Melbourne, a note

The moment I disembarked from the plane, I knew this was going to be an experience I’d never have imagined. As I walked into the chilly Melbourne streets shrouded by patches of dark and light clouds, melding into one, meandering through the skies, I fell in love. 

It wasn’t the first time that I’d taken such a string liking to a city. Melbourne is home to millions of heart beats, yet it thrives with a unique pulse that matches none other’s. Every iconic city is iconic for a reason, and I was about to discover Melbourne’s.

Sure enough, when I left my hotel ten minutes after checking in, it was still mid afternoon on a Saturday, and the central business district (or CBD) bustled with wanderers—tourists and locals alike—coffee or iced tea in hand, exploring the various nooks and crannies of the painted city. The first noticeable thing about Melbourne is the immensity of people. Though not as dense as Chennai, where I lived for six years, it’s still a haven for lots of shuffling bodies.

Stumbling into people from all over the world, I followed the directions on my map to an alleyway. Melbourne is the only place where alleyways are so versatile that they’re tourist attractions, shelters for the homeless, getaways for smokers, canvases for artists overflowing with talent—all in one.

One side of the city boasts vintage Victorian architecture, every brick instilled within screaming grandeur, while on the other side are rows upon rows of these oiled up walls carved with emotions, philosophy, and outcomes of deep-rooted fear of (and for) society. It was as if the artists of the city exclaimed, “Look, wall!” and went crazy all over it.

Nodding to a tune in my head and smiling at the tens of unrecognisable languages that floated through the air into my ear, I realised Melbourne is far more multicultural than any other city I’ve been to. And I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Although, in many aspects, Melbourne resembled New York to me. The city’s weirdness reminded me of the vagueness and unpredictability that hung around me in NYC.

My gut feeling only solidified as the day wore off and darkness blanketed over the neighbourhood. All of a sudden, musicians popped up in street corners, strumming their creativity through empty glass bottles, metal serving plates, and brass cymbals.

Unsurprisingly, onlookers gathered, dropping jaws, filming videos, cheering on, laughing and dancing to the tunes. It was a carnival on the street, where everyone forgot their problems—overdue bills, medical appointments, insurance claims, tax returns—for a few minutes and surrendered themselves to the moment.

It was past 10 pm—bright, noisy, teeming with life. Wonderful.

The next day when I stepped out of my hotel, a pop-up coffee vendor greeted me with a wide smile and a “Hiya, mate!” I didn’t think—my mouth split wide in joy and I reciprocated with all the enthusiasm I could muster. His hello kept the spring in my step throughout the day and I felt myself bouncing on my toes as I walked down street after street, marvelling one moment at the brilliant architecture and then at the lack of creativity in naming roads—Little Burke Street came after Burke Street. Then came Collins and Little Collins—I felt amused, but also thankful for it was easy to remember.

While the CBD sported such names, a little further away, outside of the heart of all the bustle, weirder and quirkier names popped out at me. Hosier Lane was home to some of the greatest graffiti I’ve seen. Literature Lane, appropriately named, was rather glum and ignored. Chopper Lane sported a dog that watched a fish swim away, and AC/DC Lane celebrated the height of rock music that once moved the world. Colours bright and dark mapped faces, caricatures, buildings, and stories, narratives that’ve survived years of camera flashes, oohs, and ahhs, and pointing of fingers.

Melbourne turned out to be so much more than I imagined. It was bright and airy and cheery, but also dark, dreary, and gothic. I loved every bit of it.

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Silent observer

Street artist

I couldn’t take my eyes off him
his long and slender back was tilted
supported by the knees slightly bent
jawbones showing, brows narrowing
he stood looking at the girl in front
who didn’t care, glanced elsewhere
unwavering he glared, his round pupils
measuring her tiny frame, flashy hair
unmoving he observed, taking in
her being and her every movement
his soul concentrated at his object
betraying not an emotion in his face
shifting only his wrists, the master
outlined her outline, his spine still
for hours he watched her, and I him
filling up my heart with so much joy
and his canvas with all that grace
I missed the sunset over my head
but he saw colour fade from the girl
and moved with alarming swiftness
he clapped. Packed. And strode off
ciao, street painter. Until tomorrow.


Photo credit: Dennis Schrader on Unsplash
Cartoon on display at the Old Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

Nations of the world

Seeking unity

to show off a common goal

while divided still


Photo: An artwork by Costa A on display at the Old Parliament House in Canberra, Australia.

Parliament day

Australian politics and history have evaded us for a long time. I realised this as I walked past portrait after portrait of the Australian prime ministers. Most of Canberra’s suburbs have names of these Prime Ministers, but aside from that I hadn’t heard of even one of them before. What a shame. Though I grew up in Asia, I knew leaders of Britain, the US, and Canada from an early age—they were always in our history books or the ugly political discussions at awkward family dinners.

Wondering about the weirdness of it all, I wandered the old parliament house in Canberra.

Although it was built as a temporary parliament in the 1920s, the provisional parliament building ended up serving as the actual parliament for over fifty years. Today, though, it’s a storehouse of exhibitions and historical monuments.

Apart from the primary attractions like the House of Representatives Chamber, the Senate Chamber, the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet, and the Opposition Party Room, the parliament building is also home to plenty of smaller, yet significant exhibitions.

  • Prime Minister's staff offices
  • Prime Minister's office
  • Cabinet
  • Vintage computer - office of the parliament speaker

When I walked in, I had no idea what to expect. Equipped with a though floor plan of the entire building, I wandered through the corridors looking into each exhibition.

