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Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions


India is chaotic. India is aesthetic. India is cheap. India has good food. India is confusing. India wears its history for all to see like so many colourful, dusty, and sometimes shiny bangles. (Sophie Cunningham)

This collection of essays about diverse encounters between Australians and Indians in South Asia and the Antipodes shares its title with a curious and entertaining travel book written by the first Australian-born writer John Lang (1816–1864). He moved to Calcutta in 1842 to work as a lawyer and went on to become a gadfly writer and larrikin newspaperman, publishing pieces about his travels and travails, first in his paper The Mofussilite and later in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words. The title of Lang’s novel, Wanderings in India, suggests immediately one idea about India that still shapes how we think of it, as a sprawling place with room to wander, with much to see and experience.

The book contains some chapters written especially for it and some reprinted from other publications. The first section deals with the cultural history of Australia–India encounters and interactions; the second contains more personal accounts: memoirs, reminiscences, travel pieces. Taken as a whole they represent a range of responses, ideas and experiences that chart the course of the ongoing engagement between Australia and India, between Australians and Indians. Perhaps we need reminding that, while our two nations remain part of the Indo-Australian plate, once the ancient landmass of Gondwana, recent research suggests that the plate might be fracturing as South Asia continues its voyage northwards into Eurasia.

David Walker’s opening chapter makes the case for immediate, extended and ongoing encounters between India and the Australian colonies after British settlement in 1788. As a reading of Australian colonial newspapers will reveal, comings and goings between the British colonies were commonplace, with many individuals, such as Charles Sturt and Caroline Chisholm, arriving in Australia after stints in India. Trading links were crucially important; Australia’s first exports—seal skins—were shipped to Calcutta for sale and processing, and in states like South Australia the horse trade with India was for many years very significant, even if the horses came to be known as ‘walers’ after Australia’s senior colony. The chapter reminds us that in recent times, since the 1960s in particular, the depth of Australian knowledge and understanding of India has been declining.

Kama Maclean’s chapter charts the shifting cultural history of the fascination with Indian aestheticism and the picturesque at the Kumbh Mela, noting how stories about the gathering feature in the front pages of the Australian print media, which suggests that Australia is ill-prepared for a future in which India has a determining role in the world, and noting the decline in Indian studies in the Australian educational system.

Margaret Allen’s chapter looks at the history of missionary encounters, noting in particular the South Australian Baptist Church’s endeavours in Bengal and reminding us not only of the strong connections forged as a consequence of empire but also of the remarkable story of enterprising and energetic young women who contributed to the work of empire.

Christopher Vernon’s chapter will help us all understand more about something that those of us who have travelled in India will have realised—that cityscapes in Australia and India often share some fascinating history. Vernon’s emphasis is on Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, especially on their architectural work in Lucknow, Agra, Varanasi and Kolkata.

Cricket is a recurring subject in a number of chapters. In several it is noted that the cricket relationship between Australia and India has been anything but smooth. Both Kama Maclean and Bernard Whimpress examine these links. While we are reminded of Shane Warne packing his tins of baked beans to help him through a tour of the Indian subcontinent, we also discover something of Steve Waugh’s involvement with a children’s leprosy home in Udayan. If cricket is to remain a bridge between Australia and India, Whimpress notes it has to be a robust one.

Bruce Bennett’s chapter surveys the range of literary representations of India in Australian writing, noting that, while Australians may have shared with the British the idea of an exotic, exciting, extravagant India, many Australian writers have written with distinction about India. Bennett gives prominence to the writings of women and notes that India has challenged Australian writers’ understanding of the imperial connection and the racial and social hierarchies upon which the British Empire was constructed.

There are several chapters on colonial travel writing about India and John Lang. Rick Hosking’s chapter looks at Lang, the first Australian-born writer to represent Indian life and manners, noting how the clear generic distinctions we now draw between creative nonfiction and fiction were not so readily recognised in the mid-19th century. While many of Lang’s pieces should be seen as fiction, they are still of considerable historical importance for their representation of the tensions between ‘John Company’ and many Indians, which culminated in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. David Walker’s second chapter, with Roderic Campbell, deals with another travel writer, James Hingston, author of one of the liveliest books about Indian wanderings. The country challenged and charmed Hingston.

