Dr. Thamizhachi Thangapandian

Thangapandian Illam,
Raja Nagar, Neelangarai,
Chennai – 600 041.

 Identity and Hybridity: Dilemmas of the new post –colonial

diaspora explored through ‘subversion’ of power relations

        Around 12% of all migrants to Australia come from India, making it Australia’s third largest source of migrants and its second largest source of overseas students.

       “The historic ties between Australia and India have expanded rapidly in the 21st Century to encompass a wide range of complementing ties; from education to biotechnology, food processing and ICT; from clean coal and mining technology to an expanding large of environmental industries.  A genuine two-way exchange in all these areas between our two countries has led to increased prosperity and wealth generation across both nations.  They are very strong ties that in the coming years we can expect this partnership to continue to grow, thereby delivering a broad range of tangible benefits to Indians and Australians alike” – observed the then minister of Commerce & Industry, the Hon’ Kamal Nath, Govt of India.

       Also, “India and Australia have several features in common: we are both vibrant democracies, with highly dynamic economies, Our countries have free press, an independent judiciary, and multilingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural societies”, proudly opinied Sujatha Singh, the then Indian High Commissioner to Australia.

      In this context, this International Conference On Culture, Literature, Arts: Australia - India organized by the Department of English, University of Madras, is one of the most telling signs of the growing awareness and interest to promote mutual dialogues in these spaces in the Academic arena also.  I deem it my pleasure and privilege to share my views in this plenary session.

       One of the most basic cultural characteristics of any individual is his/her language.  It is not merely a vehicle of communication, but a vehicle for the transmission of Culture.           As descendants of the Dravidian Language Family, with a distinct native root in Classical Tamil  Language as my mother tongue, I take pride to identify myself with the Aboriginals of Australia rather than the White Australians, since we have common myths, rituals, Dreams and the proud Label as the sons of the soil.

       Though I have had the benefits of the Macaulay Education, my heart always follow Chinua Achebe, who asks, “Why should a Nigerian learn about Daffodil flowers, inside a class-room, about which he doesnot have any idea? Instead flowers of their own terrain will make sense”.  As a post-colonial subject, subversion of power relations between the colonizer and the colonized is crucial to me and my insatiable native pride never gets quenched when I indulge in exploring texts which carry various tropes of language against the hegemony of English Language.

      As a Vernacular poet and a language teacher I would like to point out how effectively this tool has been handled by the SriLankan Tamil Playwright, Ernest Thalayasingham Macintyre in his play Lets’ Give Them Curry or Dark Dinkum Aussies (1981), the first post colonial play that was written on, and performed in the cultural context of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia.

      My focus is to explore some “of the inter-cultural problems that have emerged more frequently and openly in Australia in the last two decades,” through this Australasian Comedy. It’s essential to note how the new post colonial diaspora in Australia go through these cultural clashes ‘assimilating’ and confronting as well interesting to observe how Ernest Thalayasingham Macintyre use language as a tool of power.

      Macintyre’s, Let’s Give Them Curry or Dark Dinkum Aussies was a scathing criticism of the Australian multi-cultural social environment, providing a sharp inward look into the dilemmas of a self-nurtured individual from a post-colonial homeland.

      Let’s Give Them curry: An Austral-Asian Comedy, carved for Macintyre a niche as the major theatre-person from Sri Lanka in Australia. Macintyre wrote the play in 1980 after a significant period of theatrical inactivity since he left Sri Lanka in 1972. The play was a remarkable success, staged in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, well received both by the Australian and Asian audience, with critical acclaim from the press, before reaching its pinnacle of glory at Colombo, with the then Sri Lankan President Jayewardene attending the performance in January 17, 1982.

        The irony that lay behind the whole enthusiasm that swept the play was that, it was a simultaneous attack on the Australian, the Sri Lankan and the British, especially on the middle classes in the first two countries.

        Let’s Give Them Curry revolves around the Pereras – Hector, Violet and their 17-year old daughter Ranjini. The three have been in Australia for 11 years, but the aim of the parents has been only to achieve an affluent life. Their cultural roots are still stuck in Sri Lanka, even while Hector nurtures hopes of moving to London.

