From Lunch With The Stars to One Book One Pen

The second half of 2017 brought more highlights in this writer’s life. On the 12th of September, I attended the uniquely wonderful CBCA Lunch With The Stars at the ICMS in Manly (as often commented, a more serendipitously Hogwartsian locale in Sydney could not be found). Organised by the Northern Sydney Sub-Branch of the CBCA and the extraordinary Belinda Murrell (author of unrivalled generosity and talent), this was a wonderful opportunity for young readers, teacher-librarians, authors and illustrators to meet over a meal in magnificent surrounds to discuss our favourite books.

At my table, I had the pleasure of joining the students of the Mosman Church of England Preparatory School and their Curriculum Co-ordinator, Donna Gibbs. Engaging with this group of fine young minds was a delight! They were particularly intrigued when my friend Dr Leonid Petrov appeared to inform us of the poltergeist haunted room located somewhere just above our heads!

It was wonderful to catch-up with author and illustrator friends old and new, and I thoroughly enjoyed the heartwarming and thoughtful keynote address from Australian genius Gus Gordon. There is always so much to learn from each other. Thanks to the good people of the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge, the event was beamed live to thousands of students who could not make it on the day.

Without hestitation, I would rate the CBCA Lunch With The Stars up there with The Somerset Celebration of Literature as one of the best author events in Australia. Let’s be honest, it’s not every day that working authors and illustrators, let alone children’s authors and illustrators, get to feel like stars of any sort! But this was better than Oscars night (not that I’ve been to Oscars night … but I have my suspicions). Heck, you’re not going to get to chat over Nespresso to Susanne Gervay, Tim Harris, Yvette Poshoglian, Deb Abela, Jules Faber, Kate Forsyth, Jacquie Harvey, Oliver Phommavanh, and so many other great Australian authors at Oscar Night.

Soon enough, maybe. Hollywood, we’re coming.

Santa Sabina College in Strathfield is a school with an incredible Head of English in Rachel Duke, and I have been thrilled to be invited back there several times since the publication of Empire of the Waves, both to talk about my creative writing, but also about North Korea. In late November, I had the honour of appearing at Santa Sabina’s inaugural literary festival.

Entitled One Book, One Pen, the festival organisers drew upon the words of young Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. In a stirring rebuke of the Taliban who had shot her for challenging their ban on women’s education, Malala declared to the the UN General Assembly:

… let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.

One Book, One Pen thus put the idea of women’s voices and women’s education at the centre of Santa Sabina’s inaugural literary festival. In Empire of the Waves, young Anni Tidechild is the last custodian of an all-but-forgotten library on the floating city of Pel Narine at a time of rising violence and obscurantism. As the endless Pirate Wars rage across the surface of Salila, the tyrant Filip Able consolidates his power at the price of his people’s ignorance. Anni knows that the answers to the terror that envelops her may be found in books, yet she cannot find those answers alone…

Indeed, I wrote Empire of the Waves as a novel for our times, the endless Pirate Wars an allegory for our endless War On Terror, a war so often empowering to demagogues and terrorists (Wavelords and pirates, in my case) at the expense of the civilian lives caught in between. In times such as these, children often emerge as the conscience of nations, and yet their voices are all too often forgotten and marginalised. Malala Yousafzai stands tall as a startling exception. And yet, even now, even in her own country, there are those who would silence her.

Joining me at the festival were three other amazing authors and teachers. Eileen Chong workshopped Mothersong: Writing Women’s Stories, J.C. Burke spoke to the students about “tough” storytelling, how to bring difficult stories to life, and Tony Britten delivered a workshop entitled, Creating Female Characters in YA Fiction: Beyond the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Love Triangle. I didn’t dare ask Tony if he thought my Anni Tidechild passed the Britten Test … but I like to think she would!

It truly was an extroardinary day, with a brimming schedule, and rooms full of inspiring and engaging young minds. Congratulations to Rachel Duke and the teachers and students of Santa Sabina College, Strathfield!

With no word on when Empire of the Waves will continue, the rest of 2017 was spent in writing mode, and I was in almost total lock-down for three months drafting a brand new novel. Entitled Occupation Zone, this freshly hewn novel is a dystopian YA sci-fi thriller set in a divided Australia some twenty years in our future. The young female protagonist of Occupation Zone is fifteen-year-old Mirren Tran, and she too must face a world in darkness.