Alison Bartlett’s is the first of a number of chapters examining the works of more recent Australian writers who have either travelled or lived in India, some following that hippy trail. Inez Baranay is an Australian writer often described as ‘multicultural’ (or ‘global citizen’) who has often written about India. Bartlett describes a ‘prodding and stretching’ relationship that links her with the writer, the academy and with postcolonial theory, bringing these ‘crucibles’ together in an analysis of Baranay’s novel Neem Dreams, which was published in India in 2003 to considerable critical acclaim.

Susan Cowan’s chapter is another survey of half a dozen of the more significant Australian writers who have written about India. She offers a further perspective on John Lang’s work, setting his writings against those of Mollie Skinner and Ethel Anderson. All three writers lived and worked rather than travelled in India. Skinner worked there as a nurse, and Anderson accompanied her soldier husband in a decade-long sojourn. Cowan also writes of mid-20th occasional visitors, Manning Clark, Christopher Koch and Dal Stivens. In passing she quotes Sunil Badami’s description of ‘mango novels’, such as those of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry: ‘exotic-looking fruits of the imagination that conjure up colourful mirages of magical-realist wonders (or thrilling terrors) in faraway places’ (Badami 2004: 200). On Cowan’s evidence, it seems that ironic self-awareness and rueful satire save the Australian writers from the accusation that they too have written mango novels. Cowan mentions Dal Stivens’ cricket story ‘The Strange Business at Bombay and Madras’ (1979); it’s a piece that should be much better known.

Lisa French’s chapter considers one Australian representation of India in film, Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke! (1999), which uses India as a metaphor for different ways of thinking, encouraging us to reflect on the West’s orientalist obsession with the exotic and mysticism.

Sophie Cunningham’s chapter begins the second section and is a reflective and wide-ranging essay that spins out of Indian travels and travails, ranging over autorickshaws to clothing made in India, leading into a discussion of her novel Geography (2004), which is about a woman travelling in India. Richard Barz describes an encounter with jackals near Bharatpur in eastern Rajasthan—an encounter that inspired a number of poems ranging across a series of Indian wanderings. Linda Neil’s piece is also set in Bharatpur and is a traveller’s tale about hotel rooms, wolfing down dhal, cricket, music, exoticism, mystical India and the idea of zero.

Inez Baranay offers an extract from her novel With the Tiger published in 2008 by HarperCollins in India, which swings between Sydney and Pondicherry and reflects on encounters, Sri Aurobindo’s ashram, and sexuality. Her focus is on Indian spirituality, rewriting Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1942), the novel that is often seen as responsible for fixing that Western stereotype in the 20th-century imagination. Drawing on Baranay’s Neem Dreams (2003), Jayne Fenton Keane’s Indian experience is a meditation on how our reading can shape our expectations about a place like India, on food and cookbooks, and on how the tourist creates the experience that creates the tourist. Keane tells us how India taught her to distinguish between the smell of one spice from that of another in body odour and how to respond to the sound of frogs in deep wells. Bernard Whimpress’ light-hearted chapter on a cricket test between Australia and India concludes the volume.

Finally, Wanderings in India is about the relationship between India and Australia ‘on the cusp of something good, deep, long-standing and mutually beneficial—genuine substance’, as noted by Professor Robin Jeffrey (2009) in the wake of a spate of opportunist attacks on Indian students in Australia. The chapters—creative, reflective and academic—have been selected over a period of two years to meet the objectives of a volume that provides snapshots of the wide range of interests and issues that Australians have shown towards India. While there is something of an emphasis on literary responses, charting the ebb and flow of writers’ reactions to India from the 1850s, when John Lang published Wanderings in India, this volume also includes historical, political, sporting and other writings about the complex ‘magnetic amalgams’ (to use Alison Broinowski’s phrase) that link Australia and India. The basic idea is to encourage ongoing research and other kinds of writing about cross-cultural engagements between India and Australia, and to help continue the dialogue about Australia–India relations in the rest of this century and beyond.

– Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal

Works cited

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

Jeffrey, Robin 2009, ‘The good, the bad and the Section 420s’, Inside Story, 4 June,, viewed 22.2.2012.

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal