. They were not allowed to practise their culture, speak their language or even meet their parents ever again. In fact, many Aboriginal parents did not even know the whereabouts of their children.

This was not something that was merely done for a few years – it spanned more than half a century, between 1905 and 1967. The victims of this policy came to be called ‘The Stolen Generations’. The hope was that the “full-blooded” Aboriginal race would eventually die out, while “half-castes” would be assimilated into society. Whatever the official version of what they were hoping to achieve by such a policy, it was clear that it wasn’t thought through. The inhumane treatment that the children suffered, as a part of this state endorsed policy, over decades, is not possible to put down in a few words. The impact of this experiment, if one can call it that, is widely evident till this day, in Aboriginal communities. In fact, it is said that every Aboriginal family, at the very least, knew someone, if not one of their own, who had been affected by this, or, in other words, was a survivor of the Stolen Generations.

But, as an Indian, as someone who grew up in a largely democratic country myself, I could not help but appreciate how, in 2008, the Australian Government (and the opposition), came forward in unison and presented a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for the “mistreatment of those who were the Stolen Generations”.

One could say that this must have been a “token” apology, just as some are saying that the voice referendum, if voted “YES” will be a “token” voice.

But at least it will be a start of something.


I met Beth again, a few weeks after I first saw her near Hornsby Fountain. In Beth, I saw a charming, sharp witted, well-read and knowledgeable lady who could give me an insight into how Australia had changed over the years.

Beth’s career had begun as a teacher and concluded with a senior management position, in a large library in Sydney.

We agreed to meet at the public library at Hornsby on a cold Sunday afternoon that was typical of Sydney’s winter.

In the hours preceding the meeting, my mind was inevitably thinking of such parallels in the Indian state, of marginalisation of communities and any such apologies by the Government.

The only such precedent in Indian democracy that I could think of was Dr Manmohan Singh’s apology to the sikhs of India, in 2011, for the 1984 anti-sikh riots. The Americans described it as a “Gandhian moment” in the history of Indian democracy. Perhaps it was the only one. For state sponsored marginalisation, there are plenty of examples, though the Narmada Bachao Andolan comes first to my mind.

So when we started talking, Beth started the conversation by asking me if there were parallels between Australia and India given both countries had been colonised by the British. My response was that while the atrocities did exist, they were far less brutal in India than what we have seen in Australia, even if you were to compare the relatively recent ones (for a like-for-like scenario).

Beth then goes to the very beginning, of how tensions started to brew in the first place, soon after colonisation: “ There was a tension between the settlers and the Aboriginal peoples, who had occupied the land for millennia and had successfully established ways of gathering their food and managing their land. The settlers who had a farming background used the land quite differently, often imposing on the food source of the Aboriginal peoples. Equally Aboriginal peoples imposed on the settlers because they would arrive at the usual season and on discovering that the yams (for example) which they had harvested at this place for many years had now been replaced by a different crop, would harvest the new crop as their own, as it was planted on what had always been their land. The settlers saw months of work in planting and caring for a crop destroyed before they could harvest it.”

Beth understood the view of both sides, unlike one sided narratives – this is not to say that she in any way justified the atrocities, in fact far from it – but her point was that, there was fear on both sides and for good reason: “There was understandable tension. The Aboriginal peoples saw the settlers as invaders (which they were) and they’d attack a settler’s group but the settlers had guns, so frequently the Aboriginal peoples came off second best. But the settlers, in other cases, felt threatened so they planned massacres of Aboriginal people. It was dreadful for the Aboriginal peoples, it was dreadful for the settlers, who were trying to survive in a quite different country from which they had come. Many of course had not chosen to come to Australia but were sent here as punishment. Despite this, they were trying to establish a new life far away from the support of family and friends. I can understand the fear on both sides but it does not make cruelty right”.

I then went back to Bryson’s book and told Beth about Lachlan Macquarie, the governor of Australia back then, who had given shoot at sight orders for any group of Aboriginal people who were more than six in number, even if they weren’t aggressive.

Beth then spoke about Arthur Phillip (first Governor of Australia) and his successor, Vice Admiral John Hunter. “To give Philip his due, I think Hunter too when he went down to Tasmania, they both wrote back to the British government saying that this land is not unoccupied land, it has people living in it and cannot be described as ‘terra nullius’.The British government ignored this advice.

