Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Vegemite Vindaloo - my first novel


Vegemite Vindaloo, a work of fiction, was published by Penguin India in April 2006.


I grew up in a huge colonial-era home at 3 Dumayne Avenue, alongside the Calcutta docks, where my father was the traffic manager and my uncle the docks manager. Our home - to which I recently made a pilgrimage with my wife and our three Australia-born children and which is documented at - was filled with bookcases and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and what must have been several thousand books.

I was one of four siblings, but as my brothers were much older than me, they were already at boarding school by the time I learnt how to read at my mother's knee.

I read voraciously as a child. When I had finished every Enid Blyton book in the house, I progressed to the wonderful ``William'' series by Richmal Crompton. Then I became immersed in the many sporting biographies and autobiographies that belonged to my brothers and my father, little knowing that in my early twenties I would become a sportswriter and work in the media centres at the world-famous sporting venues - Lord's, the MCG, the Eden Gardens, Wimbledon - so evocatively described in those beautiful hardcover volumes.

Books consumed me. At Christmas I asked for books. For birthdays I asked for books. On outings to the New Market I asked for books. I reckon I always had a book close at hand. One year, when I must have been about twelve years old, we were packing for our annual winter trip to the awe-inspiring tiger sanctuaries of Hazaribagh, the mother of my closest friend threatened, entirely jocularly of course, to leave me as tiger bait if I took my books with me.


In many ways, I have my eldest daughter, Leanne, to thank for the fact that Vegemite Vindaloo is soon to be released. Some time ago, I had three chapters of an untitled novel sitting, half-forgotten, on my computer. She kept telling me to complete the novel and so, eventually, I went back to it and took her advice.


The novel is set in India and Australia, the two countries in which I have spent my life. It is about an Anglo-Indian family, Steve and Hilary Cooper, who cause a social shockwave when they adopt Azam, the infant son of Zarina, their replacement servant. They then migrate to Australia with Clive, their own son, and Azam, the servant's son. Several challenges and an ironic twist await them in Australia. Steve Cooper, a commercial pilot, struggles with the notion of taking on menial work, but a couple of knockabout blokes in Jindaroo Creek, a tiny outback settlement, teach him the significance of the hakea tree, a type of wattle that only releases its seed pods in the searing heat of a bushire. Frank Walker, a city slicker-turned-bush pilot, tells the new migrant: ``What looks to some people like destruction is actually the only way this great tree can survive and spread''. It is a salutary lesson in life and eventually Steve Cooper finds his place in a country that welcomes him with open arms.


The cover of Vegemite Vindaloo is the brainchild of Chandan Crasta, a graphic designer with Penguin India. He has his own blog, with several examples of his work and the cover of my novel can be viewed at where he explains the all-encompassing concept that governs his work.

I have no formal design background and am certainly not an art critic, but I think he's done a great job by producing a segmented cover, with two strong images that - like the plot itself - divide the whole concept into an Indian half and an Australian half.

I also like Chandan's subtle touch of splitting the novel's title as well, using the word Vegemite in capitals and the word Vindaloo in lower case, to emphasise the difference between two cultures.


The novel is a tale of many journeys, both physical and metaphorical. Ismail, the young Muslim caretaker of a roadside tea stall, finds himself with little choice but to leave Bhowalpur with his wife Zarina and their baby son, Azam. They board a train under cover of darkness and it is only as the train gathers speed in the all-enveloping Indian night that he realises he has no idea where it is taking them.

There is also the journey of Tariq, Ismail's father, who once ran away from home and found work as a child labourer, working from dawn to dusk in the harshest conditions imaginable.

The journeys of Tariq and Ismail have a significant bearing later in the novel, when an emotional Zarina wrestles with her earlier decision to let the Coopers take her son, Azam, with them as they leave India.

