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Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

Chapter 10

Connecting with India

Australian Journeys1

Susan Cowan

Geographical isolation and innate curiosity have long motivated Australians to leave their shores and travel far and wide to broaden their horizons and experience cultural and social differences with countries established long before explorers began to map Australia. As well as responding to the touristic impulse, there is also the patriotic one of planting Australia’s name abroad, particularly in times of war. This essay looks at the writings of some of the travellers who converged on India, long before the hippy trail of the 1970s, through a historical lens, and compares these writings with a sample of those written later in the 20th century and the shifts in their perceptions and social and cultural awareness which evolved in modern times. India, which had long been purely a brief stopover on the P&O route for Australians, became a desirable place in its own right in the late 20th century, a mysterious subcontinent that signified high adventure and the exoticism of the other.

Colonial India: Lang, Skinner and Anderson

The earliest of these Australian writers, John Lang, was born in 1816 and has the distinction of being not only the first Australian-born novelist, with his authorship of Legends of Australia (Earnshaw 1974:58–59), but, according to CD Narasimhaiah (1980:xxi), the first Australian-born novelist to set foot on Indian soil. Lang’s career and writings on India are explored elsewhere in this volume.

Born 60 years later than Lang, Mollie Skinner, a qualified nurse and midwife, went to India in 1913 at the age of 37. Four years later she joined the Australian Imperial Force, remaining at the base hospital at Jardee (Wilde, Hooton & Andrews 1994:699). The roguish hero of her 1937 novel Tucker Sees India, Richard Smith (Tucker), sees India from a variety of angles within and outwith the military from which he has absconded. A reluctant enlistee into the Australian Light Horse, Tucker, en route to the Great War, misses the boat after a hefty drinking session and remains in Bombay. Sent on his way by his cousin Reggie who happens to be serving there, he takes off on a series of adventures around India in many different guises.

Any preconceived ideas of the stereotypical Australian encountering India for the first time are swept away as the unusual hero Tucker adlibs outrageously and becomes variously a food tester, a nurse—a midwife even—while supposedly serving in the Indian army. Unlike some of his compatriots, Tucker moves among the throngs and feels uplifted by the ‘stream of dark life’ (Skinner 1937:22). Like John Lang’s Wetherby, and indeed like Skinner herself, he quickly masters some Urdu and Hindi and travels all over India, connecting at times with military personnel whom he treats with a marked lack of deference, and with the locals whom he sees as equals, carrying out assigned military tasks and, chameleon-like, rearranging his persona to suit the occasion. He is fascinated by the military presence in India:

Military police and doctors, so many little white threads holding back the huge dark mass of Indian humanity—how do they do it? Because of the divisions below, Hindu against Mussulman, caste against caste. Or because of the fear inspired by the great white powers over the seas. Was it out of fear they bowed down to the officials in their uniforms, representatives of the British Empire and the princes? Or from indifference? A great mystery it was (Skinner 1937:181).

For one who is so ready to learn about local customs, language and history, imperialism is an imponderable for Tucker. Distinguished towards the end of the novel as a ‘gallant hero’ for his conduct during a train raid, Tucker is modest, refusing to accept a bravery award from the very imperialists that he questions.

The larrikin Tucker faints at the sight of blood which gives rise to the suggestion that Skinner may also have wished to ‘minimize, even eradicate the ubiquitous notion that all Anzacs were bloodthirsty sharp-shooters or vicious sabre-wielding killers’ (Coates 1999:119). In Tucker Sees India, Skinner speaks with authority of her wide experiences in India and depicts Tucker, with the quintessential characteristics of the laid-back Australian, a rascal, filled with curiosity, challenging authority. He exploits his position by turning his so-called tour of duty into a touristic journey, evading the military, seeking cultural opportunities and trying to fathom the mystery of India and its people. Skinner softens the image of the bronze Anzac and questions the motives of the military presence and its effect on the local people.

