EARLY MEMORIES: A smorgasbord of characters (1)

The most outstanding character I have ever met was an immigrant Polish Jew. He had been an Underground Resistance fighter. He looked as if he had been carved out of a rock face. Late into a couple of nights, he showed me his false identity papers, and told me his experiences. We kept in touch over the succeeding decades.

Regrettably, I did not keep in touch with the Jewish girl from Eastern Europe, who wore a number on her arm, with whom I had been smitten. When her family advised that ‘they’ would not like her to be seen in my company in public spaces, we parted. We had planned to attend a classical music concert on a Sunday in a park. ‘They’ were apparently the local Jewish-Australian community.

Another immigrant European lady, a Lutheran, sought to introduce me to Italian opera. I was not impressed. For example, a woman who was on her death bed became louder and louder; not credible. A short man, who needed to stand on a soapbox, sang his eternal love for a woman whose substantial bosom towered over his head. When I conceded that it was the scene with the elephant which had impressed me most, the attempted acculturation process ceased. But, she remained a close friend.

The irony of life is that I had taken to European classical music from age 17. And I had been a violinist with the K.L. Symphony Orchestra when I left for Australia. And, incredibly, I married an Anglo-Australian girl trained as a singer in Italian opera! She had a lovely voice.

Another of my memorable characters was from Slovakia/Hungary. He had marched, as a member of a work unit, with the Nazis into Russia; and marched out again. 20 million Russians had reportedly been killed in that campaign.

Then there were a Hungarian and also a Czech who had just escaped the Soviet invasion of their nations. My habit of collecting interesting (and intelligent) ‘foreigners’ enriched me.

There was also a very noisy Greek-Australian who liked to throw out the names of the great philosophers he was studying, while ‘parading’ in Union House. In the light of the then prevailing antipathy to non-British people, he was courageous. Progressively, the ‘wogs’ of yesteryear were finding their place in the sun.

In the late 1940s, at the first international gathering of students at my university, there were just over 20 nationalities (or ethnicities) within about 85 attendees. One of them was a Mexican, another, a Thai; both were my friends.

It was easy talking with all these notable characters. They were indubitably rich in their backgrounds. If more of us knew what some people have to go through during their lives, would we not be richer in thought and understanding?

Advertisements

Tribalism – the negatives

In the history of mankind, the imperatives of tribalism would, on balance, be the greatest curse of existence. Were we created by God, or through some other means (refer ‘the Adam’ in both the Christian Bible, and the Sumerian writings as interpreted by Zachariah Sitchin) to ignore, or exploit, or fight (to destroy), one another? Surely not!

Evolution from the animal kingdom would, however, explain the primacy of the integrity of tribal conduct. Not only is every other species ‘the other’; but ‘not one of us’ separates tribe from tribe within the same species. Co-operation – by necessity, and its derivative, habit. Competition – by nature!

Competition within the tribe, reflecting greed (especially for power and possessions) would also seem to reflect Nature. We were obviously not formed in the image of anyone’s god.

At the individual level, I have first-hand evidence of efforts made to ensure that one is not bested or out-run in the race to success by any member of the clan. At tribal level, in a multi-ethnic conglomeration, individuals will favour others in the tribe or sharing a nationality; though a shared nationality or citizenship implies – indeed, requires – non-discriminatory conduct and attitudes.

Yet, exploitation of one’s own people is the simplest means to wealth and power – as widely demonstrated within one’s nation; or as expatriates on foreign soil.

The imperatives of an un-domesticated animal nature seem undeniable. Creating ‘the Adam’ by commixing alien DNA and the optimal animal species (homo sapiens?) on Earth (as suggested by Sitchin) would seem to have been a terrible error; an unforeseen consequence.

However, could mankind’s inherited animal nature explain the devastation caused by tribalism at the institutional level? The oldest human institution would seem to be religion. Institutions involve co-ordination and control, with a rising hierarchy. The display of power within, and competition without, seem to be obverse sides of the same visage. However, does power necessarily corrupt the human spirit, or does it simply demean those subject to the power of controlling priests, or both?

When will the leaders of competitive institutional religions, especially their sects, cleanse themselves of any abuse of power, and positively preach the commonality of creation, the shared Earthly existence, and a co-operative and caring mindset covering all humanity? It would, however, be too much to expect the animal nature driving most of business and governance to follow suit.

