Mena Abdullah was born in 1930 in Bundarra, NSW, and lives in Sydney. She attended Sydney Girls High, before training as an accountant and later becoming a Commonwealth officer, working for the CSIRO. She is a writer of poetry and short stories and was regularly published in The Bulletin, and other Australian journals including Quadrant and Hemisphere. Her first published poem was The Red Koran (1954) – included in Australian Poetry (1955). Her short story collection The Time of the Peacock was first published in 1965 by Angus & Robertson (Australia), and Roy Publishers (United States).
Grandfather Tiger was a secret and he lived at the bottom of the garden. He was Joti’s tiger and no one else in the world dreamt of him. She had found him there by the river after Grandfather had died. Wonderful Grandfather that you could talk to had died and left Joti with no one to tell how she missed him – only the tiger. She had found him when she was crying by the river. She had looked up and there he was, terrible and beautiful, like the gold-silk tiger on the cushion in the room that used to be Grandfather’s.
And the tiger’s voice was growly and kind, the voice of Grandfather. And Joti told him everything.
So this day she ran down the yard that, until this day, had been almost her only world. She ran as fast as she could, her bare feet hardly touching the ground, to tell Grandfather Tiger her great news. He was there – the way he always was now – behind the clump of lantana, on a grassy bank, at the river’s edge.
She made the Hindu sign of greeting, joining her hands gently before her face.
“Salaam, Tiger Sahib,” she said. “I am going to school.”
“Salaam,” said the tiger. “You have everything to learn.”
“And I will wear a dress, like the other girls. I will be the same.”
The tiger swished his tail and smiled, very tired.
“A dress cannot make you the same,” he said. “It will only be pretending.”
Joti looked at him, scared. Grandfather had once said something like that.
“Will school not be good?” she asked in a little voice.
“Perhaps,” said the tiger. “Perhaps there will be friends there.”
“Friends!” said Joti. “Friends!” She smiled, danced two steps, salaamed, and hurried back to the house where her mother was calling her to dinner.
Their home was in the suburbs and Joti’s father, Raj, went every day into the city to his work, like any father in the suburbs. Her mother stayed home with the children, and sometimes took Joti with her up to the shops, like any mother in the suburbs. And their house was like all the houses in their bushy suburb.
– from The Time of the Peacock, Angus & Robertson, 1965
“I’d always preferred to tell stories, however writing them down on paper seemed the natural next step. It was the writer Ray Mathew who persuaded me to submit a story to The Bulletin. Prose was not my first published effort. I adored poetry, in particular the bush ballad – even as a nine-year-old I would commit AB Patterson’s, Henry Lawson’s, Henry Kendall’s verses to memory and spout them out whenever I was given a chance. I was always surprised when no one was interested… Later, in high school, I came upon the Scottish Border ballads and began to write my own. Having them published never entered my head. However, in the 1950s while working at the CSIRO I met Ray Mathew (during the long summer holiday, the CSIRO used to take on temporary workers among which were writers, artists, actors, and other interesting people.) Although Ray regarded himself principally as a playwright, he had had a book of poems published. We, his fellow workers, were very impressed and would buy The Bulletin just to read his poems.
“There was a column in The Bulletin that gave advice to writers, and explained to them why their stories and poems were rejected. I thought it would be good idea to find out about my verse so I sent one of my ballads to the column. I didn’t expect it to be accepted but to my surprise I received a cheque in the mail – no comment, just the cheque. However, when my ballad was published I was utterly flabbergasted. The Bulletin spread The Red Koran over an entire page and bordered it with an illustration. I didn’t much like the illustration but that didn’t matter. I felt embarrassed at the time but, as more and more of my verse became published, I became more at ease with it.
“I faced no hurdles when seeking publication. Perhaps it was just the right time for my kind of writing, and The Bulletin had a wonderful editor, the poet Douglas Stewart. I started with the ballads and when, on Ray’s insistence and with his help, I submitted the stories, we were told to keep submitting them. The ‘wind of change’ was certainly apparent to all Australians in the 1950s and 1960s that had lived through the war and remembered how it was before that event.