Another Australian writer, a contemporary of the artists Thea Proctor and Grace Cossington-Smith and a fifth-generation Australian, Ethel Anderson lived for ten years (1904–1914) with her British military husband in several parts of India. Anderson sought to escape the boredom and loneliness of being a military wife by honing her accomplishments in writing, painting and music and became a lively chronicler of events in India, writing for the Indian Pioneer (as did Kipling in 1887 as a 16-year-old). Unfortunately few of these writings are extant, but those that have survived are well informed, colourful and sprinkled with Hindustani words (Foott 1992:74), giving a further edge of credibility to her work. HM Green (1961:1170) has described Anderson’s work as ‘in some respects near being a masterpiece’.

While Anderson’s husband Austin, a British gunner, served with his battery in Campbellpore, Dinapore, Lucknow and finally at Nainital, Anderson put her mind to learning about India and its history (Foott 1992:65). She successfully draws on her observations of military life as a basis for her stories. She learned to ride side-saddle (Foott 1992:65) and caused quite a stir by winning the army sports day event with the four-in-hand, having been coached by Bombardier Gwyllam of whom she wrote a spirited autobiographical short story ‘Bombardier Gwyllam’s Night Out’ (Anderson 1948).

Her best-known story, ‘Mrs James Greene’ from her Little Ghosts collection (Anderson 1959), arose out of a request by Lord Kitchener to Austin Anderson to look into the rumour that an Englishwoman had survived the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and had been taken into protection by Mirza Khan, an Indian sowar or cavalryman in James Greene’s regiment (Anderson 1959:77). In Lucknow there is a memorial to the many who died at that time and Mrs James Greene’s name quite erroneously appears on it. The romantic side of this story would seem to have appealed to Anderson as the theme of mixed liaisons fascinated her. It is this aspect around which she bases this richly textured novella.

Mrs James Greene’s husband is killed in the Mutiny and she escapes with her baby daughter and ends up in Mirza Khan’s household, ostensibly until it was safe for her to rejoin her own people. Anderson romanticises the actions of her heroine who earns the respect and love of the sowar’s womenfolk for sharing her knowledge of ‘the simple arts she had learnt in her English country home: tatting, knitting, the making of peculiarly good cheeses, and of various preserves, comfits, jams, pickles and sauces … which they sold with profit in the bazaar in Sitapur’ (Anderson 1959:77). These ‘simple arts’ would have been exceedingly unusual talents for a 16-year-old Englishwoman of her class.

Observed admiring Mirza Khan as he bathes in the courtyard, Mrs James Greene tries to make plans to return to her friends in Lucknow. Not in a hurry to despatch his houseguest, however, Mirza Khan deems it unsafe for her to do so. She is saved again and is dressed in Indian clothing, when one of the mutineers visits the household and catches sight of her blue eyes shining out of her dyed brown face. Mirza Khan has no option but to kill the marauder and it is at this moment, dressed as she is in his wife’s clothing from her wedding-night, that romance sparks and the dynamics of the household change. In the Spring Mrs Greene follows tradition, lays out her love mat—a quilt of neem flowers and jasmines—and waits for Mirza Khan to visit her (Anderson 1959:86).

The story jumps some 40 years when Mrs James Greene, having chosen to relinquish her British origins and remain with her lover, is observed by ‘a famous traveller’ dressed in the tattered rags of extreme poverty, with her Indian protector. Her loyalty to the now blind Mirza Khan is evident in her tender solicitude towards him and she ensures that he at least is wearing ‘garments of a much better quality, clean and neatly darned’ (Anderson 1959:86).

This female conventionality redeems her, and allows her, as Paul Sharrad (2004:101) observes, ‘to appear as the titular heroine of a tale whose historical context might otherwise erase her, safely leaving her marked only by an official monument as a racially/culturally pure and dead victim of perfidious native violence’. The young widow, who appears to have grieved only briefly for her slaughtered husband, is highly regarded in the household of Mirza Khan, and as the mutual respect and admiration eventually turns into love, Mrs James Greene is prepared to sever connections with her own people to live like a pauper with her Indian lover. Like John Lang, writing nearly 100 years earlier, Ethel Anderson clearly recognises the fascination with and exoticism of the ‘other’, and she explores the possibilities that arise from the story of the legendary Mrs James Greene and makes the case for her to see it through to its logical conclusion.

