Book Review: The Bearded Chameleon by Chris Mooney-Singh
By Ranga Chandrarathne
Chris Mooney-Singh’s new collection of poetry The Bearded Chameleon is the work of a new voice engaging with the “diaspora discourse”. As a Caucasian Australian who has converted to Sikhism, his is a kind of reverse-diasporic point of view. Mooney-Singh’s close empathy with the land of his adopted way of life and philosophy creates in the reader the impression of a second-generation “returnee” to a familiar time and place, when in reality, he is a son of Antipodean soil. This is evident from the dropped hints in selected poems throughout the collection. Otherwise, this is poetry that could have been written by an Indian with all its insider knowledge.
The title itself hints at Mooney-Singh’s chameleon-like position within the Indian landscape and the agility with which he writes about it. Thus, his example as a cultural convert needs its own reverse-diasporic category to differentiate it from mere travel writing.
It is evident that he has lived and breathed long and deep in Northern India and his considered work codifies the vivid and changing reality of the diaspora as he commutes between Australia, Singapore and India; along the way, he deals extensively with prominent themes such as nostalgia, memory and the imaginary homeland.
Ethnic, cultural and the micro-observation of regional diversity are some of the hallmarks of Mooney-Singh’s India poems.
As in the classical description of diasporic writings, this poetic exploration is not only a codification of individual experiences but also a poetic documentary of the “collective voice” in a highly hybridised milieu. In a way, this hybridity is manifested in Mooney-Singh’s mixed genealogy: his Australian-Irish descent, a work life domiciled in Singapore (evident from his previous collection The Laughing Buddha Cab Company) and his ongoing transnational experiments with the Sikh way of life.
Poverty and deprivation in a typical North Indian village is brilliantly captured in “Punjab Pastoral”, the opening poem of the collection. Poverty is coupled with an inlander naivety on the part of the villagers who think the village tank is like “the Ocean” that nobody has ever seen.
In fact, this is also a classical allusion to medieval Bhakti and Sikh poetry where the metaphor of the “Ocean” represents eternal consciousness and is often applied to any body of water at hand.
In a traditional Punjabi context, a tank was a flat ocean-wide expanse of water, rather than a small-mouthed well. In the Post-Partition days, however, the Central Indian Government created irrigation canals with pumps controlling irrigation within Punjab and controversially to other neighbouring states such as Haryana and Rajasthan, negating the old system of using village tanks for human and animal consumption:
I cannot hear the mermaid singing here
beside this irrigation channel, dug with hoes
and feeding sugar cane – a sudden crop
of sweetest cash, yet magical as staves,
and green-checked lungi, that is now hitched up
above my knees, so that my own wet soil
can drop and find its way back into landfill.
It sounds quite pastoral and yet
a place without a latrine, without a job
for every man, a place of raw mixed opium,
strained through muslin cotton, squeezed and drained…
The only way a young man gets to leave
is selling his plot for an agent’s dicy promise
of a stamped visa to a foreign sweatshop.
Yes, they all want to leave and yet I’ve come
to squat and shit and chew the grass and spit
like village elders by the Panchayat tree.
For what? A cultural look and see and then
To fly back when the travel cash runs dry?
They look and talk of me, the grubby kids,
Dragging a stick of sugar cane in dust,
and mothers loading grass onto their heads…
…I hear no mermaid singing by the canal.
Panchayat: a village council of five
The poet contrasts an over-fertilised and toxic pastoral landscape with the impoverished human world relying upon it at a time when everyone longs to leave. Having come for “a cultural look” this should be an idealised heaven – the land of his philosophical beliefs. The harsh reality is, however, that having endured centuries of Islamic invasion, partition, war and discord, including the militant decade of the 1980s, this is now a place in agrarian and social decline – with over-reliance on deep artesian wells and pumps in a State subject to water politics, land division, unemployment and social problems such as AIDS and massive drug addiction where the Government turns a blind eye and receives its bribes.
Like many diasporic poets, Mooney Singh explores with unclogged vision a place beset by man-managed tragedies, yet still attempts to link with the idea of “the original home” and historic home of the ten Sikh Gurus and their disciples who created a spiritual, economic and political revolution in Punjab – the “Land of Five Rivers” from the middle of the 15th to the 20th Century. Sadly, it seems such a haven now exists only in the poet’s imagination and he is aware of it.
