On the colonial veranda

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  • Published 20111206
  • ISBN: 9781921758232
  • Extent: 232 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

BELEM IS THE name of the delicious egg tarts, pastéis de Belém, from a cake shop in the barrio Portugués near us in Sydney – one of the benefits of diaspora, of the tides of people redistributed across the globe. Belem is also a place. When I went to Portugal I caught a tram to Belem, the place at the end of the line, on the edge of land and water, the place where Vasco da Gama set out in 1497, in search of India and spices. He sailed south along the coast of Africa, and took on board a pilot: possibly Ibn Majid, the famous Arab navigator; more likely a Gujarati who knew his way to Calicut. With the help of the pilot and the monsoon winds called the trade winds, da Gama arrived on the Malabar Coast. Here the spice ports, Calicut and Cochin, were already the centre of an international trade in black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom – spices were a currency themselves, more valuable than gold. Merchants from Alexandria, Venice, Constantinople, Java and China came and went, and Portugal wanted to join in the trade. In Calicut, da Gama sat on a rug and talked by candlelight to the agent of the Zamorin, or king, on a veranda that ran around the edge of an internal courtyard. The account of this voyage may be the first recorded use of the word ‘veranda’. Vasco da Gama’s voyages established Portugal as a colonial power in India. An Australian academic in Portugal told me that ‘veranda’ may be a Portuguese word. In India writers claimed it as a Hindi or Bengali word. Nobody is wrong; everybody is right; language is a masala. Colonialism has mixed everything up. Belem, tarts, da Gama, spices and verandas.

When I began writing ‘Verandahs’ – my Doctor of Creative Arts thesis – I thought of the veranda as a metaphor as much as a physical space. The person I saw on the veranda was my English grandfather, an officer in the Indian Army between 1917 and 1920. He went back to England and married my grandmother, and they came to Australia in 1932. When I was a child he told us stories about India, stories about riding elephants and fighting in the hills. My grandmother cooked ‘chapatis’ (hers were a kind of pancake with leftover meat or vegetables added) and ‘curries’ – the Queensland version, with the remains of the cold roast beef, apple and sultanas in a thin sauce yellow with curry powder. My grandfather spooned extra curry powder onto the side of his plate, from the tin with the picture of Clive of India. I saw photographs of him in uniform, returning from the Afghanistan war, where he fought with the 40th Pathans, or the Gurkha Rifles, or riding his ‘motor cycle’ to Peshawar; photographs of his bungalow in Kohat (where he slept on the roof under a punkah), and of the ‘native bazaar’. And a photograph of him in tropical white, standing on a veranda with his fellow officers.

I grew up on the veranda. In Queensland, in wooden houses with verandas wrapped around them, light airy houses with gaps in the boards where sunlight, spiders, conversations and breezes filtered through. They are houses where the outdoors merges into the indoor spaces, and there’s something about that way of life that I’ve carried with me. Did we assume that verandas were a local invention, when I lived in Queensland? They seemed to suit the climate so well. Sometimes they looked formal, sometimes makeshift, sometimes they were closed in for extra bedrooms; but without a veranda a house was a box. All that wooden lattice, or decorative fretwork, the slatted blinds, sun slanting through or vines shading the veranda gave life to the house. When I started reading about the history of verandas I found that, like my grandfather, they had come to Australia via India. They came with the English military officers who served in the British colonies and they were part of a tropical colonial architecture, I learned from Anthony King’s cultural history The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture (Routledge, 1984).

I grew up on the veranda, between different worlds. My mother’s English family made me aware of our curious, second-hand, child-to-parent relationship with England, which they called Home. We all construct our worlds, psychically and physically, and when I remember my grandparents’ houses I remember that they had brought England and Empire with them. Outside there were gum trees, hot sunlight and pineapple farms; but inside the house they listened to the BBC World Service news in a room with a Persian carpet, Indian brass trays and a photograph of the Queen. Later I realised that when I stepped out of the house and onto the veranda I was standing on a bit of India – or was it Portugal?