        Hector is especially contemptuous of the Australian culture, calling the Australians ockers or counterfeit Englishmen. His decision to come to Australia is sordidly colonial: he wants to save enough money to take his family on to a comfortable life in London. In their preoccupation with their own lives, Hector and Violet have given little thought to the pressures experienced by Ranjini. For 11 years, she has been the only member of the family, who has actually had to interact with the Australian community on a daily basis. Her sense of isolation does not bother either her parents or her peers.

        Ranjini leads the two lives common to children of immigrant families, until Thommo befriends her, giving her a genuine entree to the school community. Ironically, Thommo’s friendship deepens the ambivalence of Ranjini’s life. The differences between her quasi-Sri Lankan existence at home and her daily routine as a quasi-Australian at school are now in clear opposition. She feels the intensity of the crisis all the more when she brings Thommo home, to Hector’s exasperation and Violet’s apprehension. Neither of the parents can accept her relationship with Thommo, who is a total stranger to the Sri Lankan way of life.

      Two main features of post-colonial writing that have been widely accepted among critics are the use of language as a tool of power and a concern with ‘home’ and displacement. The concern with place is closely related to a sense of self and identity. A valid sense of self is often dismantled by an experience of dislocation, either by voluntary migration or through forced migration. This is further accentuated by the sense of alienation one experience in the new environment, of an alien culture and language.

       This whole phenomenon of migration (forced or voluntary), and feeling alienated in the context of dislocated culture is historically associated with colonial expansion and, in particular, with the expansion of the British Empire. Hence the concern of post-colonial writing with language, confronting the dominance of the Standard British English.

        Engaging with this Standard British English requires two different strategies according to varying contexts. To quote the words of the authors of The Empire Writes Back (2000):

The crucial function of language as a medium of power demands that post-colonial writing defines itself by seizing the language of the centre and re-placing it in a discourse fully adapted to the colonized place. There are two distinct processes by which it does this. The first, the abrogation or denial of the privilege of ‘English’ involves a rejection of the metropolitan power over the means of communication. The second, the appropriation and reconstitution of the language of the centre, the process of capturing and remoulding the language to new usages, marks a separation from the site of colonial privilege. (37)

      These two processes of abrogation and appropriation are carried out through various tropes of language and other strategies such as glossing, leaving words un-translated that are taken from the local languages, syntactic fusion, code-switching, vernacular transcription, using pidgin or Creole English.

     Hector is the chief player who draws on these two processes in the play, though the play involves the interactions between the four characters, as discussed above. Some of the most insightful comments are made through Hector, and Yasmine Gooneratne, the Sri Lankan critic, is quick to grasp the role of Hector, and comments on yet another larger aspect of the play, with an acute sense of clarity: “By making Hector Perera a “Brown Sahib” of the old school, Macintyre contrives to satirize three societies simultaneously – the British the Sri Lankan and the Australian” (1982). To be more precise, the critique of these three societies through the character of Hector inevitably turns out to be a post-colonial critique of both the homeland and the land of immigration.

    At first, it seems that Hector’s attitude is simply that of a colonial subject, who takes pride in his imperial legacy and enjoys constantly mocking Australians as lacking such a legacy. Colonial splendors, intellectual and political landmarks and even the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny are pitted against the lowly convict inheritance of the Australians, which is a devastating blow to the Australian pride as descendents of the British.

     Hector also strikes out at the nostalgic, heroic image of the bush man and the Australian landscape at one stroke, commenting sarcastically that it is simply bush wherever one turns up in Australia and to compensate their lack of green pastures the Australians have transplanted English trees, euphemistically attacking their lack of an authentic cultural heritage: “Oh yes, Killara. They have transplanted a lot of imported English trees there. Gives a very civilized feeling, to the bush” (19). Even the landscape is not spared: “Not like her, where if you drive this way it’s bush, if you drive that way, its bush, if you drive any way its still bush!” (81). The Australian English, too, is simply snubbed off as Counterfeit English. This obviously is a direct negation of the privilege accorded to the English, in particular here, of the pride of the Australian, in other words, the process of abrogation.

