Essay: Suneeta Peres da Costaon Annandale

A Home in Ananda and the World

The moth, the one on the desk before me, an Indian pantry moth, that has migrated north from the kitchen to the bedroom where I type this, is injured. Its wing (a smudge and soft scattering of pretty russet dust is the only evidence left) got broken, torn, when I tried to lift it with a pencil nib from the keyboard where it seemed to be languishing between letters ‘O’ and ‘P’ without hope or purpose.

And yet, while lamenting the fate of this lame – or is it maimed? – creature it was admittedly I who, insect spray in hand, caused the conditions which have resulted in many, I really don’t know how many, other moths perishing downstairs. As I was making dinner and reaching for some garam masala earlier, I seemed to see another errant one flickering about, looking for a lost partner or relation, somehow aware that all was not well, that a disaster had befallen its noble if delicate species in the territory between cling wrap and legumes.

The difficulty of keeping the moths away from the dry goods and woolens – bay leaves, cloves and lavender balls uselessly scattered on shelves – has preoccupied me for some time now, and in my more frustrated moments (another jar of rice or merino jumper thrown away) I have very nearly called a fumigator. But just as I have avoided using chemicals in the garden, I refuse to contaminate the house with poison, and can’t help but glimpse in the minutiae of these domestic battles waged against insects and other pests, larger allegories of civilisation and decay, ecological catastrophe, and my own creaturely vulnerability.

Virginia Woolf felt a ‘a queer feeling of pity’ for a dying moth – ‘watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body […] He was little or nothing but life’, and the late, great, W. G. Sebald, through his preternaturally sensitive antihero, Austerlitz, described a similar enthrallment:

they know they have lost their way, since if you do not put them out again carefully they will stay where they are, never moving, until the last breath is out of their bodies, and indeed they will remain in the place where they came to grief even after death, held fast by the tiny claws that stiffened in their last agony, until a draught of air detaches them and blows them into a dusty corner.

It’s possible my sympathy for the Indian pantry moth has arisen from a mistaken belief, amounting to a minor persecution complex, that, like the pesky Indian mynah, they hail from the subcontinent where my parents originated. Since childhood, not only moths but all small creatures that are larval, have temporary abodes like cocoons and nests and carapaces, little beasts that inadvertently make their homes in my own or get lost there, have enchanted me. When we were smaller, my younger sister and I would fondly name the huntsmen in our bedrooms, and nowadays I hesitate to disturb the cobwebs which form in the interstices of the brickwork of the Victorian terrace I inhabit, whispering the haiku of Kobayashi Issa –

Don’t worry, spiders
I keep house

I especially don’t like to think of them as being trapped in my own habitat; so, innumerable strategies, some involving water, have been devised by me to save the ants which coalesce in my favourite teacup. In the same spirit, for I don’t know how long the other evening, I embarked on a quest to rescue a lizard from its suicide mission towards the drain of the bathtub. A large piece of newspaper and a close familiarity with Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ helped me think myself into its fragile, frantic state. The battle won, what an immense sense of relief I felt to see it scurry, albeit tail-less, across the cool, dry floor tiles!

Whether this sensitivity may be the latent Hindu in me, or the artist, or simply the husk of my Cartesianism falling away, it certainly did not go unobserved by my ex, a passionate vegetarian, who regarded as suspect the contradiction between my tenderness to living beings and a strong appetite for goat curry. I am not a vegetarian, but I do keep a worm farm for my organic waste. I do not keep a pet and one conscious reason for this is that I quite enjoy the freedom of being able to travel as far away from my home as I please. Recently, during a time of illness, I was instead a homebody; a state which, along with my childlessness, a neighbour’s child found pitiable. It followed that I might like to mind his stick insect while he went on holiday to Japan.

Confined to my house as Spiney was to his large netted tent, I sprayed him with cool mist. As instructed, I made my way to a particularly abundant eucalyptus tree a few streets away from which I clipped branches for his meals. I gently lifted Spiney onto large pieces of bark while changing his water and discarding the tiny pellets of his excreta. I felt not only an identification with, but a responsibility for this tiny life, fretting that one of the magpies or possums or the back neighbour’s cat, might find him a tasty treat. One of his antennae was a little shorter than the other; did I do that? His little triangular face, camouflaged amidst the foliage, his segmented body with which he contorted himself into shapes I could only dream of, were all good company for me, but my overwhelming impulse was to free him.

