Thursday, 27 November 2014

India 1980, India Now; the India in me

No sooner had I taken a solitary step from the barely manageable chaos of Delhi airport into the heaving uncertainty beyond, than I parted company with about ten Australian dollars; the equivalent of at least a full day’s living. A conman had successfully spruiked a bus allegedly city bound that was, in fact, fixed to the spot. This experience shaping occurrence was 34 years ago, almost to the day.

As all good salesmen do, he recognized his customers. The ‘lame duck – never been to India’ label was clearly pasted across my forehead in all the languages I couldn’t speak. He knew the going rate for the bus to the centre of the city, so offered me a figure clearly within the guide book’s ball park.

Handing over my money, he scrawled something on what looked like a ticket and told me to wait ten minutes. I waited longer having heard about ‘Indian time’. I could have waited ten years. That bus was going nowhere. In the meantime my money served to confirm his accuracy in spotting innocents abroad. As such I’m sure he was back at work perusing arrival flights bearing foreign backpackers just as gullible as me.

After cursing my own pitiful naivety, I got it together enough to negotiate myself onto the right bus and later found some accommodation. Once I had caught my breathe I quickly realised I had to wise up. My lame duck persona was a beacon to the street smart. If unable to take heed my three months of funded travel around the country was likely to last me about a week.
My second visit six years after my first happened to coincide with the last year an Indian Prime Minister visited Australia; 1986. And not stopping there; on the same trip I journeyed to Dharamsala, the north Indian home in exile to the Dalai Lama, and he was touring Australia. What the...?

Now I am back in India and the newly elected Indian PM with a pop star following, Narendra Modi, has just been to my homeland.  Meeting the Australian PM, Tony Abbott, would have presented him with its own challenges regarding Australian values and idiosyncrasies.

India is the first country I visited on my own. It is where, while on the back of an elephant, I proposed to the beautiful woman who became my wife. It is the country our second daughter’s middle name bares. It is where my ideas on life were confronted; my values challenged. The safe boundaries that had defined the suburban boy were now porous. Never again would my upbringing be the key shaper of my outlook. The horizons of my world had expanded tenfold in this very place. Indeed India had taken some of the Australian out of the boy - and I never got it all back.
It was from this land I learned to open my eyes and my heart. It started me along the road of my toughest juggling act; the contrary arts of toughening up and opening up. Almost twenty eight years to the day, I have come back to a place where part of me was re-born, so in this regard it is a homecoming.

PS. As an interesting aside, the same Australian PM told the media and assembled throng of Modi admirers that he had backpacked through India. As it happened his time coincided roughly with mine. He too said his values and attitudes had been challenged. It seems we went through similar experiences yet our attitudes headed in opposite directions. A line from former PM, Paul Keating, comes quickly to mind. The major difference he said existed between his lot and ‘the other mob’ was that they have ‘miserable hearts’. Mine appeared to open, the Australian PM’s appeared to close. Asylum Seekers - I rest my case.

A kids take: toking on a smoke

When I was a kid most people older than me smoked – including my mum and dad. Mum smoked cigarettes until into her late sixties and dad smoked a pipe until he was diagnosed with kidney trouble that required dialysis. Some nurses, as mum was, could smoke with the best of them. But journalists and writers, such as my dad, well they needed to smoke because it apparently helped them with their work.
The natural connection between the great outdoors and reflection could only be fully realised with the assistance of a pipe for it undoubtedly enhanced the writer’s creative process. If you don’t agree, have a look at this photo of my dad walking along a Melbourne beach in the 1950’s, taken for a newspaper article promoting one of his books.

I distinctly remember the aromatic smell of pipe tobacco. It was pleasant and alluring and it meant I was around dad, so comforting too.
Curiously no under-age smokers appeared to smoke a pipe. Maybe smoking cigarettes was an apprenticeship for the pipe.

I was about ten or eleven when I considered it time to start my apprenticeship. I had observed lots of people smoking and all the smoke it produced. It just looked so stupid. Yet, it was clearly the thing to do because my neighbour, Bruce Shorland, had started. He would have been about a year or two older than me while his brother, Alan, was a year younger. We hung out together.
There were also lots of guys on the TV smoking. Mostly they were good at doing men things like lassoing cattle, driving trucks, using tools and talking to women. The last had the least appeal to me. I had two older sisters and I avoided speaking to them unless strictly necessary. The Marlboro Man was definitely the coolest of all despite the women thing.