The world right now does feel dark at times – and is – but, as Malala said to the UN General Assembly, “we realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced.” May 2018 be the year in which we see light, and hear forgotten voices raised above the silence.

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Why I’m Voting Yes

As the rector of my church drew attention to the words of Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies exhorting us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Marriage postal plebiscite, one of my friends turned to me and said: “I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, where the church that now denies same-sex marriage believed that interracial love and marriage were also sins, and could point to Scripture to proclaim it. God help us, we’re making the same mistake again.” By chance, I had in my own Bible reading lately encountered the following in the Old Testament from Nehemiah Chapter 13:

…in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?

One can see how easily Apartheid leaders might have turned such words to their designs, likewise to the will of white nationalists in Australia or the USA, or Nazis for that matter. And yet, as far as I’m aware, in today’s Australia there are no church leaders calling for inter-racial couples to be separated, still less threatening to beat them, rip out their beards, or forbid them from learning a new language.

Words such as these in Nehemiah engender different responses from believers. The prophet’s words may inspire some to xenophobia, or affirm them in a pre-existing loathing. Others might stick their head into the sand and try to ignore the ancient prophet altogether, preferring to focus on Christ’s teachings about love in the New Testament. For others again, such words might encourage them to come to terms with the historical and cultural specificity of much of the Bible’s contents, particularly in the Old Testament. This is something that the church once did well, but has now forgotten or suppressed, at least in certain corners of the earth.

Nehemiah lived and taught at a time when Israel faced extermination. His beleaguered people were an ethnic and linguistic minority, swallowed by the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. The nation’s future, Nehemiah believed, required a guerrilla credo: band together now or die. He yearned to save his people’s language and traditions with the fervour others still seek to protect endangered systems of beliefs and language. If Apartheid South Africa saw itself in this ancient tale of genocide, then they were looking in the wrong direction. For they, in fact, were the destroyers of minorities, the scourge of languages and cultures. Ancient prohibitions in Leviticus were likewise intended to protect a nation on the run in even older times. Those laws are not, and never were, meant for us today. Not in the way that some would want us to believe.

To reckon with such words in Scripture is to expand or deepen in belief, or to lose one’s faith entirely. One of the books my father – an Anglican chaplain – left me when he died was from Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, James Kugel. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now is a wonderfully compelling introduction for those wishing to take on such a challenge with an open mind. Stay or leave? In most cases, it is up to church leaders to decide which it will be. Not everyone will, or could – even if they wanted to – wade through thousands of pages of Biblical scholarship. Nor should they need to.

Millions of Australians have now walked away from church, and with good reasons. A failure to respond to sexual violence and abuse in the church is one. Many of us have seen firsthand the damage wrought by such abuse on human lives, and, as a nation, all of us have heard it in the testimony brought before the Royal Commission. Abuse all too often inflicted on the vulnerable by the very institutions that dare name Same-Sex Marriage, of all things, as a threat to the moral fabric of our nation. No. What has shred, and daily shreds, the fabric of our nation are crimes committed in the name of those sworn to serve and to protect Australia’s most vulnerable. In churches, and church schools and clubs across the land, the Royal Commission has uncovered generations of true sexual disorder and abuse, the institutionalized evisceration of human hearts. Yet even now, when advocates for SSM point out that LGBTIQ+ attraction is natural, the more radical Christian anti-SSM activists have the audacity to sneer that incest and rape are “natural” too.

The scientific realisation that same sex attraction is natural was important for the advance of LGBTIQ+ rights, but the argument proved insufficient to shift the minds of hardened skeptics. (One wishes that today’s fundamentalists might be as skeptical of scripture and church leadership as they are skeptical of science. Inquiring minds well served theologians and church leaders of the past. They well served St Paul and Jesus Christ.) Taken alone, though, these critics have a point. Nature makes a poor moral arbiter. It is not enough to identify a thing as natural to declare it beautiful or good. And yet, the analogy of same-sex attraction, still less same-sex marriage, to the soul-annihilating crimes of incest, rape, and pedophilia is a moral and intellectual absurdity. It is, moreover, in light of the findings of the Royal Commission, an abomination.

