Thursday, May 29, 2014


Hate consumes you. The more you hate somebody, the more you become like that somebody. When this obsession with hate took over all aspects of your life, you don't know. As you centre your attention on that person and what he or she did to you, how he or she harmed you, your ideas, your soul, you become embittered, irritable and dangerous to those who love you, who live for you, who you would kill for. They become wary. Any show of affection maybe misinterpreted. They keep a respectful distance as you wallow in the muck of self-doubt and world-weariness. They gulp every time they utter a word, for that would elicit a response from you. A response they may not be able to handle. They hope it's a passing phase. But Hate seldom leaves his victims alone.  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Australiana #7: Howzzat? The Aussie Accent

It takes a while to understand the Australian accent, a lifetime to acquire it. The Aussie accent is famous for its vowel sounds (so 'today' becomes 'to-die'), absence of a strong 'r' pronunciation ('here' becomes 'hee-yah') and a tone that makes it hard to distinguish a statement from a question. Alyce Taylor's article, The Ever-evolving Aussie Accent in the Australian Geographic magazine, talks about the origins of the accent:

“The Australian accent began with the first-born colonial children in Sydney in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They'd have strengthened their bonds as a group by speaking in similar ways, in the same way today's teens use language to form tribes. The early colonial children would have drawn on the many British accents spoken by adults around them to create their sound... Our modern accent is rare in that it doesn't noticeably vary between Australian regions... because although the communities began as isolated settlements, there was a great deal of internal migration particularly from Sydney where the first accent began.”

While each ethnic migrant population – Chinese, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Israeli, Indian, Japanese, etc  – has peppered it with drawls and tones, the Australian accent's character has remained more or less unchanged, until now. With the increasing influence of the media and Hollywood, pop idols and rock icons, there is a common fear that the Aussie accent might actually become Americanised. So you will have 'stralians speaking like 'mericans. That's a real blower, Mate!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Brothers, billions, businesses...

Book: Mahabharata in Polyester – The Making of the World's Richest Brothers and Their Feud
Author: Hamish McDonald
Publisher: University of New South Wales Press
Pages: 402
Price: Rs 1706 on Flipkart

Australian journalist Hamish McDonald's reworked version of his earlier book, The Polyester Prince, re-charts the growth of Dhirubhai Ambani and Reliance and takes the reader through the events that led to the feud between his billionaire sons, Mukesh and Anil. The Mahabharata in the title is misleading, for McDonald does not segregate the Ambani siblings into Kauravas or Pandavas, though Anil did call Anand Jain, (Dhirubhai's 'third son' and Mukesh's trusted lieutenant) a modern-day Shakuni. Unlike the Mahabharata, where you unwittingly take sides with the good Pandavas in their triumph over the evil Kauravas, here you have difficulty choosing between characters coloured in grey. Even the Indian government simply warned the brothers to end their dispute among themselves in the interest of the nation. A rags-to-riches story of one of the largest family-run corporations in the world, of a man who maneuvered the government and the law of the land to fill his own pockets and those of his shareholders, with a cast comprising the Ambanis, the Gandhis, the Bachchans, the Wadias, Ramnath Goenka, Pranab Mukherjee, VP Singh, Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh, Murli Deora, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Arun Shourie, Ram Jethmalani, Amar Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav and many other top politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and commentators, Mahabharata in Polyester is a window to India's economic growth pre- and post-liberalisation. A tale of business, politics, relations, intrigue, crime and competition, this book is a must-read.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Australiana #6: Prejudice

We Indians are pretty crooked. Tell us to do something by the rules and we'll find ways and means to bypass it. If we do not like something someone said, we'll tell everyone but that person about it. The one person who mattered. We almost never say no when we mean no and don't always agree when we say yes. We read between the lines more than we should and look for subtexts and plots where there are none. And then we land up in Australia.