The British government originally only thought Australia was unoccupied because when Cook sailed up the East Coast, he saw virtually no people..Perhaps we can assume that Aboriginal peoples were watching these strange ships sail up the coast but were clever enough to not actually appear, but to remain safely camouflaged. They knew, but they weren’t aggressive. And so they weren’t there trying to defend the place.”

But the thing that I wondered was, why it ended up like that in the first place. Beth thought hard about it, perhaps, partly, going back in time, in her memories, “I’m not quite sure exactly why many people looked down on Aboriginal peoples – perhaps it was partly because many weren’t as well educated – not their own fault. Perhaps people didn’t understand why Aboriginal peoples would want to live as their ancestors had, but which European Australians regarded as primitive conditions. What people do forget is that Aboriginal peoples were pushed away from the little agricultural land that Australia has (to give context , Australia is 4% arable. India is approx 53%) Initially settlers took over the land near the coast, then settlement moved westwards to the area, where I grew up, and beyond.

The pushing of the Aboriginal peoples out of lands they had always occupied had happened generations ago so that Beth’s experience of life growing up, on her farm in Barmedman, a rural town approximately 450 kms west of Sydney, in 1950s and the 1960s did not include contact with Aboriginal peoples: “We had no contact with any Aboriginals peoples because there were none living in the community.. Evidence of former occupation was there – I still have a stone tool, collected from our farm when I lived there as a child.

In school we were taught that the early settlers encountered Aboriginal peoples who were, to our eyes, rather exotic, primitive people who had boomerangs and hunted kangaroos, but there was nothing about Aboriginal peoples living in Australia today. There was nothing about the fact that there was any conflict between the white settlers – that narrative didn’t come into it. And it was almost as though the Aboriginals of the time when Cook was there, had just faded from existence. We were children and we did not think about it.

By the time of the 1967 Referendum Beth was a young woman teaching at Dubbo High School and there were some young Aboriginal children in these classes. Just as today, these children were often struggling educationally by the time they reached secondary school. The impact of disadvantage was apparent.

The 1967 referendum was held to allow (if voted, yes) the federal government to make special laws for Aboriginals peoples and to include them in the national census (It was voted “YES”).

Beth then told me about the time around the 1967 referendum: “I was unaware but others must have known – Aboriginals served in the wars and when they came back home, they weren’t allowed to enter a pub. They weren’t treated as citizens, they weren’t counted in the population. And when I say they weren’t counted in the population, it worked like this – the bureau of statistics actually asked the question: Do you have Aboriginal ancestry? And all the people who said ‘Yes’ to having any Aboriginal ancestry weren’t counted as part of the population of Australia. That is how it worked. So the only people who were included in the official population figures as Australian citizens were people who didn’t have Aboriginal ancestry – Which is extraordinary if you think about it, when we accepted their willingness to serve in the war”

At this point, I did mention that this could be simply a case of the Aboriginal people looking at war service as an employment opportunity, if nothing else. To which Beth replied that although this may have been a factor Aboriginal peoples had been employed in different capacities for many years as part of the Australian workforce. No matter the reason for enlisting all those who did, no matter what their background, took the risk that they might be sacrificing their life for their country.

We then started talking about the stolen generations – how she had, in her own career as a teacher back in the 60s, seen Aboriginal girls who were raised in an institution. I asked her if she could shed some light on how she thought it must have affected them – “It is something that I think the Aboriginals are still feeling the effect of – how do you learn to be a good mother and father, if you’ve had no mother and father to teach you that? How do you learn to be a parent when you’ve had no role model? We learned to be good mums and dads from what our parents showed us. And they had about three generations lost, just like that.”

But what baffled me was how did they got these kids into institutions in the first place – taking a step back, I asked her about how this whole institution thing worked – would they just come in one day and take your kids away? Turns out, that was exactly the case”. Beth explained, “They came to communities and if they saw that there were Aboriginal peoples, they would put the children in a vehicle and drive them away and put them into an institution, which might be hundreds of miles away. The idea was they would go to learn European ways. “Good British White ways”, so that they would learn to do domestic chores and things like that and be useful citizens. So, it is not surprising that many Aboriginal children that came out of that faced different, and more complex problems than other children of their age.”