In these Annandale terraces we share more than walls; we share the sight of the jacaranda flowering in November and the yellow wattle flowering in July. Between the roar of planes on the flight path and the speedy SUVs, we hear the warbling and shrieks of currawongs, native mynahs and rainbow lorikeets. We share conversation: of what we are cooking for dinner, how tired we are from our work-a-day lives, and speculation of which uncouth residents dumped their rubbish, or let their pampered dogs crap, on our nature’s strip. One neighbour who has lived here over thirty years tells me how her children once played, unsupervised, on the street till nightfall; I remember it because it was also the time of my own childhood in another suburb further to Sydney’s west…

Annandale Farm Gatehouse
Annandale Farm Gatehouse by Flickr user Pete The Poet. Creative Commons.

Walking to White’s Creek and the permaculture garden, it’s difficult to imagine these rows of terraces and cottages, now prohibitively expensive real estate, constituted a working class suburb until a few generations ago. Yet, development and developers have long been a part of the post-colonial history of Port Jackson. In the late 1890s Annandale was subdivided and sold in lots by the enterprising English architect, and one-time mayor, John Young. (Young also designed and built parts of St Mary’s Cathedral, the GPO, and the Department of Lands, among other city icons.) The suburb flourished through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with industry such as timber milling, electricity substations and trams, only to decline with the outbreak of the first world war when terrace iron was stripped for the war effort.

In the modest terrace in which I live, complaining that I haven’t enough storage, two families probably originally dwelt together, cooking on an open kitchen fire, as well as toileting and bathing outside. Evidence has revealed soapworks on the Annandale foreshore and a pig lane on the border with Leichhardt; and I play Beattie Bow, wondering whether families made and sold tallow… When gardening, my neighbours and I have found large animal bones which may date to the earliest days of the colony when sheep and cattle were farmed here. At that time Annandale was known as ‘Johnston’s Bush’; it was part of a 100 acre land grant made to Captain George Johnston of the NSW Corps (he later named it Annandale after his Scottish birthplace, ‘Annan’).

Johnston, who had arrived on the First Fleet in 1788, was famous for leading the Corps in the Rum Rebellion which deposed Governor Bligh in January 1808. He himself acted as governor for six months before being court-martialed to England. Despite being found guilty, he was given the lenient penalty of being cashiered with a passage back to Annandale. Johnston would have had a close association with the convicts. An account by the surgeon John White, an early Annandale resident who was also on board the Lady Penrhyn, showed Johnston to be compassionate – encouraging all the convicts to come up together on deck to get fresh air. Yet at Port Jackson, Johnston would have overseen the worst punishments – floggings, treadmills, leg irons, as well as capital offences.

It is known that on the Lady Penrhyn Johnston gave protection to the sixteen-year-old convict Esther Abrahams, a single mother travelling with her young daughter, who had been found guilty of stealing 24 yards of black silk lace –  50 shillings’ worth. She and Johnston entered into a de facto relationship at the farm in Annandale and had six further children together; they married in 1814. It was rumoured that Abrahams, who was Jewish, ran a kosher kitchen; and in its heyday that Johnston’s Estate boasted a bakery, smithy, slaughterhouse, butchery, stores, vineyard and orangerie. But the love story did not end well. Grief-stricken after Johnston’s death in 1823, Abrahams apparently took to drinking, and her estranged son Robert, ‘Squire of Annandale’, succeeded in having her declared insane in a bitter court battle by which means he gained control of the estate.

A larger mystery, one scarcely mentioned in the accounts of Johnston’s legacy, surrounds his involvement in the capture of Arabanoo, the first Indigenous person to have lived among Europeans, at Manly Cove on New Year’s Eve 1788. Johnston was carrying out Governor Phillip’s order ‘to seize and carry off some of the natives’; ‘…to reconcile them by showing the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’ – a lesson that apparently required direct musket fire on the incensed Aboriginal men and women who watched as they departed. In A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, the colony’s writer, Watkin Tench, notes that on seeing himself separated from his tribesmen Arabanoo, ‘set up the most piercing and lamentable cries of distress’.