Ethel Anderson’s interest in mixed liaisons prompted her to write ‘The Eurasian’ (Anderson 1959), in which she gently mocks Eurasians by overdoing the chee-chee dialogue of her characters and giving them outlandish names with a Spanish/Portuguese flavour. Don Manoel Jeronimo Henriques William de Azevdeo, who is the head of the household, had been a lieutenant in the Goanese army. One of his daughters, Khujasta, is saved from drowning on the night of the Festival of the Lamps by the typically dashing hero, Major Hew Adam, who is later accused by the jealous colonel of trying to defraud her. Both men are subsequently killed on a night march. A colleague of Adam’s, Major Wylde, investigates the story and finds the true culprit. Yet again, the ending redeems Anderson, as she marries off the sole remaining daughter to Major Wylde who adores her, not just because she has inherited a plantation and great wealth. In contrast to Mrs James Greene who accepts the poverty that goes with her love for Mirza Khan, this story gives the impecunious English officer his heart’s desire and the wealth that goes with it. For the romantic Anderson, both women get their men.

Described as a ‘unique figure in Australian letters’ (Thompson 1958:177–178), Anderson explored and profited from her experiences with the people whom she had grown to love in India. The long periods of enforced loneliness as a military grass widow do little to dampen her high spirits, but fuel her curiosity particularly about women and their relationships. Although she enjoyed interacting socially with upper-class Indian women, she did not concern herself with the lot of the oppressed and underprivileged. In no way did she seek to be a radical reformer or challenge the conventions of the status of women. Anderson died in 1958, a formidable and feisty 75-year-old who sported a silver ear trumpet. Her lively voice, which is little heard today, nevertheless makes a rich and important contribution to literary studies.

Post-colonial India: Clark, Koch, Stivens

In his review essay ‘Last Mango in Pondicherry’, Sunil Badami takes up the cudgels against books not only by Western writers affected by their visits to India, but ‘in more recent “postcolonial” times, by native-born writers who have left India and write about it in English far from home’ (Badami 2004:200). Badami includes Rushdie, Seth and Mistry on his hit list and views their work as ‘mango novels’—’exotic-looking fruits of the imagination that conjure up colourful mirages of magical-realist wonders (or thrilling terrors) in faraway places’ (Badami 2004:200). Badami grew up in Australia, speaks no Indian languages and questions the authority of anyone to speak on India at all. He asserts that on a visit to India the ‘greatest peril of travelling in India is not catching Delhi belly, but … it’s constantly being told by other travellers what India is’. Badami delights in bringing these pseudo-experts back to earth by reminding them of the caste system, dowry deaths and communal rioting (Badami 2004:201). Perhaps it is easier for expatriate Indians to view their homeland through a rosy prism, where Western writers expect to feel confronted and uncomfortable by their first impressions of life on the subcontinent.

Three contemporary writers whose perceptions and cultural consciousness have been partially formed in postcolonial India include the well-known Australian historian, Manning Clark, who wrote a collection of short stories that included a satirical piece ‘A Democrat on the Ganges’ (Clark 1969). The story describes the changing perspective of a rather clueless couple, Jack and Val Howell on their first trip to India. Clark clearly enjoyed writing this short story, drawing on observations made on his short time in India and dwelling on the concerns of the less worldly as they undertake an experience of a lifetime.

