“He came here because of Donald Bradman. He was a little boy, listening on the radio in India, to the Bodyline series, and he never forgot that.”
An audio snippet from this interview with Reita:
Perhaps you could start by giving us a sense of a typical day for you.
Do you know, because I’m starting the journey of my third career, a workday, given what teaching is like, is often a weekend day as well. I get up at 6:00am, shower, dress. Then I have a cup of tea and I skim through of the news headlines online. It’s my only 20 minutes to myself in the morning. At 7:00am I wake up the kids, and it’s go-go-go-go-go from there till about 7.00 at night.
You get to the classroom, prepare it. Parents are in the classroom early. You’re talking to them. You’re catching up with that they need for their child that day. And at nine o’clock, bang, it’s teaching time. There’ll be the odd hour which I have off for planning, but other than that, it’s yard duty, photocopying, grabbing a bit to eat, catching up with colleagues if you can, grabbing this library book that you need, chasing that colleague down over a collaboration in the future or something that might be planned together that week.
At 3:30, you’ve got to talk to parents and have follow-up conversations about certain children or issues that may have needed a little bit of extra support that day. You keep thinking, “I have to do this, I have to do that, I have to photocopy this, I have to photocopy that, I’ve got to laminate that, I’ve got to do that display board afresh. I’ve got to clear up that. That looks so messy. I’ve got to tidy that.” And then you get to the staff room, and you do your photocopying, and you sit down and you do your emails.
And then the light fades and you know you’ve got to start going home, because you’re exhausted. And then you get home, and you either lay out things for dinner or you catch up with various people. I try to sit down and watch my favourite TV show. And we eat, and we talk, and we crash. And so I’m in bed maybe 9:30, 10:00pm, and then I do it all over again.
And on the weekend, we get up a little bit later, but there are three loads of laundry to do. There are meals to plan. There’s shopping to do. There’s the two cups of tea over maybe a couple of hours in front of the computer, doing reading, Facebook, just sitting there sometimes, looking out the window, watching the seasons change, talking to Jono, waiting for the kids to wake up, which can take hours. Thinking about cleaning the house, but not, really. And sadly, you know, there’s not a lot of time for me to think about catching up with friends. And my poor mum, she’ll ring. She’ll always ring me. I’ll very rarely ring her. And we’ll chat. And she enjoys talking about the teaching. She can relate to it. That’s been fun. But it’s basically more of the same. It’s a pity that I don’t see my weekends differently. I think about what I have to do for work, and there are a couple of hours of work maybe on a Saturday, and then there’s about four hours on a Sunday. And so you’re balancing headspaces. And it happens all over again each week.
Now, you mentioned your mother. One of our reasons for getting together was to talk a little bit about your family migration story. Your family haven’t always lived here, have they? Where did your parents come from, to here?
They emigrated from the north of India, from a little town called Ajmer in Rajasthan. And it was November 1970 that they landed in a plane. And our first address was a little flat in Coburg. Lovely little place. And it was me, my two sisters, and Mum and Dad. And then, in a couple of years, my younger brother was born.
Now, am I right in thinking they came via Ethiopia?
Yes. No. We all came from India. I know that my sisters and I were in India for a while with the relatives, because our parents were packing up the house in Ethiopia. And they may have been in India for a little bit. I’ve never figured out the dates. But it’s something like being in Ethiopia from 1962 to 1970.
So I want to come back to their experience of coming here. What have they told you about what life was like for them in India?
It was very family-focused, huge extended family. It had the routines of family life. There was always an academic focus, I guess, because Dad and Mum’s family really valued our education, and they were both teachers, but they taught in different schools. And sometimes they had to relocate to little towns, to where the jobs were. But mostly, I think it was a happy time. I think Dad was perhaps a little bit more adventurous. He loved to read newspapers and think about the world at large.
They were born in ’31 and ’34. I don’t know how they felt about India. I mean, I know Mum had a lot of responsibilities. Her Mum was actually very ill, and so she was responsible, from the time she was 15, for managing the household and her younger siblings. And there were a few, four or five. Dad had a large family too, but he was the oldest. And so he was working on being a teacher. Again, where? I don’t know. Mum has actually told me, and it makes sense. We used to have slide nights, and they were the happiest times. I could tell my Mum and Dad, when they saw those slide nights that they’d relive their lives in this town and that town, this place in India and the years in Ethiopia, they loved those years. But I think they felt they had to get out of the small town. I think that’s what led Dad to move out of India.
