Oil lamps, jasmine flowers and an indelible identity…

A yellow radiance filters through the dew-laden leaves of the sapota tree outside my grandmother’s house in Chennai that morning. Bright patterns of light dance on Thayamma’s skin as she bends down to sweep in front of our home. She sets the broom aside and starts sprinkling water from a metal bucket. After evenly spreading the water on the tar with a broom, she starts to draw an intricate set of dots using powdered rice from a tin cup.

I stand there, holding my mother’s hands, sleepily watching Thayamma. She connects the dots using rice powder, forming a string of eight flowers linked with each other by a chain of leaves and decorative lines. She dabs the edges with a red liquid made of powdered brick, places a yellow pumpkin flower in the middle of the drawing on a blob of cow dung, and steps back to admire her work. Under the shy morning light, her work of art shines brightly.

Tomorrow is Deepavali, the festival of lights. And my family is getting ready to celebrate.

My uncle has strung a garland made of young mango leaves over the front door. My grandmother has ground the wet flour for making steamed rice cakes for breakfast tomorrow. She has also prepared offerings to the Gods lined in the shelf placed outside her kitchen and rallied family and friends together to mark the special day in the Hindu calendar.

The family home built in 1890 stands firm with strong teak rafters and doors and abundant air and light flowing through its rooms and the passageways. It is beginning to fill up with visiting relatives and friendly neighbours coming together to celebrate the spirit of Deepavali. My mother, sister, and I have traveled over 2000 kms from New Delhi in the north to Chennai in the south to join the family. Our journey has taken us three days by train, steered by a coal-powered steam engine. We have spent another day scrubbing the soot off our faces and bodies and shaking the unsteadiness arising from a rickety train ride in a bare compartment.

My sister and I walk around that evening, carefully placing terracotta lamps with oil and wick in the alcoves and door corners. We are clad in colourful long skirts made of silk and gold thread and wear matching necklaces and bangles. Our oiled plaits are adorned with fragrant jasmine flowers. Our aunt walks behind us, lighting the lamps. The sky turns ink blue as we gather to watch our uncles and cousins bursting firecrackers.

Tomorrow we will be up early, have an oil bath, wear new clothes, and burst firecrackers. We will eat fluffy rice cakes (idlis) with coconut chutney for breakfast, and enjoy sweet and savoury snacks prepared by the women in the family. It will be three more days before the house settles into quietness when the relatives leave, and the neighbours get distracted.

I learned, as I grew older, that the rice flour Thayamma used for the drawing (Kolam) was to feed ants that crossed in front of our house. The terracotta lamps (agal vilakku) were lit to chase away negativity, and the fresh breeze blowing through mango (mangai) leaves brought good health into our home.

Thayamma’s Kolam, the agal vilakku, the mangai leaves, silk skirts, jasmine (malligai) flowers, idlis, and the Tamil language.

These are part of my cultural identity.

Tamil culture is unique and vibrant, and the language is classical. The Tamil cuisine draws on a mix of flavours from coconut to coriander, from tamarind to thayir (or yoghurt).

Tamils of yore were seafarers, tradesmen, and erudite rulers. Tamil Kings built intricately carved temples and palaces. They were patrons of arts, poetry, and literature that mirrored the conviviality of Tamil life. They embellished other cultures and traditions by generously sharing theirs, assimilating with the local milieu wherever they went from Java to Jaffna or Malacca to Burma.

Tamils carried their pride with them in the holds of the ships that transported them as indentured labourers to South Africa, Malaysia, Mauritius, and Guyana. They may have lost their original names and identity during the course of their bumpy journeys. But they did not lose their culture or traditions. Durban, Penang, Port Louis, and Singapore display ample examples of the vibrant Tamil way of life to this very day.

I left India for an international career at some point in my adult life. But memories of kolams that adorned our home, the smell of oil blending with the wick as the agal lamps were lit, and the tangy aromas from my grandmother’s kitchen remained. They made celebrating Deepavali that much more special, whether I was in East Timor, Namibia, Kenya, or New York. Friends and colleagues compensated for the absence of family and neighbours and readily joined in marking the festival of lights with me. They helped me draw Kolams, light candles, and lamps and made my home vibrant and warm. The message of togetherness and positivity was also shared alongside. It enriched my life and my identity all the more.

Warmest wishes to everyone, this Deepavali!

Barefoot Heroes

Awer Mabil and Awer Bul, two young men of South Sudanese origin, visited the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 2014. The brothers brought with them 20 football shirts to distribute among the young footballers in the camp.

The sprawling Kakuma camp located in Turkana County in arid northwestern Kenya had been their home for years. They had returned to visit their relatives who still lived in the camp. The camp held nearly 170,000 refugees around the time of their visit. The 20 football shirts they had brought with them was a drop in the ocean. Upon their return to Australia, Awer Mabil, a professional footballer and his brother, set up Barefoot to Boots (BTB), aimed at supporting people living in the camp and those in the neighbouring host communities.

