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.