api's thlan

we're going up
to api's thlan
past memories i never had
of her constant gardening

gardening is big here too
and definitely back in style
poverty begs a vege patch

how deep the seed
how wet the earth
how warm the sun
when why and what
why when and what

we're going back
to api's thlan
past memories i never had

to ask
of seeds and seasons


stone tools and poetry

I wonder if all artists have complicated relationships with their cultures and traditions. I know for a fact that I do. While I have strong north east Indian roots, and value a lot of cultural elements, I do not have a sense of complete loyalty to any one culture. While I rail against the colonisation of our cultures by India or by the ‘West’, I also recognise the debt I owe to both. I therefore find it extremely interesting to watch the Maori, especially in their art, and see if I may learn from the way they interpret their ‘taonga’ (cultural treasures) in the light of their life in a modern, westernised, and largely colonised society. I found a very interesting book called ‘Taiawhio*’ that documents 17 conversations with contemporary Maori artists. Two that have jumped out at me are Anaru Rondon and Tracey Tawhiao*.

Anaru Rondon’s “dream is to help facilitate a revival of ancestral Maori tool-making” (Tamarapa, 2002). He specifically seems interested in toki (adzes) and whao* (chisels).
These stone tools were used to hollow out waka-the canoes that brought the Maori to Aotearoa New Zealand from Hawaiki. These tools are also used in Maori carving and weaving, the primary traditional art forms. What inspires me about Anaru Rondon is his apparent rejection of the ‘modern’ value system that is the West’s gift, and a desire to do things the Maori way. While artists all around us are scrambling all over themselves to prostitute their way into the high society, here is a person who wants to understand and practice the ‘old’ way of doing things, with almost total disregard for contemporary values of production or profit. His work is beautiful in a very primal, minimalistic, and functional way. I have been unable to find any of his work online, and these photos were taken from the book (without permission, but I believe this is fair use). At a time when many in our tribal cultures want to modernise and ‘develop’ as fast as possible, people like Anaru Rondon stand, as blogger Joe Pinto would put it, against the tide.

“The main theme in which Tracey [Tawhiao] is immersed is that of being Maori in a colonised country” (Smith, 2002). This is expressed through poetry and artwork. My immediate interest is in her poetry. Again, I have been unable to find any of Tracey’s poems online, though her visual artwork is available here. One of the things I love about Tracey’s poems is that while they tackle modern or immediate conditions in Maori society, they do so in an unabashedly Maori way, not stopping to ‘interpret’ words or contexts to the non-Maori reader. The poems are, however, extremely simple and accesible, and remarkably free of the jargon and poetic bullshit many of us indulge in every once in a while. One is able to connect with them even as a stranger, though a more intimate knowledge of the language and context would help understand better. She is not shy of critiquing what she sees wrong in her society, but does it with an understanding, love and dash of humility that makes it palatable. I am reproducing parts of a poem called ‘Fatty Meat’.

“If I could just explain
This horrible chest pain
That I get
When I see fatty meat boiling
I react so violently...”


“...Are we killing our own people
So the marae will
Maintain its tangi quota...”

and, referring to her aunt,

“...[I] try
To join conversations
about being fat and happy
while all the time seeing
She can hardly bend down
She is beautiful, all of her
But she sweats profusely...”
(Tawhiao, 2002)

Two approaches then-one to dig back into one’s roots, and the other to engage one’s culture in the here and now. Both these approaches, especially in combination, seem to me good guiding posts as I try to find my place as a north east Indian artist. Good learning for the day!

*'wh' is an 'f' sound in Te Reo, the Maori language.


Smith, H. (2002). In H. Smith (Ed.), Taiawhio, Conversations with Contemporary Maori Artists (p. 168). Te Papa Press.

Tamarapa, A. (2002). Taiawhio. In H. Smith (Ed.), Taiawhio, Conversations with Contemporary Maori Artists (p. 154). Te Papa Press.

Tawhiao, T. Fatty Meat. Taiawhio.

bitter goodbyes

read the full poem here.

white, it was

read the full poem here.

horseback perspectives

It’s hard to be unemployed. It’s hard not to have the monthly salary come in, hard to budget carefully, hard to decide whether we can afford this doodle or that doodah. Hard to talk to family and friends, hard when meeting strangers, hard to believe in yourself. Then I met TS*.

For a little over a month now, I have been volunteering three days a week with the Hamilton Group Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA). The RDA works with the physically/intellectually disabled, helping them by teaching them how to ride. This is therapeutic at both physical and emotional levels. My job is primarily to lead horse and rider around an arena, sometimes a paddock, and when lucky, a walk in the country. The ultimate goal is to help the rider (mostly children) canter on their own.