As St Paul taught the church in Corinth, in some of the most beautiful words ever written of love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It is gut-wrenchingly tragic that it needs repeating in Twenty-First Century Australia that pedophilia, incest, and rape bear no resemblance to any sort of love, same sex or otherwise.

The numbers of Australians who have left the church are now vertiginous. Unfortunately, like many in a darkened hole, church leaders keep on digging. Like failing tyrants they imagine that stricter rule might turn the tide again. And yet, almost miraculously, despite the exodus of Christians from Australian pews, many have remained. I attend a congregation where many, possibly most, Christians are likely to vote YES in the SSM postal vote. Others will search their conscience and vote, NO. Their reasons may vary, and I will try to remember Martin Luther King, Jr’s reminder that loving someone and disliking their point of view need not be mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the trend towards inclusive Christian attitudes towards SSM is growing, with a recent Galaxy Poll suggesting some 54% of Australian Christians support marriage equality.

Which leads us to a stark conclusion. Either the leaders of our churches have lost their congregations. Or, more likely, the churches of Australia have lost their leaders. Too many clergy remain mired in theological obscurantism and sexual solipsism. Is there anything more tragic then a priest’s lament that his marriage is diminished each time a gay man weds? Meanwhile, millions of Australians across all demographics and religions have come to know their LGBTIQ+ sons and daughters, families, neighbours, and friends, as equals in all respects … except the law. This transformation has come too late for generations lost to fear and hatred, and yet it has come, and grows now every day. The revelation that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney has donated $1 million to the “no campaign” will do irreparable damage to an already tarnished reputation and, in my opinion, consigns the diocese to a very dark place in church history.

As St Paul wrote to Corinth, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In the face of violence and exclusion, we have seen first-hand the love and truth and perseverance of our LGBTIQ+ brothers and sisters. They have persevered in love, as generations before them preserved, not only to be seen, but to be recognized as equals before the law. Not to be tolerated, but to be loved and be defended. As Paul taught the church in Galatia, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If Paul had lived to know the LGBTIQ+ community, as we know it today, I have faith that they too would be included in his words. For others who remain uncertain how to vote, recall that the conversion of Saul of Tarsus from persecutor of Christians to the author of such words of Christian love reveals a man unafraid to change his mind. Afraid perhaps, but brave enough to dare. LGBTIQ+ Australians love their partners, their children, their families, and communities as well as the rest of us. Perhaps better. For such families have had to fight for every inch of recognition of that love. I am proud to attend a church that seeks to redress the failures of the church’s past, and “welcomes all people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, or religion.”

As our Rector, the Reverend Andrew Sempell, drew attention to the words of Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies exhorting us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Marriage postal plebiscite, he also drew attention to the words of Professor Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University, and Associate Priest at St. John’s Anglican Church, East Malvern, Victoria. As Professor Bouma wrote for ABC Religion and Ethics, “my heart aches for those who are told their committed relationships are not worthy of marriage, that their loving is inferior, and that their being is evil. My compassion for those excluded moves me to vote ‘yes.’” Alongside many other Anglicans in Sydney and around the country, I too am voting YES without hesitation.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

Frederick W. Faber


My journey overland from West Bengal to Rajasthan has been intense, exhausting, beguiling, terrifying, wonderful. As the train rolls into Jaipur I am, if truth be told, running low. Not quite recovered from my fever in Allahabad, I surrender to the primal need for bourgeois balm and consolation, and check into a more than usually luxurious guesthouse for three days of hot water, culinary excess, and the decadence of evening silence.

After deep sleep on a cloud of pillows I wake to explore the pink city and capital of Rajasthan.

For most of the day I simply wander, lost in the bazaars of the Old City, and stop only to eat or drink or chat or stare at some new wonder.

In the heat of afternoon, I cool the soul with mango, pineapple, and strawberry ice cream at a sweet shop inside the famous LMB Hotel and watch the world pass by. 

Next morning I set out for a day trip to the Amber Fort, one of the most popular tourist sites in all India, and justly so.

The fort hovers, like a mirage of sand and fire over Lake Maota. I reach the entrance on foot, passing others who arrive like Rajput princes or sunburned memsahibs by weary pachyderm.

Climbing high over the honey-red ramparts of the fort, it is easy to see why Rajasthan has became the death-by-selfie epicentre of India.

