Coming Home (by COOKIEMAN)

Everyone at some point is likely to ask: what am I? That question was the question I asked myself after my last book came out. As commonly experienced, that moment was a hinge, when I had said goodbye to the ideas in it, when they were released and so was I. It was also the beginning. With that work, I had come to accept my fate when it came to place, not a singular sense of location, but an archipelago that was surrounded by an ocean of suburbs. The islands in that chain were not necessarily cities or villages, but somehow both, and it mattered how one thought of place rather than naming an idea of private ownership or even belonging to. And on the journey inwards, which is what writing allows, reflecting now, I wanted to know what am I, rather than where am I, who I am, and how that matters compared to what I was when I set out.

For the humanist, the answer to what one is might be the human; for the Communist, it might be the worker; for the liberal, the individual; for the astrologer, a star sign; for the nationalist, a citizen; and so on, and so forth. The question of what one is happens also to be a question of identity. And that identity, literary as it may be, owes something to politics and history as they can be understood by a community. It might be worth taking a moment here to pause, to outline facts, to introduce myself to the reader.

I am a writer that lives in West Perth, also known in its Indigenous language as Boorloo, in a region of Western Australia that is also known as Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, on a continent to the south of where many of this journal’s readers live. That is one way of telling it, of outlining where I sit to write this. So why reach out to you? My mother is a Malayali whose parents were born in coastal villages in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. They migrated to Singapore, and, my mother migrated to Australia. I am then a member of the Indian diaspora, and, I do not deny that label two generations somewhat removed. It is true even as it is not the only truth. For it exists alongside an identity that connects to craft, and to other senses of family resemblance, be that son, brother, and uncle.

And yet writing from West Perth, writing this, one has to ask: what does it mean to be outside the capital? And what if that capital is not London, and, so one does not cringe at the lack of culture here? And, what if one has never been there? What too if this is about diasporic return and belonging, a nostalgia to return to something that never was? How does that matter for writing?

It is not that being a diasporic Malayali is to be meta-provincial. That is to say, on the outskirts of a setting that is its own outskirt. To think as much is to keep London at the centre, to keep the Anglophone world as hegemonic as the geopolitical powers shift and fall and rise and flex and turn over once more in a time of authoritarianism. If we shift from the English capital, and, embrace a multipolar reality, we might even come to rest in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC, maybe even Lagos, Singapore, Sydney. Even with that multiplicity, such a view stays focused on the world as it is described and outlined in English. These are all coherent, meaningful, and valid ways to organise a framework of place. But, what happens when we talk of the soul? When we ask what am I in the fundamental sense of our being in the world?

That is where we come to the limits of language itself, which can, paradoxically, only be talked about in language, with language, by language. And here then, we must realise that the provincial can see their provinces as the capital, and, the capital is provincial as well. And so, like a convex mirror that reflects back a concave self, we begin to realise that power is not where we think it is, and not because we have relativised everywhere, not because we have always already provincialised Europe, if only because it provincialises itself in the light of the world; but because we have connected to our deep time ancestors who reside with the gods now. That might be what it is to have sovereignty in an era of late stage global capital that would have us believe only important thinking, only literary value, only reality itself happens at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, or on the social media and publishing platforms of multinationals, or at festivals that radiate from books fairs where bestsellers and important theorists were decided on by prep-school. How parochial that view would be.

It is not that provincialism is the negation of cosmopolitanism, that it denies the aspiration to multicultural tolerance across the world, but that its specificity of diversity is internal. It is a journey towards the home as it lives in the self, rather than out into the world, thinking for a moment that the one to be found on other shores is not the one that is already ours.

English is, of course, an Indian language. That is one unintended consequence of the colonial project – the language came with British subjects, but in bringing it here, they lost it at home. Of course, you can find people that are literate, maybe even eloquent, in England; but they cannot measure up to Shakespeare precisely because of the jail cell, iron cage, panopticon they locked themselves into when their failed empire was repudiated all across the globe. And so, the lesson to learn is not to be found in his sonnets, or even his plays, nor even the First Folio. The lessons are to be found at home. Shakespeare is the writer for England, but the English language has many writers of equally world historic importance among it also, not least of all on this continent because of its roots, because of its soul.

