India: Spirituality, or something like it.

One aspect of India that can’t be ignored, whether one comes seeking it or not, is the prevalence of something spiritual. Spending most of my time in Rajasthan, I didn’t expect to encounter much of it, or spend time investigating the practices that bring so many Westerners to this part of the world, but still, it remained inescapable. It is inherent in the streets: in the countless temples and statues, the roaming cows, and even in tiles of deities on alley walls to deter urinators (yes, that’s a thing). I wanted to learn more about Hindu, a religion and culture I knew little about before coming to India. I’ve come away with something since, I think, though there’s a universe still to learn.


In Pushkar, a Brahmin led us to the ghats on the sacred lake, not far from where Ghandi’s ashes were spread, for the flower ceremony. It was much quieter by the lake than I expected, a trickle of Israeli hippies, middle-aged tourists, and beggar women and their children. This is the lake where Brahma is said to have dropped a lotus flower, both giving the lake its name and its proximity to the only Brahma temple in India. Bodies are brought here, as they are in Varanasi, for cremation. The holy water is said to remove bad karma before death, and to bathe in the water can cleanse the soul. As Westerners, we would have a simple ceremony for peace and prosperity, administered by a trustworthy Brahmin (for scam ceremonies are prevalent on the ghats). We each had a plate with powder, a coconut and flower, and, seated with our eyes closed, we repeated the blessings in both Hindi and English. We received our bindis, and laid our flowers on the water. It was so still and peaceful, it was difficult not to feel something of the significance. Later, as the sun set over the lake, I watched a cow trundle beside a pair of men in full white robes as a man played a drum across the water and felt a very particular kind of peace. It wasn’t by any means the typical kind of spiritual experience people come to India, to places like Pushkar, to find, but it was there, with something very organic about it.


Varanasi, like Pushkar draws pilgrims to water. The first thing I saw when we arrived at the Holy Ganga, taking slow steps down to the ghats as a hint of sunrise blurred black to grey, were cremation fires burning. Then there was a body in a white shroud, slender-shoulders and a little dent of a nose giving human shape to the white on the flames. I tried not to stare, but it was too difficult not to. Men stood around fanning the flames, some with bald, cleanly shaven heads and faces, a marker of close family of the deceased. They played upbeat music from a rattling speaker and so it didn’t seem at all the kind of mourning I’d expected. We watched the sunrise from a rowboat, passing men bathing, washing laundry, performing their own small and private rituals. Everything happens here. Later, as we ate lassi in a tiny shop on a tinier alley, we watched procession after procession of brightly coloured mourners pass us by. They carried prone bodies, wrapped in oranges and yellows and adorned in marigolds, as they sang. There were two that came by with a band of drummers. This, Abhi told us, was because they’d lived to be more than one hundred. The second came by as we left the lassi shop, and I pressed myself against the ancient wall to be out of the way. The face, this time, was not covered in a shroud. Sunken cheeked and paled, suddenly it felt different. I’d seen many bodies by then — those passing in the streets, or on the ghats as we’d walked by during the day. We stopped and watched, from a respectful distance, as men prepared a body for the flames. They sprinkled oils and dustings of something on the shroud, then let the flames build. Stacks and stacks of logs act as walls around the burning areas, and goats and dogs clamber among them. The bodies burn for three to four hours before the remains are given to the river. Sometimes this can include parts still intact: the broad shoulders of men, the hips of women. And then, just meters from where these rituals take place, men bathe themselves. One of the cremators, a man whose family have kept alive the holy flames for generations, told us that there are those who fish in the waters for trinkets of the dead, as jewellery remains on the bodies. They sell these, or so they claim, to pay for the funerals of the poor.


But it’s not all death on the Ganges. At dusk, after our lassis we took another boat out to watch the famous Ganga Arti ceremony on the Dasaswamedh Ghat. I’d been waiting for this ceremony for three weeks: it was one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing on the trip. My expectations were high, and luckily for me, they were met. Before we joined what seemed like hundreds of boats swarming the waters, packed in tight to a view the ritual, we stayed where it was quiet. We were given a flower and candle, and after a brief and silent prayer, let them adrift on the waters. It was magical, the lights flickering as they drifted further and further from us. Other boats did the same, so at points it seemed like the whole river was lit with tiny pinpricks of yellow. Once we’d found our place among the crowds, we watched the Brahmins perform the ceremony. There was the rattle of bells, among deep voiced chants as incense plumes carried high into the air. I sat back with that same sense of peace, despite all the voices around me, tourists on the boats, and became entranced.