     The other process – appropriation – Macintyre achieves through a subtle move, by inverting the very meaning of the Empire, not only in terms of British self-conception, but also the general conception, of what constitutes an Empire. The crucial passage occurs during one of Hector’s regular tirades against the Australian culture:

On the 12th of December 1911 when George the Fifth came for his coronation as Emperor of India to old Delhi, and the tables were turned on him. George came, George saw and George got all fucked up by the sheer splendour of the Moghal civilization. That was the day when a magnificent Empire was born, with old Delhi as its centre and Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster Abbey as far flung appendages. (69)

     The claim that old Delhi is the centre, and the real metropolitan centre with its far-flung British appendages is not far fledged, considering the simple fact that the British literally became an empire only with the annexation of the Indian sub-continent. This counter-intuitive perception, through a subtle word play, is a daring subversion of the British Empire’s self-perception.

      This subversion of power relations between the colonizer and the colonized, within the specific context of Australia, occurs again when Hector vehemently declares the Australians to be, “Fifteen million white squatters isolated precariously under the massive swaying, creaking historic chandelier of Asia” (70-71), negating offhand, by simply pronouncing them squatters, illegal occupants of the land. Macintyre, through the words of Hector, at once points to the fact that the present generation of white Australians are the descendents of the colonizers i.e. of the British, reminding us at the same time that, by their very geographical proximity to the large mass of Asia, its swarming population and rich culture, it is just a matter of time that the descendents of the white colonizers could well be colonized by the Asians.

      But the more radical subversion lay in the dismissive statement, “George got all fucked up” (69). The use of this four-letter word has a greater significance with respect to the Australian context, than being merely derogatory; it involves an influential moment in the history of the Australian theatre.

     One may be reminded of the play Norm and Ahmed, by Alex Buzo which was premiered in 1968. The performance included the four-letter word, and as a result, several members of its cast were arrested, and a furore ensued from all quarters that eventually eased the Australian censorship rules. But more relevant to our discussion here, is the observation made by Ismail S.Talib:

With regard to Norm and Ahmed, the Australian theatre scholars Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins (1996) have no doubt about the f-word in the play as an emblem of anti-colonialism (or the powerful expression of postcolonial anti-British sentiments). Linguistically, they view its use in the play as a potent indication of its wider usage in Australian English vis-a-vis what is regarded as ‘standard’ British English. (37)

     This observation brings out clearly the double subversion that Macintyre aims at through language. First, it is post-colonial, as it is stated in the case of the Australian usage of the word against the British. And once more, it is acutely subversive in turning this usage both against the British – using the word against the King himself – and when Macintyre charges the Australians themselves for using the word excessively, indicting them as “vocabulary starved Ockers” (7). This is a classic instance of performing the two processes of abrogation and appropriation at the level of linguistic usage. That is, Macintyre first uses the word ‘fuck’ by appropriating its normal usage and turning it against the King himself. Next he castigates the Australians, who claim to be the direct descendents of the British for excessively using the word, thus performing the act of abrogation.

      Macintyre free-wheels with such play of language throughout the play, incessantly subverting the relationship of domination and subordination, criticizing the Australian culture’s inability to understand its Asian “Others”, despite its proclamation of an open multi-cultural society. The most sarcastic moment occurs when Hector ridicules Thommo, for not being able to pronounce his daughter Ranjini’s name properly. Thommo stutters her name as “Wrangeeni” and it seems that his shorthand for her to be “Geeni”, which conjures “Genie”. The criticism levelled with satire and wit at its full swing is that, the colonial mindset not only decapitates its “Other”, but for it, the “Other” is always a phantom, a Genie, even if it is a lover:

Thommo:    I wish I could say your name the way your dad says it.

Violet:         Why, what do you call her?

Thommo:    Geeni.

Hector:        There you are! You see if Australian society accepts migration from abroad, they should accept each individual fully, not in some decapitated form. I have an Indian doctor friend of mine, Dr Venkataraghavan, and he’s been forced to cut it down to Dr Ven-cat. Ven-cat, like some sort of Veterinary Surgeon’s advertising gimmick – Dr Ven-cat!

Ranjini:       I’m happy with Geeni, and that’s what matters.

Hector:        You’re too young to know what matters in the long run. See, It’s very easy. Just say Ranjini.

Thommo:    Wrangeeni.