The term “pastoral” for instance also carries with it all of the connotations of Western civilization, going back to the bucolic age of Homer and Hesiod in ancient Greece and Virgilian Rome. Now, however, the word “pastoral” is clearly ironic in a post British-ruled sub-continent. The sources of problems for the Land of Five Rivers of the once undivided State encapsulating Pakistan run deep.
“Punjab Pastoral” is thus a poem which might well be categorised according to the poetics of “return”. The poet visits a familiar landscape which is the “original home”. In his mindscape, there is still a mermaid who “sings by the canal” which may allude to Eliot’s Prufrock where the mermaids sing “each to each” but not to him. It’s a nod to Modernism that informs us that the author, despite his interest in Indian history is still a global poet of the post-industrial era with all its foibles and post-modern doubts. The “pastoral” image of the village contrasts sharply with the harsh ground reality with “grubby kids, dragging a stick of sugar cane in dust” while “mothers [are] loading grass onto their heads”. It is clear that the poet is not part of the landscape he wants to identify with and his cultural anchorage has almost floundered. Cultural loss is a major characteristic of diasporic life. The narrator of the poem has dual identities, but in the deepest sense is a stranger wherever he is.
Thus there are more poems that attempt to find firm ground to re-build memories into edifices of faith. In “Steel Kiss”, Mooney-Singh solidifies one of these cherished moments celebrating a lover’s lipsticked kiss on a steel cup which has been preserved unwashed over three decades. In a highly skillful manner, he returns again and again, poem after poem, during the first section of the book to a time of death and tragedy and loss of a life partner and holds each moment up to the light with deep feeling and poignancy. A primary trait of diasporic writing is the attempt on the part of the writer to negotiate with retreating history, past customs and traditions.
Poetic analepsis, the major technique behind the collection, works through nostalgia, memory and reclamation as literary themes. As mentioned before in “Steel Kiss”, the poet attempts to reclaim history (personal history) which may be a part of collective history as well:
‘Stainless steel’ we say, long-lasting,
one cup per life span, It did not rust
away on a table under the pipal tree
where we and squirrels took meals.
How long has it been since I heard
your discourse on love? Once sipped
from this cup, I unpacked it today as proof
you had red lips, and drank, and lived.
Yet, why have I been detained among
the iron gods? I gulp down milk and sorrow
from new tumblers of steel, filling and draining
three decades of gains and losses.
Today, I lift your old cup from a suitcase
of last things you touched on earth.
I see the lipstick: two firm petal prints.
I will never clean away the kiss.
The line “of last things you touched on earth” quite clearly suggests that the loved one is no more and all that is left – “the kiss” on an empty cup is a powerful visual reminder of a past relationship and becomes an emblem of a love that does not forget and wants to endure.
In the poem “Pink Silk from Punjab”, the poet describes a passionate encounter with a woman and its memory which is aptly symbolised by the pink Punjabi silk. There is nothing to suggest that the character of “Steel Kiss” is not the same love-making woman of this poem. She represents the continent of India, while the narrator is from another “continent” and thus the act of union is played out symbolically. Interracial marriages and dating is part and parcel of diasporic life. In such a relationship clash of cultures, values and ethos is represented by the expression “collision of continents”.
I’m still dreaming pink silk from Punjab.
I’m dreaming the gentle collision of continents.
The scent of her is gone from my hair.
Enigmatic in the traffic as a rickshaw wallah,
Why do I imagine her wobbling her head?
The last time before she left, we wallowed
like buffaloes for one hour. I am left with only
the memory of our bodies, wet as fish.
In the poem “My Fallen” the poet evocatively narrates the emotional departure of his relations in a long and unending journey of life. The principal motif of the poem is nostalgia associated with childhood (past) peopled by his relations.
These last photos I don’t have:
China doll-haired sister,
whom I played and fought with,
you were first to fall, aged 7 –
your liver coughing up in 1963
while the heart crashed down
for good on a hospital floor.
The strident starling of 2001
still halo your head on soft grass.
Dad, you were stroke-struck,
Bumpiness and a photo flip book
and every other happy snap
keep smiling among tall mountain gods;
but I am travel-sick, bussing up
the puke-green hillsides of Himachal,
climbing to what summit?