Humanity needs to be weaned from tribalism. But only after the Sixth Extinction? I hope not!

Were the ancient Hindus, in their cosmology, correct in postulating repeated closures of all existence, followed by renewals? The extra-terrestrials who probably taught them that perspective may have understood the logic of what they taught; that repeated ‘cleansing’ is a must. Improved products may result.

Tribalism – the positives

During my boyhood, I noticed that, when a stranger from the family’s homeland met my parents, an early exchange would refer to the village of origin. We were then in British Malaya. Since I was a third-generation Malayan – my maternal grandfather having worked in Malaya until he retired – I had neither knowledge nor interest in villages of origin.

Yet, it made sense to ask that question. Are we possibly connected? Do we share friends? Thus, the question was a search for bonds in a foreign land. I have observed Indians in Malaya asking questions about the origins of others. Yet, the ethnically diverse Indians seemed to know, in many instances, by appearance, and by the inflexion of language, one another’s tribal origins.

In a comparable way, the various Chinese dialect-groups could be seen seeking to know about origins, arrivals, and such like, in spite of the language barrier. During the Japanese Occupation, Chinese and Japanese were seen to communicate through their ideograms.

It was the same when Australia brought in (by selection) a smorgasbord of Europeans in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I have often observed with interest 3 or 4 such immigrants attempting to converse with one another in public places, using hand movements and a mixture of languages – all in an effort to identify, and to bond. After all, they were the ‘wogs,’ much wanted by the government but not necessarily welcomed by many of the host peoples.

“Why don’t you speak effing English?” was frequently spat out at these recently-arrived foreigners (a ridiculous requirement, obviously).

As for the early Asian students in Australia – from British education systems in the colonies – we bonded with one another freely. Many Europeans reached out to us; and many of us reached out to those Aussies who were receptive. Multiculturalism was in the making.

However, as the number of each ethnic community in Australia grew, there tended to be more intra-tribal than inter-tribal connections. For instance, I noticed that many Malayan Chinese students stayed within their ethnic group, thereby missing the depth of inter-cultural relations I experienced.

There is, however, a funny side to such implicit chauvinism. Many a time I have been asked by a brown chap “Are you from India?” When I replied in the negative, whoosh, there would go my enquirer. A few years later, celebrating Theepavali in a Sydney park with an admixture of Asians, an Indian told us that he had comparable experiences to relate. When he replies that he is from India, he is then asked “Are you a doctor?” When he says “no,” whoosh, there would go the enquirer.

A sense of being part of a collective is, of course, emotionally uplifting, especially in a Western milieu based on individualism. We are all born into a collective; and family, clan, and tribal pride can anchor one in an ocean of swarming souls seemingly swirling in a ‘Brownian’ motion in their intersecting destiny-paths.

Lawyer jokes

1) A lawyer defending a man accused of burglary tried a creative defense: “My client merely inserted his arm into the window and removed a few trifling articles. His arm is not himself, and I fail to see how you can punish the whole individual for an offense committed by his limb.” “Well put,” the judge replied. “Using your logic, I sentence the defendant’s arm to one year’s imprisonment. He can accompany it or not, as he chooses.” The defendant smiled. With his lawyer’s assistance he detached his artificial limb, laid it on the bench, and walked out.

2) A big-city California lawyer went duck hunting in rural Texas. He shot and dropped a bird, but it fell into a farmer’s field on the other side of a fence. As the lawyer climbed over the fence, an elderly farmer drove up on his tractor and asked him what he was doing. The litigator responded, “I shot a duck and it fell into this field, and now I’m going to retrieve it.” The old farmer replied, “This is my property, and you are not coming over here.” The indignant lawyer said, “I am one of the best trial attorneys in the U.S. and, if you don’t let me get that duck, I’ll sue you and take everything you own.”

The old farmer smiled and said, “Apparently, you don’t know how we do things in Texas. We settle small disagreements like this with the Texas Three-Kick Rule.” The lawyer asked, “What is the Texas Three-Kick Rule?” The Farmer replied, “Well, first I kick you three times and then you kick me three times, and so on, back and forth, until someone gives up.” The attorney quickly thought about the proposed contest and decided that he could easily take the old codger. He agreed to abide by the local custom. The old farmer slowly climbed down from the tractor and walked up to the city feller. His first kick planted the toe of his heavy work boot into the lawyer’s groin and dropped him to his knees. His second kick nearly wiped the man’s nose off his face. The barrister was flat on his belly when the farmer’s third kick to a kidney nearly caused him to give up.

