Kuracca Prize Runner-Up | Me, the (failed) revolutionary


For a second, the tired-grey-suit-guy sees me.

They stand up.
Their body is tackled down into submission. 
Their body, crumpled on the ground, is
yanked away by the arm of the policeman.

Their eyes meet my eyes as they are dragged along the carpet. Their head turns to see me seated, stupefied. My body unmoving and unviolated, mouth silent, ears red with burning guilt.

But I pause now to fact-check: have I retrieved this memory or revised it? Could the tired-grey-suit-guy have cared enough to twist their neck to observe my inaction?

Perhaps imagination has rebuilt the repressed, perhaps it is me-from-that-morning, my gaze turning in the memory to look instead at me-right-now. Or as I write this surrounded by stacked towers of books – Black Skin/White Masks, Annihilation of Caste – it’s these books staring back at me. The gazing eyes of courage, a feeling of alterity; Naxalites rebuilding police-burnt villages, Gwangju student protestors advancing with shaking guns, all pausing in their work to look at me, momentarily.

*

I was told to dress formal, so I had worn my uncomfortable heeled boots, bought from a store which probably isn’t ethical enough to justify the bargain (yet even yesterday I ordered from it). I can see myself now – nervous – walking down Spring Street from Parliament Station.

When I met the strangers – my comrades – opposite Parliament House, I should’ve realised then that we were easy to spot. Maybe “formal” was beyond my peers, the hippy-activist type. To enter Parliament House, one of Australia’s oldest and most striking buildingsa chance to exhibit the wealth Victoria had accumulated from its gold and wool exports, probably required a better performance. But we were against the accumulation of wealth, here to dissent against the lazy status-quo of the old and striking, to fuck up settler-colonial Australia and its Parliament Houses.

Opposite Parliament House, we practised the performance. The tired-grey-suit-guy would stand up to present the banner concealed under his top. This would be our signal to apply glue to the hands of our buddies. We would chant: LIsten to DJAB WurRUNG! When I was the only one who could get the beat and cadence of the chant right, the 24-year-old Preston woman… arrested and interviewed regarding criminal damage smiled at me. I guess you’ll have to lead the chant, they said. I smiled back at them while the peripheries of my imagination replayed a scene: the prospective employer (for what job? does it matter?) asks me why I was arrested, looks at me, unimpressed.

*

That morning I was determined. I wasn’t only scared.

To only describe fear would be to caricature myself, self-chastise unnecessarily. Just three days before that morning, I was texted an address and the message, this is the last meeting before the protest.

Who’s organising it? What are they planning to do? None of my questions answered, I went anyways, caught the tram, ran through the rain, got lost in an apartment complex. Stumbled in halfway, clothes soaked, a room full of strangers looking at me.

That’s an impressive amount (number?) of “balls” for someone so familiar with fear. My “balls” are earned, not inherited; I don’t have some (white) cis-male chivalry. By default I’m afraid – submitting a written piece, sitting alone in my house when all the doors are locked, pursuing a goal I’ve always wanted, soaking wet trying to find the right apartment number in a complex. It’s the fear of someone trying to keep themselves safe, their precarious self-worth safe, woman’s body safe, safe from the punishment of breaking rules – propriety, expectation, the profit motive. Just in case, I’ll ask others for the permission to live my life: Should I do what I’m doing? Do you think I’m good enough? Do you think my writing is any good? Am I a disappointment? Am I worth it? I’m asked, how are you so confident? And I reply, honestly, because of a great deal of courage that I wish I didn’t always need.

Yesterday someone “like me” (some form of brown, some form of woman) said, I was brought up to believe the world’s a scary place, but the more I distanced myself from my community the less it seems to be so. I thought I was beyond “representation”, beyond needing to “see someone like myself” in a position I want to occupy, but I’m so relieved to hear that there are “other people out there like me”. I wasn’t the only one with this defect, all along?

The comment obliges me to invoke the spirit of the middle-class South Asian stereotype. How boring to write it, what a cliché to bring it up, but the reality is there:

                                        Steady labels, steady income, steady life.
                                        Avoid unsteadiness:
                                                   immigrant unsteadiness,
                                                         dizzying unsteadiness,
                                           sickening queasy unsteadiness,
                                                                      worried, consistent stress unsteadiness,
                                   Where will these protests get you?
                                        Each question – a stab in the stomach.
                                        What career will you pursue?
                                        Is writing really worth it?
                                        How are you going to have an income?
                                        Mum and dad look at me steadily, worried, uncertain, unsteady.