“The Bulletin’s ‘Australia for the White Man’ banner annoyed me every time I saw it. It didn’t concern me because all of the staff there were so supportive and friendly, and they were certainly not racist. Judging by the letters they received, the banner annoyed a lot of people.
“Australia was moving out of isolation, reaching out to the rest of the world. Perhaps that was the reason my stories appealed to so many people.”
“Ray was of medium height, thin and rather faun-like; he was a popular, happy-go-lucky person who loved to socialise. The writing that he was most serious about was his plays. I think that was a pity because I thought his poetry was so much superior. His poems were chosen in all the anthologies of the time and I still think they are the best. In the five years we were writing for The Bulletin and collaborating on the stories he was a good friend, a comrade, and literary mentor, but we were never ‘a couple’ as some people seem to think. We had a lot of friends in common and were together a lot because of the stories and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), where a lot of my colleagues from the CSIRO used to moonlight, and where Ray conducted classes in English Literature.”
“I had noticed Bulletin stories by Italian Australians, German Australians, and others, and I thought that readers should know about Indian Australians.
“I wrote Because of the Rusilla and showed it to Ray, expecting him to say something noncommittal (he didn’t much like my ballads.) Instead he was wildly enthusiastic:
‘Wonderful stories, send them in but fix them up first.’
‘Them? Fix them up?’
‘Yes. yes. You’ve got two excellent stories mixed in together. Probably would be accepted as is but would be better as two stories. Mixed in together like that they take away a little from each other.’
“I said that I couldn’t do that, that I was no good at that sort of thing, whereupon he told me not to be so lazy and defeatist. He grabbed a blue pencil and a red pencil, said red pencil one story – blue pencil another story, added a few extra slashes, then: now go home and type them both out separately and you’ll see what I mean. I was still doubtful but I went home and disentangled the two stories and I certainly could see that he was right. I also knew that I would not have achieved so fine a result without his expertise. We had an argument about having both our names on the stories. Ray did not want his very English name to be on them. He said that having his name on them would somehow take away from their authenticity, but I insisted and he gave in. His fears proved groundless and, after their success, he was glad his name was on the stories and would have protested if it were taken off!”
Because of the Rusilla
… She gave the bird to me then and I took it gladly. I held it tightly, too tightly probably. Its wings flapped at my hands and I could feel, under the wings and the feathers, a wild beating like the noise you hear at night when your ear is on the pillow, and I knew it was the bird’s heart beating.
So I held it more gently than before, in a cage of fingers.
“What bird?” I said. “What sort of bird? What name?”
Father looked at me and frowned. I was always asking names, more names than there were words for. I was the dreamy one, the one he called the Australian.
“Rusilla,” he said at last. “It is a bird called Rusilla.”
“Rusilla?” I said. “Rusilla.” It was a good name and I was satisfied.
I took it home and showed it to Lal, who was only four.
“I have a Rusilla,” I said. “It is a very strange bird, young and weak, and it will mostly die, but you can help me feed it. Get grass-seeds and blackberries. Grass-seeds like these.”
He pottered away gravely while I put the bird in a chicken-coop that had been left by some accident in the garden. And from that day Lal and I hunted the garden, gathering and sorting, to feed the Rusilla.
The garden was a strange place and lovely. It was our mother’s place, Ama’s own place. Outside its lattice walls was the farmyard with its fowls and goats (Sulieman the rooster and Yasmin the nanny), and beyond that was Father’s place, the wool-sheds and the yards, and beyond that the hills with their changing faces and their Australianness. We had never been to them, and Ama – that was our word for ‘mother’; amameans love – Ama told us they were very strange. But everything was strange to Ama, except the garden.