The lawyer summoned every bit of his will and managed to get to his feet and said, “Okay, you old coot! Now, it’s my turn!” The old farmer smiled and said, “No, I give up. You can have the duck!”

 

 

 

 

 

‘Inner-city life’

  Pervasive heat, with an all-embracing humidity. Speedy sex for silent sale, juxtaposed with  clogged open drains, odorous in their opulence. Shouted market calls unabated, amidst the clatter of cooking, both private and public. The scents of spices pervade the noisy chatter of a multi-ethnic populace. The clutter of the street blends with the ebb and flow of a multitude of poor people.

The perennial search for sustenance by beggars seeking merely to survive is circumscribed by sly shopkeepers soliciting a sale. Haggling about prices is a necessity; else opportunistic sellers might be offended. Night is turned into day by vendors of victuals, with spivs and security agents lurking in the shadows. This is the inner city into which I have been thrust – as jetsam in a harbour of flotsam.

The pathos of poverty, the plight of the ever-present poor, pervades the spectrum of the sounds of sexual congress. These shade into the wails of women being beaten by men angry with themselves. The cries of hungry children provide a heart-wrenching background. Under the engulfing atmospheric envelope of unrelenting uncertainty, the people go about their business busily.

There is limited scope for mentally sighting a stable future. In their state of existence on a knife-edge, all is observed, yet nothing might be seen. Prayer, for sustenance, for good health, for any kind of a rewarding future, prevails powerfully; yet the gods do not seem to respond. I am now an intrinsic but unthankful part of this scenario.

The rains come in a rumbustious roar. Wondrous cracks of lightning enable us to look into the heart of the huge raindrops. Rumbling explosions of thunder weave in and out of the walls of rain. The heavens remind one and all most ferociously that human existence is precarious – as if we do not know that. We have lived with this burden all our lives.

I need a job urgently, for I am destitute. An Indian acquaintance finds me one. A month later, he brings me my pay. It is pitifully small. I need to be even more frugal. At my request, my boss agrees to pay me directly in the future. The first month’s pay was, however, reduced by the cut taken by the go-between. This is the Asian way.

I share a house with a chatty white British air force sergeant born and bred in Jamaica and his ill-educated, snooty wife with the accent of a catarrh-ridden fishing village somewhere in the south of England. She is paid as much as a newly graduated Asian doctor. He is paid twice that amount! This is the British way, in a colonial outpost.

The woman and I share a dislike –  for each other. She is typical of the ‘upstarts’ sent to teach us how to govern ourselves, although we have been known to be civilised and cultured for thousands of years. In spite of the barriers of skin colour and caste, the sergeant and I converse nightly about matters of serious import.

Another room in our home is occupied by a Sri Lankan with his Anglo-Australian wife. Each night, they come home in a taxi. Each night, I see him remove his hand from under his wife’s bra before they disembark. The foreplay has already begun. “ … … and twice on Sunday” is his theme song. Quietude sought by us is sprung by his creaky springs. I am forced to take my little friend in hand from time to time; but we cause no creaks. The English couple is silent; perhaps they are just being British!

 

(Fiction by Ratnam, suggestive of colonial Singapore)

‘A cocoon for contemplation’

As I sit at my window, embraced by in the morning sun, I lethargically ponder the question of existence. I do this as I, with calm joy, view the sea just down the road. The almost-daily sun and the ever-present sea combine to create a contemplative mode of feeling and thinking. Even when the sky is overcast, and the sea is rough, when the white caps become the lashing tail-ends of thunderous seas, and the horizon blends into both sky and sea in a grey-blue misty blur, my mood remains contemplative. How else could it be when the mystery of existence can be examined safely in this cocoon of comfort.

Nature, in all its and ever-changing forms, reflects the influence of its creator. I, also reflecting the influence of that same creator, am therefore in vibrant harmony with nature.