Suddenly, we become very aware of who we are – the colour of our skin, the languages we speak, our giveaway English accent and our desi roots. We look for fellow desis and then try to categorise them: people born of Indian parents in Australia, people born of mixed-race parents in Australia, people born of non-resident Indian parents in other countries, Fijian Indians, People of Indian Origin (PIO) from Mauritius, Indian Filipinos, Indians with Australian passports, Indians with Indian passports and Australian working visas, Illegal immigrant Indians, Indian students and so on. Once we've ascertained the “how many years have you been in Australia” part, we look closely to judge where in India they hail from. We note their colour, the texture of their hair, the size of their eyes, their dress, the words that roll off their tongues, etc. If we find that the person is from a similar cultural background as ours, we'll immediately strike up a conversation. If not, we'll pretend as if they did not exist. We carry on with life. It does not matter anymore.

Then why does it matter so much when a white Australian guy does the same? When he thinks, “Skin colour, brown, so Indian/Pakistani/Filipino/probably African/from somewhere in the Caribbean. Looks like a student with a backpack, or could even be a tourist or a software engineer...” He's checking out how brown you are while you are noting how white he is. He tries to chat you up, asks you about your country and what you are doing in Australia. Your answer is laced with suspicion. You wonder why he is so interested in you. Could he be a thug, an agent or somebody dangerous? What's the subtext here? You don't give him direct answers. He's trying to be polite and continue the conversation while you're being evasive. You cut him off abruptly and briskly walk away. He thinks you are rude. He knows you're Indian. He develops an opinion, “Indians are rude.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Australiana #5: Q&A

Australia puzzles you. Sometimes, you wonder if it is really on the world map. There is so much going on here but you never really hear about it unless it's about a PM losing his job, cricket, Olympic medals or Nicole Kidman. Everything else is a haze. So when you actually land up here, you keep asking questions and searching for their answers:

  • How big is this country, really?
    It's a continent, Mate. You never believed it, but it is.

  • Why have I never heard of this place/thing/person before?
    Because media/books/films in India have enough stuff to cover back home and when they feel they're short of something, they just peep over the borders to get some juice. Australia is a long way away.

  • Who is the Australian Prime Minister?
    The answer is Tony Abbott, for now.

  • What exactly is a crowd?
    Three's a crowd.

  • Why is parking so expensive in the city?
    You're lucky, Mate, at least you've found a place to park your car.

  • Why is public transport so expensive?
    Because they don't have the population density to make it cheap Mass Rapid Transit.

  • Why are the spiders here so poisonous?
    They've probably held on to stuff they needed to kill giant flies millions of years ago.

  • Where does the desert really start?
    Which one? There's the Great Victoria, Gibson, Tanami, Great Sandy, Simpson, Little Sandy, Strzelecki (I don't know how you pronounce that), Sturt Stony,Tirari and Pedirka. Move about five hundred miles away from the city and you'll sure be on the fringes of one.

  • How much near is near when somebody tells you, “It's nearby”?
    That depends on who you're asking. If the person you're asking is Asian, the “near” could be a walk away. If the person's a local (the five-generations-in-Australia kind), then it could be a long trek. Either way, you've got to carry a map and a bottle of water.

  • How does one exactly define 'bush'?
    Any place with untended shrubbery, looks undomesticated or wild.

  • What has the best chance of killing you in the ocean – jellyfish, shark, sea snake or saltwater crocodile?
    A heart attack when you spot one of them.

  • Why are books so expensive?
    Because you're in desert country with little wood. How shall you make paper for books or otherwise?

  • So what's really Made in Australia?
    Dairy, meat, sugar, beer, wine, veggies and wool. 

  • How far do you go before you see a wild kangaroo?
    Not too far, just a couple of hundred kilometres or so and they'll be everywhere.

  • How high should you go to spot a wild koala?
    No matter how high you reach, those white-bottomed furry animals will make sure they're out of your sight.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Australiana #4: The Convict-scribe

Australia is no stranger to convicts-turned-novelists e.g. Gregory David Roberts of Shantaram fame or scribes being threatened with conviction e.g. Julian Assange of Wikileaks. While leafing through the pages of Matthew Condon's book, Brisbane, I chanced upon a rather interesting character named Thomas Dowse.