– from The Time of the Peacock, Angus & Robertson, 1965
Before and After
“As far as I know, no one had ever written about Indian Australians before, yet it should have been clear in the 1950s that our families had been in Australia for a very long time, before the restrictive immigration laws were formed. It riled me that we were all considered foreigners yet others whose families had arrived from Britain and Europe long after us were considered Australian in a comparatively short time. My stories are about their lives as Indian Australians coping with life here, just like any other Australian, but with the differences in their home life that is part of their remembered or inherited background.”
Part of the fabric…
“My father came to Australia from India alone, with nothing; he was fifteen years old. He worked his way to the outback and after many years obtained acres of grazing land, raised sheep and became a successful grazier. It took time – he was forty-eight years old when he married my mother. My mother was a city woman who had no idea of the outback but she went with my father to his isolated property and a homestead that had none of the conveniences she was used to. She was terrified but she prevailed.
“I was very young when my family left the NSW countryside. My father had been preparing for it for some time (with reluctance, for he was a farmer from a long line of farmers). However, he wanted his children to have an education, something he had been denied.
“Before we left, family friends and neighbours would call in from time to time to farewell the family and reminisce about old times. Seated around the table they would talk about things past. I have only a hazy memory of that time but my sister, who was about seven and sharp as a tack, remembered a lot and, in later years would ask my mother about a certain episode and she would tell us the full story and a half-forgotten memory would come into focus. One clear memory I have of that time is that of an Abraham, a hawker and devout Muslim who, if it was the time, would kneel even in the middle of the main road to say his prayers and who always carried a red-covered Koran. He gave it to my mother when he was leaving the area although she wasn’t Muslim (he also gave my sister a large foreign coin he had in his pocket, an old French Louis, which she treasures to this day.)
“My father did not dispose of the land and homestead straight away and for the few years until he had, the family could return for a visit during the Christmas school holidays. It is of those years I have the clearest memories: my father riding out every day with my uncle, my mother and aunt sitting in the garden talking and laughing as they crocheted and embroidered, and we three children wandering the grounds, making wondrous discoveries, having small adventures and meeting all sorts of characters who lived near or came to see my parents.”
…of Australian culture
“In Sydney, in the 1930s, racism was openly and unashamedly, and sometimes innocently, practiced. When I was a small child I didn’t understand the loud ugly words directed at me and would run inside and hide under the bed, heart thumping, until the sounds and feel of home reassured me and I was myself again. Later, as an older child, I understood and wanted to retaliate, but always, even when she wasn’t present, there was my mother’s restraining hand on my arm and her voice in my ear: don’t say anything. Ignore it. All my family were familiar with highly offensive and racist terms but, to all of us, this was somehow external.
“Yes, we hated and resented the name-calling, the nasty things said to us, but it did not prevent us doing the things we wanted to do, pursing our goals, being what we wanted to be and having good and worthy white friends and neighbours.
“I was born in Australia, I grew up in Australia, I speak like an Australian and I’ve always felt Australian. The problem, when I was growing up, was that I didn’t look like an Australian was supposed to look like so I was regarded as foreign. When the ‘White Australia policy’ was in operation, people of colour were a rarity on Australian streets and people like me were conspicuous. I recall an incident from long ago when I was about ten years old. I was walking to school with my seven-year-old brother. Everyone walked in those days and there were a lot of people on the street. Out of the blue, and looking around at the people, my brother said, ‘Mu-mu, what would it be like if all the people in the street were like us, no white people anywhere, what would it feel like?’ I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine it.
“I hardly ever saw an Aboriginal person when I was growing up. When we lived on the property we sometimes saw someone in the distance walking across the paddock, but no one ever came near the house. The situation in Australia for Aboriginal people is a disgrace to us all. There is a lot of talk, many government promises, but nothing is done. There is still a gap between their life expectancy and the life expectancy of the rest of us – proof positive that it is we who are at fault. I have joined the local reconciliation group, have marched with them and have lobbied the local member on their behalf. Things are improving but very slowly, too slowly.
“Long ago, I reached the conclusion that white Australia has an ethos of racism. Of course that doesn’t mean that all white Australians are racists. There are the people who rise above it and, there are some good and gentle souls who would never resort to it.