Bruce knew stuff. If I followed his lead my pursuit of knowing stuff would come quicker. He was even prepared to risk the consequences of telling an uncomfortable truth. I realised this a few years earlier when the three of us were playing under my house when he suddenly challenged the sacred cow of the Christian child’s universe. ‘Guess what?’ he blurted. ‘Santa’s not true. It’s your parents.’ Alan and I stared at him and each other in amazement, shock and disbelief. Bruce may have known stuff but this was a preposterous claim and Alan and I held tight. Later Alan, holding back tears, told his mother what Bruce had said. Marjory was outraged so big brother received a hiding and was sent to bed without any dinner.
This served only to enhance his appetite for being a rebel. Bruce arranged for us to go with him to meet a group of other kids under the bridge by the creek near Warrigal Road. On arrival there were six or seven boys, some older, some my age or younger and they were all smoking. There was not a lot of talking. One of the older boys blew a smoke ring. How amazing was that. ‘Do youse guys smoke?’ came the question from someone. This appeared a challenge of sorts, like ‘prove it’. Bruce had already told us to tell the others we smoked. Maybe by doing so he would accrue brownie points in front of his new mates.

So some cigarettes were offered around and Bruce, Alan and I all took one each. Bruce lit his first (from someone handing their lit cig) and then lit ours. He could do the draw-back which meant he could really smoke and was possibly on the way to being able to do smoke rings. Alan looked nervous. I drew on the filter and coughed. In the same breath I said, ‘must have gone down the wrong way’. The other guys could see through me and laughed, but accepted my feigned bravado with tolerable grace.
The part of my brain tuned in to good and bad sensations clearly registered this as non-pleasurable. Sucking smoke into my gob – why? I masked it and said, through my coughing ‘yeah, I like to smoke’. This was my first big venture into being one of the boys and I was seriously conflicted.

Sometime later I ended up paying for a packet of Escort 10’s. I guess Bruce got them from somewhere. I realised they were a badge of honour. I also knew that I would be much happier giving them to others than smoking them myself.
I had been able to avoid a return to the creek since the earlier episode. This was mainly because, though unspoken between us, Alan was on the same wavelength and we found excuses not to go. This turned out to be fortunate for it led to my first epiphany.

For Bruce had then introduced us to another taboo – ‘naughty magazines’. We soon had heaps of these stashed in our various cubby houses. There was something about them that was exciting and adult. Looking at them entranced me in ways I had not previously known. The sense of anticipation and awe at flipping through the pages because it was ‘wrong’ made this secret pleasure even more tantalising and addictive.
I still had my Escort 10’s tucked into a hidey spot of the cubby. One day a friend of Bruce’s visited. A few minutes later I was offered an incredible deal - to swap the cigarettes for a stack of these mysterious and exciting magazines. From that moment on I learned a couple of perplexing truths which throughout my life would require attention and good management.

The first: Marlboro Man was onto something after all by talking to those women. They clearly liked him because of his cigarettes and even smoked themselves. I hated the cigarettes but began to like women (girls) as I grew up. My conundrum was that I would not smoke another cigarette. I therefore had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to overcome this distinct disadvantage in attracting female company as clearly smoking was a magnet. Secondly, could I be liked for who I was and not some false image I projected? Then, in what was appalling timing, I became a teenager.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Fog, dog and father's weird machine

The mum of the 3 year old smoking the pipe wasn’t his mum then. He hadn’t made it into the world at that point so neither was he a glint in his father’s eye or Chadstone’s youngest pipe smoker. He was literally nowhere or no one.
Had there been no dog, maybe his mother would never have made it back that winter’s night in 1957 from the outside dunny. If she hadn’t, the father’s glint would have amounted to nothing. Life’s evolution and how moments decide whether someone is born and to which parents is so random.

Had the yet to be mother of the 3 year old Chadstone pipe smoker married the American serviceman she met while he was stationed in Sydney during WW2, then instead of smoking at 3 this boy may have been chewing tobacco or learning how to use firearms. But because of other events beyond the control of her American fiancé, (such as Japanese military might in the Pacific) he wasn’t able to come back and pick up where he had left off, marry and take the Sydney girl back to the USA.  No, he was strafed while in the water and died a horrid death.

Maybe the woman, who ended up the mother of Chadstone’s youngest pipe smoker, was thinking about whether she would have been out in the fog on a winter’s night going to the toilet had she ended up in America. She doubted this and it made her slightly peeved because it was dark and freezing and she was busting. As a result she lost focus.
Whatever she was thinking about, it wasn’t useful in helping her gain her bearings after she had been to the toilet and tried to make her way back to the house. That the toilet was some 10 metres from the back door was not ideal. 