The institutions, reserves and missions, to which Aboriginal children were forcibly removed, as Beth describes them, were, more often than not, constrained places with strict rules. The Aboriginal kids were not allowed to follow their own customs, speak their own languages or follow their culture. “You weren’t allowed to leave, you had to stay there and in all those constraints – is it any wonder that so many of Aboriginal communities today are dysfunctional. The answer is to not make things for them any tougher – the answer is to listen to Aboriginal people, to try and see what they think are possible solutions and maybe implement some of them.”

“But are you aware”, I couldn’t help but ask, “of any such solutions that you think might help them”. Beth answered this question with a story from 30 years ago. She was appointed as the Manager for a NSW Department of Education Unit, the School Libraries Service, which supported teacher librarians in the over 2000 schools across NSW. Part of her responsibility also included providing advice to the Minister for Education on matters related to school libraries. She believes an important reason for her success in applying for this position was that she had experience in rural and city schools and had strong contacts within the profession. When she took the job, it was made very clear to her that she had to keep those contacts. Because if she did not, she wouldn’t know what the thinking was within the teacher librarian community. So, when the minister asked for advice, she was expected to provide this based on an understanding of the current situation in government schools and an understanding of current developments within the profession. “I was that voice of the lived experience of teacher librarians across the state and that is exactly what the Aboriginal people want: bureaucrats whose advice is based on the real life experience and understanding of the issues because they have listened to the Aboriginal peoples.”. But there is an argument that Beth often hears, she told me, that there are enough Aboriginals politicians in parliament, isn’t that enough already? “My answer to them then is”, she begins assertively, “There have been many doctors in the parliament already but does that mean the AMA (Australian Medical Association) is not needed? That is because the doctors in the parliament are representing the electorate, and not just doctors. Which is why the Aboriginal politicians in the parliament are representing their entire electorate and not just Aboriginals peoples. And these elected Aboriginals in the parliament would be dependent on voting results. Or, they could resign and someone else could come in, who’d be an equal representative of the electorate but not an Aboriginal person and thus may have no idea about the problems of the Aboriginal community. The Aboriginals peoples are only 4% of the total population but to my mind, they are a very important group because they are the original occupants of our country and we have much to learn from them if we listen to them”.

To conclude this, I asked her something which I was not clear about – what did this whole thing, this “voice”, translate to? Like what happens in the parliament if there is a “yes”? How many people become the “voice”? Beth told me that the first thing that this referendum aims to do is to recognise the Aboriginal peoples. The second thing is establishing a voice. She continued, “The constitution does not say how the voice will work, it just guarantees that there will be one. The parliament is the one that decides the specifics. Whoever actually speaks to the parliament, that voice – those people, they will be nominated from various tribes across the country. But once it is there in the constitution as a concept, it can’t be abolished, it becomes a base – it can change over the years but it will be there, the voice can’t just go away.”


To do this write-up was an impromptu decision taken at the Hornsby fountain, when I had the opportunity to speak to Beth for the first time, for a mere five minutes. There’s a lot more into the campaign that supports the voice than I can hope to accomplish with this article. There’s also a campaign that opposes this voice, which I have not even mentioned here. The idea behind this article was not to go into the “whys” of the Yes campaign but to understand what brought us here in the first place.

I spoke to Beth to understand how Australia had changed over the decades and the conversation helped me get deep, first-hand insights of the issues that eventually are leading to the referendum (that is to take place on the 14th of October 2023). I hope some of that insight finds its way into this write-up. I am ever thankful to Beth who committed to spend an entire Sunday afternoon with someone she barely knew, sharing stories and personal anecdotes from her rich experience of life.

Written by aditya kumar

October 12th, 2023 at 9:44 am

Posted in Australia

About distributing leaflets in mailboxes

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Last month I spent sometime delivering fliers in mailboxes. It was a job that was tougher than I had expected.

I had actually inquired about it back in December (2022). I was alone then and had some time to kill. I did not care so much about the money then and I thought if I got that opportunity, it would be good to take long walks with an added purpose.

I did not get a chance then, but they contacted me last month and gave me a “job”. Initially I was overwhelmed – there were close to 4400 fliers to be delivered across suburbs until 10 kms away from where I live (Asquith, a suburb in upper north shore of Sydney). Since the leaflets were about a section of the Sydney train’s rail network’s closure due to maintenance works, they were targeting the residential areas around the train stations of Berowra, Mount Kuring-gai, Mount Colah, Asquith and Hornsby.

I was skeptical about being able to do it but still accepted the job because I wanted to give it a fair attempt and for the experience. I had the luxury of two weekends (and I could also do it on weekdays of course).