Football had been an integral part of Awer Mabil’s life. Born in Kakuma camp, he arrived in Australia in 2006 with his mother and sister, as a ten-year-old. Football scouts noticed him when he played in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. Soon he went on to become a professional, representing Australia and playing in the top leagues of Denmark and Portugal.

Awer Bul, his elder brother, had fled South Sudan as a seven-year-old, along with thousands of young boys, and had arrived in Kakuma in 1992. His journey was harrowing and extraordinary, similar to that of so many of the world’s refugees. He was one of the renowned Lost Boys of South Sudan. These were boys displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1987–2005), in which about 2 million people were killed, and many others were severely affected. The name “Lost Boys of Sudan” was colloquially used by aid workers in the refugee camps in Africa, where the boys were. Awer Bul moved to the United States in 2000. He moved again later to Adelaide in Australia, to be close to his brother Mabil. 

A year after their first visit, the brothers returned to Kakuma. This time they brought with them over 300 kgs of football gear. Their idea had begun to take shape due to the support of benefactors in Australia.

Barefoot to Boots was in action. 

The trees in the Muthaiga suburb of Nairobi wore a clean and fresh look after the rains as I got off the taxi and walked into the heavily guarded Australian High Commissioner’s residence. I was about to meet the two brothers and their BTB patron Ian Smith on their stopover in the city en route to Australia. I was there as a representative of UNICEF. Our field staff in Kakuma had facilitated their visit to the camp the previous week, jointly with the UN refugee agency ( UNHCR).

We sat in the living room, sipping tea. The two tall, lean young men with deep-throated voices and careful English accents recounted their journey. They had run away from conflict, hunger, and the threat of being conscripted. But they had never really walked away from their past and their identity. They had been determined to return to Kakuma, where many of their friends and relatives still resided and wanted to build a support system to boost the education, health, and protection of the young boys and girls who had ended up in the camp hungry, afraid, and very often unaccompanied. 

As I stood up to take leave, I asked them what they wished for in the future. The respectful voice of Awer Bul, the older brother, resonated in my ears – “No one wants to be a refugee nor make another country their home forever. We dream of going home one day. We have everything now, and our talents are well recognised. When our country becomes peaceful, we wish to return and help rebuild it.”

UNHCR reports that there are more people displaced by conflict in the world today than at any point since the second world war. Developing countries are bearing the brunt of the world’s refugee crisis and are hosting most of the record, 70.8 million displaced people who have fled war and persecution. Sadly, half of the world’s forcibly displaced are children, according to UNHCR’s annual flagship report, Global Trends. Opting to become a refugee is a last resort for anyone.

Meanwhile, the Awer brothers are striving to ensure that the dignity of these young people remains intact as they await their turn to move towards a better and more secure chance in life.




Black Swans & Brilliant sunsets

Lake Wendouree is earth’s generosity personified.

Situated in Ballarat, an hour and a half from Melbourne, Lake Wendouree was known in the 1800s by white settlers as the ‘black swamp’. A sizeable aboriginal population inhabited the area around the lake at that time. In 1838 William Cross Yuille a white squatter, settled down south of ‘Black Swamp’ in the area which was to later become part of the gold rush settlement of Ballarat. Story goes that when Yuille asked a local indigenous woman what the name of the swamp was, she used the aboriginal word wendaaree which meant ‘go away’ as a reply to him. 

Yuille sold his station two-years later and moved on probably without ever realising the significance of the word ‘wendaaree.’

The First Peoples of every land, whether the aboriginals of Australia, the San of Namibia or the Maasais of Kenya did not own or possess land. They lived off the land without claiming it as theirs and used their indigenous knowledge of local plants, animals and other resources to replenish what they took from the earth.  

In the aboriginal Woiwurrung language from Melbourne region, the concept of Bunjilaka meant, one could not go into someone’s country without permission. ‘Bunjil’ meant the creator and ‘aka’ meant ‘soil or ground’. 

It is the principle of inter-connectedness that underpinned Aboriginal life for the Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal people from north-west South Australia. Their law of Kanyini implied that everybody was responsible for each other. 

For centuries we have been interacting with this earth and benefitting from her bounties. We define borders, declare nationalities and draw boundaries, issue passports, drain resources and claim ownership of lands which were not ours to begin with. To believe that the land we live on is our possession or the space we rent is our domain is a convenient fallacy created by us humans. We have all bought into this without any resistance. 

I often wonder about my connection to this land where I chose to settle into this year. Will I ever be able to repay my dues for the privilege of witnessing the beauty of the sunsets and the elegance of the black swans on the Lake every day while remembering the ‘First People’ who lived off the ‘black swamp’ a century and a half ago?