When did they leave for Ethiopia?
They moved there in ’62. I don’t remember much, other than lights. You know how your earliest memories are to do with lights? So I remember, in Ethiopia, the harsh sunlight through a window in a darkened room … because of the contrast. I remember doorways, and walking through tall grasses. But I don’t remember much of anything else.
What took them there?
Dad was applying for jobs. And at that time, I think the Italians were still around. There were a lot of Italians in Ethiopia, because of the colony. And he could see that there was this little slice of Europe in the hugeness of Africa. And also Africa was an amazing time in the 60s. When they got there, they had so many friends. They befriended missionaries. They befriended Peace Corps people. They befriended all these people from an international community, who were living and working in Ethiopia. But sadly they don’t mention many Ethiopian people. There was the ex-patriot community of Indians who had really good jobs in Ethiopia, because I think one of their friends was a consul to India. That’s where they met an Australian missionary, from Sudan Interior Mission, a beautiful friend of theirs that they kept up with for 40, 50 years. And I think that was their first exposure to somebody who was Australian. Well, they used to go out to picnics and these wonderful road trips, packing up everybody, and they’d take out their picnic gear in classic Indian fashion – your puris, your chickpeas, your curries; beautiful food laid out in the middle of nowhere. But often it was around where the Nile was, because they’d go to places that had water sources. And there was always the threat of crocodiles; you couldn’t get too close to the water. They started camping.
My parents never camped in India, but they got a tent and they used to go camping in Ethiopia. I don’t know where they used to camp. It wouldn’t be out in the open. It would be near other people. I don’t know if I told you this, but once, they were camping somewhere, and hippos came out of the water and started eating the towels in the middle of the night, and they just had to sit there and wait for the hippos to go away. That was one of the things that would happen to you if you were in Ethiopia. And Mum and Dad used to tell me stories about crocodiles that would come and take children who were swimming in the waterholes, or women. And when the hunters would hunt down the crocodiles and they’d open their tummies, there’d be all this gold jewellery and bangles.
So Dad was a little bit scared of water after that. He also had a childhood incident where he fell down a well. His mum and dad were screaming. And somebody told his parents, now, if he comes up a third time, he’ll live. And then they see him bob down, and he’s under the water. And it’s always very superstitious. This numerology thing is big in Indian culture. And the third… He came up the third time, and they got his arm, and he’s out of the water, and he’s nearly drowned. And he’s only a little kid who had been playing near a well. So he never, ever learned how to swim, nor did Mum. And we never got taught how to swim. We’d go to lessons at school, but there was something about… I don’t know what it was. None of us ever learned how to swim. It wasn’t ‘natural’.
At some point, your family moved back to India. Were you born there, or were you born in Ethiopia?
I was born in Ethiopia. They’d been there four years, and I came along. And I had curly hair. The other two had straight hair, so I was really quite odd. I was bigger as a baby. And I think mum was relaxed by the time she had me. Yes. Because in Ethiopia, they had a couple of servants, but it wasn’t anything like India, with the extended family, or shops around the road. At first, when they landed in Ethiopia, it was a country town in the middle of nowhere. They got to observe rural cultural and traditional life in Ethiopia, although they had a western house. Their servants had those beautiful thatched houses with stick construction. And some of the most beautiful slides my mum and dad showed us were from huge gatherings in Ethiopia, where everybody came on a particular occasion. And the priests, the Ethiopian orthodox priests, are in amazing get-ups. There are flags, and ceremony, and smoke, and beautiful, big crosses. And the women would be in their muslin, white dresses. It was beautiful.
What took them back to India?
Dad used to say that the political climate was deteriorating. There was an independence movement, and there were people fighting for sovereignty in Ethiopia, and so it became a little bit more unstable with that process.