Jaipur is a city of wonders, many of which may be attributed to the will and wisdom of Jai Singh II, the warrior-astronomer who built much of this grand metropolis. My favourite is the exquisite Jantar Mantar, a set of swollen astronomical contraptions that delight the intellect and imagination in equal part.

In the age of Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, one wonders where the warrior-astronomers have gone…

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After departing Bundi on a rickshaw ride through sheets of wafer-bodied midges, I board a clanking train for Udaipur, a city famed as one of the most beautiful in Rajasthan. But before I reach my destination, I have a stopover in Chittorgarh. Built on a mighty plateau, the Chittor fort rises over the metropolis, largely (unlike Udaipur) untouched by Western tourism.

Leaving bags at the station, I join a tuktuk driver for a guided tour, before returning for the connecting train to Udaipur.

All I wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two.
Had no intention to do the things we´ve done…”

After an unexplained (and likely inexplicable) delay, the loco sidles into Udaipur late into the night. Eventually I’m sprawled out on my bed in a guesthouse on the shores of Lake Pichola, the windows curiously barred shut. Arriving in such places at such hours is often like an unexpected one-night stand: one does not know who or what one will wake beside, until one does. In fact, more than a few travellers had warned that Udaipur was not so special after all, a trap for tours and honeymooners.

Yet as the sun rose over Lake Pichola, I could see why Udaipur was indeed the stuff of legend. Glittering lake watched over by a soaring Rajput palace, it was a place of light.

That said, much of Udaipur – around the lake, at least – had long congealed into a concentrated tourist hub. The extent to which this sullied one’s ability to enjoy a stay in Udaipur depends on how willingly one surrenders to the city’s charms: the palace and the lake. And I surrendered willingly.

I wandered in a fantasy that had displaced the world for just a moment, except for that dream of India projected from the palace and Pichola’s liquid splendour.

Even the city’s own self-referential effort to destroy its charms with endless tat, and guesthouses that played Octopussy on endless loop – what Gitmo of the mind is this? – could not take that away from me.

The dream lingered as sunset cast the city red, then mauve, then shrouded her in black, until finally I withdrew again, content that I had seen the Udaipur of dreams.

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Postojna to Ljubljana to Bled

Postojna is a place – like me – distinguished, above all, by what lies beneath. This is Slovenia’s karst territory. Scratch the surface and one enters the speleological Shangri-la that is Postojna’s remarkable network of caves. The journey begins with an underground train ride, passing treasures ancient and glittering, but too vast to steal. God’s crystal set, the stalactites and stalagmites form a kaleidoscopic constellation of shapes and colours, illuminated by lamps and candles. Millennia old, yet very much alive, the cave is growing still, coalescing and dispersing with each new drop of water.

It is like a train ride through the Milky Way.

Ride concluded, I was deep underground, and joined the crowd of fellow travellers for a two kilometre walk through the cave system, via cathedrals of stone and light. Here, we pay our respects to Proteus anguinus, the dominant lifeform in this twilight world. Although closer to earth’s fiery core than I had ever been, the atmosphere was cool and celestial. There may have been dragons in the Postojna caves, but their fire had long gone out…

After several relaxing days in Piran, Slovenia’s justly popular port town, I headed to Ljubljana, her capital. You know you’re in a great place when official tourist brochures say something like, “there’s nothing really famous here, but come anyway”. Whoever said you had to be famous to be worth knowing?

The city is wonderful. Although small, Ljubljana packs a charm-punch equal to any I have visited. Ljubljana is like Budapest’s elegant cafe strip, without the inconvenience of being attached to Budapest. You could (probably) even walk across the main street blindfolded and not be hit by a car. Indeed, Ljubjana is a pedestrian city (in the literal sense) and the fastest wheels in town are bicycles, or the prams pushed leisurely along the Ljubljanica, the river that gently gossips her way through the city.

Despite the elegant old buildings that dominate the centre, Ljubljana feels young. An enormous student population gives the city a Bohemian air, filling cafes with their smoke and chatter, as people queue for gelato, and a local jazz band plays a free concert by the Triple Bridge.

Slobodan Milosevic’s guns never clapped in the skies above Ljubljana, and it shows. The city is pristine. Ljubljana may not be home to the Louvre or the Acropolis, but, given the right company, some jazz, and three flavours of ice cream, there can scarcely be a finer place to pass one’s days in idle strolling. Ljubljana does not mean “the Beloved” for nothing.

