Essay: Christopher Rajaon writing

A Quest for Pure Fiction

“Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab

— Herman Melville

‘Speak, Camel.’ This is my quest for pure literary fiction. My novel-in-progress happens to be set in nineteenth-century Australia and is about the experiences of an Afghan cameleer, Khidr, and his six camels: Qaswaa, Adbaa, Abu Jahl, Batool, Laila and Benazir. But I want to escape or transcend the sometimes fetishistic period detail of historical novels such as clothing, whips and steam ships and focus on the temperament and inner life of my characters – including the camels. The material below is drawn from notes I had made for my novel to make each of my camels unique:

Qaswaa had a rich chocolate-brown coat. He was larger and heavier than the other camels. The big boy had a soft palate which hung out the side of the mouth when inflated, producing a large, bright pink sack that he used in the hope of attracting the females. Male camels are polygamous and Qaswaa was no different. He would mate with numerous females. Qaswaa was not easily spooked or flighty. At twelve years of age, he was in his prime, had great endurance, was fast in long runs, could carry cargo and handle terrible conditions. He could live up to forty years. When measuring Qaswaa, Khidr’s father, Ismail, taught his son not to measure the height of the hump as that may vary with the amount of food and activity an oont had undertaken. Ismail had castrated Qaswaa when he was no longer needed for breeding, as this eliminated aggressive behaviour.

Adbaa was a supreme oont, strong, fearless, yet also trusting and delicate so that she responded well to gentleness. She was much leaner than Qaswaa, had a light brown coat and was eleven years old. Mother of Abu Jahl, Adbaa was just a very happy camel, good natured, very relaxed. Occasionally she would be bullied by the domineering Qaswaa but they had a deep bond and even that mighty mule showed her deference and would not get in the way of her and their calf, Abu Jahl.

Abu Jahl, the calf, enjoyed caresses on his smooth honey-coloured cheeks. He was a social animal and easy to train. Camels are very social animals. Son of Qaswaa and Adbaa, Abu Jahl had all the characteristics of a lead camel even though he was born on the ship. A typical herd of camels was led by one dominant male. At approximately two months old Abu Jahl began to graze on grass and would be weaned at four months. After the age of one a male calf should be moved on from the herd. His father would tolerate his being part of the caravan until then.

Batool was a reddish-brown camel. She was very curious, keen to come over and investigate anything new and interesting. Batool liked to sniff everyone and everything. She was Adbaa’s sister. At three years of age, she loved to eat grasses on the ground but best of all she loved to follow Qaswaa and attempt to reach up into bushes and trees for leaves. Khidr found food was a beneficial tool and Batool would willingly follow him for a bit of her favourite hay or fruit. She moaned and groaned when she didn’t get her way and Laila was quick to try and comfort her.

Laila looked like an older version of Batool. She was sixteen, demonstrative, protective of Batool and jealous of the other camels. Laila was Adbaa’s sister and Abu Jahl’s aunt and mother of Batool. She was happy being led by Qaswaa but resented it when Adbaa and Abu Jahl got too much attention from him.

Benazir was calm, quiet and very intelligent. She had a light brown coat. Benazir was also Abu Jahl’s aunt. She had a shy temperament. Just like the other camels she could recognise Khidr’s voice anywhere and was happy being led by Qaswaa.

This novel is an artistic attempt to talk about Australia’s past. As an immigrant of South Asian origin, and someone who lost a parent in difficult circumstances, I believe in the healing power of reading and writing fiction. Historical fiction can be more accessible to a general readership than much professional historical writing and, as historian Ian Britain has observed in a conversation we had, it serves to ‘penetrate the parts that conscientious history books, tethered to their documents, cannot reach.’ But fiction writers themselves have to be wary of piling on too much background detail in the interests of colour and authenticity.

