Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Australiana #13: The Tale of Four Hemispheres

It's winter in Australia and we're celebrating Christmas! No, this isn't a joke. We are in the southern hemisphere and have winter in the months May-August, when the whole of the northern hemisphere is wilting under the combined influence of heatwave and thunderstorms. As for Christmas, it's the Australian way of doing things. My neighbour, Arthur, told me about it. "I go to this club which celebrates Christmas in July so we can have all the English goodies that people eat there during Christmas in the northern hemisphere." Like my other neighbours, Arthur left the British Isles nearly 40 years ago. But he misses the good old British stuff, so he consciously associates with British groups and ex-Brits to get a bit of that 'northern' feel, especially during winter, when he wants to dig into roasts and plum puddings. 

It's Christmas in July!

While Arthur and other seniors indulge in north-style festivities, other Aussies are discovering what it's to be in the East. Till about a decade ago, most Australians would happily start a sentence with, "We Westerners believe..." The 'we' represented the White Australians of British, Greek, Italian and Eastern European stock. Then someone probably pointed out that Australia is in the Far East and not West, so technically, they shouldn't call themselves 'Westerners'. That, and the fact that China's buying up almost everything Australia has to offer and selling to Australians everything it makes that they need or don't need, Australia has discovered that it is more advantageous to say it's an eastern country than a western one. Leading the way are the Socceroos, the Australian footballers, who represented the nation in the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil under the umbrella of the Asian Football Confederation, along with Iran, Japan and South Korea.

In an increasingly globalised world, where the internet is blurring the boundaries between people, work and home, why does north/south or east/west matter? First, this is the only continent that is entirely in the South (besides the uninhabitable Antarctica) and was populated by choice by people from the West and the North for over a century. They had lost almost everything but their roots. They were suspicious of the Eastern traditions and cultures: the languages they could not follow, the people of skin colour different from their own and most importantly, people who could work very hard in adverse environments and gain sufficient advantage in skill and knowledge that would better their own. They had a problem when the Chinese miners dug out more gold in Australia in the nineteenth century than the British settlers. It sent alarm-bells ringing and there came in a policy that would keep Australia, white. The policy was revoked in the 1970s and in came the Chinese again, with their own culture, language, brand of hard work and culinary skills. The immigrants revived and revitalised a country with an ageing population, which still clings to the idea of its 'Western' roots.

The second reason why hemispheres are a big deal here is because nobody really knows much about Australia outside of Australia, not even the fact that it has multiple time-zones, like the US. Australia has been a stable country with some goofy leaders but all you hear about it is usually on the travel, sports and Discovery channels. The country has among the boldest media in the world. They even have a television show called Media Watch on ABC that tears apart all forms of traditional media by pointing out their inaccuracies and ineffectiveness in coverage and gets the respective editors to comment on them. But even the Australian media does not get much talked about, apart from its association with the Australian-born-now-American Rupert Murdoch. When the rest of the world pays little attention to you, you want to make a note of why you're so different. "Those blokes up in the North have no clue what the weather is like over here," one Aussie tells me. They will not. They just have too many things on their minds up in the North - population, climate change, economic backlash, petro-dollars, wars, etc - to worry about a place far, far South.   

Friday, July 25, 2014

Stasiland and more

Six years ago, I met a German girl, who is now a very dear friend of mine. She talked about a time and place I hardly knew. She spoke of a country that is not there any more - the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany, the Communist state which ceased to exist in 1990.

My friend, who was about six years old at that time, told me how her family had to queue up outside a ration shop for hours to get a couple of oranges and some milk. Her father worked at an East German Air Force base somewhere near the border with Poland. He would flag the planes for take-off.

When the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the GDR united after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, her father lost his job. Her parents' degrees and qualifications were not recognised by the new German government (which had mainly representatives from the former West Germany). Her father, because he was a part of the 'military', would not be able to work in any kind of private or government service again. Her mother was lucky. She could study, get some training and find some work. Her father opened a small shop. “But he is not himself. All he wanted to do was to be near fighter aircraft,” she told me.