“I was a child during history’s worst depression, a high school student during the Second World War and a young adult during the fabulous fifties. I’ve never known want and have done everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m not wealthy but I live very comfortably, in my own country and, best of all, I have family all around me. My experience of Australia is that it is a country with great recuperative powers and that it gives back more than it takes away.
“I have no real connection with India now. My father’s relatives were all wiped out in the big Sikh uprising in the Punjab in the late 1940s. My mother’s people had left Pondicherry long ago. I’m still interested in India and take pride in its progress, it is my ethnic homeland, and it is special to me, but I’ve only visited it once. My youngest sister is very taken with it and visits it often as a tourist.”
When I was six we had a picnic.
Often we had picnics – tea from a billy, chuppatties from the house, games and laughing on the banks of the Gwydir – but I remember this one picnic because it was mine, not mother’s or father’s or uncles’ or brother’s or sister’s, but mine for my birthday. I remember it also because of two presents that were wonderful then, and because the memory of one of them is wonderful even now.
There were birthday things to play with, especially for me, and birthday things to eat. But toys and food, these were real things to share and not the two things that were somehow mine.
It had been a dry time. Father and Uncle Seyed had fed the sheep by hand and carted water to the house, before the picnic. Now Father took me to walk with him by the river while the others prepared the birthday lunch. They all had jobs – Uncle Seyed, with Lal to help him, gathered wood to boil the billy; Ama, our mother, and Rashida to help her, set out the meal. I had no job. It was my birthday. Father took my hand and we walked by the river.
I showed him all the things I knew, the secret things I never told Rashida, who was older than I was and told me I was little – the gum-tree where the wild bees made brown honey, the way you touched a trigger-plant and made it jump. And Father showed me things I should have seen, but, somehow, never had – the way the river was deep holes held together by shallow water, the way to stand still like a tree and see the fish move across the shallows.
We looked over to the hills where the river was born and suddenly Father laughed, his white teeth shining through his beard.
“I will give you a present,” he said. “Not like Ama’s present, but still a present. You see that cloud, the heavy one that’s crawling over the hill, it will bring you rain for your birthday.”
– from The Time of the Peacock, Angus & Robertson, 1965
“Dame Mary Gilmore wrote to me, and said she hoped my story, The Rusilla, first published in The Bulletin, would become a book. This idea must have stuck in Ray’s mind, although I didn’t give it much thought. Ray approached Beatrice Davis of Angus & Robertson with the idea of a collection, and she seemed very interested.
“Nothing happened. Ray went off to London on a Commonwealth Scholarship to write a play (it was the time when young Australians first started making the trip to Europe – before the late 1950s travelling overseas was unthinkable for anyone but the wealthy.) By then I was writing stories under my own name, refining them myself, and still being surprised when they were published. I made the big trip to Europe some months later, with two girlfriends.
“It was after I returned home that Angus & Robertson contacted me – I had been away for over a year. They wanted to publish twelve of the stories in a book. They had already spoken to Ray, in London, and he had agreed and had expressed the hope that I, too, would be happy with the twelve A&R had chosen. I had had a lot more stories published by then but I thought the twelve chosen was a good selection.”
To make you see
“It would take pages to list all of my favourite writers because all my life I have loved books and I am now an octogenarian. I have a lot of favourite writers. Here is a representative list: Sophocles (I particularly like his Antigone. I also liked Jean Cocteau’s version, and Jean Anouilh’s version), Shakespeare, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras, Christopher Fry, EM Forster, Patrick White, George Johnson, Ruth Park, Christina Stead, Miles Franklin, Agatha Christie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salmon Rushdie, Vikram Seth. The list is endless, this is just a sample.
“Dame Mary Gilmore sent one of my stories to Denmark and it was published in a magazine there. I’ve also had stories published in Switzerland, Germany and Italy. To quote Joseph Conrad’s dictum, ‘I write, above all, to make you see’.”