The fear comes from a philosophy of don’t rock the boat! Stay within our order! Keep yourself and your belongings safe because of the unshakable feeling that everything you have could be lost, at any moment. It’s falling prey to the system, which is in some ways upholding the system, which is ultimately benefiting from the system; it’s hard to distinguish.

*

Surely I was allowed to be afraid that morning. The police peered out from the Parliament steps. We glanced up at them, anxious that they might catch our dress rehearsal behind the trees.

Protests attract police like mosquitoes to exposed flesh – police with guns, police on horses, twenty police people with guns and horses for fifty unarmed protestors.

Protests are about flesh. The masses of bodies turned into digits, to count just how much dissent there was against the state. These bodies disrupt the state-regulated order of life – traffic, entrance to a mining conference – by becoming physical barricades. When violence ensues, corpses are called martyrs; this is the sacrifice of the body for The Cause, life for The Cause, of life for more life. But bodies outside of their order (white order, cisgender/heteronormative order, workers ordered to timed lunch breaks) are the police person’s jurisdiction to harm. Even protest organisers need police pre-approval, lest they face horses, tasers, pepper spray (sometimes at the train station afterwards, on their way home). I’ve kept my body safe and orderly, all this time. The reflex does not die easily.

*

My buddy had a face that looked like it frowned often, dirty blonde hair shoved back behind their ears. I think they might’ve been dressed in their school uniform. To kill time before we could enter Parliament House, we walked through China Town. They’ve been taking me to protests and stuff since I was a kid, my buddy said about their parents when I asked. Envious at this unrelatable childhood, I wondered whether this difference was because they were white-signifying. I say signifying just in case, because matching skin colour to identity or race isn’t my game; I am born a player (or pawn) unwillingly.

The impulse here is strong: play the “race card”. Wouldn’t it be easy to comment on the collision of my racialised body with the cops, call them racist, call Australia racist, bemoan my difference to white-signifiers? But the ease congeals when the economic migrant is introduced into the sentence; the sentence then becomes an unruly dialectic.

What does it mean to notice that a Djab Wurrung protestor is white, when I’m an economic migrant? The highway we’re protesting against is an “asset” to that economy, isn’t it? I’m a coloniser in Australia but my birth country too was colonised and yet the Indian government (and businesses) internally colonise Indigenous adivasi land but in Australia I’m also lesser to white skin and yet the educational institutions I’ve attended have allowed me to accrue so much cultural capital, like a real coloniser. It’s easy to forget that come Judgement Day from the God in the immigration office, one is only judged a skilled migrant (thank God) because of their social economic political cultural capital. But does that mean that I’m broken or that the system is broken? When many of us skilled migrants holiday in our birth countries – the place which is always missing from us – servants prepare food for us and “coolies” crush their bones carrying our luggage on their heads. It is only a coloniser who forgets that not all brown is equal.

And this colonising government forgets it too often. I feel small and pathetic (and furious) in my brownness, when the government’s Indian economic strategy to 2035 says, The Australian Indian diaspora is a national economic asset, and should be engaged and deployed as such. Class, culture, caste, race, gender might separate us, but are we all united in a world where government strategies describe us as assets to be harnessed and leveraged? (The answer: yes).

*

Feet hitting the Parliament steps, holding our breath past security, glancing up at the domed ceiling – wait, should I not have entered my real name into the form when we signed ourselves in? We walked into the dark, glossed hallways of Parliament House.

We strategically dispersed ourselves along the narrow balcony that seats you above the Legislative Assembly. It’s a trap: the only entrance is the only exit. When we sat down, two police people appeared at the entrance/exit, sealing us in. Do you think they always come up here? I whispered to my buddy in trepidation. Are we still going ahead? Neither of us knew the answer and we glanced nervously at our dispersed comrades, who glanced nervously back at us, quiet, unresponsive. Sweat slicked my armpits till they were slippery, as we watched the white politicians shuffling around below. Tip: the only reason to stand up in the balcony above the Legislative Assembly, to stand and face the chamber below, is for the Lord’s Prayer. You shouldn’t try to stand otherwise. 

We were safe when standing for the opening of the Legislative Assembly, for a prayer that reaches into our ‘secular’ state, reflecting the principles and traditions of our Westminster parliamentary democracy, including our common law, independent courts, and respect for the rights of each and every individual. But while standing for the Lord’s Prayer has been a tradition since 1857, an Acknowledgement of Country was only introduced as a tradition in 2016. According to the government, this new tradition is an important step in the road to reconciliation. I wonder whether this road to reconciliation will also be paved through Indigenous heritage sites, like on Djab Wurrung land.