First Government House, Sydney by John Eyre, c1807. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
First Government House, Sydney by John Eyre, c1807. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

But Tench’s record reveals just as much about Arabanoos fate as it does the colonial attitude of noble savagery which prevailed at the time – an extraordinary blend of racism dressed up as Enlightenment ‘good will’ which enabled the justification of Arabanoo’s kidnap and subsequent incarceration. At Government House, where he is first taken, Arabanoo suffers the humiliation of being put on display for the crowds who watch as he ‘readily pronounced with tolerable accuracy the names of things which were taught him’. He is fed at a side table and, after dinner, his hair is  closely cut, combed and his beard shaved. Tench confides that he himself has the honour of bathing Arabanoo in order that he could ascertain ‘the real colour’ of his skin: ‘My observation then was … that they are as black as the lighter cast of the African negroes’.

When he is dressed in Western clothes and handcuffed, Arabanoo misunderstands what is happening, calling the shackle a ‘”bengadee” (or ornament)…’, yet Tench observes how ‘his delight changed to rage and hatred when he discovered its use’. Tench details Arabanoo’s low state of morale, for instance, that ‘[s]ullenness and dejection strongly marked his countenance’, but is seemingly insensible that Arabanoo’s responses might directly result from the continuous physical and emotional torture to which he is being subjected. He casually documents that, ‘to amuse him’, Arabanoo was taken around the camp to the observatory:

casting his eyes to the opposite shore from the point where he stood, and seeing the smoke of fire lighted by his countrymen, he looked earnestly at it, and sighing deeply two or three times, uttered the word ‘gweeun’ (fire).

Tench relates how Arabanoo is tethered, a convict kept to sleep with him, to follow him wherever he goes; as I read this passage, the imagery of Abu Ghraib and, closer to home, Nauru, Manus Island and, lately, Don Dale, shadowed the text, making it a haunted palimpsest. The beginning of colonisation in Australia was arguably the beginning of a culture of detention, the trauma of which repeats itself in our own time, manifesting itself not only in the dehumanising mistreatment of our Indigenous people, but in symptoms of hysteria about ‘others’, ‘borders’ and ‘illegal boat arrivals’, in harm and suffering inflicted onto the bodies and minds of those dispossessed, displaced and seeking refuge on our shores.

With the outbreak of smallpox epidemic of May 1789, Arabanoo is taken by Governor Phillip to act as an intermediary and tend to the Aboriginal men and women who have succumbed to illness around the inlets of Sydney Cove. Captain John Hunter, who had earlier expressed his surprise at the large number of ‘lively and Inquisitive’ indigenous people he saw at Botany Bay (contrary to Cook’s account of terra nullius),  now expressed shock ‘that where the Caves of the Rocks which us’d to shelter whole familys in bad Weather, were now to be seen, Men, Women, & Children laying dead’. At one harrowing point, Tench observes Arabanoo burying the corpse of an Aboriginal child:

He scooped a grave in the sand with his hands, of no peculiarity of shape, which he lined completely with grass, and put the body into it…

Phillip and Party visiting a smallpox victim and child by John Hunter. Courtesy State Library NSW.
Phillip and Party visiting a smallpox victim and child by John Hunter. Courtesy State Library NSW.

Governor Phillip is moved by his ‘fidelity’ to order Arabanoo’s fetter be removed, but soon after being granted the reprieve Arabanoo contracts smallpox himself. Tench’s tone here veers between defensiveness and bafflement – ‘[I]s it a disease indigenous to the country? Did the French ships under Monsieur de Peyrouse introduce it?’ He is adamant that medicine and doctors are unstintingly provided, but they are useless and – just five months after his abduction – Arabanoo dies. The Governor, Tench adds, having ‘particularly regarded him’ – and as though it might be consolation – ‘caused him to be buried in his own garden, and attended the funeral in person’.

Crossing the border into Jubilee Park, I sit among the Moreton Bay fig trees. The Southern Cross skids across the Milky Way and the lights from Pyrmont flicker on the water. I think of Arabanoo’s fate and of those men and women who gathered at the foreshore for millennia before the shameful skirmishes and massacres, before the arrival of diseases against which they were defenseless, before the deep wounds of the Stolen Generations and deaths in custody that have till recently occupied little space or place in our text books. The time of colonisation indeed seems meagre, infinitesimal compared to the time of Indigenous presence here, as Oodgeroo Noonucal writes in her poem, ‘The Past’:

Let no one say the past is dead
The past is all about us and within
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not all of me…
…A thousand campfires in the forest are in my blood.