Then there is Captain Sailen Nath Banerji, a senior pilot with Indian Airlines, who has made a significant social journey that he must keep secret, for fear that it will ruin his career. He reveals his amazing tale to the Coopers, but asks that they in turn respect his privacy by not discussing his revelation with anyone.

There is also the side-play that is the journey of Hilary Cooper's sister, Edith. She is married to Robert Bushell, a simpleton who struggled through school, but who is a hard-working, devoted husband and father. The Bushells' acceptance of Australia is a hybrid of joy, naivete and - just occasionally - embarrassment as well.

Additionally, there are the stories told narrated by other migrants, at a barbecue at Jells Park to mark the Coopers' first day in Melbourne. They are tales of change, of acceptance and of adaption to a new, sometimes strange, way of life.

Even the two main Australian-born characters in the novel have made significant journeys of their own. Frank Walker, city-bred corporate climber, finds his way to Jindaroo Creek and in a moment of bravado, buys the little airborne sightseeing operation and immediately re-names it Dirty Fokker Flight Services. The local publican, Wally Bennett, is a former shearer who scorned the notion of professional therapy after losing a leg in a drunken road accident. Both men have left behind vastly different lives to come to Jindaroo Creek, where they strike up a memorable father-son relationship in the bush outpost where they have found life's peace.


Bhowalpur in eastern India, where Ismail and Zarina live, is a fictional town. But the way of life is an accurate parallel to experiences in thousands of real-geography towns and cities dotted through the subcontinent.

Likewise, Jindaroo Creek does not exist. According to the novel, its name reflects typical Australian humour - because there's no creek at Jindaroo Creek, a place as dry as a bushman's boot.


``I'll tell you something interesting. There's an Australian native tree, a type of wattle called the hakea. There is just one way for it to spread its seeds and propagate: only bushfires open its seed pods. No other way. So what looks to some people like destruction is actually the only way this great tree can survive and spread.''

Ismail flees his village in Bihar one night with his wife, Zarina, and infant son, Azam, and, overnight, moves from being a respected tea-stall owner to a pavement-dweller in a massive, forbidding city. With no roof over his head, unsure of where his next meal would come from, Ismail struggles with the challenges of this strange new world.

Across town, Steve Cooper, a dashing young pilot, is looking for domestic help. A chance encounter leads to Zarina being hired as an ayah, and Ismail and his family come to live with the Coopers. As the months go by, little Azam slowly finds a place in the hearts of the Coopers, and although Steve faces strong opposition from society, he refuses to treat the son of his maid any different from his own son.

When the Coopers find out that their application to migrate to Australia has been approved, Steve hopes that the new country will give Azam the equal opportunity that will continue to be denied to him in India because of his parentage. But will Azam's biological parents give him up that easily? And will Steve really find Australia to be the promised land he thinks it is?

As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Vegemite Vindaloo is a tale about the unexpected twists that life can take, and the courage it takes to leave behind all that you knew and start over.


How would we manage without email and the Internet? I live and work in Melbourne, while Penguin India are based in New Delhi and my agent, Beverley Slopen, operates out of Toronto. Yet we manage to operate cohesively because of technology.


Even before I had finished the last page of Vegemite Vindaloo, there was another novel taking shape in my subconscious. As the ideas filtered through, I wrote a brief synopsis of what was to become my second novel. It is called The Jadu Master and is the story of what seems to be an inaccurate prediction made by a favoured magician in the court of a major Indian kingdom. The story spans several intersecting lives and is set across pre-Partition India, wartime Britain and Germany, present-day Australia, Canada and Alaska.

The novel begins with the present-day discovery of a crashed Spitfire in Kent. Inside the cockpit are the remains of the pilot, an Indian prince.

The events that follow provide a series of links between seemingly unrelated events, as if to prove that life's synchronicity is unavoidable.

How would you describe The Jadu Master in one sentence? I guess you would call it a love story.


None of this would have been possible without the love and support of my wife and children and my extended family.

