Intense, thoughtful and very moving

Image: courtesy Bangalore Literature Festival, Jeanine Leane speaking at the Festival, September 2014.

A Passage to India: Reflections on Bangalore and Mysore

by Jeanine Leane

September 2014 was to be my second visit to India – despite having majored in South Asian History in a Bachelor of Arts degree in the early 1980s. In 2012, I travelled to Hyderabad for a conference on Patrick White – and so I was prepared to some extent for the crowds and the traffic.

I travelled to Bangalore, and later Mysore, with three deadly Aboriginal writers: Marie Munkara, Dylan Coleman and Brenton McKenna. Conversations had and time spent with Marie, Dylan, Brenton and Mridula, was first and foremost the best and most valuable part of my journey to India.

Marie, Dylan, Brenton, Mridula and I arrived in Bangalore late on a Thursday evening. I was tired and eager to get to the hotel – but there is no point worrying about time in India because all things there take longer – a bit like Koori time and I quickly got used to the tranquil, calm atmosphere of those around me – our hosts in Bangalore and Mysore and it was a great way to come to know people better.

On first sight the Bangalore Literature Festival looked huge. There were large stages and marquees in a very scenic park just across the road from where we were all staying. What I like about the BLF is that it was very warm and friendly and there is a tremendous amount of interest in Aboriginal writings and scholarship. I enjoyed panels I did with Dylan and Marie and with three very impressive Dalit writers. Brenton’s presentation for children on his graphic novel was great to sit in on. And despite the initial appearance of being large – there was lots of space and time to get to talk to Indian writers and activists.

The highlight for me was Mysore. We left Bangalore on Sunday evening and drove for hours through pouring rain and chaotic traffic. We arrived at Mysore University Guest House late at night to a warm welcome, by Professor Mahadeva Kunderi and some wonderful vegetarian food.

The ‘After Dreaming Australian Indigenous Literature Symposium’ that began the next morning was intense, thoughtful and very moving. The first keynote speaker, Kannada Dalit writer and scholar, Devanoora Mahadeva, welcomed us as: ‘The Earth’s First Children’ – and the connections and interaction between Dalit and Aboriginal writers flourished and will continue to do so beyond the symposium. There was a special panel where Dalit writers spoke in language and their words were simultaneously translated by Professor Ravichandra Chittampalli. True to the theme and spirit of LITERARY COMMONS! – there was much common ground between Aboriginal and Dalit writing.

Indian scholarship and engagement with Aboriginal writing is dynamic and rigorous: some of the papers and readings were amazing and there is some great work going on around translations. Seven different translations of Indigenous writings were launched at the specially organized symposium in the English Department at Mysore. Professor Mahadeva Kunderi managed to convince seven accomplished translators to undertake the work of translation: Ravichandra Chittampali, Ishmeet Kaur, S N Kiran, Suneetha Rani, K P Suresha, Pavithra Sateeshkumar, Sujatha C E. Apart from the tremendous amount of time and diligence this takes, many of the translators undertook to publish the works at their own expense. This is indicative of the huge interest in Aboriginal literature that there is in India. Scholars and students of Dalit literature are particularly hungry for the inspiration and resilience of our literature.

One thing I became acutely aware at Mysore was the difficulty that Indian students and scholars have in obtaining Australian Aboriginal literature. On the whole, unless a student or scholar has a connection to someone in Australia who can forward or send books and material, the situation is pretty grim – especially for the students – the professors do have some access to Amazon. I am concerned about this situation given the level of respect for and interest in our writings and I am hoping that as a group of writers who had the great privilege of engaging with Indian scholarship in this way that we, as a united front could become active about this situation. At the moment, most students are dependent on photocopies of sections of Australian Aboriginal works if their professors have been able to access a copy.

We were treated to a dinner at an old colonial hotel in Mysore and this was an unforgettable evening. We were picked up in a mini bus that was fully fitted with disco lights and a play list so you could dance and sing the whole hour or so it took to get to our venue. We had a ball! The hotel was full of animal trophies like tigers, buffalos, wolves, bears and antelopes that great white hunters liked to collect.

After two days at the symposium we were treated to a day of sight seeing outside of Mysore. We visited Somanathapuram, a Hindu Temple that was immense and so intricately designed that every pillar and wall tells the story of a god. I remember Mridula saying: ‘You have to have a god to live in India!’ And, there are many – as I learnt on this day – over 300! After that we visited the Summer Palace of Sultan Tipu – known as ‘the tiger of Mysore’. It’s a classic Indo-Islamic structure with huge onion domes and arches and walls covered in fabulously coloured textiles and Persian carpets.

What I loved most through – beyond the exotic architecture was the hospitality of our hosts and their generosity in sharing the stories and history of their home and, the opportunity to be driven through the breathtakingly beautiful Karnataka countryside and villages and to stop and drink from freshly picked coconuts by the roadside. The grasslands and rice paddies were so green and lush and thick – staring out the window I was almost expecting to see a tiger – but we didn’t! Speaking of wildlife though, after the palace we all had lunch by a beautiful fast flowing river and we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some otters playing in the water before they swam off down stream past our table. During lunch a family of monkeys observed us from a tree that shaded our table – one of them scampered down and stole a bottle of beer from an empty table near by – so it’s true – monkeys really are mischievous! Experiencing the country this way has really inspired to write some new poetry.

As we drove back to Mysore, one of the professors hosting us said that: ‘India is known to tourists and visitors as the land of mystic and muddle!’ The mystic is definitely there and I loved that part of it. And the muddle – well, I thought about that when we were driving – for quite some time, back to Bangalore to catch the flight home. Everyone was tired and no one talked much, some of us slept, but I gazed out the window and noticed that there is a lot of order in what initially appears to chaos and muddle and it has all given me so much to think about.