When he was 15 years old, Dowse was presented to London's Central Criminal Court. He was charged with stealing a coat, waistcoat, trousers, shirt and handkerchief from his mother, Catherine. Dowse had pawned the clothes, belonging to his minor brother, for 35 shillings. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Like many convicts on death row in England, he was sent to the new penal colony in New South Wales aboard the ship, Florentina. In New South Wales, he was pardoned in 1839, after serving eight years as a convict. He then made his way up to Moreton Bay (near Brisbane) in 1842, when the convict settlement was opened to free settlement.

Thomas Dowse
Dowse dabbled in different trades. He was an auctioneer, a landlord, a small businessman and also the secretary of Brisbane Teetotal Society. At his premises in Queen Street, he sold almost anything from shirts, frock coats, cutlery, looking-glasses, books and livestock. His auction mart became a centre for discussion of social reform, for perhaps no one then had a greater horror of the degrading convict system or worked harder to end it. He was a keen observer and prolific diarist. 

After the Moreton Bay Courier was first published in the winter of 1846, Dowse found a platform for his witty letters. He became the first Brisbane-based correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, where he wrote with the byline, Old Tom. He wrote political commentary, historical vignettes, character sketches and gossip. In his Brisbane Courier series, Old Times, Dowse recorded his recollections of the early years of the settlement. His diary is currently in the State Library of Queensland. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Look up from your phone

For somebody like me, who usually manages to initiate conversations easily, I've found it difficult to find people in Australia to talk to. I see so many familiar faces while walking down the streets to the nearest supermarket and they all acknowledge me with a smile and a nod. But it stops right there. Before I can make an eye-contact, most of them are back to fiddling with their phones. I feel like shouting, "Look up, ask me who I am, why I am here, where I am from, etc." But I feel sheepish and do what they do, whip out my cellphone and keep scrolling on Facebook. Here's a message we should all heed to:

Monday, May 5, 2014

Australiana #3: Antiques in an Ancient Land

Paddington Antique Centre at Latrobe Terrace
Paddington is to Brisbane what Colaba is to Mumbai. It's posh, rich in history and architecture, sprinkled with many award-winning restaurants, mentioned in every tour guide and dotted with shops selling trinkets, books and antiques. After two months in this city, I finally wound my way up there – first, by taking a train to Milton and then hiking 1.4 km through some of the best landscape the city offers to the famous Paddington Antique Centre.

This English Mickey Mouse gas mask was for children who were scared of wearing gas masks

Since 1985, the Paddington Antique Centre has been functioning out of the old Plaza Theatre's premises. The centre has more than 50 dealers who stock all kinds curios, World War II memorabilia (mostly Japanese, British and Australian), Danish art, Chinese porcelain, hand-painted English tea-sets, Javan woodworks, daggers from Syria, swords from Philippines, jezails (traditional guns) from Afghanistan, telescopes, buttons and brooches, Givenchy jewellery, French lace, cameras and binoculars, furniture, vintage clothes (corseted gowns and disco jackets) and trunks. It is part museum, part cafe, part bookshop and part store. There is something for every pocket. What I missed was the Australian stuff, the Australiana, as they say. Sure, they had a couple of boomerangs and Australian pottery (which looked like a cheaper version of Chinese clay art) but that's about it. Everything else, had been sourced from elsewhere or brought to Australia from Britain, Europe or Indonesia or China or Japan.