We watched the same ceremony days later in Rishikesh on the foothills of the Himalayas. Far from the crowds and bustle of Varanasi, where the Ganges water ran blue-green and clean, the ritual was very different. We sat close amongst the crowd as the robed children and young men studying Vedas at the Parmarth Niketan stand in two rows, led by a greying old man in white, and a long-haired man in orange, singing for an hour. We were surrounded by a mix of Indian locals and tourists and pilgrims, as well as the Westerners and hippies who come to Rishikesh to study yoga practice. Everyone sang together, even myself, by the end, unable to keep myself from falling into it. As the sun set, the lamps were lit and carried down to the water. People scrambled for a turn to hold them, to swing them in wide circles before them, before passing them to the next person to take down to the water. I watched at first, feeling like a strange observer of it all, but then an Indian man made eye-contact with me and, holding out the lamp, ushered me toward him. It was as though the crowd parted for me, and there was no more jostling as I reached for it. But I was self-conscious, and my circles were barely trembles, and I was relieved when a man in white took it from me and went down to the water. But still, I felt honoured, like I was chosen or something — silly as it sounds. It was so much more of an intimate experience than in Varanasi, and I’m so glad we went (as we were both getting quite sick by this point). Afterwards, we sat on the steps of the ghat, watching children let their flowers and candles float down the river. It was another moment of peace, and couldn’t help but feel quite taken by the place.


I decided that I’d need to come back to Rishikesh again. It was a shame I was so sick while we were there. We didn’t get to take a yoga class, a must-do in the yoga capital of the world, or hike the mountains, or visit the waterfalls or mountain temples. Instead, we walked slowly through the streets, past ashram upon ashram. There was a much slower pace to Rishikesh, and I felt so much relief after having been back in Delhi the day before. In the morning, we sought out the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram where the Beatles stayed when they came to India. It was hidden in the outskirts of the city, amongst tall monkey-filled trees in the national park. There were no signs to indicate an ashram — unusual in a town literally plastered with ads for ashrams and yoga schools — and instead a giant sign for a tiger reserve greeted us. As it turns out, the ashram is now preserved as a nature reserve, and is overrun with crawling vines and drooping trees. We wandered through the abandoned buildings, many of them graffitied with Beatles lyrics and images. There are hundreds of tiny ‘caves’, small, round huts where people once lived. The Beatles occupied number 9 (it all makes sense!), and it was quite an experience to sit in the tiny space and hear the echoes of our voices, surrounded by psychedelic Beatles graffiti. This is the type of spirituality that Rishikesh is known for. The Ganges remain holy to the locals in the same way they are at Varanasi and Haridwar, a pretty town we’d stopped in briefly on route to Rishikesh. But Westerners come here for the reasons that drew the Beatles. To find something of an experience, to practice and devote themselves to yoga, to seek enlightenment. I quite like the idea of doing the same one day – as cliché as it may be.


India: Encounters

I’d heard before arriving that India is the type of place that you can love and hate in equal measure. That it exhilarates and exhausts you. Nothing has quite tested my patience, not the lack of hot water, the constant honking, or terrible coffee (precious, perhaps, but important for general functionality), so much as our futile attempts to withdraw cash from an ATM. We take for granted how simple it is to access money, in all its forms, in the West: pay-wave, ATMs, online banking, money exchange. One would assume that if you have money – which we do, a lot of it by Indian standards – you can use it. Not so, apparently. Recent government regulations have meant the removal of certain notes from circulation, along with low maximum withdrawals in single transactions and – inevitably – vast shortages of available cash. Having a tuk-tuk drive you to bank after bank after bank to find ‘no cash’ is gruelling and, honestly, kind of bizarre. It is a particular kind of joy to finally grasp those limp, thin notes in your hands and know you can finally buy water.