I am proud to be Indian then, and, I say that knowing full well that we must guard against nationalism, patriotism, jingoism. To reclaim pride, we need to suggest that we cannot afford to lose the state, and its attempted monopolization of violence, to the ones who would do so uncritically; that a tactic must be found in fighting for the government together and the power that comes with legislation; and, that the nation is one stop on a journey towards another. I do not wave the flag then, but I do not want to walk away while they sit in the tanks, ships, planes that would be used against us on the pretext we do not belong enough.

But, if I am proud to be an Indian because it negates their negation, I am enlightened by being a Malayali. The home language, the native place, the ancestors’ ground is where one can know what it is to be irrational, pre-historic, ancient. Or, to put it another way, there is a memory in the body as it connects to one’s deep reality. It is a past life that one can sense in this one. It is the soul that is carried on. I have learnt that by failing at the language itself from lessons given by my aunt to living in Kerala to being surrounded by English in my media, family, and friends. I cannot speak, read, or write Malayalam. Such is the legacy of empire, migration, distance. That is an unspeakable loss made even more unspeakable by its unspeakabilty.

The body though has a truth, is to be found in putu at a breakfast table as it were, and from that one learns what is porous, capable, knowing; breathing in and returning to the soil, which is the backwater, which is the ocean that separates and connects us so, from all along that coast to this one, thousands of kilometres away. And so, why come here, why stay away? The plan is not to, to die instead in Kerala someday, to be scattered there as if it were home, a motherland that mattered to the heart and soul. But, while we are here, just like when we are anywhere, it is about teaching. Surely that is about our brothers and sisters and non-binary siblings that are still shackled by false consciousness itself, about those who are denied a personal enlightenment because of the material circumstances of their predicament. That is the pull – we have learned lessons that must be taught. It is harder to recognize the push when that is a decision made by my grandparents themselves.

*

I first went to my native place in 1994, when I was twelve. It was a village in the definition of itself – chickens, coconuts, well. We spent time with cousins and aunts and uncles, visited churches and watched the morning’s catch come in. We rested, relaxed, if not quite luxuriated in the slow and mundane and connected reality of the place. I remember that I knew it before I arrived.

I knew it in my body, in the marrow of my bones, made as they were in my mother’s womb, and, thought of long before that, in my grandparents as they were children playing in the villages that line the coast. I knew it too in my own consciousness, was prepared to come home, by my family itself, in this waking life. I knew what to expect from turmeric and coconut milk, even as the depth, the richness, the everyday was somewhat different. Here it was familiar, but distinct. It made sense and it felt like I belonged, and, within that it was a way to connect to the people I was closest too, not least of all, my mother who had not been to Kerala in twenty years when she had stopped by on her way to Oxford, where my father was studying.

We went to a small church across a backwater, the waves lapping, the trees swaying, and the ripples making circles that were ever larger when you followed them rather than the horizon in the distance that made the whole world seem like it could be cupped in my hand alone. At that church, they showed us records, line after line, written word after written word, of where we had come from, where our family tree was noted down in books and ledgers, in an administrative sense of place. And that mattered, that language, that print culture was meaningful to me, even at that stage. It was where my grandparents had been christened so many years before.

My grandparents did not come with us on that trip. They had died a few years before, and, it is a sadness for me that I never saw them in the place where they were born. When I was a young child, younger than I was returning to Kerala, they came and lived with us. They had grown up in India, moved to Singapore as adults, and now, in old age, they had come to die in Australia. I do not know, not quite yet, how to make sense of what it meant to them to change so late in life, and, to be honest there was something broken by the time they had come to be with us.

Our suburb was white, it was bleached, and it was dry. The tropics gets in your body, and, it gets deeper than the fine weather of where my grandparents would end their days. My grandmother’s sister, whom I first met on that first trip to Kerala, lived for thirty years longer than both my grandparents. She never left Thiruvananthapuram district. That is the importance of staying connected, of eating fish, of realizing that the world comes to visit us no matter if we do not expect it. A good life then is where we find it, how we define it, and, what it means to go on and on until we cannot, until we are released from worldly suffering, until we are enlightened once more.

*

My personal enlightenment happened as I crossed a bridge over the Debarl Yerrigan, a river that makes its way through the city I grew up in. I grew up in that river too, catching prawns at the night, swimming in the day, with cousins. But, on the day I saw the face of the gods, I was under the delusion that if we passed over it, I would die. I was in the grips of a mind poisoned by fear, suffering, desire, and, convinced I was not meant to be on this land, that I had broken some law that was enduring and real.