They did provide some guide maps for the areas to cover, though in hindsight, I think, they should have been a bit more detailed than that. Anyway, to maximise the potential of the weekends at hand, I had to do a rough plan to optimise the leaflets distribution.

First I looked at the suburbs that were farthest from where I was (Asquith): Berowra, Mount Kuring-gai and to some extent, Mt Colah. Berowra is almost 10 KMs away.
The suburbs closest to my area were: Mount Colah (north of Asquith), Hornsby (south of Asquith) and of course, areas in Asquith itself.

Then I categorised the areas within the suburb into one of the following categories:

1. Far off – houses (Berowra, Mount Kuring-gai, some parts of Mount Colah)
2. Far off – apartment blocks (Mount Colah)
3. Nearby – houses (Asquith)
4. Nearby – apartment blocks (Asquith, Hornsby)

I first chose Berowra and Mount Kuring-gai as they were far off since I could use my weekend time well there. I covered those areas on the first weekend. I could only give a couple of hours per day, so I chose early mornings for that.

The nearby ones were where I could walk or were a short drive away.

Houses are tricky because you’d probably have to walk around 4-5 meters for every frontyard’s mailbox. That and coupled with the uneven terrain that you get at places like Berowra and Mt Kuring-gai, it wasn’t an easy task. I understood early that I’d have to pick up a street, cover a few around it and then use my car to cover the other parts of the suburbs. So I’d park my car at an intersection of neighbourhood streets and try to maximise the walking radius.

On the other hand, apartments are any leaflet delivery person’s delight. You could spend an hour on streets of independent, stand-alone houses and barely manage finding 100 mailboxes, or you could get lucky and find an apartment building that’d present itself with 120 mailboxes that you’d fill up in 10 minutes. I found out that doing evening runs (ok, walks) on weekdays for high density apartment areas (Hornsby mostly) was more rewarding. Also, I could do them at night as most apartments were at places where there was ample street lighting. To do houses at night was unimaginable.

This was the planning part – however, the effort that went into it, despite the planning painted a less rosy picture. I had to record my walking trails (which was fine because that was the only way for them to know if I had actually walked and not cheated). So here’s all the walking I did and the time taken:

KMs | Time (in minutes)
—- |———————
2.42 | 36
4.16 | 50
3.19 | 43
3.47 | 53
2.88 | 40
1.88 | 23
0.66 | 12
3.54 | 58
0.61 | 17
1.25 | 32
1.79 | 44
0.85 | 29
1.35 | 44
0.21 | 2
3.07 | 51
0.63 | 26
1.57 | 63
5.12 | 79
38.65 | 702

Ultimately I ended up walking about 39 KMs in a total of approximately 12 hours. The total amount I was paid was based on per thousand leaflets ($50 AUD/1000). As it turned out, that walking effort that you see there yielded me $220 AUD. If I simply take a per hour rate based on the time recorded while walking, it comes to around $19 AUD per hour. The national minimum wage rate in Australia is $23 AUD per hour. So, it misses the mark by a huge margin. The other thing such a job does not consider is the sheer amount of physical tiredness one has to endure as a result of the effort (Notice that I maximised my time window to do this work). Also, I have not even counted the time taken to drive to/from the points where I started to walk, nor have I considered the cost of the fuel.

All in all, I don’t think distributing leaflets presents itself as a lucrative way to earn money – especially given the rates that they offer vis-a-vis the physical effort and time it takes. I wrote this up as a way to document my experience hoping that it helps someone understand the effort it takes to do a task that otherwise sounds very attractive and easy.


So much thanks to my friend MI, who pushed me to restart this blog after a long time. I hope, with this, I am able to blog regularly like I used to before.

Written by aditya kumar

July 24th, 2023 at 6:46 pm

Posted in Personal,Sydney

Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain”

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The moment I finished Shuggie Bain, I tried reaching out to the few people I know who care about reading. I wanted to tell them, “Quick, here, go, read this book”. I did not stop until one friend responded back with, “OK, but what did you like about the book so much?”.

My friend had asked me an honest, curious question – she was not trying to stop me in my tracks. Though, it did make me stop and wonder: Exactly what was it that I loved about this book so much? That is the problem with this book: how do you recommend such a depressing book to anyone? I think, the only apt description I have been able to do is: depressing, sad yet beautiful.