My final destination in Slovenia was Lake Bled, a fairy tale lake overlooked by a fairy tale castle in a fairy tale corner of the Julian Alps. Bled was one of those places where everything felt right, particularly at my enthusiastically run guesthouse. Some guesthouses have chemistry (other than that cooking in people’s shoes and pants), and some do not. In Bled, everyone (for once) got along in ways more than amorous, and many late nights were spent at the labour of beer and cards.

The family-run guesthouse was spearheaded by D____. He was a terrible driver, a worse comedian, and the single most drunk person I have met.

“What would you like for breakfast, young man?”

“The eggs, please.”

“And how many beers?”

The old maniac misheard everything as “beers” … presumably as wish fulfillment on his behalf. Happy days were spent walking the wide circle of the lake, exploring Vintner Gorge, and drinking / eating Damien’s delicious beer.

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Edward Lear on ABC Radio Canberra

On the 23rd of July, I had the pleasure of discussing the life and work of Edward Lear with Lish Fejer on ABC Radio Canberra.

Listen to the full interview here

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Pushkar is coming with me.

Well, Jim and Em and Fi are coming with me, or I’m leaving Pushkar with them. It proves to be one of those great travelling days, where conversation between friends new and old drifts from banal to confessional to transcendental, and – thanks to Fi’s forward thinking playlist – we are able to depart (if just this once) the standard taxi fare of throbbing Hindi dance music.

Our driver becomes lost in Bundi, and – as we later discover, much later – had sped past the exit to our guesthouse mere moments after arrival in the city. Following a bewildering detour through the uninviting new town we are back where we began, and arrive at our destination, an old haveli on Lake Nawal Sagar.

The haveli is, perhaps, crumbling to that special point where charm teeters on the precipice of peril. Someone heavier than I, for instance, would surely tip the toilet in my bathroom, and rip it from the tiles. Another hazard of the old haveli, as Jim soon finds, is a ravening house dog who would deter less determined guests, as well as all those lurking thieves and bandits. 

Bundi is a late arrival on the tourist trail through Rajasthan. Most of the guesthouses are clustered between the Garh Palace and Nawal Sagar, leaving little room for growth. Bundi feels like a Rajasthani city with a handful of tourists, rather than a tourist city with a handful of Rajasthanis. And, unlike the City Palace of Udaipur, the palace of the Raja in Bundi feels abandoned, even haunted. Above, in the Taragarh Fort, one encounters only monkeys… and the odd local with an axe.

Sometimes it is good to let time run its course. It leaves one with an acute sense of history’s passing to encounter a seat of power and wealth now crumbling, echoing with the flutter of birds and screech of bats, rather than the fluttering of tills and screech of touts.

Soon Emilie and Fi depart, returning to Pushkar, whilst Jim and I remain for another day to explore the further reaches of the city, most poignantly for me the Sukh Niwas Mahal, where Kipling wrote much of Kim. We also make a trip to explore the royal stepwells known as baori. Like so much in Rajasthan, the baori rise like something out of Game of Thrones.

It will be sad to leave this oddball city, an appealingly unpolished gem. The only thing I won’t miss are the kamikaze midges, so fragile that they die on impact. Even a short stroll around Bundi polka-dots one’s face and clothes with their puce cadavers.

Sadder still is to part from Jim, but we say goodbye over one of the best meals I have enjoyed in Rajasthan, home-cooked by the proprietor of a nearby guesthouse, as we sit beneath the floodlit palace, a radiant ghost from Bundi’s past.

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Pushkar is a special place, one that will remain long in blissful memory. After an anxiety-inducing bus ride from Jaipur – featuring no less than three near-death experiences – I arrive at the lake where Brahma, it is said, once dropped a lotus leaf. I will be staying at the Bharatpur Palace, a whitewashed guesthouse that would not look out of place in the Cyclades, and yet, instead of towering over a beach of glistening Germans, my room watches over ghats of glistening pilgrims. They have come to bathe in holy waters.