I’m in Agra right now, home of the Taj Mahal, which needs no introduction. It’s a magnificent, awe-inspiring structure, and I don’t think there are any original thoughts that I can pen to better describe it than already exist, so I won’t bother too much except to say that it invaded even my dream last night. Agra itself, however, is, well, not exactly my favourite city. And that’s really a very light assessment. Scam city, I’ve come to term it. Doesn’t seem to be anything particularly redeeming about it except the Taj (well, perhaps the Baby Taj). The air is thick and dirty, and I’ve been congested, hacking and sniffing, since we arrived. Leaving the hotel for even two minutes means not only the return of gunk to the lungs, but the constant harassment of drivers and pedlars. Agra is filthy, and where the trash can be ignored for the charm of old derelict buildings and fascinating daily life spilling into the streets in other cities, here, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent. No amiable narrow alleys, or smiling, curious locals. Instead, everyone’s out to get something from you. Even the drivers that took us to the Baby Taj tried to get our tickets from us once we were inside, claiming they needed them for parking validation, and not to sell on to other tourists, their real intention. Our train has been delayed due to fog, and so instead of waking up in Varanasi, the city I’ve been most looking forward to on this trip, we’ll be spending the better part of the day on a train. But that’s okay. Because for every frustration in India – of which, quite obviously, I’ve been experiencing a bit of in the last few days – there is something truly extraordinary.


I’ll begin with the people. The swarms of them. People in such numbers I struggle to imagine the daily realities of their lives. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite such nihilist thoughts! Thinking about it is like knowing that the universe is expanding, infinitely. It’s just too big. And we stand out so much. I’ve hardly seen any other Westerners except in the really touristy destinations: the riverbank of Udaipur, the Amber Fort at Jaipur. The stares are unashamed, unabashed. At first they made my skin prick with suspicion. After all, I’d been warned about pickpockets, gropers and worse. It didn’t take long, however, to realise that most of the time – except in Agra, fucking Agra – those glances are of innocent curiosity. Usually they’re just trying to figure out how to ask you for a picture. They selfie, gleefully, giggle, and turn away with an Indian shake. I must be in so many photographs by now, posing politely beside strangers. Sometimes they thrust children into your arms, unhappy little ones crying for their mamas, who stand and smile and snap away. Sometimes, when there is a chance, they just want to talk. On the train to Jodphur we met a family who joined us for several hours. They approached nervously at first, with tentative creeps, shuffng feet, nods and smiles from the aisle. There was the mother Meenu (‘not menu!’ she laughed, delightedly, without prompting), two daughters, and eventually, the father, a bashful son. We talked about food and Bollywood, Justin Bieber and 4G internet. They called me Selina, for Gomez, and by the end of our voyage we’d exchanged Facebook and WhatsApp details, promised to keep in touch. It’s these kinds of encounters that I like the most: joking with a cheeky tuk-tuk driver, catching the wave of a girl passing on the back of a motorbike. These kinds of moments are almost magical in their strangeness, because again, I think I take it for granted living in a diverse, multicultural society that I’ve seen many different kinds of people. I am Other to them, as much as they are to me. For every man clad in twisted turban, white mundu, an orange bindi streaking his forehead that begs my attention, the turn of my lens, so too do my now ripped jeans, my blue eyes, my side-plait, attract the gazes of strangers and their not-so-subtle phone tilts. We’re all as curious as each other. Perhaps the world is not as globalised as I’d thought. And that’s quite a nice thing, I think.


In every city, on almost every night, we’ve encountered the explosively loud and colourful processions of very-soon-to-be-newly-weds. Our first day in Delhi, sitting at lunch in a crowded restaurant, the banging of a marching band and the blaring of horns through lined megaphones on a cart drew me outside. Crowds of people pushed down the street, dancing, singing. A man clad in marigolds followed the band, the groom to be, but I didn’t know that then. It was just a riot. Something so astounding and unexpected I stood mouth agape as they passed.  Such scenes are daily now. In a narrow alley in Jodphur, five of us squished in a tuk-tuk, rode right through the middle of one such parade. Fireworks glittered above us as revellers rushed for selfies as we passed. We were held up by four processions in Pushkar, the holy city, where newly-weds must be drawn to the sacred symbolism of the lake. They pulled in some of the guys to dance. I stood outside and watched, unsure of my place as a woman in such as ritual. Later that night, Brendan and I followed one down the entire main market street, unable to pass. Men carry bright shimmering lamps connected to a giant generator that is pushed down the street behind them. They dance for hours, and the music can be heard echoing down every street for kilometres around. The fireworks startled Brendan and a cow, very nearly causing a trampling.