For years, I had immersed myself in classic cultural histories and ethnographic studies of Central Australia (works by Baldwin Spencer and T.G.H. Strehlow for example) and studied the life and work of explorers and missionaries as well as anthropologists. I also started to search the documents on camels, read articles, looked through archives as I helped digitise the Strehlow archive and in the process, I decided I would find out as much as I could about the Afghan camel drivers who operated in outback Australia from the 1860s to the 1930s. Cameleers, I learned, were transported to and from Australia every three years to explore and later service the continent’s inland pastoral industry by lugging freight using camel trains. They were referred to as ‘Afghans’ even though they were from various parts of British India and the world: Egypt and Turkey, as well as India and present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Camel drivers set up stations and outposts, known as caravanserai, throughout inland Australia, connecting the coast and the bush until the 1930s, when they were basically substituted by trains, automobiles and roadhouses. Camels, and their handlers, were indispensable to the exploration and settlement of the desert country where the environment was too severe for horses.

Knowing such things is necessary for writing about the subject if you don’t want to commit anachronisms that sap plausibility. But after a time, there’s a dryness to such research and a limit on how far it can take you as an artist. I’d duly read Wikipedia articles and historical documents, but I didn’t want to ground my story in them. Aiming at a pure piece of fiction, I have wanted the reader to know only what I let them know through what my characters, and particularly my protagonist, Khidr, think, see, feel, experience – and, preeminently, feel. I want to get to the base of feeling. And this was something I could not get from simply looking at archives, old photos and talking to other people. As a writer I am interested in the inner selves of people ­– and of other animals. I seek to go beyond the external details of setting and context and historical time, which is why this novel is closely connected to dream states and poetry.

This year marks the seven hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death. The Italian poet knew how to convey the feeling of exile. The plot of The Divine Comedy is this: a man undertakes a journey, which leads him to visit Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His guides are Virgil and Beatrice. In my novel my cameleer and his camels walk with five scientists and two Aboriginal guides named Top Hat and Donkey and they encounter a variety of characters along the way. They visit or inhabit earthly equivalents of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

I have written and rewritten my novel several times to make my characters and story come alive in English knowing that my characters would not speak the English that I know – but this is a novel. The past is another country, or a complex of countries and cultures. I’m interested in crossing cultures – with sensitivity. There’s a risk of ‘appropriation’ or ‘projection’ and, with those camels, of a corny anthropomorphism. But without taking and managing such risks, we’d risk killing off the very possibility of fiction and the chance it offers to give an empathetic voice to creatures, human and animal, that for various reasons, have not had one.

I don’t want to keep writing novels from the point of view of an Indian, that is why I have chosen to use an Afghan cameleer as my main protagonist, though I inevitably draw on my family heritage as well as my Australian experiences. My having lived in Kolkatta, and also Melbourne and Alice Springs, pervades everything I write. The more time I spend on my novel, however, I free myself from my own memories and research; my novel departs from personal and social histories and moves towards a form of emotional exploration that combines my identity and embraces Australia’s complex heritage. I had to leave historical records and family memories aside and go to a deeper, more empathetic place. This was and remains a mysterious place. I want to limit my own vocabulary, introduce different argots, make the work poetic through the use of language, metaphor, onomatopoeia, rather than documentary or realistic. For example, my protagonist, Khidr, has a special healing power. He is a hakim. So I had to learn something about the hakims’ expertise in techniques of traditional healing, yes, but in the novel my main concern was to invoke the patois of the hakim and create a unique or hitherto unexplored argot for Australian literature. I did this in order to get to his feelings on being placed in a quarantine camp as soon as he arrives in Australia, as well as to the feelings of those who have to confront this stranger in their midst.

This work, like much of my previous writing, is about exile, border psychology, land, loss, masculinity, male friendships, violence, and healing but, having written a play relating to such themes (The First Garden), a novel set in the recent past (The Burning Elephant) and a memoir (Into the Suburbs), I am now experimenting with a new mode.

I’m interested in the tradition of war novels. The Things They Carried. All Quiet on the Western Front. Fly Away Peter, A Long Journey into The Night. The Lost Thoughts of Dead Soldiers. The Man Without Qualities. Voss. the Iliad. Right up to David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, which won this year’s International Man Booker award. I’m interested in child soldiers, perceptions of war and suffering, various depictions of war. These works consider what makes us human and inhumane, the sacred and the profane.