Pushkar is a hybrid place, the lake one of India’s key holy sites, yet also a key tourist stop in Rajasthan. The encircling town remains small, and so those worlds – secular and sacred – are balanced in rare harmony. It is, therefore, the perfect place to rest and to recharge after a long journey overland from West Bengal. Presiding over the Palace is Meena, and she runs her guesthouse with a matronly benevolence and strict all-seeing eye.

I love people – I really do – and yet travel alone much of the time. It’s my preferred therapy, all the better to let out the old, and in the new. But sometimes on the road one falls into company so very lovely, so very good, that it is near impossible to say goodbye. And so it was that in Pushkar I met Jim, Fiona, Emilie and Jo, with whom I spent the rest of the week, first in Pushkar, then in Bundi.

Jim and Jo were in India on business (in Jo’s case, jewelry, in Jim’s, tents). Fiona is an artist from London, partly funding her journey with the proceeds of “Jez We Can” bags sold online, and Emily was a wandering soul from Montreal, who had been on the road for years. In so many ways we were all such different people, and yet all connected on that sun-haloed guesthouse roof, even to a point where all participated in our own ritual by the lake, unlocking Jim’s dreads for the first time in a quarter of a century. Until that moment, I had never been so intimate with another grown man’s hair.

I recommend it.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its favoured status with travellers, Pushkar maintains strict discipline over its sacred spaces. One is not permitted to take photos on the ghats. Indeed, as one Italian found out when chased by a naked sadhu with a sword, one really is not permitted to take photos on the ghats! Fortunately for me, the guesthouse’s privileged place, overlooking the holy lake, meant that I might wake each day to witness the old ablution. And hear it too. The sound of bells and chanting rose daily from the temple only feet from my sleeping quarters.

Together we all take sunset walks to hilltop temples (replete with evil monkeys), or stroll around the lake.

We eat, we read, we chat, we sleep.

Pushkar is one of those places.

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Kolkata Day Two

I take a taxi to Kalighat, one of Kolkata’s most sacred sites.

As so often in India – as in the world – the nearer one draws to the sacred, the more likely one is to trip over the profane. According to a young man in my hotel, twenty-one rupees is the auspicious and sufficient sum to pay one of the many local guides certain to materialize upon my arrival at the Kali Temple. So as I discard my shoes and plunge into the complex, accompanied by a grinning guide, I slip the tiny sum into my pocket.

Entering the temple, my brow is dyed at a shrine where mothers pray for sons. Next I’m led to a place where, moments earlier, a goat was slaughtered. Paint-red blood drips on the walls and floor, and I watch two men carve the beast into tasty strips. Having perished propitiating Kali, the goat will now serve to feed the local poor.

Ominously, I’m warned to watch for thieves and “wicked characters,” as we move into the inner sanctum of the temple. I will only have a moment to cast my offering to the god. “But hold your wallet,” my guide says, and then orders me to throw my flowers.

Having satisfied the god, I’m led through the temple to a sacred tank, where I am to pray for my family back home, and lay a garland round the neck of another stone divinity. This I do with due solemnity, but then the metaphorical sky blackens. I have been here before, in other times and places, and my heart sinks with the memory of other temple malefactors. Now, I’m told with rising menace, I must make a donation of 5000 rupees.

5000 rupees now! Else a lifetime of bad luck awaits you, friend…

I would have simply walked away, but there were five men around me now. Fumbling in my pocket, I offer 100 rupees to the guide – still five times the recommended fee – and he snatches the note away. “You are a wicked man,” he says, shaking his head. For a moment, I thought he might push me down into the murky tank, but he cursed again and disappeared into the temple, doubtless searching for new prey.

Seeking to shake off my sadness at another sacred place defiled, I wander the alleys behind the complex, past the “Home of the Pure Heart,” Mother Teresa’s still controversial hospice for the dying, and down towards the Adi Ganga. Also known as Tolly’s Canal, this channel runs from the Hooghly River down through Kalighat. Alas, this once navigable river has become an open sewer, killed dead by pollution. Children play among waste rising from pools of sickly water.