In 2010, I visited the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany) in Bonn. The museum showcased the history of the development of West Germany since 1945 and then united Germany post-1990. It also, in a typically NATO way, boasted that the West Germans were looked after and cared for much better than the East Germans. There were images of desperate East Germans seeking handouts from the state during the Cold War era while West Germans could choose from tens of different kinds of canned soups in retail stores.

After the Second World War, the victors (USA, UK and the Soviet Union) decided to divide and distribute the vanquished Germany. The Nazis were still a threat and Germany's military capacity had to be completely neutralised before it could be rebuilt responsibly. The West went to USA and UK. The East was administered by USSR, first directly and then remote-controlled like the rest of the Soviet bloc. On both sides, former Nazis, Nazi informers, Nazi-sympathisers, anti-Semites and those remotely connected to the Nazi regime were tried and convicted. In order to completely rout the threat, the governments on both sides gave incentives to people to come forward and inform about former Nazis.

The East went a step further. It created the Stasi, the East German Ministry of State Security. “The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub... In its forty years, 'The Firm' generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometres long,” writes Anna Funder, an Australian journalist, in her brilliant, award-winning book, Stasiland.

Little about GDR is discussed in present-day Germany. Most people would like to forget that there existed two nations 24 years ago. The Wall in Berlin is broken and graffitied, its chunks being sold as souvenirs worldwide. But the people who lived east of the Wall, just a few kilometres apart from their fellow-Germans on the west, have stories that continue to haunt them. The Wall was built to keep them there. Between 1945-1961, thousands of East Germans had managed to make their way into West Germany, some even bringing back West German, American and British goods to be sold in the East for huge profits. Of course, the Communist regime in the East had a problem. What would become of a state without enough people to govern?

The Berlin Wall

Funder traces some of the people from ex-GDR who came under the scrutiny of the Stasi. Some were convicted for their opinions against the state, others blacklisted in their teens that prevented them from getting jobs. Some were penalised for having romantic relationships with Westerners, others for helping desperate East Germans to escape into West Germany through tunnels dug under the Wall. The Stasi made examples of children, enemies of friends. When GDR collapsed, the ex-Stasi officers and informers simply changed their old identities and took up new jobs. They had constituted the bulk of the educated middle-income group of professionals in the old state.

During my 2010 trip to Germany, I had attended a public exhibition in Cologne which displayed photographs of Jews who were killed in Auschwitz. Some pictures were missing. Only the names and ages were mentioned. In any other city in any other country, a guide would have explained the circumstances and people in the pictures, there would have been a bit of discussion among visitors and verbal expressions of horror. In Cologne, that evening there was silence. Conversations in Germany did not flow as easily as the beer. I walked out of the exhibition with the burden of queries that I wanted to ask those silent German visitors but was unable to do so because of the awkwardness it brought about. I was soon confronted with the prospect of climbing the tower of the magnificent Cologne Cathedral (K├Âlner Dom), which, at a point in history was the tallest structure in the world. Panting and gasping, I reached the top to take in the breathtaking view of the city and the “Steve was here” graffiti etched on the Dom's ancient walls. I forgot my questions. Like Germany, I had left one history behind and embraced another.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Things people ask an Indian travelling abroad

On all my travels, I've had people raising brows or looking at me quizzically when I tell them I am Indian. What follows are queries and statements that make me wonder whether we belong to the same planet:

You're Indian? Then how can you speak English? 
Just the way you do.

Are there mountains in India, like the Alps?
Well, a bit taller, actually. They're called the Himalayas.

Do the people of India speak Indian?
French, Spanish, German, Japanese and English are languages and peoples. Indians are people and they may speak any of the 22 Indian languages.

Aren't Indians from America?
No, they were mistakenly named after us.

Is there a sea near India?
Yes. We've got an ocean too and it's named after our country. 

Indians are Asians?
Yes, just like people from Siberia, Central Asia, Middle East, China and the South East.

How can Indians be vegetarians? All Indian restaurants here serve butter chicken.
Vegetarianism is a personal choice.

Don't Indians wrap themselves in loose cloth?
Mostly, but we're generous so we've saved some cloth for the rest of the world.

Can't Indians use toilet paper?
Ok, what did you guys use before toilet paper was invented?

Is that where Bollywood comes from?
Yes, and we love it!

I once had a friend from India.

