Interview with Chris Raja, writer, teacher and playwright
Chris Raja migrated to Melbourne from Calcutta in 1986, and almost twenty years later he moved again, further inland, to Alice Springs. An English and History teacher at St Philip’s College in Alice Springs, Chris was co-guest consultant editor of Meanjin’s Australasian issue in 2004 and since then has been a regular contributor to Quadrant, Southerly and Art Monthly Australia. His short story ‘After the Wreck’ was adapted for radio and broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Short Story Program in 2007. His play ‘Drew’s Seizure’ was performed at Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs in2009. Chris worked as the NT Correspondent for Art Monthly Australia from 2010 to 2011. He and his actor wife Natasha co-wrote ‘The First Garden’ with the assistance of a grant from Arts NT which premiered as part of the Alice Desert Festival inSeptember 2011. Chris has been selected for the Australian Society of Authors 2011/2012 mentorship program.
Synopsis of ‘The First Garden’ –
Olive Pink (1884 -1975) was a botanical illustrator, anthropologist, gardener and a trailblazing Aboriginal land rightsactivist and environmentalist. In October 1956, at the age of 72, Olive Pink set up her tent on the grounds of what is now the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and from this tranquil location she vigorously lobbied Northern Territory politicians to establish a Flora Reserve to protect native flora and provide a site where locals could visit and learnabout desert environments. ‘The First Garden’ is her story. The story of a woman who took no prisoners in her quest to develop her life’s dream; it is also the story of how diverse cultures have valuable lessons for each other.
How has your journeying from Calcutta to Melbourne, and then from Melbourne to Alice, influenced your creative practices?
When I was eleven, I moved from Calcutta to Australia. I am deeply connected to India and Australia and have used my artistic perspective to tell stories that deal with each country’s national psyche. Olive Pink is my subject for Australia and Indira Gandhi is my Indian subject.
In 2004 I moved to Alice Springs and found out about the trail blazing land rights activist, anthropologist, botanist, Olive Pink and her Warlpiri gardener Johnny Tjampitjinpa. For me this is one of the great Australian stories.
Living in the middle of the oldest continent on Earth, amongst the oldest tribal people, I have become interested in deep time. I have come to realise that the history of Australia is largely unwritten, misunderstood and swept under the carpet. Have we been emphasising the wrong history? I can’t believe that all the “Indigenous” Australians came from Africa via India at about the same time. There are so many marked differences between the different language groups in Australia.
The Warlpiri, Arrernte, Anangu people of the central Australian desert that I speak to remember the Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans and acknowledge how tough they were. By and large, it was because of the Indian, Pakistan and Afghan Cameleers and their Camels that the centre of Australia was penetrated. I live on Mohamed Street. When I tell my Indian family this, they are invariably amused: Mohammed Street? In Alice Springs? Who would have thought?
What was the experience of co-editing the Australasian issue of Meanjin like?
The experience of co-editing the Australasian issue of Meanjin in 2004 was wonderful and a real honour. It introduced me to a literary world. I got to read what other writers were writing about. I was mentored by Ian Britain and I learned the importance of good, clear writing. It made me curious to find out more about Australia. So straight after that issue, within a matter of weeks, I packed up and went to live in the desert, to work and live amongst Australia’s Indigenous people.
Is the work of Asian Australian creative practitioners (on screen, and in other mediums such as theatre and writing) getting enough attention in what we colloquially refer to as ‘mainstream Australia’?
Over time, I have come to realise that Australia and India are connected in much deeper ways than I could ever imagine. I’ve come across a number of stories that explore this.
The links and tensions in the Australian Indian relationship can be understood in many ways. The Indo Australia tectonic plate is an illustration of this. The Indo-Australian Plate is a major tectonic plate that includes the continent of Australia and surrounding ocean, and extends northwest to include the Indian subcontinent and adjacent waters. The large crustal plate includes the continent of Australia and the sub-continent of India but recent studies, and seismic events suggest that the Indo-Australian Plate may be in the process of breaking up into two separate plates due primarily to stresses induced by the collision of the Indo-Australian Plate with Eurasia along the Himalayas. The Indian subcontinent, Meganesia (Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania), New Zealand, and New Caledonia are all fragments of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana that once dominated the world. Seafloor spreading separated these land masses from one another, but as the spreading centres became inactive, the land masses fused into a single plate.
It’s more than a hundred million years since Australia broke away from Gondwana. But by this time all kinds of plants and animals were well established. No other continent has stayed as isolated as Australia. Accordingly, this land literally became a life boat, a Noah’s ark for various plants and animals. Life in Australia evolved in a most distinct way for over a hundred million years. Isolation saved many ancient species including marsupials. Even today this isolation has its impacts and expression in various ways.
The Aboriginal people have been in Australia for a very long time. When they arrived is a mystery that is still not solved. Aboriginal culture and art stretches way back into prehistory. When Aboriginal people paint, they express ideas and traditions that go back many thousands of years but these secrets are kept and understood only within the initiated. In rock shelters, secrets were kept. Some of this art or history is so old and mysterious some people believe these secrets were made not by mortals but by spirits. This knowledge is sometimes referred to as the Jukurrpa. Jukurrpa (pronounced joo-kur-pa) is the Warlpiri spelling of the word which is often translated as Dreaming, Story or Law amongst Central Australian desert groupings or clans.
Curiously, the Indo Australia plate is undergoing stress and scientists believe it is going to rupture. The plate upon which Australia rests, extending from New Zealand all the way to the Himalayan ranges – is going to rupture and break in two, changing the very face of the Earth as we know it. 150 million years, when Australia was part of the southern super-continent Gondwana, the birth of the Indo-Australia plate occurred as Australia and India started to move northwards, away from Antarctica, breaking Gondwana apart. They joined to form the Indo-Australian plate we know today, which continues to push northward at six and a half centimetres a year. This event created enormous mountain ranges as it moved north interacting with the plates further north: the Himalayas, New Guinea, Timor, and also New Zealand off to the east.
Naturally, in the same way that the plate undergoes stress from time to time, connections between the two countries are strained from time to time. When I consider recent events such as student bashings or television shows such as ‘Dumb, Drunk and Racist’, I get embarrassed. Australia and India are old and great civilisations. They have deep links geographically and historically and I am proud to be a part of both.
How did you and your wife, Natasha Raja, get interested in writing the story of Olive Pink?
We feel ‘The First Garden’ is a unique, important story that helps explain Australia and its past, and where we as a nation finds ourselves now, better than many other stories we have encountered to date. We hope this simple story will contribute to the national narrative in a way that entertains and educates.
What are your hopes for ‘The First Garden’, and other upcoming projects?
So far I have been involved in trying to understand Territory Nomads, Olive Pink and her Warlpiri gardener, and in my upcoming novel, ‘The Burning Elephant’ I have tried to look at the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
‘The First Garden’ is published by Currency Press. My book, ‘The Burning Elephant’ starts with the assassination of Indira Gandhi and it is completely set in India; however, it is about a family’s journey to Australia. I used this national catastrophe to tell a smaller, more personal story.
You might not expect Olive Pink and Indira Gandhi to be comparable subjects, but for me they reflect a narrative that defines each of their countries. But there is so much more that I am keen to explore. I want to find out more about the Afghan stories and indeed the deeper historical, geographical and scientific connections between the two countries.
Interview with Chris Raja by AAFFN’s Sukhmani Khorana