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‘I feel privileged to have been able to experience Calcutta’

Fiona McKergow on her months in charge of the Australian consulate

Sudeshna Banerjee | Published 23.02.21, 12:18 AM
At the Republic Day parade

At the Republic Day parade

Fiona McKergow, who served for seven months as the senior advisor, Australian consulate general in Calcutta, responds to questions from The Telegraph on her stint in the city while serving the mandatory quarantine in a Sydney hotel on her return to Australia.

You had a short stay of seven months in Calcutta. But you came at an interesting time.


My tenure in Calcutta was longer than planned, but I am nonetheless thankful for having the opportunity to experience such a great city full of history, architecture and a remarkable diversity of people and fine food, even for such a short time. People have been constantly asking me: “How was India?”. My response has always been — I loved it! But I also remind people that my experience was of a city — and Calcutta offers a fascinating glimpse of the diversity of West Bengal and India. I like to tell my friends and family that I have only had a taste of the hors d’oeuvres of India, and now I want to go back for the full buffet.

You landed here straight from Canberra. Was this your first India trip?

This has been my first visit to eastern India. I visited India once before, 35 years ago, for a short time and only to the usual tourist destinations of Delhi and Agra. Delhi and Calcutta are a study in contrasts and are quite different corners of India and my recollections of my earlier visit are also seen through the eyes of a teenager.

As an adult that has travelled to many parts of the globe, I appreciate my time in India so much more now. South Asia overall is a fascinating mix of countries and cultures and having travelled mostly to neighbouring countries in recent years, the opportunity to come to India was such a golden opportunity that I jumped at the chance to work here.

Once the first consul general Andrew Ford left prematurely in July, what brief were you given and how much time did you get to prepare?

Andrew Ford did such an impressive job opening our consulate-general here in 2019 (or actually reopening — we had a presence here in the 1970s) and he clearly worked hard to establish an active presence and engagement. Andrew’s unexpected departure meant I only had less than two weeks notice to get packing for my deployment, but I joined a well-established consulate, albeit operating under Covid restrictions.

Covid definitely added a level of complexity to the normal processes of transferring to a new country. The pre-departure tests, quarantine considerations, lack of commercial flights, and usual diplomatic processes had to be fast-tracked.

On top of those processes, I also had to have lengthy conversations with my own family regarding the risks of international travel in Covid times, the potential that I may be away longer than initially planned, and then put things in place to deal with the administrivia that goes with running a household in absentia. Thankfully, I have an amazingly supportive husband who was happy for me to take up the opportunity.

The initial brief was “eight weeks in Calcutta”. Of course, Covid has meant that things don’t always go as planned. When I arrived in India on July 18, I did not think I’d be there until February 14, 2021.

Being the optimist though, I consider it to have been a privilege to have been able to experience over six months in Calcutta.

At Victoria Memorial

At Victoria Memorial

How much of the city did you get to explore?

I sought to see as much of the city as I could, particularly as I thought I’d only be in Calcutta for eight weeks. Arriving during the lockdown period did have some disadvantages as many of the city’s tourist sites were closed, and by the time I left some had still not opened. This didn’t stop me getting out and about. Calcutta is a city of brilliant colours (bright buildings, green streetscapes, colourful saris drying, colourful displays from the fruit sellers on the street), fascinating architecture, fine food and friendly and engaging people — and these were all still visible during lockdown. I enjoyed planning my weekend outings, as there is always something to see in this vibrant city.

Some of the sights in August-September and then again in December-January were such a contrast. The second time around, it felt like the entire population of Calcutta was out and about visiting the same sights, enjoying the festivals and picnic season. Like any tourist, I visited the obvious places (many twice!) such as the BBD Bagh, the cemeteries, art galleries (loved the Old Currency Building art exhibition) and the magnificence of Victoria Memorial, and Raj Bhavan, and of course visiting Kumartuli to see the artisans at work. Being here during Durga Puja and Diwali (even if they were not as large or brilliant as non-Covid times) and Christmas, when this city lights up in all its glory, was fabulous.

At Raj Bhavan

At Raj Bhavan

One of my first engagements was the Independence Day parade on August 15 and one of my last engagements was the Republic Day parade and celebrations on January 26. A great start and end to my time here.

More importantly though, it was always the people that I met along the way, and the everyday conversations in the homes of such welcoming people that made my time most enjoyable.

In Chandernagore

In Chandernagore

Sourced by the correspondent

Any unexplored spots or experiences that you regret you did not have time or occasion for?

The Australian consulate-general in Calcutta has a remit covering 13 of India’s Eastern and Northeastern states, and I regret not having the opportunity to visit some of these states. I did get to travel to some of the smaller cities (Chandernagore, Kalna, Santipur, Mayapur, Serampore). A highlight was a brief holiday on a river cruise up the Ganga where I discovered the most pleasurable forms of travel. Relaxing, slow tourism on board the Ganges Voyager II gave me the chance to see some wonderful historic sites — Shiva temples, former French enclaves, traditional weavers and religious spiritual centres — and engage in wonderful conversations over fantastic food. I’d have loved to go on a train up to Darjeeling, and do a river cruise down to the Sundarbans, but my time in Calcutta just ran out too quickly.

There was no Australia Day event this year. Did you try to do any virtual events?

Australia Day is celebrated on January 26, the same day as India’s Republic Day. However, the Covid challenges meant that Australia, like many diplomatic missions, also chose not to hold a national day function in 2021.

The consulate did contribute to an online virtual video showcasing the people-to-people links between Australia and India. This highlighted a local fashion designer who had an opportunity to attend an Australian vocational training institute highly regarded for its fashion techniques, indeed one located in my own hometown (the Canberra Institute of Technology). It really highlighted the connections that underpin the bilateral relationship.

How challenging is it to be a diplomat who has to be posted in a foreign land at a time of a global pandemic?

Some would say diplomats, by the nature of their vocation, are versatile creatures. Adapting to new environments, making the most of new opportunities, and building new networks and establishing new friendships is all part of our tradecraft. Travelling during Covid does throw up a few new challenges, but we are all adapting fast and discovering new levels of resilience.

Covid definitely impacted the opportunity to meet people face-to-face and restricted the ability to get out and travel. But it also allowed me to experience two very different sides to Calcutta — a city with clear blue skies, minimal traffic and slightly less chaos (July 2020) and the Calcutta operating in full force (February 2021).While 95 per cent of my discussions in the first four months were virtual, this slowly shifted, and I was pleased to experience the start of the new year and see Calcutta start to emerge from the period of Covid hibernation. Like a butterfly from its cocoon, the social and cultural scene seemed to reappear in all its vibrant glory, the bars and restaurants seemed to fill to capacity and streets and traffic began to clog with the animated chaos that I love so much about Calcutta.

The greatest challenge being posted during Covid times remains that of bringing family members with you, have family members visit, or even return home to visit family. Managing different global time zones to accommodate virtual breakfasts, lunches and catch-ups has become an art form for many of us.

I feel privileged to have been able to experience Calcutta, meet so many interesting people along the way, and play a part in representing Australia in this great corner of India, particularly during such a challenging period. There is so much more to see, I will just have to return again one day.

Last updated on 23.02.21, 12:18 AM

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