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Seeking India Down Under

Childhood beckons: King of the skies

Memories die hard, specially those steeped in betel nut juice, kite-flying afternoons and whistles at Sealdah station. Keith Butler relives it all in far-away Australia

the first fellow Indian I met here in Melbourne, after arriving from Calcutta in 1972, was dead — Fatta Chand’s chalky death mask sitting inside a glass case in a cell of the Old Melbourne Gaol greeted me. He had, in 1891, been convicted of murdering a fellow Indian hawker, Mur Juggo Mull, at Healesville.

What must it have been like to be Indian in 19th-century Australia' I certainly was having problems here in the 20th. In 1972, Melbourne seemed monolithically white. I looked bewildered at fruited curries, orderly queues and short histories! Where were the vindaloos, jostling throngs and ancient monuments' Then there were other cultural shocks — being surrounded by fair people, having an education department assessment officer at Treasury Place hold my Trained Teaching Certificate (West Bengal) up to the light to check for forgeries.

I overcame these and more but as the years rolled by there grew inside me a dead spot — the coin of utter loneliness of an immigrant, that restlessness a wife can’t share, that herd instinct to seek the company of others with frozen insides. I joined the Springvale Noble Park Hockey Club, sat at trestles in a tin clubhouse on a remote field and cracked tinnies with others until dead of night.

Talking of Delhi — playing cricket in the vast grounds of the Emperor Humayun’s tomb, employing the nearest craggy headstone for the wicket, hitting sixes, real and imagined, over the Persian double domes of the mausoleum. Talking about Calcutta — wondrous explorations of 18th century Fort William, slipping onto the firing range to collect spent bullet casings, wandering in the outer dry moats all day searching for mango trees, half-hoping half-terrified that the ditch would be suddenly be flooded, stumbling onto moss-encrusted tunnels with cracked cement and vine-infested interiors. Shaking hands with the past, lighting it. Temporarily. Then to stumble back into this isle of difference.

Time passed. The natives grew friendly —- I married one. Baby Butlers were born. We bought a cream brick veneer ‘spec’ home in Glen Waverley. I mowed the lawns, stained the fence mission brown, painted the family room off-white, and resisted the impulse to highlight the scotia cornices and skirting board vermilion whilst my Australian wife wasn’t looking. I settled down in Butler Mahal to a life of domestic bliss. The external signs of assimilation were all there. I had successfully transplanted, the donor organ was healthy, no visible signs of rejection but underneath there was the dead weight of being.

What was wrong with me' Australia was now cosmopolitan. It was easier to be Indian here than in India — anti-discrimination laws were in place, parts of Dandenong were known as Little India, multicultural ceremonies celebrated the fact that Australian and Indian Republic Day were both on January 26, and Glen Waverley’s McDonalds were selling samosas. It all moved me not.

Then history lent a hand. I happened to come across ground-breaking research by Dr Richard Johnson. Inspired by the eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey’s observation in The Tyranny of Distance that for some years in the 19th century Australia seemed a satellite of India as well as a colony of England, Johnson dug deeper and revealed the brisk trade and settlement between the two countries in that period. I chortled over the 1837 contract of Madhoo, a free labourer from Calcutta working for one John McKay. Madhoo received a monthly salary of five Company Rupees and the following: rice - 14 ‘chittaks’, ‘dhall’ - 2 chtks, ghee and salt - 1/4 chtk, one blanket yearly, two dhotis, one chintz jacket, one lascar’s cup, one wooden bowl, one lota or brass cup for various ablutions, medical attendance and fare back to Calcutta when required.

Elsewhere, descriptions of the colonial encounter sometimes resonated for me like a script for a Down Under version of The Kumars at Number 42 — Edward Braddon, ex-tiger-shooting Premier of Tasmania, Indian; Robert Campbell, father of Australian Commerce, Indian. Architectural influences for the City of Adelaide, Indian. Rum drunk during the infamous Rum rebellion of 1908 in Sydney, Indian. Australian towns Dookie (sorrow), Bundook (gun), Indian.

Whilst the whole Indo-Australian connection intrigued me, the Victorian Heritage listed Habbies Howe homestead in Seymour was particularly attractive. It was rumoured to be designed along the lines of an Indian bungalow, and it made extensive use of verandahs. I had many Calcutta verandah memories, good and bad. I had often sat in the verandah of Uncle Eddie and his wife Aunty Lou’s railway colony house in Sealdah, hearing the shunting of engines, smelling the hard coke fumes drifting on the wind, hoping the train drivers would sound the whistles more often. Then Aunty Lou contracted cancer. She was moved to the Islamia Hospital. One day the doctors allowed her to visit her home. She was carried into the verandah. We all sat around and had afternoon tea with her and ate ‘Marie’ biscuits. Two weeks later she died.

My curiosity about Habbies Howe grew. A bungalow and verandah in the Seymour Highlands in its pristine state! What would that be like' One fine Sunday, I headed for Seymour and a few hours later I pulled up before open gates, on them black and white signage - Habbies Howe. For just a second, as I stood in the family room and looked around it seemed that a whole part of my Australian life lifted off its moorings. Shot up like an elevator. I glimpsed a void below. Dead spots inside me came alive, another life flared inside me. For just a nanno second the quarters of my Uncle Eddie’s house — high ceilings flashed before me, punkah blades swirling, cool concrete floors, the breezeway — all designed to keep out Calcutta’s blistering weather.

Directly in front of me was a hallway with a huge double door. Old prints of birds and flowers dotted the walls like vents. Polished pieces of furniture were pools of yesteryear. The silence was sepulchral. Cool air hung like a monsoon memory. Again something of Uncle Eddie’s home flickered over me — field beds, cool white sheets, afternoons of compulsory slumber for the Sealdah household whilst I, as a child, lay atop the bedsheets fretting at lost opportunities for kite flying, of then sneaking out as the family snored, onto the terrace to unfurl my black paper kite to the Indian sky and post my challenge to other kite-flyers — I was not asleep, I was ready to cut down their kites!

I stepped out past the two small metal lions guarding the door onto an iron balustraded verandah, the likes of which I had only seen in photographs of palatial British Indian homes. Beyond the verandah acres of English lawn undulated like a frozen grass flag. To my left the 50-year-old Bridal Wisteria dripping over a tall old pine tree trunk looked like the fringed end of a daring sari. To my right was the celebrated Edna Walling designed stone wall and seat. One colour in the stones kept leaping out to me. It was a particular rusty tone so much like that produced by the juice of the betel nut. My English father had acquired the Indian habit of chewing betel nut, much to the horror of my mother. He was a right sorry sight for a sahib — fair, sandy haired, blue eyed and teeth red with the habit. For a moment I saw him again standing tall, elderly and militarily straight, gossiping with his friend, the gray-haired mullah. These two regularly engaged in spitting contests -who could expectorate red betel nut juice the farthest onto the concrete pavement' My father claimed victory every time. The mullah was blind!

Curious how the homestead bridged for the first time the gap between my histories, restoring head and heart, sharing the saffron past and moving me more to ownership of this land.

lKeith Butler, an Anglo-Indian hailing from Calcutta, is a Melbourne-based writer

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