Nominated by the University Labor Club to travel to India on a goodwill mission, the Howells are bewildered from the moment they set foot on the subcontinent. They attempt to be open-minded, ‘democratic’, and struggle to be egalitarian. For a social scientist, Jack is peculiarly unskilled in social and cultural contexts: ‘Why not … see the sights on Mother Ganges—see the burning-ghats before decent education and decent conditions give these people an adult attitude to death?’ (Clark 1969:85). He is likewise puzzled that his students in Delhi would find his pamphlet ‘The Role of Social Sciences in Underdeveloped Areas’ offensive. On the one hand, Jack acknowledges the poverty that he sees, yet to save money he attempts to show ‘these Indians the meaning of democracy. I’ll carry the bags up to the room’, thus confusing ‘democracy’ with choice and overlooking the needs of the hotel staff (Clark 1969:88). Clark’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the besieged pair doesn’t let up as they stagger from crisis to crisis, forking out rupees at every turn, while differentiating themselves from Americans and the English, thus making it possible ‘to be matey, and friendly and nice to Indians’ (Clark 1969:88).

The perennial problem of gratuities, which infuriates Jack Howell as Val tries to rein in what she considers to be his excessive tipping, causes him to hire a boat on the Ganges which he attempts to row himself. Obviously not as fit as he was in his university rowing days, Jack collapses in the bottom of the boat to the sound of the guide telling him unhelpfully, his lips practically touching Jack’s ear, that ‘All Hindus believe if they die on Ganga their souls go “straight to paradise”‘ (Clark 1969:92). Dwelling on his dislike of the physical intimacy of the Indian men he has observed, he feels he has ‘got mixed up with a pack of queens’ (Clark 1969:92). The story ends with the hapless Howells surrendering their rupees in begrudged acquiescence to pay to be rowed back to shore. It seems that Clark himself had a few difficulties in his interactions in India and is thus able to satirise so successfully the plight of the Howells in ‘A Democrat on the Ganges’. Clark clearly took pleasure in sending up a social scientist and his long-suffering wife, who, for their part, desperately and unsuccessfully attempted to show that they were culturally aware and socially conscious on their first trip to India.

Alur Janaki Ram (1980:24) has noted that

Insularity and isolationism have been the conspicuous features of Australian writing for many years. It is only in recent years, starting with the mid-sixties that Australian writers … have increasingly made use of Asian settings, mainly the South-east Asian and Indian settings, as a source of symbols for defining the inner psychological concerns of their characters.

One such example is Dal Stivens’ 1979 short story ‘The Strange Business at Bombay and Madras’. As well as being a cricket story, a sport that has historically provided a forum for great competitive ferocity between the two countries, it also has symbolic and psychological elements at its heart. The Madras cricket match begins and the pragmatic Australians’ game rapidly begins to fall apart as the Indian bowler appears to bowl snakes, grenades, spiders and scorpions at the batsmen. Initially the Australians put it down to hallucinating in the heat, but the images continue and, although shaken and upset, they try to rationalise the phenomenon as hypnotism or autosuggestion. The protagonist of the story seeks advice from one of Madras’s leading psychiatrists, Dr Bhaya, who rules out hallucinations and hypnotism and, while he doesn’t accept auto-suggestion as an explanation, he doesn’t rule it out: ‘This is an odd exotic land, hag-ridden with myth and legend and strange transcendental things the rational mind can’t explain away’ (Stivens 1979:36). He suggests that somehow their phobias have taken a physical form and been planted in their minds, and advises that the team should start afresh in Bombay. The turning point comes when a blue-eyed baby’s head appears to the batsman in place of the ball. Shortly after this phenomenon Dr Bhaya reports to the Australians that the Indians, too, have started to see the things that they fear springing at them in place of the ball: ‘Rabid dogs are greatly feared here. Also bats. A couple of players saw bats. One even saw a tiger!’ (Stivens 1979:44). The story ends with the ball no longer metamorphosing into phobic horrors, but does not offer a satisfactory explanation for the phenomena.

Stivens has drawn on images of Indian rope tricks, superstition and shimmering mirages to give this cricket story bizarre and humorous twists. Both teams apparently try to infiltrate their opponents’ minds to dwell on morbid fears that exist subconsciously to put each other off their game. Stivens’ introduction of the Indian psychiatrist as an objective confidant of both teams prevents the story from developing into farce while retaining its comedic nature.