“Abstract Studies with Monsoon Green” lends novel interpretations to the colour “green”. In this agricultural context, green becomes a personified invisible form who comes and goes mysteriously with the days and the monsoonal moods of the season. Yet, the “green” has always been there like a numinous presence as mysterious as in “Steel Kiss” and “Pink Silk from Punjab” On a more pragmatic level, the poem is also celebration of tropical nature:
The days of humid blindness are upon us
the rain has left a steamy haze of green.
The mulberry limb drips into the milk pail,
green are the tears upon the chili plants
It is a sudden season of tractor bog,
green footsteps printed in the mud
It seems the white of milk has lost its green,
idle days have lost their shouting children.
I have to learn new ways of planting rice:
Green thumb, invite the fingers to make friends.
A salient characteristic of the poem is that it strongly evokes “Home” or the “Old Country” in which the narrator wishes perhaps to be a part of, but cannot, and yet it is a vital part of his emotional life. “Home” is a numinous desire in the diasporic imagination. It is a hidden place of no-return, although it’s quite possible to visit the geographical location: a Punjabi village, or place of “monsoon green”. That aspect of loss is evocatively captured in the line “I have to learn new ways of planting rice”. Such is Mooney-Singh’s identification with the source of his imagination that he speaks like an ageless peasant from this milieu in the same way that Wallace Stevens speaks in metaphors within the lines of American symbolist poem “The Blue Guitar”.
In the aptly titled poem “The Bearded Chameleon”, the poet skillfully dramatises the basic dilemma in diasporic existence, constantly in negotiation with diverse cultures, languages (bilingualism or multilingualism) and the sheer hybridity which virtually obliterates one’s identity. The personality that diasporic writers bear is multifaceted and such writings depict the intersection of cultures, identities and ethnicities that swing between an adopted motherland and the lost “Home”. The narrator compares himself to a “bearded chameleon” on a Bo tree:
My sun-cracked soles have drawn some sap
from green Punjab, An Aussie chap,
I chew on sugarcane each week
and sport this beard-a convert Sikh.
Now turbaned like a maharajah,
I’d pass for Ranjit Singh, the Padshah-
a bit like you, chameleon –
a colour-shifting charlatan.
Yes, since I came in my blue jeans
to do write-up for magazines
your form has been my best touchstone
on how to live in The Zone
A decade later or more or less
I still reside at your address
with farmers, trades-folk, holy men
who can’t read book, or use a pen.
My pen is like your sticky tongue
I snatch my image- files among
the geckoes, birds on tree or plant,
or dog and pig in excrement.
If I could train my mind or hand
not just to write, but understand…
Another thought-provoking poem in the collection is “Families”. The poem in its own manner codifies the diversity of sub-continental ethnicities and is like a collection of snap shots of life in a melting pot of its cultures:
Families of Dravidians inter-married with Aryans,
Bactrans, Parthians, Scythians, Huns,
Families of Arabs, Afghanis, Turks, Tartars,
families of Moguls, families of White Men.
Families of Ram, Shiv Ji, Kali-Durga,
Guru Nanak, Mahavir and Buddha,
families of Sufi renouncing all but Allah,
families of Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster.
Families of maharishi top-knots under turbans,
ash on the forehead, third eyes of red powder;
this Brahmin family wears a shaved tuft of hair,
these lace skull caps are all facing Mecca.
Spinning wheels, cane knives, humped bull and tractor,
raw chili families, white buffalo butter,
gypsy carts, truck drivers, itinerant bicycle tinkers,
fish hunter families on midnight rivers.
Families of fundamental Hindu and Mussalman,
militant grit in the Government eye,
black money families, unfair election tactics,
families of bosses, families of thugs.
This family fought the Moguls, this fought the British,
this family chopped off heads during Partition;
this family went on non-violent hunger strikes,
this family plundered, that family looked on.
This family left the village, that family found the city,
this family migrated on false passports,
this family placed an ad in The Times of India,
this dutiful daughter got a green-card husband.
Well-fed families, choked platforms of families,
endless traffic of uncles and aunties;
and this is a family of child prostitutes,
this is a family of railway orphans.
