‘Australia is the best country in the world,’ the headmaster said as Ashok drove the car out of the school’s gates and onto Serpent Lane. The narrow, crowded lane blazed with light as they made their way through the press of people. Govinda and his parents were on their way to the Grand Hotel in Chowringhee for an interview with the Australian High Commissioner, who had come from Delhi to speak to families keen to emigrate. ‘Now your mother and I expect you to behave,’ he told Govinda as the car passed a long row of bicycles, each with a different-coloured seat. An open truck packed with onions and potatoes swerved in front of them. Ashok punched the Ambassador’s powerful horn.
‘Are we going to Australia for a holiday?’ Govinda asked.
Govinda’s parents looked at each other. Ashok drove slowly past lines of beggars and religious mendicants. Seizing his chance, a barefoot boy ran beside the car. He drummed his fists on the doors and held out his palms to Govinda, shouting the street cry of all Calcutta: ‘No sleep, no shower! No food, no power! Twenty-four hour! No mamma, no papa!’
‘You must not forget us,’ said Ashok, as he dodged a careering taxi. ‘So much mixing blood is happening. Americans are having babies with Chinese. Govinda must not forget his heritage. Who knows what traps await him in the jungles of the West. I could never leave here.’
The open windows of their Ambassador let in the smells of petrol fumes, spices, diesel smoke and cow manure. Cars, trucks, buses, scooters, bicycles, trams, oxcarts and pedestrians were bustling about, honking and hollering at each other under the big watchful eyes of Amitabh Bachchan and the all-star cast of the great Hindi film, Sholay. The eyes of Amitabh Bachchan were black and gigantic with irises smeared with pigeon and crow droppings. Neighbourhood gangsters had ensured the sign was never to be removed under any circumstances after the actor had had an accident while on a shoot and local people used the billboard as a place to pray for him. But the beloved actor’s eyes had dimmed with the bird droppings and recent rains.
The street was bound on one side by a foul gutter filled with excrement and litter. Rickshaw-pullers transported their customers, their veins and muscles bulging. Street vendors held up their best wares as they threaded through contesting enterprises. Govinda saw drum-sellers, chai-carriers, incense-wavers, ear-cleaners and monkey-men make their way under Amitabh Bachchan’s persistent stare. How strange it would be to leave all this, he thought.
Nearby, a lorry carrying two caged bears passed in the opposite direction. A man in an orange turban dodged and avoided the truck and an oncoming rickshaw and almost fell under their car. He yelled obscenities. The traffic came to a halt. A thin, bent rickshaw-puller yelled back at the Sikh, but was struck silent when he saw Gitanjali and leered at her instead. His mother did not seem worried. She was looking back at the Sikh with the orange turban. Govinda wondered if it was Mumbles.
‘Baapree!’ the rickshaw-puller gasped.
What was the rickshaw-puller looking at, Govinda wondered? First the cook and now this rickshaw-puller, how could these other men apart from his father look, really be looking, at his mother? Govinda considered his mother. She had a light complexion and almond-shaped eyes. She kept her appearance simple, with long hair and a little lipstick. She wore a blue western dress that revealed her shoulders and legs.
Govinda’s father paused, then turned on the man. ‘What is the matter, friend? Never seen a woman before? Keep it up, and I’ll give you a clout that will send you all the way into the Bay of Bengal.’
Govinda felt himself stiffen with embarrassment, shame and fear. The rickshaw-puller looked at his father.
‘Bhaisahab, sorry,’ he said sheepishly. ‘Madam, I am very sorry.’
‘Go away, you dirty man,’ Gitanjali cried. ‘Get away!’
Govinda was aware a lot was going on but was not quite sure what. He wondered about servants and why there were lepers and why some people were blessed and others cursed. He wondered why some people didn’t like the Prime Minister while others did and why his father wanted to go to Australia. He wanted to know why there were hijras and why Mumbles and the rickshaw-puller stared at his mother in that way. These people want to have sex. They want to use their rude bits, he thought. His father always said he loved his mother, but he never looked at her in the way that these men did, and if he was to ask his father anything his father would tell him not to interfere with adult business. More and more it seemed adults were always playing make believe.
As the car turned into Chowringhee Road the sounds of a loudspeaker could be heard. There was a large demonstration. A Sikh man held up a banner as another spoke through a megaphone protesting about the government. ‘Let us make it clear once and for all that the Sikhs have no designs to get away from India in any manner. What we simply want is to be allowed to live within India as Sikhs, free from all direct and indirect interference and tampering with our way of life. Undoubtedly, the Sikhs have the same nationality as other Indians. It is the government who is saying that we are arguing that we need a separate homeland. A land for the Khalsa, Khalistan, but this is just one woman’s political ambitions.’
As the large group cheered, a man in a blue turban burned an effigy of the Prime Minister. Two policemen looked on as a police jeep approached the scene to assist. Another policeman stood in the jeep waving his lathi. He shouted a command in his megaphone at a Sikh man, who yelled back using his megaphone while waving a poster of Bhindranwale. Each tried to yell louder than the other.
