by Devika Brendon
When I was a child, I abruptly exchanged a tropical bright green landscape for a dry one. Maybe when we’re young, because we are short-legged and closer to the ground, we are more acutely aware of the landscape around us. when we are out in it. We immerse ourselves, as children. In order to understand something new, we go up close and touch it, and smell it and see how it feels to us. We haven’t yet learned to be cautious. It’s all a giant playground.
I used to play a game where I got an old round baking tray and filled it with earth from the garden, and picked bright flowers and pushed them into the earth as if they were real planted trees in the tray around a small hand mirror which was meant to be a pond. I got the idea from a Ladybird Book. The flowers in my little imitation garden would wither and have to be thrown away in a few hours, but their parent plants remained vivid and growing in the real garden, the energy of the sun pouring over them, and the soil and water nourishing them from their roots.
The first memory I have of Australia was the big sprinklers in the gardens of my school. The sound they made, like a combination of a trumpet and an animal, as the powerful, rhythmic arc of water showered over the dry ground in scheduled circuitry. The hills, and the sparse trees in the grounds. The colours my eyes absorbed, their combination unique to Australia – olive green, ochre, grey and silver, and every variation and variegation of brown and gold.
Australia for me then was asphalt roads and corner stores and hamburgers with the lot with the beetroot staining through the corner of the paper bag, and potato cakes instead of chips. The safety of it, the orderliness and the sense I had of always moving in small, personally determined patterns under a vast sky, on a nature strip, as we called it in the suburbs, with radiant wattle bush and flaming red waratah, and those dry spiky freeze frame firework flowers that grow in the bush, alongside, not needing much water, but tough as they needed to be to survive.
Sometimes in summer the heat was vivid, and heavy in weight, the blazing sun thundering down on the landscape, the photosynthesis it prompted so violent you could feel it and hear it. And in winter the sky was often clear blue, and the plants seemed newly delicate, and the air crystalline, and the shadows slight and faint in the early afternoon.
I remember drinking fruit cup at parties, with store bought cordial and fresh fruit frozen in juice floating in the big glass bowl, adding fizzy drinks, and seeing the ice dissolve and the fruit pieces freed. And before swimming pools became possible, all of us neighbourhood kids would get into their swimming costumes and run through the sprinklers in each other’s backyards, handkerchiefs pinned onto our towels with big safety pins.
Once we went to Luna Park, at night, the giant fun fair, and we saw our faces all stretched in the crazy distorting mirrors, and were spun round on The Rotor, where the machine rotated so fast we were stuck onto the walls by centripetal forces, screaming with delight.
We went to the red desert and the wild Northern Territory, and the Whitsunday Islands, and I saw the thousands of wildflowers in their little fluted casings like slender ladies with fragile necks and glowing faces, and the clean desolation of it all soothed me and calmed my pulse like a steady, even caress.
Now I’m immersing myself in a place far from this, back in the tropical extremes seven degrees above the equator. The wattle buds I used to put in my hair or in small vases have been replaced by jasmine. There aren’t as many protective layers here – on people, or on road ways or electrical wiring or the floors of houses.
I stopped otherising my present situation some time ago. The similarities complicate those neat parallelisms. We are responsive beings, and our sensory systems inevitably attune to our climate and context, and, through our senses, our minds and thoughts adjust. Everything becomes a reflection of everything else, known and unknown. Shards and shimmering threads woven into a seam. It’s mirrorwork, I’m doing.
Each day, I see the sun rise and set in the country of my birth. Slowly, by moving often between the two dualities of landscape, experience, and differently formed ideas of sovereignty, I am making a new, whole fused self. We moved out of the city when the illness threatened to spread, a few months ago, and the world slowed down. We packed our books and music and came up here where everything grows, and people sell every kind of fruit and vegetable by the roadside.
The people here calibrate the passing of their months by the full moon holidays, and so it’s easy to measure the slipping away of the days. Every evening they light sambrani, a fragrant incense powder which is scattered on coals and taken through the house and garden to discourage insects and bless the home. The cook is astonished that Australians don’t add a multitude of aromatics to their roasts. When told we just put salt and pepper and olive oil on our cuts of meat, he asks, ‘But how can it taste good without any spices?’ He makes the household curry powder himself, using an ancient curry stone to pound it.
