Here’s a piece of geographical trivia: India and Australia were once connected as part of the supercontinent Pangaea. The landmasses drifted apart millions of years ago, but even today their contours fit like pieces of a complicated puzzle. On a recent trip to Australia, I discovered other lasting connections between India and Australia that transcend geography and defy the miles.
The connection first became apparent in the iridescent plumes of a peacock roaming majestically in the Bongrong Wildlife Sanctuary near Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. I had gone to see the Forester kangaroos, but instead what caught my eye were the peacocks, their ancestors having travelled with British émigrés who left India to settle in Australia. Against the backdrop of vineyards painted in burnished orange, the peacock seemed an anomaly. Stopping for a cup of hot chocolate, I would see more vestiges of British India: in an antique shop, there was an intricately carved mahogany chest that belonged to an old British colonel; across the street, a bearded café owner paid tribute to the Devi in his calligraphic hand.
My eyes still saw the blue of the peacock as my guide Cheryl Dix, a huge Hindi film buff, drove me to the quaint town of Franklin to meet Richard Clements, one of Australia’s best known ornamental glass designers. On way, Cheryl regaled me with Bollywood stories. As the saying goes, Hindi is “Greek” to her, but when a Bollywood movie is on she hurriedly hazards a guess about the story line. The plot is irrelevant, she told me; what matters are the songs, drama, costumes, and tear-jerking moments.
Clements, the glass designer, made us a quick cup of Darjeeling tea before turning an ordinary tube of glass into an exquisite perfume bottle that could adorn the shelves of museums and private collections worldwide. He loved his art, he told me, but what he waits for is the Indian curry that his 84-year-old father prepares each weekend. The octogenarian engineer spends hours in the kitchen, flipping through dog-eared recipe books and preparing the dish to perfection.
I would learn later that Indian cuisine is so popular with the Australians that in Adelaide alone there are about 120 sit-down and take-away Indian joints. Tandoori Oven is the most famous, and has won best restaurant and food awards consistently over the past decade. Owner Pomi Sandhu describes the extent of his restaurant’s appeal: “There are so many regular Australians who walk into Tandoori Oven that on some chairs I have their names etched in brass.”
There is one patron who everyone recognizes in Jasmine, the restaurant run by Sandhu’s mother. Donald Dustan, the premier of South Australia and a cooking enthusiast, often exchanges recipes with Anant Sandhu while sitting on a bag of rice stacked by the kitchen.
I was in Australia, encountering India everywhere. At the Lark’s Whisky Distillery, Bill Lark told us tourists about spirits made in India. At the Sorrel Fruit Farm, Bob Hardy lauded an Indian strain of mustard that acts as a natural fumigant on his 10-acre fruit farm that has 30,000 strawberry plants and 2 km of berry trellises.
Then, at Kangaroo Island, which is often rated one of the 10 best islands in the world and called Australia’s Galapagos, I found another striking connection. Kangaroo Island is seven times the size of Singapore, with a population of 4,300. There may very well be more koalas, kangaroos, and fur seals on the island than humans! Priyanka Chopra and Harman Baweja shot the futuristic Love Story 2050 on Kangaroo Island. In the film, you can see a lithe Harman serenade a pretty Priyanka while sea lions laze after a day in the sea and koalas snuggle up a eucalyptus tree. The two stars also croon a song at the Remarkable Rocks, a colossal rock formation sculpted by nature over millions of years ago.
As I stood before the rocks, I was reminded of Captain Matthew Flinders who, in 1802, mapped the coastline of Australia. He later wrote a tome on his escapades. As destiny would have it, Flinders died a day after his book hit the stands, but even 200 years later nobody in Australia has forgotten the cartographer. India and Australia may no longer meet in mass, but it seems fitting that what Flinders discovered hundreds of years ago can be seen today in a Bollywood film.
Preeti Verma Lal has worked as a journalist in India and the United States. She now lives in New Delhi, freelances for several publications, and runs her website: www.deepblueink.com