Hector:        No. No. Wran is the premier of New South Wales. Not, Wran. See, in cricket you score a “Run”, then you go to the pavillion and have a “gin”. See, Run-gin-i.

Thommo:    Run-gin-i.

(Clapping all round.)

Hector:        There you are! If you can say those aboriginal names Puckapunyal and Murrumbidgee, why can’t you say Ranjini! (19-20)

     Ranjini's sense of Australia is not the official “multi-cultural” Australia, and she is not the one who could be assimilated. She will be an Australian with an acute sensitivity to her post-colonial subjectivity. This subjectivity Macintyre broaches as an explanation for the title of the play, in his programme notes:1

“Dark Dinkum Aussies” which is the original and permanent title of this play is a twist of the well known Australian expression “Fair Dinkum”…. though it may not be possible to say precisely what “Fair Dinkum” means in the Australian language one can be quite positive as to what it does not mean. ‘Fair’ in this usage does not mean ‘White’. But when one is playing with words, what things do not mean is of the least importance. The first occasion on which I saw the dramatic possibility of investing the term ‘Fair Dinkum’ with another meaning (white) was during a minor storm in Australia some years ago, about a national anthem – whether it should be “Waltzing Matilda”, “God Save The Queen”, or “Advance Australia Fair”. At that time I joked with an aboriginal Australian friend that he must surely take objection to ‘Advance Australia Fair’. We laughed and downed another drink. With that twist to the harmless Aussie expression “Fair Dinkum” it was easy to call the Sri Lankans and other ‘Kalla’ Asians who had made Australia their home, ‘DARK DINKUM AUSSIES’.

(1        Note by Macintyre, in the Invitation Brochure for the performance of the play Let’s Give Them Curry, in Colombo, 1982.)

       It becomes obvious from the above explanation that Macintyre not only proposes the ‘dark dinkum Aussie’ as a new kind of subjectivity as in the words of Ranjini, but also levels it as an indictment on the subtle kind of racist attitude still prevalent among the white Australians. Macintyre explains the meaning of this expression within the play in a conversation between Hector and Thommo. The ‘fair’ in the expression ‘fair dinkum Aussie’ was originally meant to denote the ‘just’ attitude of the Australians. Macintyre deliberately infuses the expression with the connotation of colour, thereby using it to bring to surface the problem of race, to ground the subtle kind of discrimination suffered by the non-white immigrants who are the ‘dark dinkum’. He makes this twist in meaning within the play at another instance, in a conversation, When Hector invites Thommo for a drink, he is surprised to find him a non-drinker:

            Hector:        Not into alcohol? Well, that’s unusual for a fair dinkum Aussie.

Thommo:    Fair dinkum Aussie. (amused)

Hector:        Yes, I have a joke about that. Very first day in Australia, walking along the road, this old fellow, pissed like a pariah, swaggers towards me at Bondi Junction and swears, “Bloody wogs! I’m fair dinkum Aussie, mate!” I let him have it – “I’m dark dinkum Aussie, mate! … so what?” I don’t think he caught it. He swore something else and staggered off…. anyway, what can I get the non-drinking Aussie? (18)

          My thrust is on the subversion of power relations between the colonizer and the colonized, within the specific context of Australia and I hope I have given few insights through this play Let’s Give Them Curry or Dark Dinkum Aussies.

          I would like to end with an important observation by Stuart Hall.  He opines, in his “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.”(438)

... diaspora does not refer us to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people in to the sea. This is the old, the imperialising, the hegemonising, form of ‘ethnicity’…. The diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.

          Thus Hector epitomizes Identity and Ranjini – Hybridity.



Primary Source

Macintyre, Ernest.  Let’s Give Them Curry (or) Dark Dinkum Aussies.  Melbourne:           Heinemann Educational Australia, 1981.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen.  The Empire Writers Back.            New York:          Routledge, 2002.

Gooneratne, Yasmine.  Celebrating Sri Lankan Women’s English Writing: 1948-2000.

Vol.2. Colombo: Women’s Education & Research Centre, 2002.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth          Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin.  New York: Routledge, 2006. 435-438.

Talib, S.Ismail.  The Language of Postcolonial Literatures: An Introduction.      London: Routledge, 2002.