Katikaram: Counting the times of colonisation and COVID  


In the dark of a Melbourne winter evening

I am driving home from work

It’s rush hour without the rush

The roads are bare of lights and cars

Driving through suburban streets, I see tall, bare trees

Without their leaves the trees are bereft of colour or warmth

Stripped of any feeling of life or connection


The naked trees are like society under lockdown

Everything feels dark under a blanket of clouds

Natural life has fallen and withered like the leaves on the ground

Everything feels numb

The COVID mind is numb and cold and mirrors

The feeling of waking to a dark sky full of clouds

It is a deeper mirror of this society that no one wants to look at



Tracking between my car and house

Scuffing through the flotsam of dry leaves withering on the ground

I kick against an old wristwatch

The type that I only see on old men with walking sticks who still huddle near the shops, queuing outside the bank with no masks, smoking outside the cafes where they used to sit

The watch face is broken, but I try winding it, just to hear the sound I remember


The tick-tick-tick reminds me of my childhood

In my country two types of people wore that kind of watch

Gleaming metallic wristbands reflecting the white gleam of business shirts and saarams[i]

If they were wealthy landowners in the country

While in the city, the wristwatch matched the belt-buckled trousers and cufflinks of government administrators or ‘educated’ people

The watch designated their power


My grandfather wore that kind of watch

I used to love it when he showed it to me

And I could just hear

the tick-tick-tick-katikaram-tick-tick-tick

Katikaram means clockwork in my language

Reminding me of the mechanism driving time



One night when I couldn’t sleep

I tried to relax by counting my breaths and then

I started thinking about wristwatches

And the lives of our communities

Still governed by the logic of clockwork



I was created by colonialism and the system that invaded two countries

It merged them into a single colony and turned many people into slaves

Slaves, peasants, Dalits who worked for this system did not wear watches or know of any time beyond their next meal

This Empire also created a middle class of colonised people who wore wristwatches to show the time they believed in and how close they were to the Imperial centres of power

Each year, my country celebrates independence but it is still a colony, with laws, ideas and time created by the Empire

It calls itself one country, ignoring that it had two kings and still has two languages

The countries called ‘third world’ are still shackled by colonisation

The buildings that once flew the flags of European states now bear the signage of multinational corporations or large NGOs

They claim these places as their own

Colonial law is called common law

Some people live for a long time, others have short lives

When I saw that this system wanted to end my time, I fled

This is how this colonial system created me as a refugee


I was in a detention centre for six and a half years

Apparently because I am a dark-skinned refugee

Or maybe it was because I arrived on a boat and not a plane

But that is not the real reason

My life in detention was the basis for a business model

My lost time was a commodity

For each day I was in detention the Australian government gave $655 to a multinational security company[ii]

The company spent less than $100 per day to cover the housing, food and medical expenses of keeping me in detention; including the wages of the officers locking the fences

My lost time earned them a lot of money

My six and a half years in detention gave $1.3 million dollars to their shareholders



I think deeply about my time in detention, and the system of stealing time

When you open up a clock you will see one big wheel and a cascade of smaller wheels surrounding a tightly wound coil of metal

That coil, the main spring, is very strong and is constantly under pressure

It can never fully release its tension or the whole clockwork collapses

It needs to be rewound on a regular basis to keep its tension

In Australia media stories and politicians do this work


Refugees are the mainspring of the whole detention economy

Even outside of detention we are still restrained by temporary visas

Never free to release or show our true feelings for fear of being locked up for ‘bad character’

We remain like the mainspring; tightly coiled

If we were ever truly released from this tension we would no longer exist

The detention system creates us as people who are always bound by fear

We cannot know any time beyond the expiry date of our visa


After six and a half years I left the detention centre with a three-month temporary visa

I became a small cog wheel turning next to the mainspring

I thought that now I could start my life again, free

But the mainspring remains coiled and is still pushing me

After keeping me locked up for so long

I wondered why the government only gave me a short-term visa

Then I realised it was to crush my hope

With my temporary visa I can only get short-term casual work

Usually as a manual labourer in a warehouse or factory

I want to move forward, but I am spinning in a small circuit between work and home

The crick of my joints tick-tick-ticking in the endless repetitive labour that is my life


Five years on temporary visas keeps me running

Keeps me scared for my life, terrified of the future, too scared to look past the daily workload, the weekly paycheck, the cans of energy drink during meal breaks

I am registered with an agency that manages my short-term contracts with the warehouses where I work, in exchange for 12% of my pay

Running frantically, sweating out my fear in adrenaline-fuelled work

I am trapped next to the mainspring

I cannot separate the clockwork of my job from the clockwork of my bridging visa



Now in these empty, rush-hour streets I drive to my current workplace

This system is designed to make us scared of losing our jobs

Every week new people start on the floor and other people leave

Because of COVID, all workers with PR (permanent residency) or permanent jobs, have been stood down or told to take leave

There are no union members here

Most of the workers who remain are refugees or international students

We have been split into two 12-hour shifts

After driving home from work I collapse into bed

My body throbs with pain

I can manage this pain

But I can never manage the fear of losing my job

If I lose the job

What do I do?