She would not have been happy that her bladder had decided to give her a sign so late at night and it gave her no real choice but to go outside in the pitch darkness and the fog soup. It wasn’t ideal either that the woman’s baby daughter (the only child at that time) was asleep in the house when the woman started heading out through dense fog in the black of night across paddocks and away from her house and daughter. The woman became slightly panicky that she had become so disorientated. The outside porch light and the whole house were lost in the eerie evening fog.
Instead of walking around in circles the young mother from Sydney, whose only association with fog was related to Sherlock Holmes novels where he would peer out his window to look down at the freezing streets of London, stopped and considered what to do. Wisely, she called the dog’s name ‘Kim-Bo, Kim Bo’.

She called it twice. So that means he didn’t have a first name that was the same as his family name or just a first name, or just a last name like some Brazilian soccer players.
Being a loyal and smart dog he was upon her in a couple of minutes sniffing about and wagging his tail. He may have been curious but would not have asked questions for dogs back then were outside and this was unexpected company. (Also, though smart, he couldn’t talk). Now there was a woman and a dog lost in the fog. However, the woman was confident the dog would be able to help her find the way home and she was right. He did. Fog is apparently not an issue for dog’s and directions.

Had the 3 year old been born and in the house with his sister, he would have been chain pipe smoking, worried that both his mum and his dog were outside and lost in the fog. He may well have got bored with the typewriter because whatever reason his dad sat by it for so long as if playing the piano, the boy could not fathom. He was up for a short play and a photo shoot but beyond that there was nothing going for it.

His dad happened to be a journalist and writer and not that the boy knew at the time but in the 50’s and 60’s there was a definite link between writers, beaches and pipes.

Monday, 17 November 2014


That’s the little guy in the photo. He has a story - as all little guys and girls do. Provided they are fortunate to grow into adults, they have seen a lot including a lots of changes. That photo was taken in about 1964 in a suburb of Melbourne called Chadstone. Somewhat surprisingly for those who have ever been there (not the shopping centre, the little piece of suburb around it) this suburb could possibly rate highly in a range of competitions:

·        The most non-descript suburb in Melbourne - Chadstone

·        The suburb with a shopping centre taking up the highest percentage of square metres of its total land area - Chadstone

·        The suburb known for nothing but its shopping centre - Chadstone

·        The only suburb in Australia where its shopping centre's expanding car park took over a Catholic teaching college - Chadstone

·        The suburb newer residents with an eye on property value like to call Malvern East, or perhaps Malvern East East - Chadstone

·        Where mother's stopped their kids from playing down near the creek as it had become too dangerous on account of the creek being turned into a freeway - Chadstone

·        Where one mother measured the arrival of her third and final child, a son, (said 3 year old) by the fact that he arrived either just before or just after the completion of the shopping centre - Chadstone

·        The suburb given the name 'Chaddy Beach' for an end of year student party because a student from Campbellfield asked if Chadstone had a beach - so for that one night it did - Chadstone
Yet when the parents of the little guy in the photo settled there back in the late 1950's it was not considered a suburb - it was the Back of Bourke. They had moved from South Yarra and their friends were stunned to learn they had bought a block of land so far away.

In order to allow builders onto the block to start building the house, the little guy's parents spent weekends chopping into the gorse (sort of prickle bushes). Back then the creek at the bottom of the unpaved road was a creek. Freeways were modern objects of awe on black and white television from America. Creeks were safe here!

There were so few houses in the vicinity when those parents moved in that it was possible to get lost. And one of them did. That's a story that involves thick fog, a dog, an outdoor dunny and darkness.


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Over the last two years I have had the honour of working on a project whose vision was realised today. Chris and Jai Dimstas, husband and son respectively of Natalie who passed away in very tragic circumstances five years ago, now have the book about the way she lived her life - to the max!.

Jai was only 18 months old when his mum passed away. His dad's vision, for Jai to learn about his mum through the eyes and hearts of the many family and friends she loved and who loved her deeply, is now complete. Being just over six years old, he is still a few years away from reading it on his own. In the meantime all those whose anecdotes about Nat fill the pages will have the opportunity to have a good read.

It will require a few tissues but the laughs to tears ratio Chris and I believe is about 5-1. By wanting this book to be written Chris has honoured Natalie in a deeply personal yet public way. I thank Chris and Jai for trusting me as the author to bring this wonderful person's life back into view.