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.

Cover: February 2013
View Edition

From the front page

Composite image of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (images via ABC News)

Border farce

So much for the national plan

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions


In This Issue

Day of the jackpot

Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Antarctic cruise II

Following Shackleton

Nick Cave in Copenhagen, 2010. © Gonzales Photo / Demotix

Astral travelling

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ ‘Push the Sky Away’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Killing time

A murderer’s plea


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Close to home for Katy Gallagher

Life in quarantine as COVID-19 hits Senator Katy Gallagher’s family

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

A loss of character

Remembering some of Sydney’s well-known streetfolk

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The agony and ecstasy

Clinical trials in Perth will study the use of MDMA to treat PTSD and addiction

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Return of the devil

Tasmanian devils may soon be returning to the wild on the mainland


Read on

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions

Image showing from left: The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Gladys Berejiklian and Thomas the Tank Engine

The little premier that might have

Does unquestioning, childish enthusiasm have a place in politics?