I think Ethiopia’s always been one of the more stable democracies, but there were just a lot of things going on. There was a monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie, and then were probably different political parties. I don’t know exactly what was going on. Dad only used to say that it was getting unstable and that he was looking for a way out, because they could see that what was once idyllic was not the case anymore. Even though, at that stage, the late 60s, from ’65 to ’68, were some of the happiest years. They were in Addis Ababa the capital by then. That was where I was born. And Dad had a really good job at a high school, and Mum was teaching too, and she was at a girl’s school. And they really enjoyed their jobs. And there was the three of us.
But I think it was that, because, in ’68, we went on a family holiday all around Europe, in this little Fiat, because Dad loved small cars. (His car in Ethiopia was a little blue Volkswagen in Ethiopia, with the number plates were in Amharic.) And so they’re driving everywhere in this tiny little Fiat – to Yugoslavia, to Greece, to England, to Scotland, to Italy, to France. And they loved that… staying in little pensiones, just moving around, sometimes camping. They have all these souvenirs. Those were our family treasures. On quiet nights in Coburg, the big, tartan suitcase would come down, and slowly they’d unwrap the newspaper that was covering all these beautiful souvenirs that they’d had from those trips they’d had. Then they got a wall unit, and the things started being up there, and they became really normal, and they weren’t that special to us anymore.
What do you remember from your time in India, before you came here?
Only smells. It’s funny. I remember the smell of honeysuckle. My grandmother’s garden had all these luscious flowers. So I do remember only the honeysuckle and ginger, because when dad would make masala chai, it would be that smell, the beautiful, sweet smell of ginger. And when I went back to India as an adult, with a girlfriend, I remembered the smell of the dust that’s everywhere. It’s beautiful. It’s the smell of India, that beautiful dust, dung, and diesel. It’s a mix. It’s very toxic, of course. People go around with masks. But I love it. It’s so exciting. It’s a smell where you know you’re far from home. You’re nowhere near home. There’s something about that dust.
How old were you when you came here?
Just turned four.
So what was it that brought them here, to Australia?
I think they were in Ethiopia, and Dad used to get all these overseas newspapers. And he was looking for teaching jobs. He’d cut out things that he’d thought about. And I don’t know if he and Mum talked about it or how they came to decide where they’d go, but he remembered that there was a job in Canada, and there was a job in England, and there was a job in Australia. And there were two jobs in Australia. And I knew he loved England. I don’t know why he didn’t choose England, because I know he had this lovely, idealised version of the British, even though he also used to tell us stories about the British robbing the Indians of various things, including their independence. But then he’d say, well, they built the railways. And he was a big railway fan.
But no, he came here because of Donald Bradman. He was a little boy, listening on the radio in India, to the Bodyline series, and he never forgot that. He never, ever forgot that. And he remembered that Australia was this cricket-loving nation. It had to be a cricket-loving nation. And then I said, well, how did you choose Melbourne? Because there was a job going in Orange or Bathurst, one of those places. And then there was a job at Newlands High in Coburg. And he said, “Oh, I didn’t know anything about anywhere, I just picked Newlands on a whim”. And so he landed in Melbourne on a whim.
What did your parents say about how life changed for them, coming to Australia?
I remember, overnight, Mum stopped wearing saris. And it was kind of sad, because the rustle of the sari and the feeling of silk when you’re close by to someone, or when you’re a little child that high, and you’re holding somebody close, it just felt different. She would wear pantsuits. Now, I asked her about this, and she said, Dad thought while you’re here, you should westernise your wardrobe. But I don’t think Mum would have done that if she hadn’t wanted to. I’m not sure. I really don’t know. She had (still has) beautiful hair and beautiful skin. Yes, she’d have her hair up for about a few years. My brother was born, and then the hair came down, and she had perms.
How did life change for you? There was the absence of the saris, your Mum’s saris.
The food was still Indian, we still cooked Indian. And I remember – because, in a flat, you smell whatever any other tenant is cooking – she would cook this prawn and eggplant curry that I hated the smell of, and the neighbours were so jealous of because they could smell it. For me, I can’t remember enough of life in India. I do remember that people would have siestas in the afternoon, and that there were servants, and there was a lot of space. Dad used to live with his parents, and they had a huge house, and there were servants. In terms of life changing for me, all I can remember is that life was in a small flat, but my sisters were very kind to me. And then kinder was fantastic. I made friends. Mum would walk me there and walk home. I can’t remember the timing, but she started working … it must have been after my brother was born. She had her hands full with four kids, and they bought a house, then, in Craigieburn.