Nor would it have been possible without the enthusiasm of my mother, Phyllis Mary McMahon, who read to me constantly before she taught me how to read. Well schooled in Latin and French, she passed on to me her love of the many subtle nuances of the English language and how the telling of a tale was one of life's many artforms.

I was lucky enough, too, to have many wonderful teachers through my educational journey. They are mentioned by name in the opening acknowledgement to Vegemite Vindaloo.

In particular, I must mention Mrs Sheila Geileskey, who taught me in primary school and now lives in Perth. She gave me what I guess was my first taste of elocutory publishing, by encouraging me to bring my short stories to school and to read them aloud to my classmates. The day Penguin India offered me a contract for Vegemite Vindaloo, I rang Mrs Geileskey in Western Australia. She congratulated me warmly, but said it came as no surprise to her, for she had seen some talent in an inky schoolboy all those years ago. She had always known, she told me on the phone, that I would one day be a published author.


(Or, how to make the most of two days in the former Olympic host city)

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

A few minutes later, not far away from the flower stall, I was photographing the Notre Dame Basilica at West Metro Place-d'Armes when I saw the unusual sight above. The purple and white sign hanging on the side of the cathedral, on the right of the picture, announces the special sound and light show that is such a huge tourism drawcard. In large letters, it proclaims (fittingly) the biblical phrase from the Creation: ``And then there was light''. To my good luck, a maintenance worker was using a ladder to change a light globe in the cathedral forecourt. He stopped and quickly descended the ladder as I fired off this shot, catching the banner and the changing of the faulty light globe. He apologised profusely for ruining my shot. Instead, I assured him that quite the reverse had happened. He had just given me a wonderful picture. Timing, as they say, is 99 per cent about luck.

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

This is what the good citizens of Montreal refer to as the Lipstick Forest. The manmade pink ``trees'' were the perfect foil for the recessed ceiling lights that reflected off the concourse.


(So, this must be the Paris end of Canada, right?)

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

This picture could be taken anywhere in Europe, but I can assure you I was actually in the Lower Town area of Quebec City. Being on this street in particular is like stepping back in time. In the centre of the frame you can see the funicular - such an integral part of the city.

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

I was down by the waterfront and had just photographed the marina when the light began to fade. When I was a kid, we were always taught only to use cameras in the right conditions, but part of the joy of photography lies in breaking the rules. As I walked away from the marina, I saw signs pointing to the Naval Museum and looked up to see this mock ship's figurehead with an old-time mariner, carved from wood, surveying the city through his telescope. It still turned out to be a decent picture, but you could say the subject was a little, shall we say, wooden.

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

This shot was taken at the Montmorency Falls, which are actually higher than Niagara but obviously not as wide. I ignored the normal shots from below and beside the falls. Instead, I opted for the (perfectly safe) option of the walkway directly above the cascade. I leaned against the railings (praying that they were constructed of sturdy stuff) and extended my arms as far as they would go to take this frame, directly above the roiling water. I was there in late September, but I guess you could say it was definitely the fall season.

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

This is the laneway in the city where you go if you're looking for an amazing array of art. It's like being in a scaled-down version of Montmarte. I wish I had a career as an artist, but my art teacher always said my future was a bit sketchy.

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

Want to experience the ghosts of Quebec City? Then join the twilight ghost tour, led by guides dressed in period costume and carrying lanterns. The important thing is to get into the spirit of the task.

Photo copyright: DAVID McMAHON

Just in case you thought I'd forgotten all about the Chateau Frontenac - no, I haven't. Before I got to Quebec City, I often wondered how a single building could be a symbol of a city. But it slowly dawned on me, the more I saw of the city, that the Chateau, visible from just about everywhere, is the single dominant image in a city where you could take a thousand photographs each day. The shot above was taken pre-dawn on 17 September last year. It was raining heavily, there was low cloud of the St Lawrence River, the city lights were still on in the gloom, but there on the left is the Chateau, standing guard over Samuel Champlain's city like a faithful sentinel.