Too many people in India. How do you guys manage with the crowd and the traffic?
We were born to be crowd-dodgers and traffic hustlers.

Can you drink (alcohol) in India?
You obviously haven't heard of the Patiala peg.

I am slightly dark-skinned. Will I be discriminated against because of my skin colour in India?
We have a very wide range from very fair to very dark-skinned people. You'll fit in perfectly.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Australiana #12: Hugh Jackman, the Greeks and Football

A true Greek God: Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables

Hugh Jackman is my favourite Australian. The X Men and Les Miserables actor-singer is also part-Greek. I like Greeks. They're warm people. I think nature has a lot to do with climate. The warmer the climate, the friendlier and happier the people seem to be. So when I read about Paniyiri, Brisbane's Greek festival, I wanted to experience their warmth again.

We trudged to Musgrave Park in south Brisbane hoping to add to the numbers in the audience. We didn't have to. It seemed like half the population of Australia had turned up for the event. (Okay, it is an exaggeration, but we're talking of a country larger than India with a population smaller than Mumbai. Huge gatherings of people are scarce. There were around 25000 people.)

Zorba dancers at Paniyiri

After buying our tickets for AUD 10 each, we found ourselves among people of all sizes clutching to foods and drinks. We moved closer to the stage. There were people sitting at tables, not unlike the ones you find at the Durga Puja pandals in India. There were half-empty wine glasses (which you will NEVER find at an Indian puja) and plates of souvalakis, haloumis, wraps, honey puffs, etc, that they had bought from the 100-odd stalls that lined the ground. There was humour, belly dancing, plate-smashing contests, zorba and lots of fun.

Greeks first arrived in Australia in 1829. Seven sailors convicted of piracy by a British naval court and were sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. Though eventually  they were pardoned, two out of those seven Greeks settled in Australia on the Monaro Plains in southern New South Wales. The first known free Greek migrant to Australia was Katerina Georgia Plessos (1809–1907), who arrived in Sydney with her husband Major James Crummer in 1835. They married in 1827 on the island of Kalamos where Crummer, the island's commandant met the young refugee from the Greek independence wars. They lived in Sydney, Newcastle and Port Macquarie where she is buried. They had 11 children.

After the Second World War, Australia embarked on a grand adventure to expand its population. But there was a problem. The primarily 'British' citizens were xenophobic. Their fears about the Chinese digging out more Australian gold than they could had resulted in the 'White Australia' policy in the early 1900s. However, the pressing need for labour for developing the country resulted in the government encouraging non-English-speaking immigrants from war-torn states of Eastern Europe to migrate to Australia. The Greek government encouraged post-war migration as a way of solving poverty and unemployment problems, with the most favoured destination being West Germany although large numbers also went to Australia and Canada. In the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Greeks were among one of the main European races picked by the Australian government's "populate or perish" immigration scheme.

South Melbourne Hellas football club

Thousands of Greeks migrated to Australia with just one purpose - to gain a better life and future for themselves and their families. The main destinations where these "Hellenes" immigrated were to cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. They not only established their own restaurants, but also their own Hellenic Community Clubs and Greek-Australian Soccer clubs. Greeks along with Italians, Croatians, Maltese, Serbians, Jews, Hungarians and Czechs formed some of the greatest and most successful Association football clubs in Australia: South Melbourne Hellas (South Melbourne FC) founded in 1959, Pan-Hellenic (Sydney Olympic FC) founded in 1957 and West Adelaide Hellas (West Adelaide SC) founded in 1962.

Friday, July 11, 2014

When Life Gives You Bananas

I heard of The Monochrome Collective, an initiative that collects and publishes childhood stories, from my college-mate, Vanessa Braganza. "I would love to read a thing or two written by you," she had messaged. At the end of a tiring day of juggling numbers, I thought it was a good idea to write on something that would bring a smile to my face, and hopefully on others' faces too. So here it is:

When Life Gives You Bananas

Eisha Sarkar
Published in The Monochrome Collective on 10 July 2014

One day in 1986. I was three and I was going to run my first official race. There would be cups and shields to take home. We must have been at the school's sports ground for about fifteen minutes when my name was called out. "This is it!"