My grandfather received a Burma medal. My uncle, Sushil, travelled from Mumbai and worked in Afghanistan providing medical supplies. My cousin, Keith, left his home in Chennai and spent time in Afghanistan ‘driving trucks’ and later took his life. I am lucky I have not been to war but I have witnessed sectarian violence and am acquainted with violence in the Australian outback. The kind of violence I have seen though was horrific and I try and purge this in my writing. In India my family saw Sikhs burn after the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. I wrote about this in my YA novel The Burning Elephant, in my teenage years I was beaten by gangs in suburban Melbourne, my father’s body was found floating in Brighton Bay. I’m not a hakim, or a cameleer, but my protagonist is and so I have had to learn a lot along the way.

Patrick White’s Voss dominates the Australian literary landscape. To me it is the great Australian novel and I often thought about rewriting this book from the perspective of the cameleers. I think my present novel is a contribution to the conversation that Patrick White started in Voss. Here the man with the vision is the man with the camels – the man who will be expended the moment he isn’t useful. And his vision is humble and flawed rather than arrogant and flawed. But what if we went further and also saw Australian history through the camel’s eye? Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey, Melville’s Moby Dick and Jack London’s White Fang present the world through the perspective of various animals. Virginia Woolf wrote a biographical novel about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s household through the eyes of a dog called Flush. Dumb Witness, where a dog is the only observer of a murder, allowed Agatha Christie to indulge in her love of dogs. Perhaps only animals can tell us what it is to be human? So when considering titles for my book, I’ve been tossing up between ‘The Cameleer’ and (echoing Nabokov’s Speak, Memory) ‘Speak, Camel’. I haven’t settled on a name yet.

Camels are migrants to this country; they are well suited to the Australian continent, and have adapted and settled in all too successfully. These creatures were introduced to Australia around 1840 and they continue to run wild and breed in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Queensland. There are now more than a million feral camels in Australia and we have no clear plan about how to tackle this situation. They are mostly found in the arid heart of this country. These even-toed ungulates have spread into farmland, and desert communities are overwhelmed by them.

Samia Khatun’s Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia (2018) considers the interconnecting history of the South Asian and Aboriginal Australian worlds in the British Empire. This book very elegantly shows how different nationalities and ethnicities were grouped together in the Australian imagination as ‘Afghan’. For example, across the book’s chapters, Khatun tracks a book of Bengali poetry in Broken Hill that was thought to be a Quran. Khatun asks two important questions with her work. Firstly, ‘Who was the unnamed traveller who brought Bengali stories of the prophets to Broken Hill?’ Secondly, ‘Can historical storytelling in English do more than simply induct readers into white subjectivities?’ Such questions had been forming in my consciousness, and I’d been prompted to start researching them before the publication of Australianama or the subsequent release of Roderick MacKay’s movie about a fictional cameleer in Western Australia, Furnace (2020).

I owned a house on Mahomed Street in Alice Springs for many years, and before that, on first moving to the Northern Territory in 2004, I had occupied a unit in the suburb of Sadadeen, named after a cameleer. Emigrating from Kolkatta to Melbourne when I was a boy of eleven, I have felt deeply connected to and passionately curious about both India and Australia from early on, and in adulthood I have used my artistic perspective – an outsider’s perspective, an immigrant sensibility, someone who has lived and worked with First Nations people for fifteen years in the centre of Australia – to tell stories that deal with each country’s national psyche. The trailblazing achievements of land rights activist, anthropologist and botanist Olive Pink, whom I found out about when I went to Alice Springs, provided my first subject for an Australian story, and the tumultuous times of the storming of the Golden Temple and Indira Gandhi’s death, which coincided with my departure from my birthplace, was my first Indian subject. More recently, I have written a memoir, Into The Suburbs, that recounts my adolescence and my challenging adjustment to a new life in the Australian suburbs.