My father tells a gullible aunt that I live in a place named Ānanda – the Sanskrit word for bliss – and perhaps if the myth of Gondwanaland has any basis, there is a topographical songline that has led me here, more familiar than the Scottish highlands. Names are important. I was born in Camperdown, in the heart of the inner west, but my Sanskrit first name was given to me that, taken together with my Portuguese surname, my full name might invoke, like Lord Parashurama’s axe, the precise landmark of my parents’ origins. Despite their best intentions, I sometimes felt growing up in Australia that my name was a mouthful, inconvenient to others to pronounce, even preposterous (but I was not as bad as one of my siblings who once presented herself to a youth group camp as ‘Jane’)!

My sense of home and belonging has been so enmeshed with the cultural longings and affiliations of my parents, economic migrants to Australia from Indira Gandhi’s India in the early 1970s, that untangling the threads and finding the ‘I’ at the centre of this skein feels knotty indeed. My father was born in a small South Goa village. A descendent of Hindus converted in the sixteenth century, he grew up speaking Portuguese, English and his beloved native Konkani. A Brahmin Catholic (the Portuguese retained the caste system to consolidate their imperial hegemony), he was schooled at a seminary where he learned French and Latin, developed a love of Christian music and architecture, and probably lost his faith. He was critical of the Salazar dictatorship but also never reconciled to the invasion of Goa by Nehru in 1961 and its subsequent ‘Indianisation’.

My mother embodied another set of paradoxes. Born in British Bombay, just before the end of the second world war, and three years before Indian Independence, she came from a close-knit, pious Goan Catholic family. They were part of the diaspora that had moved to Bombay in the early twentieth century for better work prospects, the British having favoured English-speaking Christians for civil service jobs. My mother’s father was a customs officer and her mother was an English school teacher (on her last trip to the flat she grew up in, my mother was pained to have to discard my grandmother’s treasured but mildewing copies of Dickens, Defoe and Eliot). My mother spoke English at home but would have heard and spoken Konkani, Marathi, Hindi; she learnt French and later, when she went to university in Goa, where she met my father, Portuguese.

Having carried so much cultural baggage to Australia, my parents were often looking over their shoulder to what they may have left behind – people they loved, homes they knew, food, faces, streets and languages that were familiar. We children were often caught between, reluctant interpreters of the new world, with divided loyalties and allegiances to ‘here’ and ‘over there’ (sadly, my parents did not teach us any of the languages they knew). I drew on these ideas when writing my first novel, Homework. In a scene worthy of the novel, on a recent trip with him to downtown Panjim – or ‘Panaji’ as Goa’s capital has like ‘Mumbai’ been reclaimed –  my father began conducting an impromptu poll as to whether Goa had fared better since the Portuguese left. The young woman whom he stopped, a university student, humoured him by agreeing, but of course the question was quaint and even quixotic fifty years after the ‘takeover’.

A renaissance man, my father adored Gough Whitlam and the liberalism he discovered in Australia but he also suffered a nostomania which not much could assuage. In recent years this has resulted in painstaking efforts to restore the Indo-Portuguese house he was born in, a house which my mother to his chagrin showed little interest in retiring to. She never really forgave my father for losing his faith, and he in turn, regarded her as deracinated – but in fact she was a city person who for good reason never understood his nostalgia … They embraced Australia for us, but as I watch them grow older I sometimes wonder whether they ever fully ‘arrived’. Since they divorced a few years ago, I don’t know where to place all the memories; the photo albums are scattered at various abodes, and should I open them, maybe I would fall into my own abyss of sentimental saudade or longing…

Salman Rushdie writes of the peril of the migrant writer who looks back; he cautions that one not only risks becoming frozen like Lot’s wife, but of ‘profound uncertainties’ that issue from the fact that

:our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.

Yet I have been fortunate in always having a close physical connection to India, thanks to my parents who so often took me and my siblings ‘back’ to visit our extended family. Apart from giving me a store of treasured memories, my early experiences of India awakened in me an affinity with Hinduism and Buddhism. Especially as an adolescent, I came to sense the radical contingency of history and time; I saw that, from one moment to the next, by sword or word, I had become a ‘Peres da Costa’ – whereas my Hindu name was likely to have been Kamat. Witnessing the extreme conditions of poverty in which so many dwell in India, also impressed upon me the precariousness and preciousness of life itself.