I do, however, accept that it was only when I moved, in retirement, to the Eurobodalla coast, that I could so freely and continuously identify with both nature and our shared Creator. This is a strange feeling. I am simultaneously in tune with the here-and-now, the material world, and the where-is-it world of spirituality. This is, however, not surprising as materiality is only a product of spirituality.

Hence, my small, cheap, fibro-and-tin home, flanked (but at a little distance) by beach, by beach, by beach, well off the traffic flow of the highway, and equally well off the preferred routes of pedestrians and vehicular traffic, is quiet – and therefore peaceful. The only sounds I hear are the waves and the birds; but these can be sporadic. The waves talk to me through the roar of a raging sea at the south-eastern and, often apparently simultaneously, the north-western fronts. The birds who use my many trees as park benches and who feed off the flowers produced by my extensive shrubbery, mind their own business – unless I venture too close to them.

Then, they shout at me to go away, and warn their friends about the interloper. How cheeky! The exception is the chatty and beautiful rainbow lorikeet, which is really very sociable. Occasionally, when I am able to strike the correct tonal note in a whistle emulating the call of the lorikeets to their friends, their chatter will cease, whilst the birds seek the stranger. The magpies too accept me, They allow me to share one of their many foraging stations, which happens to be my back yard. My bird bath needs filling daily; I must be surrounded by the cleanest birds in the district.

All the other varieties of bird life, whose names I do not know (because they do not want to be introduced to me), join with the lorikeets and magpies in using a young native frangipani tree near the bird bath as a slippery slide. This has stunted the tree, but I cannot in my heart remove it.

Embedded in this cocoon of nature, either peacefully quiescent or robustly and rapturously vital, I am able to seek that which was taught to me as a youth – that, near the end of one’s life, when one has completed one’s major familial obligations, one might withdraw from the hurly-burly of life, and to meditate; and to seek to understand the meaning of existence. This is not to ignore any residual obligations – whether inherited, imposed or chosen – in relation to matters horticultural, sporting or social. Does it not make sense to prepare for, or to anticipate, what might be on the Other Side of Earthly Existence; and to atone spiritually for those of one’s sins for which forgiveness is available?

Looking back over my life, I know that I did not choose to move to my little home in this delightful place near the sea. I know that, whilst I was attracted to this particular locality, I did not like the house which somehow I subsequently bought! I therefore know that I was sent here – to give and to learn. To give is to serve one’s community as a volunteer. To learn requires a contemplative life.

For a contemplative life, one’s home might desirably be like a cave, albeit a comfortable one. So, as my soul is refreshed daily by what I see, hear, feel, and absorb from my ‘cave’, I reach out to my Creator, the cause of all things material and spiritual. My home at the Eurobodalla coast is where the heart remains healthy, and the soul (which is said to be located in the heart) searches the Cosmos.

(This essay was written as a message for my family and my few friends – Raja Arasa Ratnam.)

A reading list

I found this list in my hard-drive. Book readers may be interested in some of them.

BOOKS READ DURING PAST YEAR

‘The invention of the Jewish people’ by Shlomo Sands
‘Freefall: free markets and the sinking of the global economy’ by Joseph. E. Stiglitz
‘The modern Middle East’ by Ilan Pappe
‘Mapping human history: discovering our past through our genes’ by Steve Olsen
‘Globalisation and its discontents’ by Joseph E. Stiglitz
‘Drawing the global colour line’ by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
‘A history of Chinese civilisation’ by Jacques Gernet
‘History of the Arabs: from the earliest times to the present’ by Philip Khuri Hitti
‘Hannibal’ by Ross Leckie
‘Mukiwa: a white boy in Africa’ by Peter Godwin
‘The Aztecs’ by Richard F. Townsend
‘Kublai Khan: from Xanadu to superpower’ by John Man
‘Girls like you’ by Paul Sheehan
‘The Paradise Tree: an eccentric childhood remembered’ by James Murray
‘Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit’ by Paul McGeough
‘Schmoozing the terrorists: from Hollywood to the Holy Land’ by Aaron Klein
‘Afghan Wars: battles in hostile land: 1839 to the present’ by Edgar o’ballance
‘My Israel Question’ by Antony Loewenstein
‘The audacity of hope’ by Barack Obama
‘1421: The year China discovered the world’ by Gavin Menzies
‘1434: The year a magnificient Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance’ by Gavin Menzies

July 2010