This piece was written for Milk Crates Zine and written in response to this event.
And I am at the supermarket. And I am reeling from a small disappointment in love and my phone beeps and Louis is like, ‘Remember that bar that we used to go to? The one that did ten dollar jugs? We should go there tonight,’ and I know that he knows that I need to get out of the house and I know this too and then something coalesces in me and I’m now looking at an avocado—two for five dollars—and I’m thinking, A man was set on fire in Moorooka last Friday. I look to my left shoulder, where I know these thoughts come from, and think, ‘What world? This world?’
And then Louis is like, ‘Hey, Khalid, you there?’ and he says something else and I reply and I’ve already put the avocado down and I’m walking through the produce section thinking of what I’ll make for dinner and then I look down at my unburnt skin and I think: A man was set on fire in Moorooka last Friday.
And then a day passes and its now Monday and I have to take the bus and I do and I walk two hundred meters up the road and I see it for the first time: flowers, and flowers, and flowers, and flowers ... I stop for a few moments before the makeshift memorial. I try to find a way to wrestle this into a thought, but no thoughts come to mind, only the after-effects of thoughts.
And two weeks later I am in Wellington and I’m at a poetry reading and I’m amazed at this young poet who, like all great poets, looks exactly like her poems, and her poems are about young love and old songs and then I think: Manmeet Alisher was young as well, and that he was a great singer, and that he probably wrote poetry too, and that he was by all accounts a good man, and that he was just doing his job, and then I’m kneecapped by the thought: ‘What world? This world?’
And a day later Hera Lindsay Bird gets up on stage and delivers a poem that makes me forget, for a moment, that air is supposed to enter your lungs and oxygenate your blood, and that Donald Trump exists on this earth, and that bricks are made from sand and clay, and that Manmeet Alisher was only 29, and that the man who set him on fire chose to do it, and that so much in the world seems external to the will in retrospect. And then she pauses and says, ‘I saw on the telly that a man was set on fire in Australia and I don’t think these sorts of things should happen,’ and I don’t know if it’s her who is saying this or me—
And then that night while the earth is shaking, I think about this world and how, lately, it all seems so untethered from any notion of goodness, and that I have the freedom to choose to put on my pants and duck under a table and stay very still while the building trembles, but I stay in bed and watch the kettle fly across the room instead. I think of Manmeet Alisher, who didn’t have a choice, and the people who loved him, who didn’t have a choice, and the man who set him on fire, who did have a choice, and I think it so odd that the only one with a choice here was this man who did a terrible thing, and I think, ‘What world? This world?’
And the next day, I am walking through the eerily empty streets of Wellington, and I step over some bricks that used to be part of a building but are now just some clumps of sand and clay, and the earth yawns the buildings shake like boughs in the wind and glass shatters in the distance and then the earth takes a ragged breath and becomes still once more. And I now know enough about geology to know that this is called an aftershock, and that it’s normal and natural and that it’s something that happens after an earthquake. And I know that these after-images of calamities can sometimes cause more damage than the original calamity, and that the effects will sometimes be felt in the earth for years, and that terrible events are like stubborn stains that linger too long, but that the intensity of these aftershocks will gradually diminish in frequency and power over time, and that people take more time to forget than to rebuild. I know all of these things, but, at the same time, I don’t want to know, not in this moment, while my earth is not yet still and I have no wish for relief—
And then I am back in Brisbane and I have to take the bus and I do and I walk two hundred meters up the road from my house and I see Manmeet’s memorial for the first time in two weeks and I walk to the bus stop and I glance at the flowers, and flowers, and flowers, and I pause and peer closer at the scene and I notice that there seems to be less flowers than before, and some of them are wilted, and that people aren’t lingering at the bus stop in wide, disbelieving silence anymore, and that even the dark stains on the ground have been washed away—
And I want to shout at all these assembled faces that a man died here, and that he was young and that he was loved and that he loved also and that it should not have happened and that it should not have happened and that it should not have ever happened but it did and now there remains only the aftershocks and where, tell me, is the light?