How did their migration experience affect the way they raised you, and your relationship with them?
Well, I think Dad’s idea was to come into a country and to be western. So whilst we ate Indian food, we all dressed western. This is the saddest thing. He would ask us to speak in English back. They’d speak Hindi to us. It’s not that they actively discouraged us from speaking Hindi, but they reminded us to speak in English. This was still during the White Australia policy. So we grew up understanding a little bit of Hindi, but not being able to speak it. That was the biggest thing, I think. When you get older, you realise that there’s a certain violence that happens, when a language is taken away from you and you grow up monolingual when you needn’t have. I grew up not wanting to be part of India, because I didn’t feel Indian. I felt Australian. And I think that’s what Dad’s priority was, to make us feel Australian, as we certainly did. And he fell into that idea of home ownership, buying a house. And so, soon, we bought a house far away from anything, not like Coburg. But it was the way he thought that people did things in Australia. And he had his work, and Mum had her work. I guess that’s something we have the luxury to reflect on, a generation later. They just got on with it. Life was busy – four kids, work. Dad was a high school teacher in Maths and Physics, and Mum was a primary teacher, middle years, three or four. And every weekend was busy with friends and picnics, and that was a continuation of their Indian culture, that you’re very connected, socially, to friends and family. We had some family here, and they had lots of friends. And they’d go on picnics. I notice that the other women were in saris, some of them.
Primarily Indian friends?
Yes. They went to an Anglican church, so they had lots of Australian friends as well, and dear Australian friends. But primarily, they were Indian. And they had parties at their house. And Mum would cook all day, and the house would be full of people. It was really lovely. I think that was a continuation, because of culture, too, food. Food and culture. And sometimes there’d be music, Indian music – those awful, tinny pop songs by Indian vocalists, that I hate but they loved. But they also had their Jim Reeves records and their Johnny Cash records, and James Last and Victor Silvester. And they used to listen to 3AK. That’s what led me to loving growing up with cocktail music. Even music now, that I hear, that references the 30s and the 40s and the 50s and the 60s, it’s closer to me than things that are more contemporary.
When we took a break for a moment you were thinking a bit about migration as an experience of loss.
I feel loss at not having one particular culture I can say I am part of. At school I remember a lot of racism, because there was not much cultural diversity in Craigieburn so a brown face stood out. But Dad always helped us process it wisely, saying racism came from ignorance. So we were kind of inoculated against the poison it may have wrought. I had really loyal friends, and a wonderful family. But that was another indicator that unless you had some kind of singular narrative, you didn’t fit in. I wasn’t angry about that racism until much later. Now of course, when we’re having national debates about racism in Australia, it’s even more important to talk about it. I can’t even sing the national anthem because in that “Australians all ….” I have never felt included, always having to answer that secondary question of “Where are you really from?” whenever I’ve answered “Australian” to my nationality.
Well, you can’t truly say that you’re completely one thing or another. That’s a type of loss. Nobody has a complete sense of belonging. Where do you completely belong with no doubt whatsoever? But I think it’s more than just ambiguity. Because you’ve traversed both cultures, three in my case, I don’t feel I can fully own any of those, and that’s where I feel that sense of loss. I’m someone who just wants to be Australian. And yet why would I deny my Indianness? It is so rich and wonderful. And I don’t deny it. I just want to simplify things. There’s a thing about touch and sense and light and smell that goes to the deepest parts of who we are.