The story is based in 80s Glasgow and truthfully, I had no idea about the socioeconomic conditions in Scotland (or the UK) at that time. I made no attempt to educate myself about it. My only connection with Scotland is a band called “Texas”, led by a wonderful woman called Sharleen Spiteri (on whom I have seriously considered naming my daughters).

This is a story about Agnes, Shuggie’s mother as much as it is about Shuggie. It is a story of Agnes’ alcoholism as much as it is about Shuggie’s devotion to Agnes.

Shuggie is introduced to us as a fifteen year old, living alone in a boarding house in Glasgow. The story then goes back to the early 80s when Shuggie is five, and moves on from there. Shuggie grows as a child, witnessing his mother’s growing dependency on alcohol. Amidst all of this, Shuggie is trying to understand his own conflicted self, as he is gay. But, despite everything, Shuggie’s devotion to his mother is solid as a rock.

However simplistic it may sound, the characters of this story are anything but that. These are complex characters in the story and it is inevitable that most of them are based on real life – the primary two characters (Agnes and Shuggie) based on the author’s mother and the author himself.

Douglas Stuart spent 10 years writing this and his prose flows seamlessly. The manuscript was rejected by over 30 (!) publishers. In an interview, Douglas said that a few publishers who rejected this knew exactly that this book was a winner but had no idea how to sell this book to the American audience. It’s a shame really – I grew up in India and had no idea about the socioeconomic situation in 1980s Scotland and yet, could connect so well with this book. I think, maybe, these book publishers do not know their audience so well, after all.

While reading this book and seeing the characters grow, I had a strong enough feeling that this isn’t going to end so well. It isn’t like you are rooting for Agnes or Shuggie. One of the many things I loved about this book was how carefully Douglas handled these characters. For example, as Shuggie is growing up, he understands that he is not like normal boys (since he is gay). He is bullied by other boys and does everything to be “normal”, but the author never lets that overpower the overall narrative of the book. Yes, Shuggie has problems with identifying with his sexuality but Shuggie also had even bigger problems – he was practically guarding his mother every-time she spiraled into the deeper pits of various kinds of alcohol.

So, overall, a very touching book – something that will remain with me for a very long time. It is the kind of book that has kept me thinking days after I have put it down. And I am still pinging people and telling him, “Quick, here, go, read this book”.

Written by aditya kumar

August 13th, 2021 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Books

On “The Deoliwallahs”

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Before I write anything about “The Deoliwallahs”, I should mention that one of the co-authors of the book, Dilip D’Souza is a good friend of mine. I have read a lot of his writing, right from his days.

“The Deoliwallahs” is a book about how 3000 Chinese Indians were locked up in an internment camp in Deoli, in 1962, during the Sino-Indian war. It is a collection of stories about how the lives of these Indian citizens were uprooted and could never get back to normal. These stories have never been told before, for reasons that we come to know in the book.

I first came to know about the Deoli internment camp back in 2012, when Dilip wrote about it for The Caravan magazine. I remember reading the longform article in a single go, on a cab ride through Bangalore. So, when I started reading this book, I had some idea about what lay ahead and how difficult read it may turn out to be.

Through the memoirs of the survivors who have now chosen to speak out about the camp, one gets a first hand account of how the Indian state failed its citizens. These are stories about how families were broken, kept years apart, childhoods lost and lives uprooted. The Chinese Indians were Indian citizens, many of them for three or four generations and were mostly doing well in their lives. Many accounts talk about how the police one day knocked on their doors, gave them a few minutes to pack their belongings and sent to the local jails for a few days. From there, they were then sent on a four day long train journey into the desert, at Deoli, where many spent the next four-five years of their lives. The war lasted 31 days.

There are stories about the train journey. The train had to stop in middle of nowhere to cook food, because it could not stop in towns and villages as people hurled stones on the Chinese Indian passengers. How did the villagers know that this train was carrying Chinese Indians? Someone had written “Enemy train” outside the compartments of the train. Meanwhile, a woman gave birth to a child during the four day train journey.

The stories do not start with the camp or end there. These families who spent many years at the camp were left to pick the pieces of their shattered lives. They went back to their towns and villages to find their property looted, assets stolen and facing humiliation. Many of them never spoke about what happened because they felt maybe it was too dangerous and did not want any more trouble. Decades later, they spent their lives in the fear that there may be ‘that’ knock again until many of them eventually migrated to countries like Canada or The United States.

