Tag Archives: The Bearded Chameleon

Book Review: The Bearded Chameleon by Chris Mooney-Singh

By Ranga Chandrarathne

chameleonChris 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.

Deprivation

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.

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Picture-Perfect

Portraits shine in exploration of death and melancholy

By David Fedo

The Bearded Chameleon Chris Mooney-Singh Black Pepper [Australia]/red wheelbarrow books [Singapore] (2011) / 86 pages / SGD20

Chris Mooney-Singh’s new collection of poetry, The Bearded Chameleon, may be the first adult book of published verse in any language whose title poem refers to a lizard (more on that curiosity later). Yet, the best poems in this handsomely produced book are about those creatures at the upper end of the Great Chain of Being—you and me.

Singaporeans have known the affable Mooney-Singh, now in his mid-50s, as the burly, bearded and turbaned Australian convert to Sikhism (he resided for some years in India, and is part of what one reviewer has characterized as the ‘reverse’ diaspora), as well as the indefatigable organizer of and participant in regional poetry slams; the head of the Writers Centre, Singapore and of the now-defunct Writers Connect; a devotee of the ancient musical instrument called the rabab; an anthologizer of Christmas poetry; a widower, now married again; and, most recently, a doctoral student back in his native Australia. However, he has retained his ties to Singapore and launched his new book at the 2011 Singapore Writers Festival. Admirers will recall that Mooney-Singh’s first major work of poetry, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company, was published in 2007.

The Bearded Chameleon, co-published in both Singapore and Australia, is a mostly entertaining and engrossing collection, divided into three parts and comprising 36 poems of varying lengths. Almost all are set entirely in India; Singapore is completely absent. The poems range widely, from sketches of individuals (‘Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire’, ‘Mrs. Pritima Devi’, ‘Advice from an Uncle’, ‘Mr. Chopra’), to landscape portraits (‘Punjab Pastoral’, ‘Abstract Studies with Monsoon Green’, ‘Aubade with Marshland’), and to urban impressions (‘Indian City’, ‘Indian-Made Foreign Liquor’, ‘Indian Standard Time’). Many are relatively short, and readers can hear Mooney-Singh’s colloquial and at times playful voice throughout. Although his subjects are often serious, he seems to be having fun with much of his work, just as I have been told he did in his poetry slam readings. In fact, in the very first poem in his collection, ‘Punjab Pastoral’, we find the poet defecating beside an irrigation canal, where “no mermaid [is] singing”. Undoubtedly, in this anti-pastoral, the mermaid has a good reason to stay away.

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