And Mum would show us how to put on a sari, only when we had these big events to go to. And mind you, I’ve only worn a sari once in my life. And it was such an art. It was so complicated. That’s why I think she relished wearing western clothes. But I remember when she’d say, “Now these have to be knife pleats, and they have to be six inches apart, and there has to be one centimetre between each pleat,” and that was the preciseness. I think that’s when she takes a pride in the ceremony of that culture, the ceremony of her womanhood as an Indian woman. And telling me, “You really need to learn this recipe. You know, I’m not going to be around here forever”. That’s a big one. And she’s right. So I’m starting to take down the recipes. I’m starting to practice the recipes. In fact, in Jono I’ve married this beautiful (Anglo-Australian) man, because he wants to be Indian. I want to be Australian, he wants to be Indian, so he’s learning my mum’s recipes with more patience than me, with more diligence, with more attention to exact detail, because I’m a bit of approximate, and you don’t mess with an Indian recipe.
So he’s learning Mum’s channa masala. He’s learned the lamb saag. I’ve done the biryani. These are massive. These dishes take days to shop for. It takes a whole day just to cook them. You need 100 million pots, pans. You’re frying that nut. You’re frying these spices. You’re frying those onions. It takes the whole kitchen, that kind of space, but Jono’s up to it. So he’s coming from an Anglo-Celtic background. He’s revelling in that richness of culture. Whereas, I’m revelling in cauliflower cheese and rhubarb crumble. Gee, I love cauliflower cheese. I love it so much! It’s just a cheesy pudding. That’s comforting. And, you know, anything with potatoes.
That disengagement has actually distanced me from that sense of culture, but Indianness is more than that. I think Indianness has got a very specific place in the world. And when I went there in ’93, I remember there were all these almost socialist billboards everywhere. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated before that, and it was very much a socialist country, India aligning with Russia. I don’t know what it was, but it was certainly not looking towards the west. There were always Indian cars on the road. I’d go back there recently, and there are shopping malls that look like shopping malls everywhere. And there are, you know, walls with moving graphic advertising billboards three storeys high, and there are all these different cars on the road, foreign made. And I’m thinking, this is just like home. I guess I know that’s what globalisation promises and offers, but there’s a sense of loss, too.
But you go back wanting that smell of dust and diesel, and the little rickshaws. In fact, my children preferred those to cabs, everywhere, because there was that note of difference that makes something unique. And if you looked at us now, I think I’d probably relate to the India of the 70s. The India of today is just technology and so sophisticated. I’m unsophisticated.
In what other ways has your family’s migration experience affected you and shaped the person that you’ve become?
I’ve realised nationality is not one word. It can’t be. It’s not an easy answer, because it’s taken me a lifetime, and I’m 50 now, to actually have rehearsed, practiced or honed down something that was really complicated, that could be a paragraph, into this neat little summary. And I still don’t know if it’s correct. For instance, I describe myself as an Australian of Indian parentage, who was born in Ethiopia, or an Ethiopian-born Australian of Indian parentage. But that’s taken a lifetime. But Ethiopia-born, I’m proud of, because I love big, continental Africa. It’s messy. It’s vibrant. It’s fighting globalisation and yet it is globalised in the worst and the best ways. So that’s a part of me. But when I went back to Ethiopia, whilst I loved the culture, and I would always tell people I was born in Ethiopia, and they were pleased to hear that someone had come back, I knew, when you fly away, that wasn’t me. At least, that’s part of my experience, but it’s not me.
And then, when I went to India, it was so mad and crazy and wonderful and culturally exciting, and the smells. Sometimes you don’t have words for things, but that smell, I think that was really… I feel home. But I knew that I wasn’t like anybody there, and I couldn’t speak the language. Language is important. I like feeling invisible when you dress in Indian clothing when you’re in India, that was an amazing, beautiful feeling, where you’re walking and I think, nobody’s looking at me, wow! And I thought, wow, this is who I am. But of course the minute you open your mouth, it’s clear you are not a local.
And then you come back here, and I never cooked Indian food. In fact, a beautiful Pakistani friend of mine inspired me to cook a curry for the school fete, and that’s when I got in touch with Indian food. Mum had always tried to teach me Indian food. She said, you really have to learn these recipes, and I half listened, and some of them that I really wanted to learn, like the really sweet, unhealthy stuff, I learned how to do, but not the vital stuff that you need to know, the staples, the things that are her legacy… the good dhals, that dhal, this curry. Sporadically, I experiment.