Families of priests, families of bureaucrats,
families in business, families with one acre,
beggars, street people, Dalits and tribals,
castes of inheritors and the eternal outsiders.
The poem is a slice of Indian society with its classes and caste systems. What is obvious is that the class system will go on unabated with families of beggars, Dalits and outsiders. Despite change, nothing changes in the social order here. The poet has captured the diversity of the Indian human landscape which is an amalgam of ethnicities with their inherent disparities in socio-economic terms. The poem also touches on aspects of dislocation, re-location and memo-realisation. Diasporic writers while looking backward for “home” also look for the new belongings that can be owned and built upon. In this process, the transformation of “identity” is accompanied by change of place. One may not regain a “home” in the diasporic existence. It is due to this factor that a diasporic writer often tries to realise memory or memo-realisation.
One of the poems which captures the quintessential form of the lost “home” is “Another Bhagwanpur”. The poem offers a microscopic view of a village with its cultural and class diversity, abject poverty and deprivation:
A country village stuck in the buffalo mud
piles up its cow-pats, balancing clay pots
of mosquito water on the heads of women
who wear pregnancy under flimsy shawls
The village council of five cannot fight
the school’s wrong sums and cane-learning;
cement walls, white-washed by government,
the young men employed by opium.
Here buffalos don’t budge from bor trees
and doctors deal in snake-bit mantras,
while last Gandhian freedom fighter
props up old glory on a walking stick.
How poignant the hopes for a better harvest,
the flimsy huts laying down for floods,
the naïve child-brides of the king of malaria,
the night-long typhoid prayers to Ram.
Chris Mooney-Singh has admirably dealt with many issues such as the caste system in India (particularly in the two-part poem “To the Dalits”) and how globalisation is affecting Indian cities. There are also several narrative sketches and character monologues that again skillfully depict Indians in their home settings, or troubled circumstances such as “Yogesh Meets Ganesh”, an agnostic executive forced to accept the faith of his ancestors in an eleventh hour bid to save his infant son from fever; or the story of Mrs. Pritima Devi, the school teacher and survivor of poisoning at the hands of her in-laws who tells her story (in Indian English blank verse) to a foreign colleague on the staff. Despite creating an epic frieze of ancient India transitioning to a modern one, there is still a feeling of reverence portrayed in between the moments of confusion, gentle satire and tragi-comic irony. In addition, Mooney-Singh’s metrical and open form virtuosity abounds, especially in his adaption of the ghazal into English while still retaining its inherent rhyme scheme, equivalent English metres and deep metaphorical conventions while delivering contemporary moments of intimate experience.
Overall, Mooney-Singh delivers many gifts in a post-modern package – flawless technique, psychological insight and a knack for catching the flavour of Indian speech without turning it into parody through his role as a cultural translator. He is someone equally at home in the Indian milieu he writes about and yet retains the invisible sensibility of his Western upbringing and education which does not dominate or try to colonise its subject with “easy judgements” (p29, “Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire”). Just as Vikram Seth masterfully wrote his tetrameter sonnet-novel The Golden Gate in the voices of satirical Californians, Mooney-Singh has done something equally deft, reversing the perspective from Australia to India, in turn, adding a deeply engaging book to the canon of diasporic literature. Whether Eastern or Western-born, The Beaded Chameleon offers both macro and micro views of the diasporic reality in which its writer is virtually caught between a cultural home that no longer exists, while coming to terms with the new “home” – a modern India that is still being constructed through the tug of war of globalization. In the third and final section of the book, a single “homecoming” poem – “I Come in Winter to a City Without You” in seven sections, the speaker has left his partner back on the sub-continent while he ventures to his original “home” to Australia. In doing so, he is forced to acknowledge that his true home is not a physical one, but the intimate relationship he is now forced to inhabit via the virtual world of “ennui and email”:
a new domicile of words
as the ocean swells
under galaxies, out of time zones.
When do we meet under stars?
And thus, the collection returns us again to the symbolic “Ocean” of “Punjab Pastoral” which opened the collection, emphasizing that all journeys aim toward an inwardness and expansive understanding, and that all diasporas are allegories of the developing self, learning to embrace truth in the global world. Such are the rich layers of thought and experience to be found within the pages of The Bearded Chameleon.