We did nearly end up in a stampede in the winding old town of Jodphur. Admiring the blue painted houses, a colour used originally to identify the Brahmins – the priests – and to keep away the mosquitos, I missed what had caused the commotion. But there was yelling, Abhi, our guide, signalling us towards the wall. I leapt into the open crevice of a crumbling storefront as four or five cows stampeded past. We had just been zip lining over the fort and my leftover adrenaline spiked. A blur of white and brown, huge beasts, horns first, buckling. A small cow in white, just when we thought the coast was clear, rounded the corner. We laughed, but how narrowly we escaped serious injury I’m not sure. Still, I don’t feel the need to go to Spain to run with the bulls anymore. Another cow horn-butted me, accidentally or otherwise, further along the twisted streets. The space is narrow, and they take precedence. For the most part though, they are lovely. They appear in numbers far higher than I had actually expected, trying, as I was, to avoid stereotypes. Even in Delhi, a bustling, crowded city of 30 million, they wander the roads and roundabouts, expecting traffic to bend as they do. It does. By the lake in Pushkar, a tiny cream thing sniffed my hand, gave me a nuzzle.


Dogs receive less respect. They whimper in gutters seeking food. Sometimes they sleep in the strangest places – in busy intersections, on rooftops, in empty troughs. For the most part, surprisingly, they don’t look terribly unhealthy. They must be expert hunters – scavengers, more likely, or beggars. In the desert cities, Jaislamer and Bikaner, camels are frequent in traffic. They pull carts loaded obesely with huge white bundles tied with rope. They grunt and spit, and drool as they make the strangest noises. One of my favourite encounters with the city-dwelling wildlife of India so far though, is the monkeys. They are not kind or curious, like the cows, nor do they harmlessly mind their own business. But they are a remarkable thing to see leaping across a rooftop. In the pink streets of Jaipur they stalk the rooftops. An enormous alpha swung down the tangle of electrical wiring and slammed his fists onto the roof of a parked white car. As we watched the sunset from the hilltop Monsoon Palace in Udaipur, completely unbothered by my presence, an old monkey with greying beard watched regally over the rolling, fading hills.

India: Morning Impressions

I’ve been in India for almost a week now and I’m struggling to find words to describe almost anything about it. It’s as though I’ve stumbled through the looking glass, but despite the overwhelming sensory assaults, somehow nothing feels terribly surprising. I’m inside the book, the film, the postcards, and so while everything is strange and foreign, it is also somewhat familiar. So, where do I begin? Do I list off stereotypes so far encountered: cows on street corners; incessant, ear-shredding honking; old men in turbans and mundu and women adorned in brass and gold; a man exclaiming, ‘Ricky Ponting!’ when we say we’re Australian; packs of monkeys and circling, soaring eagles; shoe-less children selling balloons and flowers at car windows; or regal Raj palaces and ornate temples beside slums and slums and slums? Or, do I retrace my steps, listing every high and low. How I miss silence, hot water and sleeping through the night, or that I could watch silhouetted kites and lively rooftops as the sun sets, serenaded by children with clackers and accordions every night of my life. Perhaps I’ll begin with the present.


Beyond the window where I write is the golden sandstone of Jaisalmer: ornate latticed windows, arched columns and crumbling, half built walls. A flock of pigeons arc from blue sky through the greens and yellows of creeping bush and their shadows shimmer on the reflection of a half-constructed hotel in the pool. Traffic rumbles and beeps, chimes clang and an old man sings in a voice that warbles. This is the smallest, quietest and by far the prettiest city we’ve so far traversed, but none of those details are particularly unique to Jaisalmer alone – except the colours, the way the city brings to mind a medieval Middle Eastern trade-route oasis. Something from Arabian Nights. These sounds are everywhere, though amplified, unsurprisingly, in Delhi. In Bikaner, the call to prayer drowned out the cars and tuk-tuks for an hour at a time, weaving its way through crowded streets into our palatial hotel, former residence of the Bikaner royal family. Cows and camels shared the roads, sleeping dogs on roundabouts. Here, in Jaisalmer, hairy, tusked pigs or boars, I’m unsure which, wander the alleys, trouts in trash. There are no curbs, just dirt that trails into something else. No edges. No horizons. Endless blurring of one thing into another: street into sidewalk, stall into store, rich into poor. There’s a new song now, played somewhere far away, and beneath the chirping birds and mumbling men it carries on the breeze.


