By Christopher Raja
When asked about his approach, the iconic artist and blogger, Ai Weiwei said: ‘we’re actually a part of the reality, and if we don’t realise that, we are totally irresponsible. We are a productive reality. We are the reality, but that part of reality means that we need to produce another reality.’
Ten Dalit tribal writers visited Australia to engage with fellow Indigenous writers. This event, Literary Commons, organised by Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty, was about cutting edge literature as well as politics. It highlighted to me the synergy that takes place when you blend cultural and political action. These writers open up a world of story telling ‘in the 24 bhashas, or recognised languages of India (including English) as well as many that are not yet officially recognised.’ Fortunately, I managed to secure the funding from Arts NT to travel from Alice Springs to attend this unique event in Melbourne.
In Melbourne, I caught up with my mother and invited her along. The program took place on the 1st and 2nd of April 2016, at the Library at the Dock in the Docklands.
The Dalit and tribal writers at this event came from all over India. Venkat Raman Singh Shyam belongs to the tradition of Pardhan Gond art, Kalyani Thakur Charal is a Bengali Dalit writer, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih writes poems, short fiction and drama in Khasi (the language of his tribe), Urmila Pawar hails from the small village of Ratnagiri, Sivakami writes in Tamil, Joopaka Subhadra writes in Telugu, M Dasan is currently Professor and Head of the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Central University of Kerala, Des Raj Kali writes in Panjabi, Ajay Navaria is a Hindi writer. His ‘Unclaimed Terrain’ (2013) was published in English by Giramondo last year.
Alexis Wright, Lionel Fogerty, Ali Cobby Eckermann my mother and I sat together in front listening attentively. Lionel Fogerty, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Jane Harrison, Jared Thomas, Marie Munkara, Nicole Watson were the Australian Indigenous writers who took part in the themed panels.
While I was listening I jotted notes down on my iPad and took photos.
There are two views from where I sit
The city is a medium
The bridge, traffic, boats, skyscrapers
The tall buildings look like castles
They stand in place of the old trees
Once this place was a forest
Now all that is gone.
Yet, the medium connects us to the past.
Where is the other view?
My eyes stare into the distance.
The ancient river runs
The possum peers back.
For Des Raj Kali
On the genealogies of trees
The Sufi poet saint Kabir said:
Saints should live like trees
Oh god if I am a slave
It is better to die
Everyone knows it rains
Not from sky to earth
But from earth to sky
For Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih
Even the king is only a king in his administrative capacity.
This is the root cause of our alienation.
Revolution, insurgency, is in our blood.
We follow the poetry of witness.
Spare me obfuscations, tall tales, and lies.
For Ajay Navaria
Won’t join in?
Waiting not doing
Resting is an opportunity
Add don’t subtract
Resist set patterns
Communities can’t be trained
We are not products
Joint families, extended family
My English is not too good
Marriage is in your hand
The discussions were lively, thought provoking and there was camaraderie in the room. I reignited old friendships and developed new ones. My publisher Ivor Indyk was there and I look forward to every opportunity I have to meet with him. I live remotely so this doesn’t happen often enough.
On a personal level, I enjoyed talking about books, spirituality, politics, family, gossip, controversy, land and love, with the Dalit and Indigenous writers. We discussed the things we hold dear and share in common. It helped me professionally and personally but most importantly this conference nurtured me, fired me up, made me feel more connected and I am glad I made a big effort to attend. Lionel Fogerty’s response to my book ‘The Burning Elephant’, the fact that I wrote about India while living in Arrernte country, was poetic and apt: ‘Elephant dreaming in Caterpillar country.’ Very kindly Lionel invited my mother and I to visit him on his country in Queensland.
I think it would be great for Alice Springs if in the future we could host such an event or a similar one in this town. I discussed with Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty about the possibility of doing an event in Alice Springs one day and she came up with a wonderful new idea. I think such gatherings have great educational value. It helps people connect, tells people about possibilities and the way things can be changed. I wonder if there would be interest for such an event to take place in the cultural capital of Australia? Would you come?
Photo credit: Christopher Raja