The teacher drew our markers and we took our positions. I watched her place the objects we had to use for the tasks we had to finish during the course of the race. “On your marks. Get... set... go...” And I was off! I ran like I had never run before. The first task required us to pick up a comb from the ground and comb our hair. Most of us only touched the combs to our heads. I heard the spectators cheering and clapping.

I ran to the spot where we had to perform our next task. I found a banana in a paper bowl. My friends picked theirs and gobbled them up. I took my time to peel it, checked if there were any extra-ripe portions that I did not like and took a small bite. It tasted good. I took another bite and watched the crowd of spectators. They were pointing and laughing. Then I heard the whistle. Suddenly, I realised that this was a race task, not breakfast.

My mother came running to me. She was laughing. Mother said, “You were supposed to eat the banana and run. Not just eat the banana!” I looked at her with my last mouthful. “I wasn't as quick as the others so I thought I might as well just finish off the banana properly.”

I was elated when they awarded me a prize, a consolation prize of sorts. I had, after all, entertained an audience.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How the phrase 'in the limelight' came into existence

We often talk about which celebrity is in the limelight and who is not. I have often wondered what 'lime' has to do with 'light'. A lot! According to Bill Bryson's book, At Home, in the early 1820s, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, an engineer and inventor in Britain, heated a ball of lime (calcium) no bigger than a marble using a flame from a rich blend of oxygen and alcohol. It glowed with an intense white light, which could be seen sixty miles away. The device, which was called Drummond light (named after Gurney's fellow engineer Thomas Drummond who popularised it), was successfully put to use in lighthouses. It was also taken up by theatres because the light was perfect and steady, and more importantly, it could be focussed into a beam and cast onto selected performers. Thus, they were 'in the limelight'.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Touchpoints and One Direction

Till a few months ago, I did not know much about One Direction, besides some of the gossip UK's Daily Mail provided me with. (Yes, I love tabloids and they do not take any seriousness away from my journalism.) Now in Australia, I find them everywhere. 

You go to a mall and you can hear Harry Styles singing Story of My Life on the radio. You come across a video of two of them smoking a joint in Peru and then it's on a television news channel. They're as popular, or maybe even more, among teenage girls as Boyzone and Backstreet Boys were during my teens. You cannot miss them any more.

One Direction band members from left to right:
Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Niall Horan and Zayn Malik

So when Michael Klaehn, lecturer, Social Media Marketing at Queensland University of Technology, gave us an exercise to map the social media activities of our favourite musicians, I chose One Direction. They're not my favourite but I found them interesting. Since I did not know anything about them, I started by watching their videos of X Factor on YouTube. The five of them – Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik and Niall Horan – had auditioned individually for Britain's X Factor 2010. The judges found them to be lacking individually but then decided to try them out together as a group. They managed to harmonise well and, over a few weeks, became a national sensation of sorts even though they did not win X Factor. Simon Cowell signed them for their first record and they grew to become one of the most popular boy bands ever. Most of the videos I watched had over a million views.

What makes the band different from Boyzone or the Beatles is the immediacy with which they can connect with their audience. So a 13-year-old die-hard fan only has to log online to connect with her favourite band. Just their Facebook page has over 32 million 'likes'.

The touchpoint map
I started mapping out the various touchpoints, the interfaces between the band and their fans. Within a couple of hours, I managed to come up with over 40 of them. The ones marked in green are the traditional touchpoints that bands such as Boyzone and Beatles also had. The ones in red are social media. The blue are the remaining touchpoints in the virtual and real world. The size of the font indicates the frequency of touchpoints in a particular media.

To bridge the gap between virtual and real worlds, the band answers questions and requests posted by some of their Twitter followers during concerts much to the delight of screaming and delirious fans. No wonder they are so popular!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Australiana #11: The Indian International Film Festival of Queensland (IIFFOQ)

Last Saturday, I was invited to the opening of the first Indian International Film Festival of Queensland (IIFFOQ). Brisbane has a large south Asian community and many Indian students at the three big universities, The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Griffith University and the training institute, TAFE. That this was the city's first festival celebrating Indian cinema was a surprise to me.

