In one of softer moments in his latest book Talking to my country, Walkley award winning journalist and Wiradjuri man Stan Grant said, “Watching my son sleep, hearing his steady breathing as we move through our land, calms me. I could be alone forever in these moments, surrounded by my country and with the boy whose bloodline through me stretches back an eternity”. Mostly a fierce polemic on the gulf that separates Aboriginal from non-Aboriginal Australians, this is one of the few points in the book that acts like a safety hatch, allowing an escape from the suffocating burden of the history of settlement, and wonder at the timeless experience of being a native.
As a recent migrant for whom Australia’s formative skirmishes serve as a mere backdrop, this pervasive interplay of weight and timelessness, which, as Grant vividly illustrates, is how many Aboriginal people have always felt, is remote and inaccessible. Yet over the eight years spent here, partly out of my own urge to relate to my new place of settlement, I have found myself drawn to the idea of eternal human connection to the land.
Amongst the opportunities I have had to learn what that connection feels like, the one that stands out the most is a trip to the heart of the continent, at one of the world’s largest rocks, Uluru.
Four years ago I travelled to Uluru as a part of a study group from Melbourne,* to spend time with our teacher Uncle Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara elder, storyteller and musician, on his ancestral land. For a week our group of eleven members stayed with Uncle Bob and his family — aunts, uncles, cousins and younger folk — in the shadows of the sandstone behemoth whose real enormity lies buried in the sand.
Contrary to popular belief, Uluru is part of a massive underground system of rocks five kilometres deep and ten kilometres wide. It is not an isolated boulder, but is like the tip of a colossal iceberg. The colours that swathe its pock-marked and wind-swept surfaces — purple and pink at dawn, bright orange during the day and a luminous red at sunset — indicate an uncapturable aspect to the spirit of the place. Imagination, and not a definitive photograph, has to be the key to understanding the enigma of Uluru.
The learning experience at Uluru was heavy, to say the least. Uncle Randall, a stolen generation man who had spent most of his adult life telling the story of pain and brokenness that government policies of assimilation wreaked, introduced us to his life-story through his world renowned composition My Brown Skin Baby. Sung from the perspective of a (his) mother whose so-called half-caste child had been seized by the police, this song became an anthem for a whole generation of disconnected Aboriginal people in the 1970s.
“The child grew up and had to go
from the mission home that he loved so
To find his mother, he tried in vain.
Upon this earth they never met again.”
Our hostel was located a stone’s throw away from where Bob Randall had been taken away by a white policeman at the age of three. When he returned, transformed by the mission life, he found the undulating dunes and spinifex grass of his native land unchanged. But he could not get his mother back.
Even though his busy life as an educator and musician took him many places and kept him away for long periods, Bob Randall made his ancestral land and the community he had been forcefully taken from home again. He created an educational program Kanyini that enabled people — Australians and international travellers — to come out to his country and learn from his family. Meaning the interconnected of all things — humans, material, spirit, ecological — in the local Pitjantjatjara language, Kanyini summed up the abiding philosophy of his central-desert culture, and as a program grounded in the very place where the ethic was born, it allowed visitors like us to absorb and reflect on its essence.
The red desert is imbued with many stories, of lives torn asunder and stitched back again, of separation and dispossession. Deeper still, like the sandstone rock-network that lies buried, the land conceals an even longer Aboriginal connection with the soil, the spinifex grass circles, the birds, the flowers, the witchetty grubs, the desert oaks, and the relentless cycles of the sun and the moon. At distinct moments these connections made themselves explicit!
Standing at a vantage point in front of the east face of Uluru on the third evening, we took photographs of a vivid territory sunset. Things went to script till we turned around to face the rock. We found a big white moon heaving its way up the sky, rendering the rock-face incandescent, and flooding the spinifex fields in the foreground. The tourists had departed by then and the eleven of us stood speechless. What would it feel like to know that my people have witnessed this since the beginning of time? I asked myself. Connected, was the answer. My heart ached from a lack of connection to the ground I stood on.
Standing next to our teacher whose bloodline could be traced back thirty thousand years in that place, I became aware of a connection I could never feel. This realisation hurt. I felt mocked by the startling beauty of the moon and tormented by the last three days’ learnings, but could not find the safety hatch, an escape from the burden of history into a timeless connection to the land. I lay in my swag under a star-spangled sky with a gnawing feeling in my heart.
The next morning turned into a ball of nervous chattering around the campfire. My friends in the group had been flooded by dreams and thoughts too. The group’s energy settled as the day’s heat built up, till in the afternoon, when not even a leaf on the sparse acacias stirred, a few faint snores could be heard against the steady humming of the aunties’ voices as they worked with their canvas and paint brushes. I can’t remember whether I had dozed off or been struck numb by the stultifying heat. But suddenly I was charged with awareness, like in the split seconds before a flight or a fright. Something had leapt out of me. A memory? Ahead in the distance, sitting with her bare brown back to me, her jet-black hair hanging halfway down her back, was grandma! But not the crinkly old woman who died when I was five; the vision in front of me was of a young girl in a sari, sifting rice out of a cane basket.
The vision made me leap to my feet, and not knowing what to do with the flood of energy, I rushed to fetch tea for everyone. In that instant, a wall collapsed and I stopped feeling like the outsider of the night before. By the time I handed mugs of weak black tea to the women gathered under the listless acacias, instead of an unfathomable ache, I felt an overwhelming surge in my heart.
In the flash of a moment the tens and thousands of kilometres that separated my own land of Bengal in the east of India from the desert heart of Australia had collapsed. The person who had been my last link to a traditional way of life had been dug up from the deepest corners of my mind. For a full moment, grandma, whom I had not had a chance to say goodbye to, had returned. Almost thirty years after she disappeared from my life, the red sand dug her out to remind me of where I came from.
The land we were on had buried many memories. Like the giant red sandstone rock in whose shadow we had camped, our minds were deeper than what we remembered in our waking hours. Is it a surprise then, that in its luminous presence, in the company of people whose deep ancestors had witnessed the same moon rise in the sky, my own forgotten connection had been revived?
As a recent migrant, an Indian woman, I am thankful for several benefits that come with my cosmopolitan life in Australia – safety and freedom of movement, a clean environment, and spaciousness. But the biggest influence, and a constant source of inspiration, is the sense of connection that abounds in Australia’s myriad places and their people in whose company these hidden connections resurface.
The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Shinen Wong or Karen Schamberger at firstname.lastname@example.org