Finders keepers
My first stop, this exhibition showcases the different types of collectables famous Australian figures collected—like the telephone collection of a former telecommunications officer, the tie collection of a former minister, the t-shirts and badges owned by a social activist, and the porcelain collection of a parliamentarian. Each of these collections ties into the larger story that museums themselves are collectors.

Neil Baker's telephone collection
From Neil Baker’s telephone collection

OnetoEight
Moving along, I paused at a large room dedicated to remembering the Prime Ministers of Australia. Apart from photographs and descriptions of their work, you can also hear recorded versions of some speeches they delivered throughout their reign.

Wives of the Prime Ministers
Inspiring and eye-opening, though they were, more striking was the portrait exhibition of the wives of prime ministers. A surprise, it was—although every museum I’ve been to celebrates public leaders and their achievements, none of them mentions the families that supported the great menfolk of our time. This exhibition, albeit small, casts a vital spotlight on the womenfolk of the nation.

Whenever I visit historical sites, I don’t set time limits to myself. I don’t like rushing through exhibits to move on to the next attraction on my list. That’s such a touristy thing to do. Instead, I take my time to explore, read inscriptions, watch the videos, and linger. As a result, I spent $2 (entrance fee) and over 4 hours inside the parliament building.

I have no regrets, though. If I hadn’t stayed on, I would’ve missed the witty and thought-provoking political cartoons on display. Couriser and couriouser, huh?

I would’ve missed the #UDHRquilt project. UDHR stands for Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this project was the work of craftivists (craft+activist), Tal Fitzpatrick and Stephanie Dunlap. They made four quilts, embroidered with the articles mentioned in UDHR. I’m no activist. I have mixed feelings about how human rights are so subjective at times. But I still enjoy a good piece of art.

Oh, and I would’ve missed the crown jewels. Not the real ones, though, of course. When Queen Victoria visited Australia, they made a separate area in the parliament to accommodate the Queen and her party. And as I stepped into her living space, I couldn’t believe how simple everything was. The dining table was just a basic wooden structure, the bathrooms, the kitchens, the sitting area, though impeccable, were more functional than fancy. It reflected that the royalty and the highest members of the government were still so human, so vain.

Replica of the Crown Jewels
Replica of the Crown Jewels

Had I left any sooner, I’d have missed the most exciting exhibit of them all—the Press Gallery. It’s hard to fathom that the small, even stuffy, rooms above the house of representatives were the life of the government. Everything that the world knew and heard of about the rule makers came from the press—every printed phrase and every uttered word makes a world of difference. And as I stood where so many print and radio journalists had stood in the past, I felt proud to appreciate the power of the written word and its influence in the world.

Writing on the wall - Press Gallery
Writing on the wall – Press Gallery

Other highlights in the museum:

  • Prime Ministers’ office
  • Opposition party room
  • Opposition party whip’s room and the television that let him observe the proceedings at the house of representatives without being there
  • Dress Code of the Empire: A look at Edmund Barton’s (first prime minister of Australia) costume
  • Copies of the Australian Constitution, Declaration of Independence signed by the Queen, Australia Act, and its modifications
  • Various signs and slogans of Australian politicians – then and now
  • A brief history of democracy in Australia

In the end, it was like any other trip to the museum—so satisfying, so full of lessons, and so overwhelming. And still so worthwhile. By the time I left, I didn’t have time to go elsewhere because most of the museums and historical sites in Canberra close at 5 pm. Remember that when you visit—and do visit.

I protest

Nowadays, it’s ever so common to see crowds gathering in front of government houses, with upheld banners and raised voices, protesting. It doesn’t matter what for—policies, opinions, misspoken words, misspellings on social media—why, some people even oppose the existence of other people. Regardless of the “why” of these protests, almost every rally I’ve seen and heard of has a similar streak: violence. In its core, whenever anyone disagrees or rebels, they use harsh and violent behaviour to make themselves seen and heard.

Of course, in recent years, silent, un-violent, and fasting protests are becoming more desirable. But even today, all the marches and show of disagreement contain angry outbursts, name-calling, and plain spite. What’s sad, though, is that just as a self-fulfilling prophecy, these violent protests get more attention than the others. Even though our generation understands and even professes the effectiveness of the pen over the sword, the influence of weapons in conflicting opinions is far too significant to ignore.

That’s why it feels amazing to come across a different form of protest. Both in movies and real life, we’ve seen governments cutting off funds to public welfare systems like health care programmes, transport services, and university courses. Each time it happens, the government—factual or fictional—faces large mobs of angry citizens, swearing through megaphones and wasting fuel on stick figures and flags.

But then I saw this:

Canberra Museum and Gallery - 1

It’s a necklace. It’s also a sign of protest. When the state government of Canberra (Australian Capital Territory) cut off funds to the National Institute of Arts, teachers and Canberra sponsors together presented this necklace to the Chief Minister at the time, Kate Carnell, as a sign of their protest. What’s unique about it though is that each metal link in the necklace has a tag with the name of a sponsor. So each piece resembles a protestor, and together it makes a neckband for the chief minister of the then ACT.

No hate speech, no blood, an no fasting to death. What a daring rebellion! And what a beautiful necklace it is too—when you take away the historical value, that is one marvellous piece of accessory, won’t you say?

Canberra Museum and Gallery - 2

It made me stop and think about how much has changed in the way we fight for our convictions. Of course, we should stand up for what we believe in, but when our fight costs innocent people their peace, patience, or worse, life, then what good does our conviction do?

The necklace is on display at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. If you’re in the area, stop by and pay a visit—it sure is worth looking at.