No aerosol air freshener from a spray can, here. And coconut milk comes from the coconut flesh, squeezed and wrung by hand, and coconut water which is sold in Australia in packets and bottles is drunk here with a paper straw from the coconut shell itself. Culture shock is just a form of initial defensiveness. Judgement and condescension are exhausting to maintain. So, after a while, those initial armoured stances get dismantled. And it is what it is. These colours, these smells, present tenses and current events.
There are little squirrels scampering around up and down every pole and wire and beam on the verandah, shy deer who briefly come to the lower lawns at dusk, porcupines who wreak havoc on the roots of the canna lilies at night, and rotund bunnies who nibble the herb plants I am trying to grow.
I miss Australia in my body and heart. I miss its sunlight, and its dryness and its more subdued colours. I miss the freedom I felt as a girl to walk on my own anywhere I wanted, or to travel interstate on trains and buses without having to ever once be concerned for my safety. Australia has Quiet Carriages.
I can’t walk anywhere alone, here. It sounds strange, I know. But people constantly come after you. Women begging defiantly, wanting your spare change, and raspy-voiced men forcefully selling you your horoscope or trying to say hi.
When I go back to Sydney, I do completely normal things like walk to the shops, on my own – just for the joy of it! It’s as satisfying as a big day out. I chase the waves at Whale Beach or Curl Curl where we had bonfires as kids, and love the feel of my soul stretching, uninterfered with. I wear whatever I like.
I recall the stacked, scrumptious afternoon teas at the Queen Victoria Building Tea Rooms, the slow unfolding paved gradient of Martin Place, with the cafes we used to go to after university classes, the sandstone and the metal all scoured and wrought. The fairy lights in the trees in Hyde Park, which were put up for the Bicentennial and never taken down.
And now this stasis, and paralysis. How long will this damnable groundedness last? I see on the 4 Corners show that people in Melbourne behaved carelessly in June and let the virus in. And now there are quotas for even Australian citizens like me, trying to return for holidays. And the airlines can charge what they like. The richest get to be on the move first.
Australia, now inaccessible, gets more and more refined and golden in my memory, and all the childhood days and dates and outings more vibrant and resonant as they ebb away.
In my dreamscape, I can go back there, at will. Sit on stone steps heated by that particular sun, or on a beach towel watching the sea as if it was a giant plasma screen. Smell the astringent eucalyptus oils in the exfoliant scrubs and lotions as the massage therapist unfolds me expertly, like an accordion. Buy cherries from stalls in Arcadia and eat them in the car, overwhelmed with longing. But here all the exotic fragrances are always everywhere, crowding in. It’s like a big sauna. An ever-present fiesta, pulsing and flexing. A lot of tropical things that were exotic – with a price to match – in Australia, are everyday here. And Tim Tams are almost eight dollars a packet! And tinned Irish Stew nearly double that!!
My friend who grew up in Mildura as a boy is stranded in Russia right now, where he’s been teaching English this past year, until the planes start flying again and the airports open. He thinks he might stop by and visit us; he says. When all this temporary madness is over. Australians never think there’ll be any barriers to their exercise of free will.
And I am living in a place which is like paradise, except for the diurnal frustrations of the people. The birds’ cries are not so harsh, but the dairy products are not so rich.
It’s like a mirror image of the miniature garden I made when I was a child. Everything grows here, the minute you put it into the soil. Putting down roots.
Devika Brendon is an Educator, Reviewer, Journalist, Writer and Editor. Devika was awarded First Class Honours in English Literature at the University of Sydney, and holds a PhD in English Literature from Monash University. She is a Teacher of English Language and Literature, and a literary mentor to emerging writers of all ages.
Devika was Consultant Editor of FemAsia Magazine since its inception in 2018. She is a member of the Editorial Board of New Ceylon Writing, a literary journal established in 1970, and brought online in 2016.
She is Consultant Content Editor at the SEALA Network. Devika’s poetry and short stories have been published in journals and anthologies in India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Italy and Africa. Her reviews and opinion pieces have been published in both print and online media, and can be viewed on her blog: sensoryaccentuation.blogspot.com