While reading this book, I kept wondering about what made these people speak now. I mean, it has been 50 years since this happened. Why now? I did try to get some answers but the one that stayed with me was Yeeva Cheng’s heartfelt story. In the book, Yeeva is mentioned as a 19 year old. She is the daughter of one of the survivors of the camp. Yeeva was raised in the US, so her western-eastern upbringing must have added to her perspectives. Here’s a little excerpt from the book, in her voice:

I started thinking more about why these people stayed silent for so long. It made me confront my own silence. I started to rethink how I carried myself in college or for that matter anywhere else I went, especially growing up in a small town in North Carolina. We carried ourselves very quietly, and if people pushed and bullied us in school, we didn’t say anything. It made me see that you have a choice, you can either stay silent and there are good reasons that you might do so, or you can choose to say something and push back

It made me aware that there’s this delicate balance, of Western values, of speaking up and being vocal, and Eastern ones, of being reflective, of recentring yourself.

So, there is no right and wrong answer here. There can’t be one. But this above is a perspective that we could do with. I started to think more on the lines that these people, they have been carrying this personal grief, these remenants of a personal tragedy and they should be simply allowed to do whatever they want with it.

Towards the end of the book is an essay by Dilip that only he could write. It is a chapter on the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016 that finds parallels with what happened with the Chinese Indian citizens in 1962. It is a scathing commentary on the how India continues to fail its own citizens on the basis of race, religion, looks, language, caste and what not.

I would end this writeup saying that this book is surely not an easy read but is yet an essential read. It is that part of Indian history that people should know about. Because this is not just a story that is 50 years old. The same hate that shaped us in 1962 is the hate that is shaping us now. And as Dilip says, this is the legacy of 1962 that we are left with.

Written by aditya kumar

March 24th, 2021 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Books

An experiment on a global scale

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ONE of the things that stops me from writing about India is that I feel I am no longer qualified to write about it as much, since I do not live there anymore. But here we are, in the middle of a pandemic and confined into our own homes. And within those four walls, you could be in Mumbai or Sydney, in many ways, it does not matter.

And I do realise, while I say that, my statement reeks of privilege. Back home in India, a country that is now engulfed in a migrant crisis, there are probably thousands of stories, tragedies, such as this.

Slowly, little by little, like the layers of an onion being peeled, we will see many stories unwrapped. With how our governments treat their citizens, how employers treat their employees, how the leaders treat the common-folk and eventually, how human beings treat each other, we will come to know how much of a human we are.

This pandemic will be the greatest experiment being played upon mankind and it will reveal a lot of things that we would have otherwise not known.

Written by aditya kumar

June 4th, 2020 at 5:44 pm

Posted in Personal

Thoughts on Alex Chee’s “How to write an autobiographical novel”

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When I started reading Alex Chee’s “How to write an autobiographical novel” I had no idea what I was getting into. I had never heard of the author. I was browsing through one of the best-of-2018 books section of a website when, under the title, “Books about the life of a writer”, Alex Chee appeared.

Personally, I have always enjoyed essays written by mainstream authors because they give you an insight on what affects them and the situations that shaped them. Amitav Ghosh’s essays are point in case – one such, “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi”, detailing about the author’s personal experiences on the day Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated and what happened thereafter, makes compelling reading.

Alexander Chee’s essays though, dwell much deeper and broader. He recounts his days – as an adolescent, as a student, then, as a gay, an HIV/AIDS activist, a waiter, a writer and everything in between. There’s New York, Iowa and there’s the September 11 attacks. Along the way there are questions asked on what it is to be a writer in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential elections. Between all of this, there’s writing advice – on what shaped him as writer and what it means to be one.

The title of the book hints at a work that sounds preachy though it is anything but. In the guise of a help-book for writers, Alex has laid bare his vulnerabilities and insecurities while looking back, drawing wisdom. He repeatedly refers to his first novel, the critically acclaimed “Edinburgh”, which is actually an autobiographical novel. In his essays, he taps into his formal – and informal education, that made him a writer. For example, working as a waiter, he notes:

“Waiting tables was not just a good living, but also a good education in people. I saw things I never would have imagined, an education in life out past the limits of my own social class. Your imagination needs to be broken in, I think, to become anywhere near as weird as the world.”