The interests of another contemporary writer, Tasmanian Christopher Koch, lie in spirituality and cultural identity. He recalls his backpacking journey through India in 1955, seven years after Independence, in his 1987 essay ‘Asia and the Australian Imagination’. In those days it was quite an unusual event for Europeans to be travelling thus and he notes that they were left in no doubt that the Raj was a ‘two-way affair of love and hate’ (Koch 1987:6). He and his travelling companion were assigned the role of ‘surrogate sahibs’ (Koch 1987:6) and it is only with distance from that time that Koch has ruminated on Australia’s place in the new Asia-Pacific scene. His affinity with India and Indians is expressed in the similarities he finds between Australians and Indians: ‘Indians can scarcely doubt the essentially European spirit that is within them’ (Koch 1987:14) and they are linked by way of both being ex-colonies of Britain. Koch suggests that Australians tend to think of ‘“turning to Asia”—as though it were a new adaptation’ (Koch 1987:16). But it has always been there for those prepared to explore it.

Koch’s experiences in his months travelling in India in 1955 led, ten years later, to his edgy novel, Across the Sea Wall, in which he explores the attitudes of some Australians to a recently independent India. The innocent Robert O’Brien sets off on a trip to Europe and, like Mollie Skinner’s Tucker, gets no further than India. In O’Brien’s case he is inveigled into exploring India with two women and an outspoken westernised Indian, Sunder Singh, with whom he is only casually acquainted. He is smitten with Ilsa, the coarse Latvian immigrant to Australia, but it soon becomes clear that she is more foreign to him than the locals he encounters. There are few tourists in the early decades after independence and they attract much attention from beggars and businessmen alike. As Bruce Bennett (2009) has noted, the novel is unusual ‘in presenting a strong Indian voice that challenges Australian opinions and outlooks’. When Koch’s O’Brien and Sunder Singh are in Madras and O’Brien is airing his mistrust of India, they come across the statue of Queen Victoria on Marine Drive, and Singh accuses him of being ‘as bad as the rest … Scratch you people hard enough and the pukka sahib comes out, doesn’t it?’ (Koch 1965:94). O’Brien tries to laugh it off but Singh retorts ‘You see, O’Brien … you bloody Australians don’t know what you are. You don’t think much of colonialism, but then suddenly you’re waving the Union Jack. It’s disheartening’ (Koch 1965:95). O’Brien looks at the statue of Queen Victoria and is surprised to feel ‘a certain wistfulness. Relic of the Raj, bereft in independent India’ (Koch 1965:95). This interchange reveals a nostalgia for the different routes that India and Australia have undertaken, with India gaining independence in 1947 and Australia still retaining the monarchy 60 years later.

O’Brien is impressed with the courtesy and dignity with which he and Ilsa are received by Singh’s father, yet he is not prepared to investigate the dress rules before entering a Delhi nightclub and looks shabby and dishevelled compared with the immaculately groomed Indians. Mrs Singh is less than tactful when Ilsa appears draped in a sari and surprisingly tells her in English ‘Western women cannot wear saris’ (Koch 1965:16), despite the fact that she claims to speak only Urdu.

Koch’s interest in the Hindu gods can be seen in his comparisons of the cruel and destructive dancer Kali with Ilsa the dancer, displaced person and deceiver of men who tramples on O’Brien’s passion for her. Through the eyes of Koch’s character Sunder Singh one gains a perspective on Indian attitudes to the visiting Australians. While it seems that the book represents a sense of missed opportunities for O’Brien, he succeeds in having his ‘European experience’ through his doomed relationship with Ilsa. As Helen Tiffin (1982:329) suggests, by aborting his proposed journey to Europe in Asia, ‘on the allegoric level … in becoming Ilsa’s lover, he has already come in contact with ancestral Europe, making the continuation of the journey unnecessary. A wiser and more culturally aware O’Brien returns home with more of a sense of self and promising himself that ‘he would go abroad again: and this time, he would reach Europe’ (Koch 1965:134).