I’m running out of time, so I’ll keep my stories for later: the biscuit thief dog in our tent, a chameleon travel agent, a rat that ripped my jeans, cricket in the sand, near-miss electrocution. A million other things. For later.


Back at It – The Hearth: Lives and Selves

It’s been eighteen months, but I’m back. Finally. In that eighteen months I spent a lot of time – well, most of my time, really – finishing my PhD thesis. But that is behind me now, as is the semester – for teaching kept me from writing, an easy excuse – for a while too. So I’m brushing the dust off the keyboard (if I were to use a different keyboard for blogging, for some reason), and getting back into it. I’m not sure the shape of my blog from now on, but I’ll just write as things come to me and we’ll see where it goes.

The first occasion of which I wish to speak is The Hearth. Another key event within that eighteen month period was that I, along with some very dear/rad friends of mine, initiated The Hearth Collective as a means to launch a series of readings events in Adelaide. We wanted to create a space not just for creative readings, which I’ve been involved with for many years through Speakeasy, but for a broader sharing of creative practice and discussion through themed nights. I think we’ve succeeded in this, and so far The Hearth has held three events in the beautiful Jade with wonderful performances from fiction writers, poets, memoirists, essayists and dramatists. We’ve then had amazing discussions through out Q&A sessions between the writers and the audience.


Me and the Hearth Babes, Melanie Pryor, Emma Maguire and Alicia Carter, setting up for Lives & Selves

On Thursday the 17th we met again for the theme of Lives & Selves, with guest readers Ben Brooker, Kathryn Hummel, Kylie Cardell, Alison Bennett, Threasa Meads and Houman Zandi-Zadeh. They spoke about digital lives and relationships, recovering from illness and trauma and the insights of our childhood diaries through fiction, memoir, poetry and essay. It was a beautiful night, and I was really struck by the resonances between some of the themes that arose. Particularly, as someone who lives with two men whose muffled skype calls to distant girlfriends permeate my house at weird hours of the day, I was drawn to Kathryn Hummels’ reflections on long-distance/digital relationships. She shared a fictionalised series of messages sent over the course of a day to someone who would not see them until many hours later, when they would be received as a series of unified text. But this is not how they were sent, and that sense of immediacy, distance, and time, and they way that affects what might be compulsive, or measured, or whatever it might be in that moment was really interesting to me.

There were then parallels too with Ben Brooker’s ‘5 minutes into the future’ fiction, which explored the passive acceptance of how technology invades – in this case, literally – not just our lives, but our concepts of self and even the body. In the Q&A he spoke of the kinds of permission that we give to companies online to mine our data for personal information in ways that we never would were physical people coming into our houses to rife through our desk drawers which really got me thinking. This then connected with Alison Bennett’s performance and her notion that the permission we give for strangers to hear the most intimate details of our lives – such as illness and trauma – is mediated by the stage/the microphone/the screen. She would never share the details of her relationship with her father, or the ways that she self-medicated to leave her body, in conversation. Yet, her powerful, fully-embodied performance to a room full of strangers somehow had the ability to render that state – strangerness – uncanny, as the intimacy of her poetry allowed us access to her inner world, its complexities and universality, but didn’t somehow un-stranger us all. I’m not sure that I know how to say what I mean. Perhaps I’ll leave it at that.