*

The tired-grey-suit-guy stood up. They and their buddy presented our banner to the chamber below. This was our signal, the others stood up too. The police – prepared, ready to attack flesh – leapt from the entrance/exit. The policeperson brought the body of the tired-grey-suit-guy to the ground. The other policeperson pushed past the seats and tackled down the tired-grey-suit-guy’s buddy too. The politicians looked up to the balcony to watch our performance. Our few voices chanted hesitantly, LI-sten to DJAB WurRUNG!

I saw the tired-grey-suit-guy stand up. I saw their body tackled to the ground. I made my decision. I turned to my buddy, and looking them straight in the eyes, I hissed: 

Don’t.
Do.
Anything.

My buddy closed their super-glued hand into a fist. (Why did they obey me? How much do they despise me now?) Around us, everyone chanted LI-sten to DJAB WurRUNG! Without my help, without my beat and cadence expertise.

In the video that is circulated later – on social media, in one news article – that I can only bring myself to watch now, I can see my face and my buddy’s too. On the opposite end of the seats, we appear on the video as tiny faces for two seconds, watching, as everything happens around us, to everyone else. The main focus of the video is the 24-year-old Preston woman, who has glued their hand to the railing. The white policeperson tries to rip the left hand off the railing. OUCH! the 24-year-old Preston woman yells, I’m glued on! The politicians laugh. Stupid girl! Some (spiteful) (mirthful) male voice calls out to her from below.

*

My buddy and I sat in silence, my eyes averted from our comrades as they were escorted out of the balcony by the police. Please, I thought, don’t let the others see me. Let me disappear.

Out of the balcony, down the stairs, past the ornate domed ceiling, out past the employee filming our faces on his phone, embarrassed, sickened, uncertain, scared. In a café around Bourke Street we sat and waited for news of the 24-year-old Preston woman. My buddy picked at their superglued fist and refused to look at me – fair, I failed them completely. I failed our cause completely. I tried to intercept my buddy in the line for chips. But what did I have to say to them? I’m sorry for the failures of my body, I will punish myself later. In honesty, I failed to say to myself: propel yourself forward, stand up, use your impressively loud voice (that comes with little volume control) to chant, LI-sten to DJAB WurRUNG! Don’t re-evaluate the worth of the protest, when the tired-grey-suit-guy is tackled down by the police, for holding a painted piece of cloth. (Is it okay to re-evaluate? Am I allowed to question the worth of our painted piece of cloth?)

The Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy is strong – facing lawsuits, police, the detainment of DT Zellanach, ministers saying that they’ve listened to you when they haven’t heard you at all, the constant sound of vehicles on the Western Highway. You must be strong too! Djab Wurrung No Trees No Treaty strong, Wangan and Jagalingou Standing Our Ground strong, Gomeroi Gamil Means No strong, Northern Territory Don’t Frack the Territory strong!

I could’ve said it to my buddy, waiting for chips in the line, explained to them the dialectic. I’m always so afraid and I can afford fear, with my social economic political cultural capital. The capital appreciated, I’ve just got the profits, I can reinvest it, keep going just as I have always, it would be so easy to always be afraid, so easy that I could almost forget that I’m afraid. But let me transform, please, so I don’t have to struggle to do anything, to stand up for what I believe in, to stand up for myself, for someone else – I wish it came easily. Fight the fear, it’s too banal, they’ve made it to keep us all in place, you’ll lose everything without your order and safety! they say to you, the employer in the job interview will surely be unimpressed! What would you do without that job, that money?

That morning I imagined that I could become a radical militant battling against the settler-colonial state. But I don’t yet have the courage; I’m still practicing, pushing my boundaries as much as I can. I’m working on taming the reflex of fear: recognising it, thinking it through, thinking about how I can overcome it. I’ll even write a whole essay about it, to see the banality of fear, to see that with practice I can overcome it. Maybe one day the fear won’t be a reflex at all. Or maybe I’ll never rid myself of the urge towards the paved highway of least resistance: fear, obey, stay within the order. Instead, I’ll always need courage to overcome it. If I told my buddy all of that, would they have forgiven me? It’s what has allowed me, ultimately, two and a half thousand words later, to forgive myself.

I sat in silence, staring at a hole the size of a police person’s finger in one of my comrade’s jumpers. I let myself wonder this: Should I have let the strangers know that I had never participated in direct action before? That I was scared?

Thanks for your help, someone said kindly, as I left the group. What help? I think, as I walk back to Parliament Station.

*

LI-sten to DJAB WurRUNG!

 

 

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Nandini Shah

Nandini Shah, Kuracca Prize runner-up, is a writer and poet working on Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung country. She is interested in writing as political thinking, unwinding the dense political and philosophical networks entangled in daily life.

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