As a child I listened to my grandfather’s stories about the Khyber Pass and camping out in the badlands of the Afghanistan border, among the fierce Pathans and Afridis. About waking up with a man standing over him with a knife. He had been an adventurous soldier, and had medals to prove it. He’d been in the Northwest Frontier Province, and then in Amritsar at the time of the massacre. The British were in India as a colonial power, and with the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 they started to lose their legitimacy. When I went to university Australia was involved in a colonial war in Vietnam, and like anyone who became involved in the anti-war or anti-Vietnam movements I was on a steep learning curve. I traced a different history: I read Fanon, Chomsky; I read about Gandhi. I am not a prisoner of history, Fanon said in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. I joined in arguments about colonialism, and soon I was arguing with my grandfather. I came home from anti-Vietnam demonstrations full of fire and passion, though I managed not to get arrested. He talked about war, about Amritsar, with equal fire and passion. You have no idea what youre talking about, he said. He was right. I knew nothing about war. I was seventeen and my father had a sticker on the fridge that said, Leave home now, while you still know everything. My grandfather’s life had been shaped by wars; he put up his age to fight in France; he went to India as if on an adventure. He was caught in the hinges of a colonial history. But I was right too. Australia had no business in Vietnam. History created a masala, and right and wrong are complex and shifting categories.

There we were, me on my veranda and my grandfather on his. Both of us half here, half there, in those in-between spaces, transitional spaces. The veranda of the white-painted bungalow in the military cantonment at Kohat, where my grandfather stood, was a colonial space. Officers like my grandfather were outsiders, at the same time as being conquerors. They stood on the veranda and surveyed their territory, territory they might lose their lives defending, but not territory they could call home. Where was home? My grandfather lived in Australia for most of his life but never seemed as if he belonged here. He was restless, unsettled, he never put down roots or made lasting friendships; he and my grandmother moved every few years to another house, another small business, another country town. Perhaps his time in India had been the most intensely lived period of his life, where everything was new, strange, exotic, dangerous, challenging, never dull.

He had been sent back to England from the war in France, then parachuted into the hills of the Afghanistan border. He fought near the Khyber Pass, where Alexander, Genghiz Khan and the Mughals had crossed on the conqueror’s route centuries before, where Chinese Buddhist monks had travelled across deserts in search of wisdom, where dates, sandalwood, silk and gems came to and fro, and later opium and guns. Later, the Portuguese, Dutch and British came by sea on other trade routes. And India rose up to meet them, once a loose federation of independent states, then a colony, rising up from the hot plains of the north and the flooded river deltas and the green hills of the south. My grandfather talked about the Khyber Pass he knew, and I came to know it again, years later, as the place where opium and guns were smuggled across permeable borders, where the mujahideen came and went and Osama bin Laden hid in limestone caves. My grandfather talked about riding elephants down the main street, after dinners in the officers’ mess, with servants and toasts to the king and a confusing amount of regimental silver. Who could he talk to here in Australia about this life? He joined the RSL but he was a Pom, and an officer, and the Australian soldiers didn’t want to know. Visitors, like his family, could listen to his stories but not join in. He wrote letters to the prime minister when he was in his seventies, asking (without success) for a military pension; it was the end of a long battle for recognition, as much as for money.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, my friends and I were in another in-between space. We were pushed out to the margins in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. A state with a history more diverse than we thought then; a colony founded as a prison for convicts, based on dispossession of the original inhabitants, where agriculture had relied on indentured labourers from Melanesia. There was no middle ground, no liberal middle class to speak of; if you weren’t with Joh and his right-wing conservatives, you were as good as a criminal. The Special Branch were on surveillance duty; they sat outside people’s houses in unmarked cars. The police raided parties and, when we walked home through the warm dark streets at night, threatened us with arrest for vagrancy. My friends came out of their student houses and went to meetings, argued, wrote leaflets, made speeches, called for strikes, lobbied and took to the streets. It was a way of saying: this town belongs to us too. There was much camaraderie; there were strong friendships, and support, as well as a small group incestuous with destructive relationships and factional splits. Women were marginalised by the left as well, but rescued when the women’s movement began again. We had discovered food beyond Queensland, beyond Australia: we ate olives, rye bread, pasta and tins of curried soybeans. At night we talked and drank and partied on the verandas. We had been pushed to the margins, but we found that standing on an edge, like a veranda, gives you a place to look out on a different world. This was my history, which both linked me with my grandfather and separated me from him. And so I began to write about it, shifting it into fiction when imagination overtook history.

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