Australia is an ancient land. Yet, there are few things ancient that a stray traveller may come across besides the landscape. The immigrant history starts in the eighteenth century. The Aboriginals' history has been around for over 50,000 years but much of it is secretive. The two don't mix and so Australia has few things it can sell to tourists in antique stores. It relies heavily on what immigrants from other countries had brought with them first as convicts, then as sailors, then as founders, then as traders and then as hopeful conquerers (like the Japanese during the Second World War). The immigrants settled in their own cultural pockets and held onto their heritage and heirlooms. The Paddington Antique Centre has done well to collect these items from diverse communities and put them under one roof so that it gives a traveller a gist of the people and cultures that have come in contact with this remote land. In a country where cultural boundaries are water-tight, this is no mean task.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Australiana #2: No Dramas, No Worries

When you move from a country like India into Australia, you tend to expect something of the First World that you are familiar with because you've seen them a zillion times in American and European sitcoms and films – white faces, snazzy fast cars, parks, malls, skyscrapers, fashion-conscious women running to work with lattes in one hand, cabs zipping past, packed public transport plying on smooth, wide roads, wriggling bodies in discos and pubs and the works. What you get is a bit different. Actually, a lot different. Australia is not America or Europe, though it has borrowed heavily from both. It used to be a British colony and so has many things common with India – the side on the road you drive, English language and the red tape and so on. It also has many things common with America e.g. the way the cities are planned, the preference for suburban life with large houses and gardens and the quest for the great outdoors. But Australia is a lot closer to Asia than any of the other continents. It strikes you as soon as you leave the airport. You hop onto a train in Sydney or a bus in Brisbane, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in Shanghai or Singapore, given the number of Asians you may be riding with. Culturally, Aussies have more in common with their Asian neighbours than Americans or Europeans. Sure, they like their steaks and fish and chips, but they also prefer the kebab (typically a Lebanese wrap) over a Subway. Many have been to Indonesia and other parts of the South East. They speak loudly and drive rashly. Queensland's drivers would do well against Mumbai's rickshawalas. The people are very laid back. You miss a train in Mumbai and you will be tearing your hair out. Here, they just plug their iPhones into their ears and wait for the next one – even if it takes another half hour. There's never a sense of urgency. You don't have to get out and look for alternatives or get stressed because you have to be somewhere else at an appointed time. That's how life is. It's a huge country (continent, actually) and things can take their time. There are no dramas, no worries, Mate!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Australiana #1: Of Quarantine and Rabbits

Each time you fly into Australia, you will find long queues at the airports' quarantine sections. Sometimes, it could take you over an hour to get through that. You keep wondering why they care so much for the wooden buttons on your expensive coat or if you have absent-mindedly left half an apple in your bag and forgotten to declare it. Other island nations, much smaller in size, have little problems with seeds or nuts in your luggage.

It was not always like that. In the initial years after its discovery, the early European settlers brought to Australia everything from cows, sheep, camels, dogs and pigs to flowers and seeds to Chinese labourers (they did not want brown or black slaves). With them, they brought in a whole new set of germs, infections and diseases that the Aborigines had never encountered in their thousands of years of existence. Then in 1859, a man named Thomas Austin, a landowner in Winchelsea, Victoria, imported 24 wild rabbits from England and released them into the bush for sport. That rabbits breed rapidly is a well-known fact. Within a couple of years, they had entirely overrun Austin's property and were spreading into neighbouring districts.

Fifty million years of isolation had left Australia without a single predator or parasite able to even recognise rabbits and so they proliferated. By 1880, they had picked clean two million acres of Victoria and were pushing into South Australia and New South Wales. They fell onto the native emu bush (which used to grow seven feet tall with flowers) like locusts, devouring every bit of it – leaves, flowers, bark and stems – until none was to be found. They ate so much that sheep and livestock had to look for other grazing grounds, punishing wilder expanses. In the 1890s, Australia suffered a decade-long drought. As the topsoil – the thinnest in the world – blew away, never to be replenished, more than half the total of the nation's sheep perished.

It took over a century since Thomas Austin released his 24 wild rabbits for science to come up with a solution in the form of the myxoma virus from South America. Harmless to humans and other animals, it killed 99.9 per cent of the rabbits. Those that survived, were naturally resistant to the virus and passed on their resistant genes to future generations of rabbits. The numbers were up again and are still climbing. The damage to the landscape is irreversible. Spare a thought for the Quarantine, while you wait in the serpentine queue. It is the nation's way of stopping the Thomas Austins.

Reference to Thomas Austin's story: Bill Bryson's Down Under