I can’t get government support on a temporary visa

A red cross food package won’t pay for my car expenses


I work with another man from my country

Each shift we are expected to unload six entire shipping containers full of boxes

Writing on the outside of the container says they are 40 feet and carrying 35 tonnes

Each hour I lift thousands of boxes weighing between 16 and 23 kilos onto a conveyer belt

Each hour the employment agency earns $3.70 and I earn $26.30

After unloading fifteen containers each week, I receive $802 before tax

Each week $100 of my earnings goes to the government, which pays private companies to lock up hundreds of my refugee brothers

Friends with PR tell me about contractors who earn $500 to unload one container.

In the first week, we watched a safety video telling us not to lift more than 15 kilograms without assistance

But in the warehouse things are different

Our supervisor tells us to work harder and faster

He boasts about the pair of workers who emptied seven containers in a single shift

When stage 4 lockdown started, he suggested that workers could camp in the warehouse between shifts



I breathe deeply, thinking of clockwork

Thinking of how we are pushed to work more, more, more, or lose our jobs

Management, the central wheel, being pushed by the slow movements of our team leaders

The middle wheels are always pushing us; telling us we need to work harder.

And the next day they return and push us to do even more work.

When we work harder, they get a bonus

But we never get a pay increase

Their bonus comes from our sweat, pain and fear


We spin faster, scared of losing our jobs

We can’t get any government support or benefits

and have no hope of gaining a permanent visa

In such conditions I have no idea how to build my life or plan for the future

I am in pain but I don’t want to show it

I don’t want to lose my job

I don’t want to damage my body so I can’t work anywhere

I can’t sleep by the roadside or beg or I will be sent back to detention

So I need to do more, more hard work

Keep ticking and spinning and sweating and proving myself

And thinking of each day’s target, the next meal, the next night’s sleep, the next repairs on my car, the interest on my loan, next month’s rent…



This is how we lose time and lose our lives

Refugees are not the only people trapped in this clockwork

Many international students are from Asian countries

They live in the same outer suburbs as we do

They work alongside us, logging into online classes from their phones, while they work

Migrants from the former British colonies share the slave-like exploitation of our ancestors

Without a permanent visa none of us can ask for any rights or assistance

Working hard, sweating and aching as we struggle for the next meal, hoping our visa is renewed or extended for another few months or years

We are the parts driving an expanding clockwork of agencies, managers, bureaucrats, NGOs, lawyers, and investors


As the shutdowns continue, we continue to find work where we can, working harder and faster under our masks, hoping we don’t get sick, wondering when we will see our families

We only know this time of running and whirling and wondering where it will end

I know that leaves will return to the trees, that blossoms and sun will return

One day they might even find a vaccine for COVID

But I will never forget the grey naked truth of this society.



[i] Saaram/chaaram is a Tamil word for a sarong worn by men.

[ii] This is an estimate of the costs of onshore detention while Sriharan was incarcerated.  This estimate comes from https://idcoalition.org/publication/there-are-alternatives-revised-edition/, © International Detention Coalition, 2015, there are alternatives: A handbook for preventing unnecessary immigration detention, Table 1, p11. Derived from estimate of the annual cost of detaining an asylum seeker in Australia was $239,000 in 2013-14: by Australian National Commission of Audit, The Report of the National Commission of Audit (Canberra: NCOA, 2014) 10.14, <http://www.ncoa.gov.au/report/ appendix-vol-2/10-14-illegal-maritime-arrivalcosts.html>. According to John Kaldor centre at UNSW and the Refugee Council of Australia these costs in 2018–2019 were more than $346,000 per annum or $948.00 per day. < https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/cost-australias-asylum-policy>.

Written by GK Shiva

Edited by Margaret Mejhju

Author: GK Shiva

GK Shiva was a film photographer and journalist in Sri Lanka before fleeing the war. GK arrived in Australia by boat and spent six years in detention before his release in 2015. His writing has been published in Overland, Peril (as G), Writing Through Fences, the Key of Sea Journal and Writing From Below. He has produced recordings of his poetry in Tamil, which have been broadcast in France and has participated in the BriefCase exhibition at The Immigration Museum and The Whirling at NGV Triennial. He is working on his volume of poetry and stories called 'I See The Moon and The Moon Sees Me'.

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