I came to appreciate what my parents had lost in the migration had on my side amounted to a gain that had immeasurably enriched my identity. Now I know such a rapport with homeland is also the romance of one who, having the right passport, the right of return, comes and goes, moving with Australian dollars in her pocket around places relatively untouched by sectarian violence, Hindu nationalism, and the deep samskara of Partition through which any idea of India, as the essentialist prison of caste, can only be really understood. But I really can’t help admiring India’s pluralism, the legacy of Dr Ambedkar and the concepts of ahimsa and satyāgraha which informed the Independence struggle – even if Gandhi remains a controversial figure in the eyes of many Indians today.

On a recent trip, I felt the spirit of Ashoka was with me as I visited fourteenth to sixteenth century ruins of Hampi and saw exquisite rock carvings of the sixth to twelfth century Chalukya dynasty at and around Badami, which are still working temples; each of these empires ruled Goa or its surrounding regions well before the Portuguese arrived. I travelled to see second to sixth century Buddhist caves at Ajanta with moving jātaka, or paintings of the life of the Buddha; my knowledgeable guide was a Muslim from the neighbouring town… I discovered that Kerala also claims Lord Parashurama parting the waters as part of its founding myth.

Paintings of Padmapani beside the Buddha in Cave 1, Ajanta Caves. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Because I have known just a little of what it means to feel out of place in the country of my birth, it exasperates me to bear witness to the climate of xenophobia in Australia. How strange are the times in which we live, when political discourse about bans on greyhound racing and live cattle export coexists with calls to prohibit Muslim immigration or legislate the right to bigotry. We forget our own illegitimacy, and fail to give our Indigenous people constitutional recognition. Overnight, our Senate passes legislation excising the territory of Australia for migration purposes – having recently gone to war in the very regions from which many refugees are seeking asylum. As I write, there is the Lazarus-like political comeback of particular red-head who inflames intolerance in the name of patriotism in a manner that makes me ashamed to call myself Australian.

I can’t help imagine the immense courage involved in seeking asylum, not only because I am the beneficiary of certain sacrifices my parents made under significantly less duress, but because, had fortune been less favourable, the contingencies of the past different, it could so easily have been them on the wrong side of a war or border. Maybe for this reason, I have been drawn to writers at the margins, those who have been caught between empires, disinherited or exiled. When reading Midnight’s Children in my grandmother’s house in Goa at the age of eighteen, I felt it to be a kind of manifesto, boldly articulating the ruptures that colonialism can affect on identity. In the same way, I was years later drawn to Joyce, whose alter ego Stephen Dedalus, a British colonial subject, aspires in in the flyleaf of his geography textbook to an expanded world-view:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

Literature and its agent, imagination, have always seemed gifts to me in this sense, offering an intimate and compassionate understanding of others and self beyond the narrow limits of national boundaries and frontiers; with the power to transfigure, or at least communicate, the unremitting trauma of exile too. I think of the Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan who, arriving home at the wrong moment in history, found his parents had been deported to a labour camp in Transnistria. Among friends he darkly, jokingly, called himself ‘persona gratata’, but through his poetry spoke a new language to convey the unimaginable sorrow of his loss. In his poem, ‘Homecoming’, concerning his mother’s murder, he wrote:

Snowfall, denser and denser,
dove-coloured as yesterday,
snowfall, as if even now you were sleeping

The late Edward Said eloquently described displacement when he wrote:

exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted…

In ‘Crusoe in England’, Elizabeth Bishop, an orphan who also never really felt settled in the world, reconfigures the journey of Crusoe from the vantage point of his return. Old, bored and weary, Bishop’s Crusoe is not reconciled to his homecoming which now seems just as arbitrary (‘another island that seems like one, but who decides?’). The poem captures the intense loneliness of exile through a series of rhetorical questions, cataloguing Crusoe’s involuntary memories – the proliferating volcanoes, the glittering rollers, the turtles which forever lumbered by ‘hissing like teakettles’. He confesses he often gave way to self-pity – ‘What’s wrong about self-pity anyway?’ – but eventually, having no choice in the matter, made do. He made home-brew, played his home-made flute and sang and danced among the island’s goats who – intelligent beasts – failed to befriend him; ‘Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?’

Works Cited