Chris Mooney-Singh THE BEARDED CHAMELEON Black Pepper Books (Melbourne), red wheelbarrow books (Singapore).
There is little wonder that there is a sense of ‘otherness’ running through Chris Mooney-Singh’s second major collection The Bearded Chameleon. As in his first collection, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company, Mooney-Singh is very aware that it is impossible not to stand out in either India or Australia when you are a turbaned, bearded westerner. Having converted to Sikhism in 1989 his poems reflect an inspiration which is perhaps unique to Australian poetry.
But If Mooney-Singh is unique among Australian poets, his position in India is also slightly complicated. A number of times in this collection he comments on how he is perceived in his adopted land. In the first poem in the collection, ‘Punjab Pastoral’, for example, he begins by describing how much he blends into the Indian landscape:
“This cotton shawl is pulled up round my ears
keeping out the fog as I defecate
on fallow field like any other farmer.
I wear a turban, bobbing like a sunflower’
But there is a fundamental difference here:
“Yes, they all want to leave and yet I’ve come
to squat and shit and chew on grass and spit
like village elders by the panchayat tree.”
The fundamental difference, of course, is that Mooney-Singh has a choice. He can stay, leave and come back:
“For what? A cultural look and see and then
to fly back when the travel cash runs dry?”
This is a theme he returns to in a later poem, ‘Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire’. This poem begins in a mock deferential tone “Sir, you have wide windows, facing West/to the Arabian Sea”. But the trappings of wealth can’t hide the reality of every live for the vast majority:
yet I find it hard to talk of ‘higher things’
seeing the tin shacks of the servant slums
directly below these apartment blocks.
At the same time as the poet feels disgust at the hypocrisy of the millionaire donating to the temple while ignoring the slums, he also releases that there are points where both them are more similar than he would like to admit:
“It’s all too easy
to invent tidy aphorisms. It is high time
I was gone. Mine are also the words of privilege
But there is hope in the ending as the poet understands that he must ‘escape’ back into reality. As he is washing his hands he realises:
“I must take myself far away from
Your sparkling unblemished rose standing in this vase,
And make them into useful hands.”
Apartment of a Bombay Millionaire
The strength of this poem lies in its almost spiritual sense of temptation. From a western tradition one thinks immediately of Satan’s role in tempting ‘virtuous men’. In the same way in this poem Mooney-Singh is escaping the temptation to cut himself off from the reality of his adopted land by retreating into an Indian version of the West.
While he is aware of this ‘difference’ Mooney-Singh can also see a way out. In the title poem of the collection he sees himself like the chameleon adapting and fitting in so that, over time, the ‘differenceness’ fades away:
“My sun-cracked soles have drawn some sap
from green Punjab. An Aussie chap,
I chew on sugarcane each week
and sport this beard – a convert Sikh”
but in the end his skill at disguising his difference is not as good as the chameleon:
“Perhaps, I will, one day, be free
to blend in with the Buddha tree”
The Bearded Chameleon
One of the surprising strengths of this poem, at least for me, was the poet’s use of rhyming couplets. While initially a little wary of the use of the form through a fairly long poem, Mooney-Singh manages to pull it off with remarkable skill – for the most part the poem maintains a strong internal rhythm mostly avoiding any forced rhymes that could disrupt the flow of the poem.
The other strength of this collection is the way that Mooney-Singh can turn the everyday into poetry. From the stark contrast of the imagery in a poem like ‘Indian City’ – “satellite dishes on a temple sky-line” and “fresh cow pats on the new overpass” – to the wonderful juxtaposition of the astrologer in ‘The Thirteenth House’ with the Stock Broker in ‘Mr Chopra’ , we begin to sense that the poet has, perhaps almost a unique insight into the day to day functioning of Indian life.
In the final instance the contradiction of an Australian trying to blend, like a chameleon, into the everyday of Indian life provides the major strength of this collection. Mooney-Singh has become very close to India, but he still brings the cultural baggage of the West with him. Like the Chameleon, no matter how still he stands, no matter how much he tries to blend in, we can still see the outline of a previous life if we look closely. There is much to enjoy in this book and I look forward to Mooney-Singh’s next collection.