Byline By M.J. Akbar : A New Zealand Diary
Auckland takes its beauty for granted. A wondrous four-hue rainbow borrowed from a fairy tale rose gently from a small flurry of white clouds to the left, vaulted high towards the forehead of the sky and dipped with ever increasing power into the horizon, its colours pouring into the pot of gold resting below eyesight. If, as New Zealanders are fond of saying, this glorious island is the last stop of the bus, then the pot of gold is, as promised, at the end of a world flattened by globalisation. How many metaphors are mixed in that last sentence? Let someone with a flat mind count. Our car turns a corner to change the street. The clouds darken, only to be brilliantly lit by the fluorescent light of the tail of my rainbow. I feel possessive because no one else seems interested: not the children chatting on their way to school, not the cars hurrying off to work, not my fellow passengers in the car, who are discussing journalism, civilisation and journalism. (How many contradictions have I juxtaposed by placing those three words beside one another?) Our destination is the Hoani Waititi Marae, where the class of 2007 from the Auckland University of Technology media department has been brought to commune with the wisdom and spirit of the Maori people. My rainbow has preceded me, now dressed in the finery fit for an admirer from across the seven seas. It is perfect, adorned with a fourth purple layer, an imperial band that seals its majestic dominance of the firmament as it vaults with a motionless grace from precisely above the centre of the roof of the Marae to the edge of vision.
The Marae is an open hall with a sloping roof and the simplicity and quiet humanity of a mosque, the feeling reinforced by the need to remove one’s shoes. A mosque is not the home of God, for God lives everywhere; it is the house of a community that comes to mingle and kneel in prayer before it disperses to a hundred homes. We cannot enter without the permission granted through a ritual prayer to nature, spirits, ancestors and the One who has given us the sensitivity to enjoy the wonders of life and the sense to survive its burdens. But once inside the space, you belong here forever. There is never a need for a second welcome. Outside on the lawns perfumed by the environment a gentle rain floats like overweight mist, reminding me of school, Shakespeare and Portia describing the quality of mercy to a businessman with a balance sheet in one hand and the law books in the other. The star of the morning is the leader of the newly-formed Maori Party, which has seven seats in Parliament. His patter is a hit because, I suspect, he never repeats an audience. He only repeats the jokes. But he is funny. The Maori, like any minority with a powerful past and an injured present, display the chips on their shoulder like a general showing off his epaulettes. But one of the great achievements of the present New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, is the conviction with which she is making her nation an inclusive, ethnic-equal society. There is still ideology left, even if you have to go to the end of the world to find it.
A fact and a factor made me feel uncomfortable during my first hours in the country. The fact was the weather. A grey, monotonous drizzle made me nostalgic for Indian sunshine. I knew that New Zealand had been recreated as a modern nation by British settlers, but did they have to bring British weather with them? What is the point of travelling across twelve time zones only to resettle under Scottish rain? The factor was a man in the hotel. If the weather was wet, the receptionist at Langham Hotel was cold. He brusquely informed me that I would have to wait three hours before I could get a room. That is absolutely the last thing my stomach wants to hear after a very long overnight flight. I tried weaselling. He stopped a decimal point short of being rude and ordered me off. I slunk off defeated. I would have accepted defeat but the very pleasant lady behind me in queue, a bureaucrat from Oslo, was given a room without any fuss at all.
Was this race or gender bias?
I am pleased to report that by the evening both the weather and my mood had cleared. The rest of the staff of this splendid hotel have been as pleasant and friendly as all New Zealanders. The rough edges of political manipulation have been left behind on Australian beaches. Helen Clark has not been defeated for nearly eight years but has begun to seem vulnerable, at least if the opinion polls in New Zealand are more accurate than the opinion polls in India. When defeat comes, as it must in any democracy, I suspect that she will have changed the political culture so much that a politician like Australia’s neo-virulent John Howard could never get elected in her stead.
I write this in a Turkish kebab and Coke shop on Queen’s Street. The top of the street is dominated by Koreans and Japanese, the Northeasterners of Asia, as they are known here. Two young Korean men in blonde hair, knee-waist jeans and fancy-label plain white T-shirts calmly light up a weed that is not tobacco. The streets drift towards Friday-afternoon crowds, the familiar cluster of brand-name shops and small stores and restaurants that confirm the charms of variety. The sun is out, warming the fluctuating temperature of an autumn breeze. The foyer of the hotel looks cheerful. I have not seen that frigid receptionist for two days. I hope they’ve sacked him, but I fear he may merely be on leave.
Maoris dance with their fingers, which flutter as rapidly as the wings of a small bird. Women sway to the music and song of lilt and emotion, plaintive or happy, as if time moved outside the pace of life. Men suddenly jump out of this serenity. Their voice becomes guttural, and they thump their fleshy breasts as the rhythm switches into battle mode. A leader pumps men and music into battle mode. But anger is exhausting. Almost imperceptibly, the women return to the forefront, and one is drawn, reassured, to that mesmerising peace of the fluttering hands below the hip.
We are in Auckland for a conference on an Alliance of Civilisations, one of the worthy causes that the United Nations periodically takes up to keep the righteous engaged. Be that as it may, surely a prerequisite for such a gathering is that the host must be civilised. Both New Zealand and her Prime Minister score top marks. They are neither coy nor cloying; the friendliness is just right. Helen Clark also understands that alliance, like charity, begins at home. She starts her speeches in fluent Maori. Dr Allan Bell of the Auckland University of Technology, a reincarnation of Professor Henry Higgins, has been recording New Zealand’s dialects for three decades. He has published evidence that his country may remain loyal to the Queen of England but is finally becoming independent of the Queen’s English. Radio and television broadcasters, who do so much to shape accents, once used to follow the BBC template. That was the definition of respectable standards. Now, New Zealand rules. Maori words like ‘iwi’, ‘mana’ and ‘whanau’ have attained currency and it’s no longer ‘fish and chips’ but ‘fush and chups’. ‘Bed’ is out and ‘bid’ is in. English was global long before globalisation. It flourishes because it is being nationalised everywhere. There are no discontents in its content.