Chayan Sarkar (no relation of mine) and I had met only in May. I had grown tired of meeting people from mining or sales and was looking up LinkedIn for journalists, filmmakers, artistes and painters when I stumbled upon his profile. I watched the trailer of his film, The Sleeping Warrior (2012), which sort of connects some of the dots between Indian and Aboriginal spirituality. Like most tourists in Australia, I am very interested in the Aborigines. I wrote to Chayan. A couple of hours later, he replied, asking me to meet him. At 6.15 pm on that Thursday, we were sitting at The Three Monkeys Cafe at West End where we discussed, among other things, Bollywood Dreams, his company that produces, promotes and distributes Indian films. He talked about his film. I noticed that he used the phrase “the indigenous people of Australia” instead of “aborigines”.

He told me that he was launching IIFOQ on June 28. “Wow! That's next month,” I said. He was trying to put together a nice collection of Indian cinema, “not Bollywood”, for the audiences here. The venue would be QUT and he would be supported by the university's Creative Industries Faculty. (Right in the middle of the city, the university campus has a mix of heritage and new buildings. I love their idea of clubbing media studies and fashion technology under the same faculty. They even have a computer lab with shelves full of sewing machines!)

Besides a text message that mentioned that he would be attending the Cannes Film Festival, I didn't hear much from Chayan after that day. Then suddenly, last Saturday, I found the invitation to IIFFOQ in my inbox. We went to the inaugural ceremony. Instead of Bharatnatyam, they had chosen Mohinipatnam, the classical dance from Kerala, to begin the function. IIFFOQ was consciously trying to be different. They had my attention.

After the introductions of the members, panelists and dignitaries, the inaugural film, Dum Dum Deega Deega – Dancing in the Rain was screened. Directed by Ayush Kapur, the 15-minute film is one of the most powerful, optimistic films from India I have ever seen and propounds the theory, “The solution to your problem is often hidden in the problem itself, all you need is a different outlook.”

Over the next four days, Manjunath, Mystic Wind (Anjana Batash), Devdasi Children of Pune, 101 Questions (101 Chodyangal), The Sleeping Warrior, Deliverence (Bijolibalar Mukti), Bombay Movie, Jhijhak Kaisi – A documentary on breast cancer, Maa – The Mother, Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, Colour of Sky (Akasathinte Niram), Pinky – Ek Satyakatha, Not a Fairy Tale (Rupkotha Noy), Once Upon a Time India and The Well (Vihir) were screened.

A still from Dozakh

My pick of the lot was the closing film, Dozakh – In Search of Heaven, written, produced and directed by Zaigham Imam. What starts as a regular film about the clash of two cultures in small-town India, turns into a riveting movie that drives home a simple point – that you are a human being first and then a man of faith. A Muslim cleric in a small-town near Varanasi repeatedly admonishes his son because he has befriended a rival Hindu priest. One day the son disappears. The cleric realises that he is, first and foremost, a father who can't bear the separation from his son. When his son's body is fished out of the mighty Ganges, the heartbroken father honours his son's last wish and does not bury his body. He gets it cremated.

I met Anne Demy-Geroe, the former director of the Brisbane International Film Festival, after the closing ceremony. She was visibly shaken. “I am still in shock. A Muslim cremates his son! I never thought I would see that.” We wondered whether it had been screened in India. It was, I discovered later, screened at the Kolkata Film Festival, Delhi International Film Festival, Third Eye Asian Film Festival in Mumbai, Bangalore International Film Festival and Kolhapur International Film Festival.

The only thing the opening chapter of IIFFOQ missed was the audience. Like all new Indian film festivals in foreign countries that strive to screen non-Bollywood cinema from India, the organisers at IIFFOQ did not actively invite Indian audiences (especially college students on campus) for the screenings. We often tend to forget that most of us had little to no exposure to films other than the mainstream Bollywood ones till satellite channels arrived India in the 1990s. Festival organisers often assume that mass Indian film-goers may not be interested in anything other than song-and-dance films with big stars. The result: Few 'intellectual-looking' Indians and fewer non-Asians make up the audience. It's not cross-over. It's a big mistake. Indian films, whichever category they belong to – parallel, art, short, long, feature or non-feature  are essentially for Indians. They must be invited to an Indian film fest.