And then I went back to India with the children, and I saw the country as a westerner. It was beautiful, and I knew it was magical, and the children responded to it instinctively. They didn’t need anything to be translated for them in terms of the poverty or the social values, the cultural… You know that anachronistic jump you have to make as a westerner in a strange place? Thankfully, they understood that instinctively, and that’s when I thought, maybe we’re above this. Maybe I came back here, and I just want to feel Australian. When I was young, I used to do all these road trips. We’d travel, with my girlfriends and I, and we’d just drive in a car, and you’d see all these wheat fields, these flat roads and the hard light. The light is the thing… When you come back to Australia and you see the light, it’s one of those motifs that tell you where you are, and that’s what I feel. The space, the light is important to me. And that’s why I feel Australian: the seasons, the crazy weather in Melbourne. That’s so natural to me. Nothing else is. You go to somewhere, and the weather’s stable, and it’s 25 every single day, every single day in Addis Ababa. I check the weather now. You can hear, watching the TV, checking the world map, and they’ll go… ‘in Addis Ababa it’s 25’, and I think, yes. It’s four degrees at night, but it’s 25 during the day. It’s high up, this beautiful mountain air. And in India, I only go there in the winter. I only go there in the winter, because the heat is unbearable and the heat, and you’re climbing stone steps, and it’s that shimmery heat. You could pass out. No, I don’t go in any other season than winter, and it’s beautiful, but it’s steady. It doesn’t rain. I’ve never seen rain there. I’ve only had two short trips. I don’t remember the rain there.
But here, when you’re somewhere for 47 years, and if someone asks you what nationality you are and you say Australian, but where are you really from? That question has started to really bug me. You sigh, and it’s tiring and it’s boring to have to repeat. Well, I was born in Ethiopia, but my parents are Indian. I’ve been here since I was four. And then that makes sense to them, but it’s like you’ve had to explain why you’re brown, and that’s the key to that question. And I know that, in a fully globalised society, with the Indian diaspora what it is, we’re everywhere. There must be millions of people going through that question.
And it always comes back to race. How do you see yourself as a product of race? And I know now, I’m a black woman. And I know people say brown when they talk about Indianness, but I actually prefer to call myself black, because, to me, there’s a dichotomy. There’s black. There’s white. And people say, well, maybe the black experience is different to who you are as a brown person. I’m going, no, you’re either a minority or you’re not. And even when I’m talking to my children I say to them, I might look brown, but I’m a black woman. And I think, when I say that, I’m standing in solidarity with aboriginal women, with Indian women, with African American women. I think all of us have something to learn from each other. Inuit women. Native American women. I think, with race, you’re either dominant or you’re a minority. And the way we talk to each other has to be making those kinds of connections. What’s your experience like? What’s your experience like? What’s…? How do I explain mine to yours? And I’ve only been able to relate to that, or identify it, more recently, because I think the African American struggle in America’s really spoken to me. I love watching documentaries about race in America, because that conversation opens up so much about stuff, that even in Australia, people are not comfortable talking about. And I’m feeling it much so, because now, with all the Islamophobia: we’re on the number 19 tram route in Brunswick, and poor women in hijabs are being spat at. I’m in solidarity with them. I don’t want that to happen. So, I will sit next to a women in a hijab and smile and make sure that she feels that she’s not alone. And I tell my children, what do you feel like? Or who are you? You have maybe the chance to be whoever you want to be. I must ask them, because I can’t remember what they say, but it’s an interesting, nuanced… They go, well, I’m half white and I’m half black, or they’ll say it like that. And I’ll think, I put that into their mouths. I’m not sure if I’ve asked leading questions, but I know that they all have to choose, and I can’t. But I want to know what they feel like.
And I think my parents still felt Indian, although Dad knew he’d made a life for himself. They were Australian citizens really early. We all were, from ’74. I think Dad would still say that he was Indian, and Mum would still feel she’s Indian, if you asked her. I’m not sure. I haven’t asked her. But if you ask me, I’m Australian. I have an Australian husband. I have Australian children. I was Australian before I married them and had them. And I’m a product of three continents, and I don’t know what that means. I just want to be home. This is home – this light, this space, this dust, this… Yes. This density in Brunswick. This population.
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