‘Sectarian problems,’ Sunil Seth said, shaking his head. ‘This can’t end well.’ Govinda immediately thought of Mumbles and his family.
The large and opulent hotel where they were going for their meeting had a white marble façade and a wide driveway. At the entrance they were greeted by liveried doormen, but were not allowed to enter because a suitcase had been left unattended nearby, and the staff didn’t want to touch it. Several thuggish-looking policemen came to take a look. Finally a woman in a saree arrived and claimed the case as hers. The family passed through a foyer with a floor of white marble and illuminated with giant chandeliers, each glass prism glittering. At both ends of the room were oil paintings. Fans circled between the chandeliers overhead. Govinda was immediately struck by the number of Americans and sheiks dotted about. All were well dressed, all looked a little sickly, and all talked in loud, merry voices to solid and prosperous Indians. He was sure that they were selling or buying. ‘Pearls’, ‘bonds’ and ‘pharmaceuticals’, were words he overheard. It seemed everyone was aware of opportunity and certain that all was theirs.
Govinda and his parents were smartly dressed for the occasion. His mother had a new navy dress tailored specifically for the interview. His father wore his favourite navy-blue blazer and his school tie, and Govinda was wearing his school uniform.
His father persisted in telling his mother to check her bag full of papers to see that she had everything in order. ‘It’s all here, Sunil,’ she whispered as they entered the commissioner’s suite for the interview, ‘Don’t worry.’
The Australian looked them up and down. He quietly read their file. He eventually raised his head and said he was very happy with their application. Govinda could tell his parents were making a good impression with the genial High Commissioner, even if his father was trying a bit too hard.
‘What’s your full name, mate?’
His father’s jaw was clenched. He was leaning in close to the heavy, teak table. Govinda had never seen his father so anxious. ‘My name is Sunil Earl Seth.’
‘And the young fella’s?’
‘His name is Govinda. I very much want him to get out of India.’
An Indian waiter brought in glasses of iced water, which no one touched. Govinda’s mother placed her hand on her son’s shoulder. She held it there gently.
‘So what’s your reason for wanting to move to Australia, Mr and Mrs Seth?’
‘We are educated people eager to make a contribution,’ said Gitanjali. ‘My husband feels that his great personality is being thwarted.’
‘It says here you have relatives Down Under?’
‘Yes, yes. I am telling you, it will be a family reunion.’
‘Family is a good thing. That is in your favour. But tell me, why do you want to leave India so urgently?’
‘How come we want to leave? Naturally for our child. We think Australia is a land of opportunity. We can create a future there for our son. In India everyone has a label. You are Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or Muslim but in Australia everyone is equal and everyone can be free. In Australia everyone is Australian.’ Govinda saw his father as being too eager. He looked small like he had when he stood near the rampaging elephant. He was not godlike at all.
Gitanjali lovingly touched her son’s face. He felt perspiration on his mother’s soft hand. But something else was revealed in their conversation with the amiable Australian that had a lasting effect on Govinda. Looking at the papers, the commissioner asked him, ‘How old are you?’
Govinda kept his head down and pretended he hadn’t heard, he was thinking of elephants, bhelpuri, monsoon rain, holi, babus, fishing, singing, school, his teacher, his classmates, ice-cream, Ashok, the race track, the goat, Tenzing, Nitesh. A thought shifted; he realised he did not want to go and, inexplicably, he kicked the commissioner, who bolted upright with a crooked smile.
‘What did you do?’ his father exclaimed.
Govinda stayed quiet; his face burned. ‘I am cold with the air-conditioning,’ he said. The commissioner stood up. He held onto his leg and reached for a glass of iced water.
‘An old sporting injury,’ he said. ‘Do you like sport, Govinda?’
Govinda nodded. The commissioner went to his suitcase.
‘If you are coming to Australia you are going to have to get your priorities straight,’ he said and handed a box of cards to Govinda. It was a set of Australian cricket stars. Govinda had wanted these cards. He’d seen them, coveted them, and now he had them. The Australian option seemed very good suddenly.
No one said anything outside the hotel after the interview. The Sikh demonstrators seemed to have disbanded. As they walked to the car, they passed a red, stencilled portrait of a famous Chinese leader on the street corner. Govinda had seen the leader’s face before but could not remember his name. They stopped at a sugar cane juice stand. A man wearing a white t-shirt, blue lungi and a green turban turned a large wheel that crushed sugarcane and ice through smaller wheels. The juice dribbled through a strainer. As he poured the yellow liquid into a glass, Govinda saw another man dressed like a porter in a red shirt and a white dhoti, he held a stick in one hand, who seemed to be giving an impromptu concert complete with dancing bears that enthralled a crowd. For small change, he got his bears to stand on their hind legs and clap their paws. The bears obliged with the saddest of eyes to the delight of the crowd. A little dog ran in front of one of the bears and let out a burst of high-pitched barks. The crowd laughed louder. Govinda’s father looked at his mother and said, ‘I can no longer deal with this. I want to experience a new life in Australia.’ His skin looked grey and he appeared helpless.
This extract appears in The Burning Elephant, first published in 2015 by Giramondo Publishing, reprinted here with permission and available now.