The three Australian writers who travelled to colonial India all took up military themes but their experiences differed greatly. They all had a deep love of India gained during the years spent there. While Lang was unhappy with the ruling military class in The Wetherbys, this attitude softened in his short story ‘The Mohammedan Mother’ to depict the more inclusive attitude of the narrator. Skinner was before her time in portraying the egalitarian nature of the larrikin Tucker; and Ethel Anderson steeped herself in the history of the country and was interested in cross-cultural relationships. All three, however, demonstrate a stronger social and cultural awareness of their Western characters; with the exception of Lang in ‘The Mohammedan Mother’, they keep the natives, the others, mainly as silent actors off centrestage. The three contemporary Australian writers mentioned here portray India and Indians as more challenging, and chart their characters’ adaptation and shift from naivety to acceptance and understanding. Clark’s ‘A Democrat on the Ganges’ takes the Howells through fear and distrust to a resigned acceptance of the way things work in India. The subconscious fears of the cricketers of both sides in Dal Stivens’ short story are presented in dramatic, psychological and physical forms which they confront and eventually overcome with professional assistance. Koch’s O’Brien receives some unwelcome home truths from a fierce and challenging friend, Sunder Singh. These stories all portray credible journeys and build on the perspectives put forward in the earlier writings. Only Dal Stivens’ story could be said to be an ironic form of ‘mango’ of mirages and magic-realism, or it could just be a case of fronting up to your fears.

The influence of India in Australia has existed since the early days of British settlement, through trading and shipping connections that were established to supply the new colony. From those early links, Australian writers, starting with John Lang, have taken up the challenge of discovering India; Lang was the forerunner in an impressive stream of writers to experience the paradoxes of India. In doing so, they have often discovered more about themselves and deepened their cultural and social understanding. In colonial times, these writers tended to assign the Indians in their stories to a subservient position—darkly mysterious and in the background. The postcolonial writers have brought their Indian characters into the foreground to challenge and shape their attitudes.

Works cited

Anderson, Ethel 1948, Indian tales, Australasian Publishing Co., Sydney.

— 1959, Little ghosts, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

Badami, Sunil 2004, ‘Last mango in Pondicherry’, Meanjin 63(2).

Bennett, Bruce (ed) 2009, Of sadhus and spinners: Australian encounters with India, HarperCollins India, New Delhi

Clark, Manning 1969, Disquiet and other stories, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

Coates, Donna 1999, ‘Guns ‘n’ roses: Mollie Skinner’s intrepid great war fictions’, Southerly 59(1).

Earnshaw, John 1974, ‘Lang, John (1816–1864)’, in Australian dictionary of biography vol 5, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.

Foott, Bethia 1992, Ethel and the Governor’s General, Rainforest, Paddington, NSW.

Green, HM 1961, A history of Australian literature vol II, 1923–1950, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

Koch, Christopher 1965, Across the sea wall, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

—1987, Crossing the gap: a novelist’s essays, Chatto & Windus, London.

Narasimhaiah, CD 1980, ‘Introduction’, The Literary Criterion 15(3–4).

Ram, Alur Janaki 1980, ‘Chris Koch, India and Across the sea wall: some observations’, Literary Criterion XXIII(3).

Sharrad, Paul 2004, ‘Trading yarns: India, Australia and Ethel Anderson’, New Literatures Review 41.

Skinner, Mollie 1937, Tucker sees India, Secker & Warburg, London.

Stivens, Dal 1979, ‘The strange business at Bombay and Madras’, The demon bowler and other cricket stories, Outback Press, Collingwood, Vic.

Thompson, John 1958, Obituary, Southerly 3.

Tiffin, Helen 1982, ‘Asia, Europe and Australian identity: the novels of Christopher Koch’, Australian Literary Studies 10(3).

Wilde, William H, Joy Hooton and Barry Andrews 1994, The Oxford companion to Australian literature 2nd ed, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

1   Part of this revised paper appears with the title ‘Glimpses of India: A Military Dekko’, in Sarangi, Jaydeep and Binod Mishra (eds), Explorations in Australian Literature (Sarup & Sons, New Delhi, 2006).

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal