Becoming Present:

From a review of The Time of the Peacock (1965) to questions of assimilation and adaptation amongst the diasporic, migrant multitudes of today.

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Scents of otherness in the Australian bush

In the The Time of the Peacock, Mena Abdullah captures the out-of-place-ness of an Indian family in 1950’s rural Australia through a series of beautifully crafted, short stories. Abdullah weaves together the family’s experience of holding dearly to the memories and ways of a distant homeland while trying to make a place in a country that marks them as indelibly different. She depicts the nuance and complexity of migrant lives – not just as outsiders in a foreign land, but also in the interconnections between family members. They aren’t just ‘Indian’, the dad is a Punjabi Muslim, the mum from a Hindu Brahmin family and those differences matter. The politics of the partition of India briefly arises, yet ultimately these subtleties are in the background, adding layers of depth to this telling of the migrant experience.

The language of the stories is poetically evocative but so simple. They’re told through the inquisitive perceptions of Nimmi, the child through whose eyes we explore this world, fully aware of her otherness, “a dark girl in a white man’s country, a Punjabi Muslim in a Christian land”. She moves through it in her relations to all the stoic love and tenderness of her mother and father, the boisterous wisdom of Uncle Seyed and the sibling solidarities and rivalries that occur with her older sister Rashida and her younger brother Lal. Together there is so much joy in the moments they share, their exploration of the countryside and the animals that live there, the games they play, the food they eat.

Alongside all that however, is the sense of disjuncture and terrible sadness that arise from being different in a hostile, lonely place. There’s the type of sadness of connecting with a loving and wise grandmother who travels across the seas to visit and see these children for the one and only occasion. Then, there’s the type of sadness of being allowed to visit town with Uncle Seyed, only to get into a fight with a group of white kids who racially abuse them – teasing them about their ‘pyjama’ clothes and calling them the ’N’ word (yes, that one).

The in-betweenness, of being in a strange place while retaining the memories and ways of being from another, is not only depicted through the relationships between this loving family, but in how Abdullah paints an Indian idyll within the Australian landscape – the mother’s enclosure of jasmine, Kashmiri roses and Himalayan violets, a small latticed garden within the massive vastness of eucalypts and the Australian bush. Of the sumptuous scents of curry and spice wafting out over the hills. Of tales of Indian outlaws that follow from children’s questions about Australian bushrangers.

Diasporic multitudes

The Time of the Peacock was first published in 1965 and set a bit earlier than that, during the long era of the White Australia policy and is likely, at least partially, based on Abdullah’s own experiences growing up in rural Australia. Despite the exclusionary, racist nature of that policy, it did not manage to vanquish all non-white migrants from this continent. Many had arrived prior to its introduction and found ways to remain and make their lives even after its implementation in 1901. The stories Abdullah tells here reflect all the strength, struggles and grace of those migrants who found a way during that time. In doing so, it is a book that sits perfectly alongside Samia Khatun’s equally beautiful, and non-fictional, history of south Asian migrants in this country, Australianama.

The cultural and political language used to describe the evolving experience of migrants and migrant diaspora(s) – including many for whom the act of migration is now a distant part of family history – has necessarily shifted over the decades. This multitude has become a significant and vital presence, finding ways to assert a place amidst the still possessive and territorial claims of dominance that whiteness assumes in this country. In doing so new positions are taken, solidarities formed, nuances and complexities revealed, and critiques outlined – such as against the previously taken-as-gospel ‘progressive’ idea of multiculturalism.

Additionally – and reflecting the pushback against white, liberal multiculturalism – migrant diaspora are finding ways to hold their place on this continent, not only against the demands of white Australia, but also with respect to the unceded sovereignty of Aboriginal people. Reading The Time of the Peacock in this context, the absence of First Nations’ people, even in passing mention, from any of the stories is notable. Does this absence reflect badly on Mena Abdullah? Can we simply put it down to being of its time?

Although I tend to fall on the sympathetic side, it does feel strange that, even if the children themselves don’t encounter any Indigenous folk, that none of the stories they hear from Uncle Seyed or any of the other characters involves Aboriginal people. Mostly, it’s understandable how writing the story of an Indian family trying to get by in rural Australia during the white Australia policy might fail to perceive the situation of First Nations’ people. However, in this omission it risks becoming embedded into a white, colonial narrative while also missing the opportunities that might arise in recognising – and finding affinity or solidarity with – Aboriginal sovereignty.

Colonial narratives of ‘progress’ often work to keep the stories and lives of migrants and Indigenous people at different poles in relation to whiteness. While the systemic positions of ‘migrant’ or ‘Indigenous’ are incommensurably different within settler-colonial society, this recognition should not mean all points of connection are simply passed over. Indeed, in Australianama, Khatun frames her work as tracking how “a circuitry of camel tracks interlocking with shipping lines and railways threaded together Aboriginal lives and families with those of Indian Ocean travellers, people moving through these networks storied their experiences in their own tongues”. These interconnections are important in re-routing the direction of social relations that white, settler-colonial society imposes.

A timeline of becoming present: from 1950’s rural NSW, through 1970’s small-town Adelaide and 1990’s suburban Sydney, landing in 2020’s Naarm.

Despite what is missing, the stories that Mena Abdullah tells in The Time of the Peacock take their place amongst those that counter simplistic, white narratives of the place of migrants. They hold a particularly unique place due to the time they are set in and because they only care for the point of view of the non-white characters. In doing so they give an insight into the world of the characters grappling with the looming presence of assimilation. We are drawn into the feelings of the children as they recognise the different forces that pull at them and the parents who knowingly understand that much of what they hold onto from the lands they have left behind will slowly slip away with the next generation.

The weight of the compulsion to assimilate towards can be hard for the current generations of migrant diaspora to comprehend. My sister and I speak with a mix of jealousy and awe about being a bit too old and having missed the opportunity to be in our late teens/ early 20’s now, where the social, cultural and political interests of people of colour can, almost without thought, simply orient to and find connection with other people of colour. This is reflected in music and arts scenes, venues, journals and publications, political collectives, etc, etc. White people may be included, but it’s less of a necessity.

Growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 1990’s there certainly were significant migrant communities, however it still felt like an overwhelmingly white space where we mostly skirted around the edges and were oriented towards the white centre. The swagger that comes with feeling confident being in space was still mostly a white thing. When I spend time there now this feels different. The western line from Ashfield to St Marys at least (and this is to not even refer to south-west Sydney) is an amazing conglomeration of migrant diasporas who, with the confidence of being here and in numbers, have less caution about taking up space (on trains carriages where seeing a white person is rare, people care nothing about speaking their languages and the angry glances of white resentment).

One way I found to get by was through sport, and in this getting by I walked a line between adaptability and assimilation that, even looking back now with deeper understanding, is not easy to delineate. It did test in real time what solidarities might exist – which white kids would have your back when racism happened, who would stutter and be unsure and who would laugh along with the racism (it should be noted that racial dynamics in western Sydney in the 90’s did not play out as simply as white kids against non-white kids). While sport also helped me connect to something, it did not undo in any real way the sense of being peripheral, an outsider. When I entered new social and political scenes just out of high-school in the early 2000’s, these were also mostly white. While some of those people remain my closest friends today, the purpose of recounting this is to underscore that certain shifts in what’s possible are fairly recent – for example, I would no longer countenance being the only person of colour in a political or social space.

