Chris Mooney-Singh: A Motorcade of Generous Grief
Written by Jennifer Anne Champion
Dated 4 Nov 2015
Garbage trucks / And taxi cabs / Don’t seem like they can / Reach me here. — “Guitar,” Cake
Chris Mooney-Singh’s first wife passed away in India in a taxi cab en route to the hospital—a story painfully recounted in the poem “Rites of Passage” and “Two Ghazals After Her Passing” in The Laughing Buddha Cab Company and “Casualty” in The Bearded Chameleon. Under such circumstances one admires the poet’s tenacity in examining and re-examining every inch of the taxicab motif—the masochistic revisiting of this site of trauma. This is particularly true of Buddha in which Mooney-Singh uses multiple vantage points and examinations of cab culture across India and Singapore to explore a wide spectrum of themes.
Pieces like “Rickshaw Wallah” from Buddha examine the intersection between occupation and class. In doing so, the line between personal agency and a social destiny predicated on economic development blurs:
[ . . . ] A peg or two of rum
makes you the crown prince of this mud-cake hovel
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[ . . . ] you were upgraded
to a pulling coolie, then a peddling one;
or you’re an original piston from the steam engine
of the Revolution that changed Ownership,
tinkling your bell through the dusty crossroads.
Mooney-Singh locates in the idiom of the rickshaw wallah one of the many myths of modern life—where we believe that lives are progressive—and renders futile prospects honestly, without pathos or cruel sarcasm. He is measured and sober in his estimation of the doomed driver in the city’s machine—“[y]ou’re doing all you can in this oily age”—but the driver is never empowered, only subsumed as an economic and technological function of an even bigger machine.
The taxi is ferried by the disenfranchised. The taxi also plays ferryman for the dead and grieving. In “Going to the Mountains,” Mooney-Singh writes:
To cry in public would be undignified, despite
the choking diesel fumes of the ring roads
as I am taxied past the public fountains—
bathing places of the poor [ . . . ]
Mooney-Singh is honest in his assessment of class. His descriptions of squalor and wealth are vivid in equal measure but not made without also admitting that he writes from a place of privilege. In “A Dream of Student Riots”:
As our taxi started over the sacred Jumuna River,
boys, dark as cormorants were diving into its grey-green sludge,
and I like a refugee was fleeing towards the promise of the three-month
tourist-visa ashrams [ . . . ]
Mooney-Singh’s unusual position as a committed resident of India, Singapore and Australia marks him as an outsider, but it is nevertheless predicated on a kind of aspirational racism. That Mooney-Singh can identify as white, Sikh, and a journeyman with access to (and easy exit from) different social groups attests not only to the chameleon-like nature of his personhood, but also the inherent fluidity of writers in general. In his poem “The Bearded Chameleon” from his latest collection of the same name, Mooney-Singh writes:
My sun-cracked soles have drawn some sap
from green Punjab, an Aussie chap,
I chew on sugarcane each week
and sport this beard—a convert Sikh.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
a bit like you, chameleon—
a colour-shifting charlatan.
It is worth noting here that Mooney-Singh uses the words “convert” and “charlatan”. Sikhism is not a converting faith, and is usually both a racial and religious marker of identity. Mooney-Singh is hyper-aware and perhaps uneasy of his hybridity to the point that he admits feeling fraudulent, a charlatan within his adopted culture. However when Mooney-Singh uses the chameleon metaphor he is also alluding to adaptability as an evolutionary process and truth. In doing so, he confirms the old adage: fake it till you make it.
In this sense I argue that a common theme in Mooney-Singh’s work is the exploration of the role of artifice in defining identity. We devise to make ourselves distinct from others. We also devise to blend in. In the last section of Buddha, entitled “Views From My Apartment,” Mooney-Singh explores in one long breath of a sequence the spaces where loneliness, longing, and modern architecture convene. The city-dweller owes much of his quality of life to those who are doing the dirty, unsophisticated jobs he or she is not willing to touch. Yet, because of this distancing, the city-dweller objectifies and defines foreign labour. In the seventh part of the sequence, Mooney-Singh writes:
Foreign workers: you cast upward glances
to our bedroom window, yet do you sense
you are also seen? No. The sun’s too bright.
You can’t observe me lying on this bed,
looking down from my intimate nook
of public housing. Are you thinking of what
it would be like, snuggled up with a wife
in an apartment of honey-lit paintings,
o this logged-on island gone glocal?
The Laughing Buddha Cab Company and The Bearded Chameleon, although uneven in tone, are sincere expressions of loss and loss taken, if at all possible, with grace. They mourn not only for personal loss but also absences in status and dignity as a result of modern caste systems. I believe that if there is a through-ling in the work of Mooney-Singh it is this: while grief is itself a violent act of disorientation, it is also an immediate catalyst for a journey in search of bearings, a search which can take both flights of fancy and sober reflection. Mooney-Singh’s persona is easily knocked down by sorrow and reality, never sure of being found again. He is, perhaps, born lost.
Mooney-Singh, Chris. The Bearded Chameleon. Singapore: Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2012.
—. The Laughing Buddha Cab Company. Singapore: Red Wheelbarrow Books, 2008.