Meet Andrew Ford, the consul general of the recently reopened Australian consulate general in Calcutta
Welcome to Calcutta. It’s been a month that you have been here. What were your earlier postings?
I have come directly from a south Pacific island country called Tonga. I was there for three years. Prior to that, I have worked in Korea and Malaysia.
Why did you open the consulate here?
Australia did have a consulate here in the mid-1970s. Last year, the government commissioned an India economic strategy which looked at the opportunities provided by the Indian economy and Australia-India relationship up to 2035. One of the recommendations was to set up a consulate in Calcutta. We want to build on existing links in West Bengal and the neighbouring states in areas like energy, education, food and beverages and health. We currently have missions in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. Australia was under-represented here. We felt it was important to provide an impetus to the links.
What would be the challenges of setting up a new consulate?
The challenges are to take advantage of the trade opportunities, the opportunities that the Indian diaspora can provide. Up to two per cent Australians were born in India. Our high commissioner in Delhi is of Indian origin. Last year, we had 90,000 Indian students studying in Australia. India is already our second largest source of students for universities after China. In 2018, over 350,000 tourists visited Australia from India.
Talking of tourism, can you provide data on tourist figures from Bengal or is the centralised data not zonally segregated?
That’s true. And the visas would still be done from Delhi. The system is centralised. In any case, 70 to 80 per cent visa applications are submitted online. You have a VFS office in Calcutta which will take the applications. Here our main focus will be business and trade. Once our permanent office is ready by the end of the year, we can offer full consular and passport services to Australians in this region.
How does it feel to share the roof with your Ashes rivals?
(Laughs) It will lead to some interesting discussions when the Ashes series starts! Of course, we have the World Cup before that. True, we are co-located with the British deputy high commission. The British have some space where we are fitting our office. We have done this in other parts of the world too — co-located with friendly partners.
What are the first things that come to mind when India is mentioned in Australia?
We have both suffered from outdated views on each other. When I told people I was coming to Calcutta, they talked of curries, Mother Teresa, poverty on the streets, the difficult things of the past... But I found out it to be a vibrant, developing city and that’s one of the reasons why we opened a consulate here.
How is Calcutta treating you?
People told me: “How will you cope going from a small island to such a big city?” Indeed, the whole population of Tonga was 100,000. And here I am, in a city of 4.5 million people. I was told Bengalis are very friendly. That has been my experience so far. I am also enjoying the food and culture, leisure and the social scene.
Have you found a dish you like in the local cuisine?
I was always a huge fan of Indian cuisine. But in Australia, we have a limited view — Madras Curry, Rogan Josh, Beef Vindaloo.... Here I have discovered that the cuisine is much more varied. I need to taste more of Bengali cuisine, the fish dishes.
Have you been looking for shared heritage?
Here is something interesting I have discovered. One of the last British-appointed governors of Bengal was R.G. Casey, from 1944 to 1946. He was born in Australia and was our foreign minister. Our foreign affairs building in Canberra is named after him. He was also the Australian governor general later in life. When I did a tour of Raj Bhavan, I found a photo of him with (Mahatma) Gandhi! My sister recently found a tablet stone in St. David’s Cathedral in Hobart that was part of a pavement of a Calcutta cathedral in 1784. Calcutta was a centre of global trade for a long time. Qantas, our national airline, used to stop in Calcutta for refuelling on the way to London.
In recent times, Lion formed a bridge between the countries. Have you seen the film?
Yes, I have seen the film and read the book as well. I enjoyed both. That is a nice link and I’ve met the lady who is the CEO of the orphanage that Sharoo Brierley went to here before setting off for Tasmania.
What kind of experiences have you had so far in Calcutta? You were already on the ramp (for Abhishek Dutta’s Celebrating Bengal 2.0 fashion show).
Oh yes, that was fun.
What do you think of Indian ethnic wear?
I loved the kurta I wore. The outfit the designer (Abhishek Dutta) had initially given me was a lovely blue Nehru jacket but it didn’t fit. I would be happy to wear such clothes. My wife Christine has already purchased scarves and several kurtas. We have done a few walking and driving tours. We saw the flower market (Mullickghat), Tagore’s house, the old coffee shop in College Street (Indian Coffee House), the Marble Palace, the big Kali temple across the river (Dakshineswar), the Jain temple and, of course, the Victoria Memorial. We have also done a short river cruise. We found the flower market fascinating because of the level of energy and intensity and the intricate work they do. My wife took some interesting photos. We are getting used to the sounds of car horns…
That will take some getting used to!
Yes (laughs). In a couple of weeks we are going to Darjeeling and look forward to seeing a bit of the countryside. I will eventually get to the North-east states by way of work. And I expect we will also eventually visit the usual tourist places — Taj Mahal, Jaipur, Mumbai…
Is this your first India visit?
Yes, I have been only to Calcutta and Delhi so far.
The IPL recently got over. Are you a cricket fan?
I am but of Test cricket. I grew up in Melbourne and I’d always attend the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when Australia played England, India. Or West Indies, when they were strong.
Any interesting memories?
Several. West Indies had dismissed Australia under 200. Kim Hughes got a century. There was half an hour of play left in the day. Dennis Lillee was close to the world record of Test wickets. In that last half hour he got three, including Viv Richards off the last ball. West Indies were reduced to about four for 14. It was a real good fightback. The world record happened the day after. The following year, I went for the centenary Test between Australia and England. A young cricketer called David Hookes hit five 4s in a row. In those days, it was a big deal in a Test match. As far as the IPL goes, my son is a fan of the Australian version — Big Bash League. I have been to one match here — KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders) versus (Royal Challengers) Bangalore. Virat Kohli scored a century and the crowd was holding up their mobile phones as torches. Great atmosphere! I was so disappointed when KKR didn’t make the play-offs. Otherwise all the cities with Australian representation would have qualified! I am looking forward to some Test cricket now.
On a day off, where is one most likely to find you?
Because of the heat, mostly indoors (laughs). But I am told there are a lot of walking tours in Calcutta. I want to see old Calcutta on foot once the weather cools down.
A bite of Calcutta at Oh! Calcutta