Threasa Meads and Kathryn Hummell’s artifacts of art (otherwise known as ‘books’)

Threasa Meads had some powerful overlaps with Alison as she shared her experience writing childhood trauma through the creation of her other selves, January and Lola, reflecting on the transformation of the self – and herself – through writing and art. She forgot to bring an art-piece that she referred to, but I know it well and as she spoke imagined it and considered how the products of our art can capture and embody process, experience and, maybe (well, perhaps not but something like it) finality . Though, of course, nothing is ever final even if it is ‘finished’. Kylie Cardell also spoke of a physical product of experience – her own childhood diaries – from which she shared snippets as she discussed the distance between past and present selves and diaries as artifacts of lives. My heart burst with something like affinity and tenderness for the awkwardness and, let’s be honest, mundanity of being a 12-year-old girl. My own diaries are probably no more thrilling but, as Kylie stated, does that mean that being a 12-year-old-girl is boring? Of course not. There were some fascinating recollections and insights into puberty and prayer and Judy Bloom that really resonated with me. I suppose the distance between our adult selves and child selves renders the reading process as something like a translation which brings us – ba-doom tish – to Houman’s bilingual poem, ‘Morgan’. He performed alongside Piri Eddy who read English to Houman’s Persian, alternating every few lines and eventually overlapping in terrific crescendo. What really struck me with Houman’s performance was the resonance of the words, how the emotion and experience was conveyed through inflection and sound so that despite the distance in language, we could still understand the affection, despair, love and heartbreak, of which he spoke. It was a terrific way to end before we moved into our Q&A session.

These were ideas and connections that were picked up on by our audience who engaged with the readers so brilliantly after what was a little bit of a quiet start. All it takes is one good question to get the ball rolling and then, of course, it doesn’t end. All in all it was a fabulous night, and I’m so excited about our upcoming Fringe shows, Mysteries & Wonders and Earthly Delights where we get to do it all over again! Speaking of which, the call for pitches is open, so head on over to the site for info about how to pitch.


*Cover photo by Ben Duffy

The Discovery of Fringe Time – Only You Can Save Us, Michael Burke’s Arena Spectacular and River

In Fringe Time, everything exists all at once, and anything can happen. Isn’t it wonderful? (In case you can’t tell, I’m having a pretty rad few weeks). Friday was one such warped and wondrous Fringe Time evenings. In fact, Fringe Time has stretched so far that I’m writing this post nearly a month after the fact. The rest of time just got sucked up in to the Fringe Void. The wonderful, wonderful Fringe Void.

I was invited to see the spectacularly nerdy Only you Can Save Us at Tuxedo Cat. It was enormous fun. Following a crew made up of archetypal sci-fi characters – Captain Hero, to Sarge, The Girl, Doc Science and, of course, John Villaine ­– Only you Can Save Us takes us into the depths of the imagination, where heroes still exist, and the world can be saved. There were perfect dosages of tongue-in-cheek and self-awareness to balance the earnestness and cheese, but it while hinting at adult cynicism and realism, it still managed to be utterly joyful and optimistic. I had a great time! Here’s the review.

I found myself tagging along with most of the crew – Laurence Rosier Staines, Caitlin West, Michaela Savina and Pierce Wilcox (Brenden Hooke darted off  after one drink for a date) for the remainder of the night. The first unexpected show of the evening was Michael Burke’s Arena Spectacular.


Michael Burke’s Arena Spectacular is the kind of experience that is difficult to articulate in any concise or even moderately coherent manner, because the experience itself is so strangely and wonderfully absurd. I stepped into Burke’s two man tent, nestled in the corner of Tuxedo Cat, with three other unsuspecting Fringe artists after being urged enthusiastically by a friend who refused to reveal anything about what would take place. So what can I say about Michael Burke’s Arena Spectacular? What the hell kind of experience occurs for fifteen minutes in a tent with laser beams, sound mixing, and a random assortment of toys and ornaments strewn across the crinkled canvas? Anyway, here’s the review.

From there we headed a few blocks away to the Bakehouse Theatre for Claire Lovering’s beautiful one-woman show, River. It was a beautiful story of a naive woman, an aficionado of google-poetry and aluminium crafts, who befriends an old man in the Woolworth’s cafeteria and begins an unusual but very touching friendship. As I wasn’t there in any official capacity I sat back and enjoye the show, rather than reviewing it, but I will say that it was one of my favourite performances of the festival. Lovering’s characterisation of sad and sweet River was completely compelling and very moving, as she dealt with themes of loneliness, friendship and finding your place in the world.

Claire Lovering in River at Fringe World

The night wasn’t over, of course, because there was still the dance-floor at the Fringe Club beckoning, but I will leave the details of the rest of the night, mostly as they’re quiet fuzzy in my memory now. Extraordinary, this Fringe Time is.