When I first met TS, I was told I needed to go with him because he disliked women, and was known to have slammed his mother against a wall. TS is autistic, and can barely talk. Most of our conversations have been rather one sided, with me prattling about the weather, and TS responding with the occasional “Yeah”. He finds it hard to hold himself upright, especially when we trot. He cannot comprehend right and left, and so finds it difficult to steer the horse. His favourite activity apart from the horse riding seems to be story writing, which always go-“Dear TS” and stop. When asked, he tells me that the grass is red and the sky is green. And the tractor is purple. And his favourite song (I haven’t managed to catch it yet) is by the Bee Gees. I am really excited because TS has started pulling the reins and trying to guide the horse.

Point is, it is unlikely that TS will ever be ‘employable’. He may always need care. I don’t know if he’ll ever fall in love or get married. Or move to another country. He may never ride a Yezdi** in the pouring rain with his mates (David and Venky, I still love that trip). Or argue politics on Facebook. He may never play a power chord or the drums. Or Football. Or Scrabble. And suddenly, perspective changes.

I know I have family who love me (most days, at least). Many of the children who come to the RDA live with caregivers, not parents. I hear that some parents haven’t had any contact with their children for years on end. I am married to my best friend. I have friends (um, I do, right?). I can write. Read. Work. Break bottles. Volunteer at the RDA. People visit my blog (!). There are so, so, so many things I have. It’s not that I don’t have a job-it’s just that I am not paid for it. Not in money, at least. Not yet.

It still isn’t easy being unemployed. I really do hope to get a paying (money) job soon, doing something I love. But it simply isn’t as hard, anymore. TS has problems. But he sings Bee Gees and rides his horse and things are better, somehow. I really hope the therapy at the RDA is helping him. It sure is helping me!

*Name changed to protect privacy.

**The best motorcycle in the world. Just a little smoky.

first impressions

My earliest memory of Aotearoa/New Zealand is tied to an old yellow milk powder tin with a picture of a red cow on it. In retrospect, I am not sure if it was produced in New Zealand and the tin by then held sugar, not milk powder. Somehow, though, the memory of that tin in Apu’s (Mizo affectionate for grandfather) house in Shillong is strongly linked to my earliest thoughts of NZ. A little strange, then, to be writing this in the middle of dairy country in Hamilton, New Zealand!

Over the years, there were often reminders of NZ. I remember Apu saying once, over dinner, that if there were one place he would like to visit, it was NZ. Then there was the (old) news of how the French government had bombed the Greenpeace ship, The Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour. Then came the filming of The Lord of the Rings. There was also the matter of how bungy jumping had been popularised by New Zealand; rugby and the Haka; the beautiful Maori facial tattoos and a gift of a paua shell ring I got from a dear friend. It seems like this country has always lived under my skin!

Deepthi wasn’t so easy to convince, though. She thought it was too far to go study or live. Till, that is, she saw a programme that spoke of how New Zealand had banned all nuclear vessels from its territorial waters. Since the US would not declare which of its ships and subs were nuclear powered or armed, that effectively meant all of the US fleet was banned from NZ territorial waters. This nuclear-free status of New Zealand is now part of legislation. The spunk of this little country converted Deepthi, and we finally started the research that would bring us here.

We were greeted at Auckland airport by well trained sniffer dogs and their polite but firm handlers who ran through the baggage looking for organic matter. As an island nation, NZ is very protective of its ecology, and are very particular that all food and other organic matter be declared, and sometimes destroyed. Even muddy shoes could bring in exotic species of plants that could decimate native populations. Failing to declare even a pack of spices is treated as a serious crime.

A two hour drive through rolling green country and we were in Hamilton. We quickly changed and bathed and hit town, only to get a shock-the town was deserted! This was just about six in the evening, but all the shops were closed, even the two malls we found! We found, later, that most shops and offices close by five or half past. People have their friends and family to get back to! Considering sunset that day was around half past nine, this left us with quite a lot of time to wander! I have slowly gotten used to how few people there actually are in NZ. A 2009 estimate has NZ total population at 4 million. Compare that to Hyderabad’s 8 million!

It’s been three months now, and I think I am finally ready to start writing about this place. I have always found it hard to form an impression of a place when speeding through it, and hope to write and think about this intriguing country at a slower pace than a travelogue. May the spirits of Ibn Battuta and Huen Tsang keep me going!