When I crossed the bridge, I did not die. My parents sat in the front of the car. And, I was released from all worldly suffering. It felt as though the universe passed through me. I was here. I was alive. I was enlightened. I was overcome with elation, joy, freedom. But, it took some time for that to be clear. I was instead taken to the emergency department of a local hospital where they told me I had experienced psychosis. I was made a ward of the state, drugged, and sent in an ambulance to a public asylum. I woke up three days later with someone watching me, and, to the sounds of screams in the locked ward I was now a patient in. The others there were old Aboriginal people, and, homeless white junkies, enemies of the state in any description, being looked after by new migrants. As for me, I was educated in the Ivy League and from as wealthy a home as any. By logic, I should not have been there, should not have been locked up.

They let me out four days later, a full week inside, and I remained a ward for thirty days. That was the punishment for seeking to find out what my soul looked like, for descending into the depths of hell, and returning to tell this tale. If anything, it reminded me of my own privilege, responsibility, and whom the state chooses to punish, which in my case was elders and the poor. I suspect it is like that in many countries, and, while my personal experience was scary, it taught me, above all else, to be grateful. It also set me on a path to go deeper, to transcend this moment and its politics, its language, its boundaries. And that meant puncturing the false consciousness of nationalism then of language and maybe even the soul itself, which is the paradoxical aim of this letter home.

It meant more than ever seeing my true consciousness for what it is – a way to live a life in a full and meaningful way. To be alive to the cosmos. My life did not flash before my eyes. But the world became very still, and, I breathed deeper than I ever thought possible. I had learned through pranayama, through reading philosophy, through visiting sites, what past lives meant. How to inhale the dust to dust and the ashes to ashes, and, take what matters most into the lungs where they could meet the very essence of my being. And with that, I learned to dream once again, to breathe deep in my sleep, just like I had been allowed to do on that bridge. I thought I was being chased by a devil of some sort, that I had broken the law, but as I travelled across that water, entered the city’s limits, I was welcomed home, came to rest in the spiritual reality of my birthplace, calmed by knowing what it is to belong. That was my enlightenment then, and, it is a moment I will not forget, not anytime soon.

It allowed me to hope against hope, to send a message in a bottle to those that are still inside, my cell mates in that asylum. I have not forgotten you. We have not forgotten you just as we have not forgotten our neighbours who do not know where their next meal will be coming from, who do not know how to read their rights written on paper, who do not have a home to call their own. There is still work to do. And that is what it means to go searching for bedrock, to find in ‘Kerala’, to find in ‘Malayalam’, to find in oneself, an answer to every question we might think to ask if there is time.

Perhaps then to be provincial, is to realize that one is an outpost of the cosmos; that through enlightenment, we come to see the form we take in this world, between them, and before and after we fell. It is then, one label amongst many of them, but it allows one to reach out, to touch the ceiling that stops us from floating up to the clouds.

Since then I have lived my life with that lesson inside. That experience happened at a specific time and place. It was when world historical spirit passed through my body, but it did not take place in the capital, nor was it newsworthy to anyone but my family and close friends and myself. In that way, enlightenment is material, it resonates where it can. The consciousness of the universe needs a tongue in which to express itself. That might be Indian English in this one even as I reach for translators now who can help me create a multilingual heteroglossia within the pages of one book that speaks to my whole world.

*

I had been working for five years on a book when I was put in touch with my Malayalam translator. The book had been with me as I lived in Melbourne, Bombay, Kochi, New York, and Perth now. I had travelled and returned to my birthplace, my site of enlightenment, which is one home among many. The book was the beginning rather than the end. Many books are the final word in and of themselves even as they enter into dialogue with other authors, or, set up new lines of inquiry for readers, some of whom go on to write replies in other languages, or, simply within the same discourse.

My book had come from the tongue of the gods, was made by reaching for the clouds and the depths of the ocean, and listening to the voices that are all around us – other people, birds, imagined communities. It did not though have the right cadence, pitch, timbre. It lacked, in so many words, a voice. If this seems like a paradox, that I had been writing with no voice, one notices then the complex reality of being a provincial Malayali that cannot speak, write or read, Malayalam. That is my own constraint, and, it is a structural consideration of English that had put me in this bind.

