In December 2006, a beautiful woman walked into the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, Calcutta. She was on a very brief visit to the Indian city and she wanted six copies of my novel Vegemite Vindaloo, which was No.2 on the store’s bestseller list at the time. One of the staff offered her a signed copy of the book, but she declined with a smile.
A few hours later, she rang me at home in Melbourne to explain why she had refused a signed book. I understood perfectly.
The novel is a tale of many journeys - journeys of distance, journeys of personal growth, journeys of the soul. On the surface, it is a story of how a well-to-do Anglo-Indian family, with a son of their own, gradually open their hearts to the infant son of the woman who, through an unusual series of events, has become their servant. But beyond that simplistic explanation, it is a tale of pride on the one hand and prejudice on the other.
I made a significant journey of my own in writing Vegemite Vindaloo. It began to take shape in 1993, but after writing four chapters I lost impetus and put it aside until my eldest daughter persuaded me to return to the manuscript in 1999. I did, briefly, and then the pressure of my journalism career pushed it into the background again.
Late in 2003, when Ravi Singh at Penguin looked at the half-written version and expressed interest in the unusual theme (and the fact that the synopsis I gave him was just three sentences) I picked it up once more.
This time I wrote with intent. Come what may, I knew I would finish it.
Ravi liked what he saw. In September 2004 I had a publishing contract.
Do you have to be a Calcuttan to warm to the theme of Vegemite Vindaloo? No. Do you have to be Anglo-Indian to enjoy the tapestry of the story? No. Do you have to be a migrant to appreciate it? No. Of the many encouraging reviews in the media, even before the novel began to hit the bestseller lists, it was Portugal-based Terry Fletcher who published a glowing critique, with the telling headline "Wizard From Oz".
Will it bring an occasional tear to your eye? Perhaps. Will it make you laugh? Probably. Is it a true picture of life? Absobloodylutely.
Apart from the multicultural flavour of Vegemite Vindaloo as it traverses rural Bihar, bustling Calcutta, pastoral Melbourne and the stark Australian outback, there is a decidedly international element to the manner in which it was written.
While 90 per cent of it was written on one of the Hewlett-Packard computers in my study at home in Melbourne, one segment was written aboard a flight to Hong Kong; another in the Yukon in northern Canada; a portion materialized on a cruise ship in Alaska; and one key chapter, fittingly enough, during a holiday in Calcutta.
The women in the novel are the strongest characters. Zarina, the servant woman, finds a resolute voice when her husband Ismail, in maudlin mood, turns spitefully to drink instead of trying to solve the problem of their sudden displacement.
Hilary Cooper, initially resistant to her husband Steve’s unconditional affection for the servant’s infant, Azam, is the one who bridles at his suggestion that they turn their backs on the child as they prepare to migrate. Bertha Cooper, Steve’s mother, is forged of pure steel – she kills a cobra in one chapter and thwarts a curse in another.
Authors do not have favoured characters. But there is one character, the simple grandmother who lives in Betulnagar, a Calcutta slum, who commands the men of the area to listen to her. She announces her hopes and dreams for her newborn grandson and when the males question her logic, she explains how the child will slip the bonds of seemingly inescapable poverty.
And what of the men in the novel? Sailen Nath Banerji, the little slum boy who becomes a senior pilot, philanderer and a power player in a national airline, seems keen to interfere in the Coopers’ personal decisions. Yet he turns out to be a modern Solomon in a stalemate over how the prestigious Airlines Club will farewell the Coopers. His salutation to them, delivered on the shore of a lake at the Alipore Zoo, is endowed with the uncanny voice of prophecy.
Steve Cooper himself starts out as a man of uncommon depth and compassion, but when stripped of his comfort zone and forced into unfamiliar circumstances, his severely misplaced pride threatens to become his Achilles heel.
Ismail, too, seems to be a pillar of strength until he comes undone in the challenging surroundings of Calcutta. Later, as a last-minute battle of emotions ensues when the Coopers are about to leave India, it is Ismail, seemingly against all odds, who becomes the eloquent voice of reason.
There are, however, two interlopers. The laconic Wally Bennett and the rakishly handsome Frank Walker, the double act from Jindaroo Creek, were only supposed to be passers-by, but they took over my consciousness as they became the basis for two sizeable chapters of comic relief.
Jindaroo Creek might be a fictional bush outpost, but its surrounding geography is as real as it gets – the sand dunes, the sheer Bunda cliffs and the calving southern right whales are all intricately linked to the Eyre Peninsula in coastal South Australia. To see the pictorial and literary links between real life and Jindaroo Creek, visit Dirty Fokker and judge the beautiful surroundings for yourself.
The real challenge in writing this novel was in finding authentic voices for two very different countries that share very little, apart from the Indian Ocean that caresses the shores of both nations. Steve and Hilary Cooper speak as Anglo-Indians speak; Wally and Frank embody the dry humour of a sunburnt continent.
There was another challenge. Could I write a novel where readers would get to the last three pages and wonder how on earth this story could possibly reach a logical conclusion? Moreover, could I write a novel where readers would get to the last sentence and immediately turn back to the first chapter to rediscover the little clues they had missed?
Judging by the 2006 bestseller lists and the emails and phone calls I received from all round the world from readers who did just that, it seems I succeeded to a large extent.
Oh, but if you’re wondering about the beautiful woman who didn’t want an autographed copy of the book, you needn’t worry. She actually went back to the bookstore to explain why she didn’t take up their kind offer.
You don’t need an autographed copy when you’re married to the author.
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