Book review

Immigrant fiction about Indians moves to Australia, and about time, too

Roanna Gonsalves’s stories looks at lives torn between an old identity and the threats to it from a new existence.

Unlike the movement of people to the more developed West, the story of South Asian immigration to Australia (and New Zealand) isn’t well-documented. In her book on the lost continent of Lemuria, Sumathi Ramaswamy writes of ancient legends that link the south of India to Madagascar and to Australia. From the 1860s onward, “Afghan” cameleers, who included many from Pre-partition Punjab, helped work a rudimentary transportation system, via camels, in the Australian outback.

Over the next few decades, there was migration from British India to Australia (also a British dominion), of people seeking to work as farmers and vendors, many of whom had to battle the White Australian policy barring immigration on grounds of race. The historian Margaret Allen writes of Otim Singh, a farmer from Punjab, who set up a successful business in Australia, against all odds, in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Post-independence period saw a renewed migration of Indians, which became a wave from the early years of the current century. Roanna Gonsalves’s collection of short stories, The Permanent Resident, deals with this disparate group, comprising Catholics, mainly from Bombay, other, more recent, arrivals, i.e., middle-class aspirational groups primarily from north India, and students.

Indians in Australia, whether on student visas, permanent residents, or even with citizenship, remain outsiders, desperate to fit in, yet keen to belong to their own community; it’s an in-between state.

Outsiders and outsiders

There are two kinds of outsiders, however. Outsiders in every way like Aunt Gloria in the story “Full Face”, who presents a careful façade of her life in Australia by living just – as she imagines – as Australians do, keeping up certain standards. Yet she falls short several times, unaware of her many slip-ups: the pervasive smell of fish curry in her house, or her inability to distinguish bad wine from good, for instance.

The other outsiders are those who are conscious of this status, and seek refuge among their own. Students and those who service an informal economy, like Sheetal, the beautician who offers home visits in “Full Face”, and who lives in a dour apartment complex with other South Asians. They are the very epitome of law-abiding citizens, for any violation can impact their visa status.

This has a flip side as well, as the tragedy of Sheetal’s life shows, for old traditions and customs are rigidly followed, and come at a cost. The irony in the title of the story, that shares its meaning from a beauty regimen, is apparent only at the end: not only is Aunt Gloria’s veneer of concern and sophistication a façade, Sheetal’s calmness has always hidden her inner domestic turmoil.

Roanna Gonsalves
Roanna Gonsalves

Old versus new

Old and new Indians in Australia “clash” again in another complex and layered story titled “CIA (Australia)”. Candy or Candice is the secretary of the Christian Indian Association (hence, CIA), and imagines Gaby Fonseca, the anaesthetist at the hospital she works in, as the perfect match for her brother. Gaby, whose accent gives her away as someone born in the country (unlike the immigrant that Candice is), is also privileged by her education.

Candice – the story begins a trifle digressively after an unpleasant encounter with a relatively newly-arrived Indian – reaches out to Gaby as a fellow Indian she can relate to. Only to find, after a terrible medical tragedy occurs, that shared ethnicity can never be a basis for a lasting friendship.

A daughter chooses to write her own mother’s story in “The Teller in the Tale” (the title borrowed from an old folktale made famous by AK Ramanujan), despite their earlier fraught relationship. The metaphor of the worm farm in this story appears to indicate that, over time, memories too can be painstakingly threshed out from the undergrowth of other accumulations. Gonsalves has a thing for metaphors (or, as creative writing classes might call it, for the obvious objective corollary): the tea towels of “Full Face” that are a sign of Aunt Gloria’s glamour come in useful for mopping up spilled coffee in an airplane.

Curious aunts and eligible bachelors

Gonsalves’s observations are particularly sharp, even wickedly brilliant, when she turns her gaze toward a community she is arguably familiar with: the East Indians or the Catholics of Bombay (the old arrivals in her stories always call the city by this name; the more recent ones stick to Mumbai). In “Christmas 2012”, as the family is about to sit down at their Christmas dinner, Martha repeatedly interrupts her husband, Martin: Offering grace before meals is important, but Martha insists on things done with precision and to a set routine.

“…Martha was a stickler, especially on feast days and family occasions. ‘Otherwise, how are we different from the cats prowling the street?’ she had asked on one such occasion, when their daughter Christa said she didn’t want to do it. Martha was the pillar and post of St Mary’s Church. If the altar cloths fell symmetrically on both sides of the altar, if the flower arrangements every Sunday called to mind the Ascension, it was all because of her.”

One wishes Gonsalves had done more of this; had more of the dowager aunts who, as in “Cutting Corners”, frisk the newly arrived guest Myron, with their blatantly obvious questions relating to his familial antecedents and marital status. It’s a story unerringly funny in its social observations.

“They are all middle-class Indian Australians displaying their Catholic shields in this old country with new colours hoisted on a Cross. They are conservative voters, schooled about Australia by strident political campaigning that promises faster growth, higher levels of secrecy, stronger borders. They are unable to see its slow, deep and rising conviction that will drown people like us. They encounter Indigenous Australia only when they help their kids with school projects.”

In other instances, the very horror that resides in ordinariness, that appears in stories like “Full Face” and “CIA (Australia)” is muted. “Christmas 2012”, for instance, has a mention almost in passing of the December 16 gangrape and murder crime in Delhi that shocked the world.

The title story, “The Permanent Resident”, is about a woman seeing expatiation in some measure for the loss of a child. Rekha dares to find love, a form of permanence, but the tragedy of losing a child doesn’t appear to cast a shadow long enough, at least in this story. Perhaps that’s the very trouble with a short story and reviewing one: tragedies are, at best, a paragraph long.

The young ones

The newer arrivals – mainly young professionals, their tag-along spouses, and students – appear in two ways in Gonsalves stories: eager and anxious to please, and desperate never to break the law. In “Skit”, the guests at Rosalyn and Paul’s party to welcome his very Australian boss have no doubt – expressed in a conversation marked by asides, and disparate, wide-ranging views – that certain scenes in Lynette’s play about a sexual assault on a young Indian student must be deleted, for fear of causing offence.

Vincent, in the story, “Curry Muncher 2.0”, roughed up in the train following a racist attack (an echo of the many reported attacks on Indian students in Australia some years ago), baulks at making a police complaint as it might jeopardise his stay in the country. In “Dignity of Labour”, the bruises Deepak’s self-esteem suffers, as he works at “stacking shelves” in the supermarket when he could well have had a better job in India, drives him to violence towards his wife.

There aren’t many stories about Indians in Australia. Not in the vein of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories in Interpreter of Maladies and her Unaccustomed Earth, or even Akhil Sharma’s Family Lives, for example, that look at immigrant Indians’ lives in America. It could be almost axiomatic, but as a community acquires for itself decision-making powers on a wider level, and a greater confidence within and without, it also gains the freedom and fluidity to tell its own stories. In that sense, Roanna Gonsalves’s stories may well be a beginning.

The Permanent Resident, Roanna Gonsalves, University of Western Australia Publishing.

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