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The Kalkatiya face of Tasmania

Nine thousand and four hundred kilometres from home, a Calcuttan met a Kalkatiya. I had wanted to meet Lisa Singh ever since I booked my tickets to Tasmania, the journalist in me eager to chat up this Indian-origin senator representing an Australian island that we in India hardly know anything about, save the Tasmanian devil!

“My connection to India starts from my great-grandfather on my father’s side, Lakshman Singh. He was from Gwalior. In 1902, he came to Calcutta and left on a boat on the indentured labour scheme that the British Raj had going. He went on that boat to Fiji. I have a copy of his immigration pass,” said Lisa, as we sipped coffee at Zum Restaurant in Salamanca Place, the heart of Hobart.

Thanks to Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, I was all too familiar with the indentured labour scheme of the British, which sent Indians to work in plantations in far-flung places like Mauritius, Seychelles, Jamaica, East Africa or Fiji after the abolition of slave trade in the second half of the 19th century.

‘I would love to do that pilgrimage [to Calcutta] with my father. And I would love to visit Calcutta because it was the old capital of British India. I hear it is based on London?’
Senator Lisa Singh

Calcutta was the primary port of departure and all those who left from the Kidderpore docks were called Kalkatiya. Similarly, those who left from the Madras port (now Chennai) were called Madrasi, irrespective of whether they were south Indians or not.

The indentured scheme was supposed to have a number of provisions to protect the labourers’ rights. “There was apparently a clause that you could return after 10 years but obviously that didn’t happen for my great-grandfather, for whatever reason. So Lakshman Singh ended up staying,” Lisa explained, adding, “The more I understand about the indentured labour scheme, it sounds more like slave labour!”

Lakshman Singh’s son Ram Jati Singh — Lisa’s grandfather — became a schoolteacher and later, a member of the Fiji Parliament. “I have fond memories of him. He was a part of the National Federation Party. He really led Fiji’s independence [from British rule]. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India at the time. He left for India, had meetings with her… she was very supportive of Fiji becoming independent,” Lisa recounted.

She feels sad to see how far Fiji has moved from democracy today. “It’s even more sad knowing that so much good work had gone into making Fiji a stable, democratic, independent country.” She is hopeful about the call for democratic elections in 2014.

Lisa’s father came to study at the University of Tasmania, met her English-origin mother and ended up staying. Lisa, who has previously served as a minister in the Tasmanian state parliament, looking after consumer protection, workplace relations and climate change, said she was influenced by her grandparents from both sides.

“My grandfather from my mother’s side was a police officer in Tasmania. He took up that post after returning from the Second World War; he was posted in Papua New Guinea,” said the Labour senator, who started her current term in the federal parliament in July 2011. She’s the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the Australian Parliament, which sits in the Australian capital, Canberra.

She has always been interested in advocacy — women’s issues, the peace movement, also climate change, she said. The 41-year-old mother of two boys spoke passionately about the need for climate conservation and “Brand Tasmania”.

“The Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon is very iconic for this state. This salmon is reaching out to the broader nation and to the world. It’s certain temperatures and other climatic conditions that help the salmon spawn here. This is where climate change can cause problems. Same with our wine. We have some famous pinot noir and some very popular sparkling wine. Also sauvignon blanc. They are all based on grapes that like temperate climate. If the temperature changes, our grapes could change, producing a different sort of wine and that could upset the wine market,” she pointed out.

Tasmania, located 240km south of the mainland, is known for its clean, green image, said the senator.

“We’ve got fresh air, clean water you can drink from the tap and low levels of pollution. Electricity is based on renewable energy like wind and hydro. We have a brand here in the state, that’s environmentally sustainable. We’ve protected at least 40 per cent of our forests from logging. Beautiful air and climate that allows good wine, good food and good seafood to flourish and cattle to grow well,” she beamed.

Tasmania has just started exporting dairy products to India. And Tasmanian Angus beef or Wagu beef is of premium quality, while Small Island has really good cheese and King Island has oysters.

We speak about the many places to see in Tassie, as Tasmania is fondly called, and MONA comes up. Actually it’s difficult for a tourist to spend even half a day in Tassie without being asked enthusiastically and repeatedly, “Have you been out to the MONA?”

MONA is the Museum of Old and New Art, located a ferry ride away from central Hobart and home to some stunning, some very, very disturbing, some outlandish works of art. Yes, it’s a must-see, if only to understand why these happy islanders surrounded by such natural beauty are so caught up with its bizarre art!

As we chatted, Lisa mentioned Entally House, an old building in northern Tasmania. “We have a locality with that name in Calcutta,” I told her excitedly. Lisa said that figured, since it was built by a gentleman who went to Tasmania from British India. [I later found sketchy reports that said it was built by Tasmania premiere Thomas Reibey, who named his house after our neighbourhood, Entally.]

Back on the topic of Calcutta, I told Lisa about the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad Bissessar, who had visited the Calcutta Memorial in Kidderpore in January 2012 as she too was the descendant of a Kalkatiya. PM Bissessar has described her coming to Calcutta as “a pilgrimage”, I mentioned.

“I would love to do that pilgrimage with my father. And I would love to visit Calcutta because it was the old capital of British India. I hear it is based on London?” Lisa said eagerly. She also wants to make another “pilgrimage” with her dad, to Gwalior.

“My grandfather left a lot of land in Fiji. My father wants to use a part of his share to fund a school in Gwalior.”

So, the grandson of a man who left India to escape his hopeless life will return to the land of his ancestors to kindle hope among a bunch of kids in the heart of India. Life sometimes does come full circle.

The writer visited Australia as part of an Australia-India Council fellowship