Abbas and his watan


A Sydney poet’s silent hopes for Australia and India 

In the poem Rangeen Patange, Sydney musician and poet Abbas Alvi says:

Yes, I loved those colourful kites
Black, blue, yellow, red and brown kites
Now I am here to settle in the big town
Left behind are those that I loved and adored
To seek and fulfil my desires to touch the sky
But it feels that I have left someone behind
My heart wishes to fly again and touch the sky

Abbas’s poetry and music are a project about the many homes and memories of his life, in Fatehgarh, in other parts of India, in Moscow, in Europe, in Sydney, in Australia and more. This project, involving creative minds in Australia and around the world, is a collaborative effort on immigrant lives and homelands. Kavi sammelans, books, and CDs of musicians like Abbas are part of this work. In 2010, on the 61st anniversary of the adoption of Hindi as the official language by the constituent assembly of India, Abbas’s compilation of Hindi and Urdu poetry, Guldasta, by 47 poets living in Australia, was launched in the Parliament House of NSW. To date, two CDs, Sandesh and Dooriya, have also been produced by Abbas and his team of volunteers.

Abbas’s art, life and work overlap significantly. An engineer and businessman, he is well known for his community engagements and concerns. Diversity, racism, diaspora, community associations, business, the problems of local government and communities, all these and more are high on the list of his interests. How does any of this make Abbas different to any one else in the Indian community? Many others actively promote Indian culture and the interests of the Indian community. The simple answer is that Abbas’s ideas of India, Indian community and culture are far more nuanced and rich than almost any other Indian in the limelight in Australia.

Born on the banks of the Ganges in Fatehgarh, in a middle class Muslim family, Abbas is a product of the ideals of Indian secularism and its political vision of “unity in diversity”. According to Abbas, the roots of this diversity and secularism go way back in Indian history. Communalism and religious conflict, he believes, are passing phases that cannot disrupt the ethos of coexistence in Indian society.

When Abbas was a student in Moscow, every foreign student had to share a hostel room with three students of different nationalities. Abbas says that it was in Moscow, living among foreigners and doing his degree in engineering, that he discovered much about India and its many cultures. Unlike the average Indian student in Australia, Abbas and Indian students in Moscow were supported by both the Indian and Soviet state, enabling them to explore and experience the cultures of the Soviet Union and Europe. When he returned to India, after his education in Moscow, Abbas says that it wasn’t easy for him to adjust to Indian life. As an engineer, Abbas moved around India with his family for several years before migrating to Australia.

When he came to Australia, he set up his own techno-commercial consultancy firm. Business, the arts and politics have been inseparable for Abbas. The project to promote Urdu and Hindi poetry in Australia is also a project to promote the Indian spirit of cultural syncretism in the diaspora. It is this ideal of syncretism that makes Abbas critical of Australian Indian associations that have not included any Muslims in their committees. “But most associations are simply using Indian culture and community to make money,” he says. “Indian community associations make a mockery of voluntary work for the community,” he argues.

Abbas played a crucial role in founding two of the leading Indo-Australian business councils. He has strong views on the running of existing business councils. As a representative of Indian associations and business councils he has met ministers, politicians, businessmen etc to facilitate Indo-Australian trade and business. As a lover of the arts he has worked with political leaders, artists and writers in both India and Australia to promote the works of members of the Indian diaspora.

What makes Abbas unique among the vocal members of the Indian community in Australia are his ideas on culture and identity. Abbas feels that narrow and chauvinistic ideas of India and the Indian community are gaining ground in the diaspora. He says it is regrettable that Indian Muslims are not visible in community forums, and Indian Islamic culture is increasingly being relegated to the margins of the social life of the diaspora in Australia.

“I am always only seen as an Indian in Australia. In all the cultural and political functions that I attend there is never any recognition of the fact that I am an Indian Muslim too,” he says.

Abbas says that “India is a beautiful garden of cultures” and it would be a loss to ignore or minimise this in Australia. This diversity in India should not be an excuse for jingoism, according to him. The Indian cultural mosaic should rather be cause for hope and optimism, he argues.

Abbas’s boyhood friendships, his painful memories of the effects of partition on his family, and the ideas of India’s pluralistic political cultures sustain his faith in tolerance and coexistence. These also influence his ideas on art, community and culture. Will the faith in India’s cultural and religious mosaic survive the inevitable crises and challenges the nation is destined to face in the near future? Or will it remain a pious hope frustrated and rattled by the turbulent changes making their presence felt through the party system and electoral politics?

There is no doubt that Abbas’s homeland of the sixties and seventies is fading away. The generations inspired by the India of the sixties and seventies may well continue to believe in its promises despite the rising frustrations and cynicism. In the youthful optimism of those decades it was easy to believe that the nation would unite, develop, build and so much else. The tensions and contradictions of the agendas of yesterday are forcing crises upon the body politic that could easily shatter the hopes of people like Abbas. But these same possibilities that haunt India make Abbas’s hope and optimism relevant today.

Home for Abbas is the land of memories, the object of nostalgia, the spirit of brotherhood. It is not a nostalgia that fetishises, or an innocent brotherhood or moralistic traditionalism that simplifies the past. It is, as Abbas recalls, the memory of tolerance and respect, within his and within other families, in Fatehgarh, in the face of sectarianism and religious animosity and prejudice. It is this memory that his nostalgic poems, music and art hymn. It is also this spirit of curiosity and concern that inspires this artist’s commitment to diversity and multiculturalism.

Abbas today calls Australia home, but this is the home of the traveller with many memories of past homelands and cultures, and many treasures that need to be rediscovered in all their complexity. Abbas’s Urdu poetry is not stuck in an idolised past, but it seeks to give expression to the hopes, aspirations and problems of those living in Australia. Abbas worries that the diminishing spaces for Urdu in contemporary Australia and India will eventually impoverish Hindi itself.

Like the colourful kites of the summer skies of his Fatehpur, yearning for freedom, for the skies, so his nostalgia too is a silent hope for a better community in Australia and India. An India or Australia not prey to any kind of hysteria, but societies that enable memories of the many multiple cultures and intertwining histories that make these political fabrications, from their very first moments as nations, the crossroads that they are.

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Magazine in Sydney)

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