February 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Mind the gap

By Nic Low
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
A travelling library in India

It’s a hot night at Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus. Outside the rail station, five writers, an industrial designer and three organisers are haggling with a group of sinewy porters. Strewn about, as if dropped from a great height, are two dozen assorted pieces of luggage, plus a portable library.

In the age of the e-reader, we’re crossing India by train with six huge suitcases full of books. They’re bound in kangaroo leather, transform into bookcases, and collectively weigh a quarter of a tonne. The porters heave them onto trolleys and name an outrageous price. We make a great disgusted show of unloading the trolleys. After much arguing in three languages, the porters throw the cases back on and push the trolleys into the station at a run.

We’re in India for Bookwallah, a roving writers’ festival. It’s also an experiment in cultural diplomacy. The human chain loading luggage into our second-class carriage has Australian writers Kirsty Murray and Benjamin Law handing gear to three of their Indian peers, Chandrahas Choudhury, Sudeep Sen, and Annie Zaidi.

“I didn’t know any Australians before this trip,” Zaidi tells me. “I didn’t even really know there were Australian writers.”

Bookwallah is a chance to expand Australia’s image in India beyond cricket and racial violence. But instead of a fly-in, fly-out celebrity showcase, we have writers from both countries travelling 2000 kilometres together by train across southern India. They’re sharing the stage at festivals, swapping stories and exploring India with other local writers and artists. So far we’ve visited the Mazgaon fish markets at dawn, eaten in the tiny restaurant where Choudhury both wrote and set much of his forthcoming book, and walked one small corner of Mumbai by night.

The travelling library is loaded into the luggage car alongside motorbikes, cartons of bottled water and a simple wooden coffin sealed with gouts of red wax. This first journey will take us nine hours south to Goa. After days of highbrow discussion at the Mumbai LitFest, the writers seem keen to take it down a notch. Law leans over from the top berth to crack disarmingly filthy jokes. Zaidi keeps wanting to feed us. We talk about books and travel and families. The train gives a gentle bump and begins to move. As an organiser, I feel nervous and excited, like a parent at an arranged marriage.

The justification for lugging along a pop-up library is that Australian books are practically unavailable in India. Visiting Australian authors operate in a vacuum. Murray and Law selected the books to fill the custom-designed library. They chose titles influential to their own work and those they considered important to Australian writing, as reference texts for the audiences to browse. Complete sets of the books are also to be donated to five local libraries along the way.

At seven the next morning, the train hits Goa. We have just a few minutes to get everything off. The travelling library, worth many thousands of dollars, is stashed somewhere in the distant luggage car. We’re half asleep. It’s already 30 degrees. Choudhury leads the sprint down the platform.

The cases are located and handed down, but something is wrong. They’re dripping wet and smell foul. They teem with flies. Evidently, during the night, the luggage car has been further burdened with crates of fish. Melting ice has dripped a fishy marinade all over the cases. The library’s designer, Georgia Hutchison, on tour to look after her six creations, stands blinking at them under the fierce Goan sun.

“You look like your children have just been murdered,” says Law.

We load the cases into the back of a truck and rush them to our guesthouse. Hutchison spends the afternoon scrubbing and swabbing the leather with eucalyptus oil. The books are miraculously dry.

That night, in the lush tropical garden setting of our makeshift Goan writers’ festival, an audience member in her late 60s asks about attacks on Indian students in Melbourne. There’s a sudden sharpness in the air; you can sense everyone shifting in their seats. The question is put to us again in Bangalore, followed by one about whether it’s hard coming from a country lacking roots. In Chennai the race question comes with a suggestion that Australia resembles apartheid-era South Africa.

The fireworks that follow are energising and useful. Law and Murray decry the violence and mount passionate defences of Australian multiculturalism; Sen and Zaidi make pointed observations about India’s own racism. Other audience members tell off the questioners. There are also brief, awkward discussions about Aboriginal Australia.

Beyond polemics, the questions reveal a lingering stereotype of Australia. As Murray puts it, “It’s an idea of Australia from a generation ago.” The writers point to books in the collection that directly tackle the stereotype. Murray recommends a number of multicultural authors. Law talks about his family’s migrant experience. These are small steps, but it feels good to take them.

By the time we reach Pondicherry for a writers’ retreat, we’ve been on tour for three weeks. The schedule has taken its toll. We’ve played bureaucratic pinball with a dozen officials trying to get permission to set up the library at Chennai Central station, launched the Bangalore Literature Festival’s program, performed alongside Sufi musicians, met arts minister Simon Crean and have long since got to know each other in super-heated train carriages. Journalists keep asking the writers whether there has been friction. Sen, tired but crisp in his black kurta, replies deadpan, “It’s almost sickening how well we get along.”

Nic Low
Nic Low is a New Zealand–born writer, artist and arts organiser.

From the front page

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

In This Issue

Black Saturday, Kinglake. © Dean Sewell / Oculi

Next Time

The lessons and literature of Black Saturday

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

An expatriate returns

Canberra, ca. 1915. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Growing pains

The nation’s capital turns 100

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Australia II and Liberty


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Where did all the bogongs go?

The drastic decline of the bogong moth could have disastrous ecological consequences

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

ANAM Set and music in lockdown

The project that commissioned 67 Australian composers to write for each of Australian National Academy of Music’s musicians in lockdown

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Flooding back

Watching the Brisbane River swell, once more, to a destructive force


Online exclusives

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history