Further, from my own sense of isolation as a brown teenager, I could only imagine with a sense of wonderment that the first members of my extended family – an auntie and uncle and their two children – arrived here in the mid-70’s and wound up in Adelaide. Looking back from western Sydney in the 90’s, I could barely imagine being brown in a middling regional town like Adelaide in the 70’s. Yet there they went to find connections within the small Sikh community there. Reflecting on this in conjunction with my own experience, I’ve long considered the complicated ways that resistance, adaptability and assimilation inter-connect – how they are produced and exemplified in different eras and within different spaces and conditions. Particularly, how it can be difficult at times to distinguish resilience and adaptability from assimilation.

This trajectory from the family unit depicted in The Time of the Peacock to the slightly larger, but still small community of Sikhs in 1970’s Adelaide, to the migrant communities of Sydney in the 90’s to the flourishing inter-generational diasporas of today provoke questions related to the meta- narrative of migration and assimilation. Is assimilation to white Australia exemplified in those who privately held tightly onto their cultural differences while otherwise living up the white ideal of the ‘successful’ migrant that ‘keeps their head down’, works hard and generally does not seek to challenge racism and colonialism?

In thinking about my relatives in 1970’s Adelaide or my mum arriving here as a single parent in the 1980’s, I am struck with a sense of awe at the scope of the change that they initiated in seeking new lives and their strength in finding their way in a foreign place. At the same time, many of the ways they resisted assimilation were certainly private, holding on to things that were important to them without looking in any way like forms of anti-assimilatory practice (and language) that might be recognisable in the social and political milieus of migrant diaspora today.

Or does assimilation do its dirtiest work where migrant diaspora can publicly find each other and openly proclaim our opposition to the structures of white supremacy and colonialism, yet are unable to do that without becoming attached to the institutions, cultural forms and language of western liberalism?

Of course, there isn’t one simple answer to these questions and the conflict they produce might allow us to consider being careful. Both questions reflect the uncertainty of that line between adapting to hostile social conditions and assimilating. While it is important to identify and resist the proponents of acquiescence to white supremacy and colonialism, assimilation should generally not be sought out in the daily lives of individuals. It is a result of structural forces that compel and coerce.

The Time of the Peacock tells stories that extend the feeling of awe I have about my family further back to all those migrants who made their way to this continent. It is a reminder of the full lives and beautiful stories that they brought with them and that entailed their being here – a reminder that counteracts the sepia-tinted, hallucinatory visions of a simpler, ‘pure’ time in the past that was all-white. While Indigenous struggles against colonial white-washing have ensured that ideas of Aboriginal sovereignty and this land as a not-white space have significant traction now, the historical role of non-white migrants in displacing whiteness across decades and centuries seems less certain, more contested. While The Time of the Peacock does not grapple with these issues in an explicit manner, it does paint a vivid socio-historical picture that might help us begin to envision different trajectories and question the linearity of anti-assimilation practices that are taken for granted today.

Endnote: Originally, alongside The Time of the Peacock, I had intended to write about the brilliant, and beautifully cheesy, 2019 film Blinded by the Light to contemplate these ideas about race, migration and assimilation. In the end, including it seemed excessive, but I still want to give it a mention because it depicted many of the feelings of my youth despite being set in Luton (England) in the 1980’s (although I should note, with my mum a full-time teacher in a public school, we were able to be more comfortably middle-class than the on-the-breadline, working class, migrant family depicted in the movie).

Despite being the centre of the hated empire, my gaze was often drawn towards Britain specifically because the migrant diasporas there were more generationally established. This meant that what we see in this country now in terms of migrant political organising and a variety of social and cultural forms – not to mention simply taking up spacing – existed there decades earlier and allowed me to see other brown faces that looked like me producing things that I considered important. Here’s a couple of things to seek out that reflect what I’m talking about:

Asian Dub Foundation’s Community Music released in 2000. I love M.I.A but I went with this because it was a bit earlier and perfectly captured the place of south Asian diaspora amidst all the things that were popping off in Britain through the 90’s.

Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements by Anandi Ramamurthy. Published in 2013, but tells the story of radical Asian youth movements in Britain through the 1970’s and 80’s.

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