After lunch, I take an historical detour and walk the vast grounds surrounding the Victoria Memorial, a masterpiece of imperial design, built to commemorate the reign of the Empress of India herself. The Memorial was opened to great fanfare in 1921. And yet, twenty years after the death of Victoria, the Raj was nearer to the end than its beginning. Inside the Memorial is a museum that recalls the history of colonial Bengal, a microcosm of India’s experience as the object of Western economic, military and cultural desire. The long encounter between Britain and subcontinent contains all the elements of tragedy and romance, of discovery and desecration. It was a relationship premised and sustained on exploitation, yet one that also sowed the seeds of its own demise through the mingling of Indian and European philosophy, art, literature and ideology. The Bengali Renaissance would help give shape and form to the very nationalism that would ultimately drive the invaders back to their island home. The legacy of that renaissance still shapes the identity of the city of Kolkata now.

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Kolkata Day One

Kolkata, a tang of sweat and car fumes, as a prepaid taxi takes the roulette out of arriving in a new city at night. A late check-in inspires a flurry of activity at the Broadway Hotel. The place is ramshackle, yet stately with a clanking manual lift – lovingly maintained – and a ground-floor whiskey bar beneath low-hanging ceiling fans. The kitchen has long closed, so the genial night manager sends a boy to bring me something from the street. He returns with two delicious curries, rice and naan, and I’m guided to the best room in the hotel, or at least the one with the least awful traffic noise, which means the room is only moderately cacophonous.

A good night’s sleep is followed by fair coffee in the bar, and a browse of the Calcutta Telegraph. I have always been a fan of Indian print media. This is a country that takes ideas seriously, with a healthy (if raucous) newspaper culture. In January 2016, the lead story was the suicide of a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad named Rohith Vemula. His tragic death had sparked new debate about institutional discrimination against Dalits and the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) of which Vemula belonged. Meanwhile, the lives, loves, crimes and misdemeanors of Bollywood superstars still dominated column inches. Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan were in court for wearing shoes inside a temple filming Big Boss 9

Far though I was from dosa heartland, these savoury treats have long been my favourite Indian addiction, so I track down a famous southern eatery. After two dosai and some idli, I amble down Ganesh Chandra Avenue towards B.B.D. Bagh (formerly Dalhousie Square), built around a British water tank and surrounded by a cluster of colonial edifices. Kolkata, like Hanoi and Havana, is a city that has elevated imperial decay into an art form.

After wandering the square, I head towards the pastel-walled Portuguese Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, and then to the Magen David Synagogue.

Here, thousands of Baghdadi Jews once worshipped, yet their numbers have diminished to some twenty faithful. The synagogue is now all but overwhelmed by a largely Muslim marketplace surrounding it. I am the only visitor, and an old man emerges from the marketplace with the key to show me around.

Today (January 23rd) marks the anniversary of the birth of independence figure Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who remains beloved across swathes of India, yet controversial for ties to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Bose saw Hitler and Hirohito as bulwarks against the British Empire. A procession of thousands of supporters marched through the streets, grinding Kolkata to a halt. As I wait for the throng to pass, a Bengali Brahmin nears to chat, and I hear the first of many whispered anti-Muslim and anti-migrant (read Bangladeshi) speeches during my time in West Bengal. As elsewhere in the world, social and economic woes are blamed on minorities, migrants and mysterious outsiders. Undoubtedly, Kolkata has endured much, and absorbed millions of refugees from Bangladesh during that country’s war for independence from (West) Pakistan. Australia breaks its moral compass over several hundred…

With the parade dissolving, I make for the markets near Sudder St. The Grand Oberoi watches over its own with machine guns, and everyone else just scrapes along outside. Then I catch a rickshaw along Alimuddin Street, a road lined with Muslim butchers, to reach the famous Motherhouse, from where Mother Teresa conducted her work in life and long continues after death. The famous Missionaries of Charity still wear their trademarked three-striped white saris, and weave among the pilgrims – adoring or just curious – as I sit for a moment of prayer in Teresa’s tomb.

Returning to the city proper, I dive into my first street-food experience. For less than a dollar I inhale two spicy chicken rolls smothered in red spices, herbs, onion and mystery sauce. Judging by the crowd, I’m not the only one who thinks this perhaps the most delicious thing in all Kolkata.

Satisfied, I wander back to my hotel, past groaning trams and buses that shudder through thousands of commuters and several herds of goats. Exhausted from so much walking I opt for early bed, so of course the businessmen in the next room decide to have a dance party. I finally fall asleep, and hardly stir until the call to prayer next day.

Continue to Kolkata, Day Two

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