Although English is the only language I have, I do not love it. It is useful, but it cannot reciprocate. It is hegemonic, it is trade, it displaces, it dominates, it is anti-poetic. I love language then, the universal one of the spirit that finds particular expressions in our here and now, in this present. This is the love of language beneath language, the aquifer not the river. English however, cannot be separated from its history, from its refusal to love one back. Minority languages, Indigenous languages, world languages are dying, and, English is part of that destruction. It is the one that kills and destroys, and, that is the truth of my life as a colonial subject no matter how much reclamation, adulation, respect is given by the burghers of good taste. So, what is one to do, and, how does that matter for defining what I am?

I am a Cookieman. This is what my Ngarluma in-laws call me. A position that is determined by the tongue as it tastes rather than when it speaks. It is a use value based on labour and exchange, on an equality of the senses, and so, it means seeing that food is a language. Let me make you polichattu and sit in silence while the world passes by.

What that means for my book is that I need translators. It is one of the more insidious myths to think that books are solely authored. It is not only that a writer is made up by their experiences with other people. It is that we need editors, printers, publishers, readers, and other writers. Books come from a community, and, to me, if I wanted to transcend English, if I wanted to keep becoming enlightened rather than dying, I needed help. I wanted someone who knew Malayalam and could hold my hand as we crossed the road to liberation.

That liberation is a homecoming. This is not in the sense of return, of finding a village back in time that has not accepted the fates of our latest day. It is about coming into a sense of oneself as a type of nest, a hearth, a home where the heart is and beats and continues to be a source of life for others who are yet to arrive. Home is about the lungs and spleen and kidneys as well, about the tongue most of all. That is the organ that speaks, and while the hand might write, the tongue is where language matters. The body though is what counts as a whole.

To reclaim the body is to come home. To say as much is to know nothing else. It is to breathe from the crown to the toes. It is to be in our own skin, and, to realize that we belong here. To swim in the language of our ancestors, to become Old Masters, to recognize that the gods are us. And from that, to sit, to stand, to walk, to stretch, to eat with the knowledge that all life is valued, is a privilege, is worthwhile, even as others are dying when they should not be. 

To be embodied is to see the structures of violence that abstract our reality, and, with language we fail at expressing that, and, we get up only to fail again. We keep failing until, of course, we are enlightened, released from our suffering, and, if only our tongue survives we speak into the silence, and, if only our hand survives we write into the abyss, and, if we come back again, somehow from beyond death, then we live fully aware in the knowledge that life must become beautiful and just for the ones that are too often left behind. That is the duty and the hope of what coming home is, of answering the question: what am I?

*

To sing of oneself then is to sing of others, to think that the I is the universe, to travel into the paradox that the heart belongs to everyone. In that way, becoming aware of the self allows one to transcend selfishness itself. That is to have a self-realisation, and, for me that also means being translated into other languages, even if I do not, cannot, or will not define that in singularity. One comes to realize the self through suffering, and, to be denied identity, to refuse to see it, to maintain ignorance, is a type of suffering. Coming into the language, the literature, and, a way of understanding meant coming into the knowledge of what one is.

If my personal enlightenment happened on that bridge over that river and was mine alone, I have shared in other miracles with other people. Not least among them are births of those who have nestled into our hearts and our homes, whose very bodies will always come from mine as well. But, there are other enlightenments, other miracles besides death and its images, and birth and the dreaming that follows.

It is to be found in the simple bodily pleasures, and, it is to be shared with the people that are fellows. We find then a way to connect over a cup of chai without disregarding the routes and markets and exchanges that took place in the lead up to that moment. We allow ourselves to transcend our pasts simply by walking through the world. And, when one is open to the universe we constantly reimagine what is possible, we lift the weight of suffering from the shoulders of those who are shackled, we literally become clouds. And that might be the answer we have always known when we asked of the read, what am I? Now we ask that of each other, and, you yourselves.


About the Author: Robert Denish Wood is interested in language, dream, place, meaning, and nature. His pen name is COOKIEMAN. He is the Creative Director for the Centre for Stories in Perth, Australia, and, the author of three books. Robert was a Benjamin Franklin Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University. He has been an Emerging Critic with the Sydney Review of Books, and, has edited for Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Peril. His work has been published widely, and, translated from English into Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Spanish, and Mandarin. Currently, he has a monthly interview series with Los Angeles Review of Books, which has included Ranjit Hoskote, Emily Wilson, and Ben Okri, amongst others. See more at: www.robertdwood.net
In terms of publications:
I have 250 pieces of literary journalism to my credit, and, three books - History and the Poet: essays on Australian Poetry; Suburbanism: Poetics; and Concerning A Farm. I am also the editor of Wave After Wave: writers from the Indian Ocean

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