Here Alex hints on how the imagination is esentially limited – it is not much beyond the contrasting realities that a person has ever faced in his/her life. Waiting tables was an education, in the sense that he faced realities that broadened his perspective and thus, his imagination.

At Weseleyan University, having Annie Dillard as a mentor greatly affected Alex’s writing. One of the things that she taught her students was to deep dive within themselves to write reflective prose:

“Annie Dillard, in my nonfiction class at Wesleyan, had warned us that writing about the past was like submerging yourself in a diving bell: you took yourself down to the bottom of your own sea. You could get the bends. You had to take care not to let the past self take over, the child with the child’s injuries, the child’s perceptions. “All of us were picked on, growing up,” she said. “Come up before that happens.””

On a personal note, this section of the book had a profound effect on me. Having done some reflective writing myself, I knew exactly what Dillard meant – You need to go into your own personal dark abyss and relive those situations to reflect deep and make prose out of it. The night I read this, I slept thinking about it. That night, I had a very vivid dream – I was back in Pune, India. I found myself looking out on the shores of the Ganesh visarjan ghats in Pune, a place where me and my then-girlfriend (my only heartbreak) used to spend time together. In my dream I was wandering aimlessly, it was dark and I was asking aloud: Do you remember that boy and the girl who used to visit this place in the early dark hours of the morning? Have you seen them lately? Where are they?

I had led myself to the bottom of my own sea.

The latter chapters of the book are also the most intense and bring about serious forthcoming advice for writers. In one of the last chapters of the book, Chee recalls how, after the result of the 2016 presidential elections, a dismayed student asked him what was the point of writing, if such a thing could happen.

The author admits he had no idea what to say. But as evident, he spends a lot of time thinking over finding that answer. There’s so much to that answer that any summary would be an injustice but the crux of it is this – The point of writing is the possibility that it could be read and broaden the limits of the imagination of who reads it.

This is a book that should be in every bookshelf. It is not a book that teaches us how to write. Instead it gives us something far more important – it teaches us how to think.

Written by aditya kumar

February 3rd, 2019 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Personal

My tribute to Dolores O’Riordan

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I’ll be honest: the reason why I started exploring The Cranberries’ music was because before watching the video of their 1999 hit, “Promises”, I had never seen a lady wielding an electric guitar. She was the lead vocalist Dolores O’Riordan.

Dolores passed away suddenly, yesterday. She was 46.

The effect of that song then was such that, as it happens when you discover a band, I went into overdrive, fueling much of my music needs from their past hits. It was also the same time I heard another magical song, “Animal Instinct”, from the same album, “Bury The Hatchet”.

“Animal Instinct” and “Promises” were very different songs. While the latter was full of anger and edged towards a tone of hatred, “Animal Instinct” was a tad depressing though it bordered around hope – and this song gave me so much inspiration during one such difficult phase of my life. In “Promises”, Dolores’ tone was of questioning and her voice was angry and commanding – much like her electric guitar. In “Animal Instinct”, her voice was sombre just as the song’s mood and tone.

In the years that followed I discovered more gems from this band but two songs come to my mind as I write this: “Ode to My Family” and “Bosnia”.

“Bosnia” has so much anger in it that it is difficult to fathom how much of it Dolores must have held within her when she wrote that song. It is very hard to empathize with the emotional state of “Bosnia” because most of us are privileged not to have witnessed the horrors of war and this is precisely what the song attempts to address, with these lines:

“I would like to state my vision
Life was so unfair.
We live in our secure surroundings
And people die out there.”

And then:

“And we all sing songs in our rooms
SARAJEVO erects another tomb”

Her words are simple but I remember losing myself into the depths of this song, depressed and angry.

And then there she was, in “Ode to My Family”, yearning for a simple life, after all that fame had brought to her. I believe it was her insecurity when she wrote these words:

“Understand what I’ve become,
It wasn’t my design.
And people everywhere think something
Better than I am”.

The thing about songs like these is that you may not be able relate to the cause of a song completely; and then you manage to find a home in a few verses that can be applied to your state and what surrounds you – and a few listens later your emotional state is such that it is defined by those few verses of that song.

Dolores’ wrote songs like that, for me. It is for these songs that I am going to miss her.

And I can’t think of any better lines to end this post – these come from a song she wrote for Denny Cordell:

“They say that you’ve passed away, And I hope you’ve gone to a better place”.

Written by aditya kumar

January 16th, 2018 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Music