You might have heard of death and taxes in one breath. But did you ever hear of death and taxis? If not, be prepared to hear a lot about it because Australia-born and Singapore-based poet Chris Mooney Singh has poignantly yet beautifully combined the two in his latest collection of poems, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company. Zafar Anjum takes a ride on a cab from that company to meet author and literary activist, Chris Mooney Singh.
Hop in please, wouldn't you? But first a warning.
When you see Chris Mooney Singh, it would be hard for you to slot him the way we are used to slot people in the hierarchy of identities. Perhaps you also wouldn't know how best to describe the man.
But not to worry on this count. Chris himself has done this job brilliantly in one of his poems, A Council Flat in Leicester. So, listen on.
In that poem, Chris talks about his appearance of being a 'turbaned, bearded--yet a white-skinned sahib' which startles an 'earth-brown skinned Punjabi fellow.
"A beard, a turban, and a white skin brings some kind of a novelty value for some," Chris says self-mockingly. Truth be told, I too was startled to see him first but that was a in a literary reading. For this interview, we meet Chris in Earshot cafe in the Arts House. "Once I walked into a crowded market in Adelaide and I was surprised how people parted ways for me," he tells us over the din of screeching chairs and clinking china.
He then goes into the history of turbans--how turbans have always stood to indicate rank and class and commanded respect, how in the Mughal times, wearing a turban was a sign of class and how Guru Gobind Singh threw a challenge to the powers that be by making it mandatory for all Sikhs to wear turbans, proclaiming that people with low caste or no caste could also wear turbans.
So, you see, this is how Chris speaks. You scratch him and gushes forth the knowledge, passionate observations and articulations of an erudite mind, affording you moments of epiphany as you move deeper into the discussion with him.
Of Australian-Irish descent, Chris was born in 1956. He had a typical middle class childhood. His parents were not religious at all. But he had been reading books on mysticism from an early age and that had some influence on him. That love for mysticism led him to the Sikh faith when he went to Indian as a young man to indulge in arts journalism.
Chris was practicing meditation in Australia for almost 15 years. But he was not satisfied. There were questions, a quest, and a thirst to quench. “I wanted to have some deeper experience, with people of some spiritual stature,” he says. Off he went to India. He stayed in Delhi, in a Punjabi neighbourhood.
Once in India, a Western-educated Chris found poetry as an art form in the Eastern traditions. In the Sikh faith, he saw poetry, music and spiritualism all coming together and that resonated well with him. "I connected with the eastern traditions from an artistic point of view, not from a religious point of view," he says.
But this spiritual change muscled into his poetic sensibilities. "Embracing a new faith brought in an inward sort of a change in me," he says reflectively.
Mysticism and poetry engaged Chris’ mind from early on. He got interested in poetry while he was still in primary school. During the composition classes, he says, he was more interested in the language, in the atmospherics, in the micro-moments of the story than in the story itself. "One thing that poetry does is it looks at the mirco-moments and so, I was inwardly always poetry driven," he says. The early interest in poetry sprouted into a deeper passion. Later on, he got to understand more about writing, about narratives, as he formally studied journalism.
But his poetry quintessentially contains a specific flavour—the flavour of narrative. "Even when I write poems, if you look at my collection, I have a narrative element in it,” he says. “I think I have a cross over, sort of a poet inside a storyteller and a storyteller inside a poet."
In search of the rubab
Kirtans, a form of poetry, fascinated Chris. As he delved deeper into Sikhism and its art form, he realized that there were instruments of the Sikh faith that had been lost. "I call the harmonium the magarmach (crocodile) of Indian music or the African killer bee of Indian music,” he says, referring to how it has killed off ancient musical instruments like the rubab and Saranda.
“In Guru Nanak’s time, his companion played the rubab,” he says. “I went looking for that instrument and it took me a decade to uncover it.”
From Himachal Pradesh, he started to make rubab and saranda and took the craft to some villages in Punjab where the youth were trained to make such instruments.
Who would have imagined that it would take an Australian young man to revive the community’s interest in the ancient musical instruments of the Sikh faith?
It was only in India where he tragically lost his first wife. His wife literally died in a taxi in India. He puts that experience, from his wife’s last breath to the rites of her funeral, in the initial part of his anthology, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company. The second section of the book is about taxis in Singapore. “Both signified to me as vehicles of transportation, from place to place, a journey of life,” he says.
After his first wife’s death, Chris came to Singapore and settled here. After spending more than a decade in India, Singapore offered him a different experience, and posed a challenge to his muse.
“India was an immediate connection with me,” he says. “Coming from a meditation background, I was inwardly attuned to that culture. I stayed in all kind of dwellings in India, the experience was very wide. I saw tragedy. I experienced life in all its nakedness. In Singapore, though it is comfortable and everything works--lights, buses, taxis—the electricity is always there, the buses are not very far and taxis are frequent and available but somehow it also insulates you from that naked raw reality of life.”
Singapore’s urban jungle, in his eyes, also affects a writer’s sensibilities. “Poets and writers here audit their thoughts for public so I though I had to develop a different sort of skin here,” he says. “I like the Asian society but I needed to find another way to look at it. I realized that I took a lot of cabs and that sort of provided me with a way to look at life in Singapore.”
That’s how he began to think of writing poems on cabs, and The Laughing Buddha Cab Company came into being. This is not Chris’ first collection though. “I have a few collections earlier--one was a collection published in Australia in 1989, then I put out a chapbook in Singapore in 2003 but it was really a privately distributed thing,” he says. “This is my long overdue collection.” In addition, Chris co-edited a poetry anthology, The Penguin Book of Christmas Poems, and has three spoken word CDs to his credit, the latest being ‘Living in the Land of the Durian Eaters’.
Meanwhile, Chris became restless with the prevalent literary culture in Singapore. “After settling back from India in 2002, I saw events where poets were there for poets,” he says. He wanted to bring literature and poetry out of the closed doors to public venues.
“I went to America in 2003 to a writers' festival and saw the poetry slam and took it as a model for Singapore,” Chris says. “In Singapore, we have this kopitiam culture and I tried to marry poetry with that culture,” he says on his idea of the poetry slams. “Poets should meet with a non-poet audience and hold their interest. That's the challenge of poetry slam.”
Since 2003, he has been a full-time organizer of literary events, writing groups and, of course, the Poetry Slam in Singapore. All these activities, including the Writers’ Connect programme for emerging and established writers, are held under the aegis of Word Forward.
Word Forward has turned a publisher with The Laughing Buddha Cab Company, and two other poetry books by Marc Daniel Nair and Pooja Nansi. “Publishing and performance go together; I first needed to develop a sense of community,” he says. “Before publishing, we ran other programmes--poetry slam, writers connect, festivals, lots of creative programs in schools, we developed a national youth poetry slam league--we have been doing for the last two three years.”
And what has all these activities achieved? “I can't speak for others but from our points of view, I think we have added a necessary injection of energy into the scene,” he says. “Earlier, much of the literary activities were mystically invisible.”
Chris, with his life partner Savinder, have proved that a life committed to arts and literature can be built around here in Singapore. Now they are going beyond Singapore, exploring new horizons. They are soon starting a poetry slam in Malaysia, on the lines of the Singapore one. “As we have developed here, we have unconsciously become a model for others,” he says, with a grin of satisfaction.
An edited version of this story appeared in India Se, March 2008.