Going on to live in the middle of the oldest continent on Earth, living alongside First Nations people, I became interested in deep time and came to realise that much of the history of what we now call Australia, both before and after white settlement, is largely unwritten, misunderstood and swept under the carpet. Have we been emphasising the wrong history? By and large, it was because of the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan cameleers and their camels that the centre of Australia came to be settled by outsiders. There’s a long pre-history to this, extending far beyond Australia.

The camel has been domesticated and used as a pack animal for travelling and transporting goods for more than three thousand years. These animals are capable of carrying heavy loads and walking long distances. They have the ability to lose almost half of their body weight without serious consequences. The hump on a camels’ back stores fatty tissue, which the camels’ body has access to as a nourishing source of sustenance when food and water are inadequate . When water is available to them again, though, they have the amazing ability to drink many litres in minutes. Camels have a special place in most of the world’s great religions yet in the desert I would often see camels shot and their carcasses left to rot. On the other hand, there was the annual Camel Cup that I attended each year in Alice Springs.

I became interested in camels when I lived on Mahomed Street in The Gap in Alice Springs. The house was built on top of the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan Cameleers’ marketplace. My children were born and raised there and we had a vegetable garden filled with camel manure from my mate Marcus’ camel farm in Ilparpa. Another friend, Neil, would wrestle, capture and slaughter wild camels and take their meat to the butcher for petfood. He found this very tough emotionally. When I tell my Indian family all this, they are invariably amused: Camels? Mahomed Street? In Alice Springs? Who would have thought?

As far back as I can recall, Afghans have lived in the Indian city of Kolkata, my birthplace. My Afghan aunt, Laila, would knit my cousins and I cardigans when we lived there and tell us stories of her country of birth. Thirty kilometres south-east of Melbourne’s city centre, is my other home, Dandenong, with its own Little India and Afghan Bazaar precincts. In Melbourne and Alice Springs, I taught a vibrant and diverse range of students including the descendants of cameleers. After writing my play about Olive Pink and being invited to work at the Museum of Central Australia, I had what only can be described as a spiritual awakening, and I began to have dreams of an Afghan man with big hands. These dreams or hallucinations, my research on the cameleers in Australian and South Asian History, and the time I’ve spent directly observing camels have all led me to my present project.

More generally I’ve been reflecting on ethnic and other kinds of diversity. I couldn’t help noticing how my parents had hit a glass ceiling in their careers in Australia. At university, in the early 1990s, I discovered Edward Said’s Orientalism and did my honours thesis on perceptions of India with special reference to E.M. Forster and Nirad Chaudhuri. Said’s work was a revelation. I could see how his ideas about othering applied in popular culture and in high culture, not just in the Middle East but also in the way we viewed India and Australia. While at university I lost my father, who had become frustrated and depressed since coming to Australia, and I have written about this in my memoir. I began reading novels, and kept a journal to deal with my grief. I read Kipling’s Kim and Foster’s A Passage To India, and after Said, I also read Indian authors like Nirad Chaudhuri, Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureshi, and VS Naipaul.

Nirad Chaudhuri was particularly important to me. He wrote Autobiography of An Unknown Indian and A Passage To England, which was what prompted me to compare him to Forster in my thesis. I also loved the other Indian authors I mentioned, and the range of their work and diversity of their voices appealed to me a lot. I thought I should write in a variety of styles and modes, as well as subjects.

Geography matters – where you write as well as the places you choose to write about – and so does history, the times in which you’re writing as well as the times you might be writing about. Yet literature as an art form, the literature that will endure, cannot be constrained within those finite limits and, ultimately, does not have a nationality or a time frame. So I often argue and try and convince myself that I don’t take labels too seriously, and have fun playing with place and time as well as with a variety of voices, styles and genres. Diversity is not just about species and race. It must also embrace ideas and values and how we shape, form and articulate them. These things need to be diverse – and continually contested or debated, rather than just affirmed or dismissed according to some prescribed community standard of a particular time. That’s what I hope to provoke in and through my new book.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Christopher Raja on Wednesday 10 November 2021.

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