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  • Writer's pictureRami Niranjan Desai

John Zubrzycki: Australia's greatest writer on India

Whether researching Indian royal dynasties or unearthing the history of magic in the country, Australian writer and historian John Zubrzycki has devoted his life to telling the stories of India. He spoke to Rami Niranjan Desai on why the stories of India and Australia needed many more storytellers and much more storytelling.

One of Zubrzycki's popular books (left) on the royal family in the Indian desert-kingdom of Jaipur, and the author (right).

Rami Niranjan Desai (RD): You are the most famous historian from Australia writing about the Indian subcontinent, so I wanted to begin by asking you - is there any hidden anecdote of historical connection between Australia and India which people don't know much about but citizens of both countries should know?

John Zubrzycki (JZ): What most people don’t realise is just how far back the relationship between Australia and India goes. From its first years as a colony in the late 18th century Australia was dependant on India for livestock, rice, cloth, sugar, tea, salt and of course rum, which the staple alcoholic beverage from many years. Starting in 1801, ships returning to India carried coal. One of Australia’s first governors Lachlan Macquarie brought with him from Calicut where he had been stationed, a young Indian boy named George Jarvis who worked as his valet. From the 1850s Indians began arriving in greater numbers as hawkers, cameleers, farmers and even as entertainers. By the time the Australian colonies became united at Federation in 1901 and before the White Australia Policy was implemented, nearly 7,700 people in Australia identified India as their place of birth. One of Australia’s earliest novelists John Lang spent much of his adult life in India where he worked as a lawyer and journalist. He died in Mussoorie in 1864.

RD: How did you first become interested in India? What triggered that interest?

JZ: I developed an interest in India from a very young age. One of my earliest memories is of the Taj Mahal bathed in the eerie light of a pre-monsoon dust storm when I visited India with my parents as a child. I decided to study South Asian history and Hindi after travelling to India in my gap year and the country immediately fascinated me. I knew then, and this was the late 1970s, that here was a country with a rich history and incredible civilisation and that it would assume a greater and greater importance not just regionally but globally. I was very fortunate to be one of the last students of that great Indologist A.L. Basham and it is to him that I owe my desire to find out as much as I can about India.

RD: What is the most interesting story that you have ever discovered in India?

JZ: I was fortunate to spend four years in India as a foreign correspondent in the mid-1990s so I travelled a lot, covered many stories and met some fascinating people. There were so many interesting stories I covered that it is hard to single out just one. I wrote features on the ship breakers of Alang in Gujarat, avant garde theatre in Manipur, dacoits running for the Lok Sabha elections of 1998, the Anglo-Indian commune at McCluskie Gang in Bihar, an elephant mela near Patna, and perhaps strangest of all—what happened to Mukarram Jah, the last nizam of Hyderabad who created a durbar in the Australian desert and then proceeded to lose the largest fortune in the world. He became the subject of my first book: The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback

RD: What period of Indian history do you enjoy the most?

JZ: Again, its hard to choose as every period of Indian history holds a fascination for me, which is why I enjoyed writing The Shortest History of India as it allowed me to rediscover all these epochs. Having said that most of my books have been set in the colonial period, particularly the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I find the transformations that were going on at this time fascinating and in particular some of the historical figures that played a role on the margins. My second book was on one of these marginal but important figures. Alexander Malcom Jacob was a jeweller, magician and spy, who inspired the character of Lurgan Sahib in Kipling’s Kim. He lived in Simla in from the 1870s onwards and was a household name in his day but completely forgotten after his death. Writing his biography gave me a real insight into the society and politics of the period.

RD: What period or periods of Australian history should Indians be aware of?

JZ: The early contacts that began in the late 18th century are important to be aware of because they show how deep our shared history is. Australia’s relations with Asia were marred by the White Australia Policy introduced in 1901 and then by our experiences fighting the Japanese in World War Two and the rise of Communism in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. But the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 saw the dumping of the White Australia policy, the beginnings of multi-culturalism and Australia’s recognition of China. That was when we began our long-overdue engagement with Asia.

RD: You have studied the history of magic and illusion and written extensively about it - including in your doctorate - what kind of contacts did Australia and India have in the field of illusionists and magicians?

The first ‘jugglers’—as Indian magicians were called—came to Australian during the gold rushes of the early 1850s. Some were members of touring international circus troops and a few of them stayed on. Because India was considered the home of magic and because of people’s fascination with exotic cultures, several entrepreneurs brought troupes of magicians, dancers, acrobats etc from India from the 1870s onwards. Not all these tours were successful and in 1889, a troupe of Indian magicians and performers staged a mutiny in Melbourne and marched to the local magistrates court demanding proper wages. They were eventually repatriated to India. Australian magicians, together with artists from every genre of performance you can think of toured India and other parts of Asia from the 1860s onwards. Ships travelling to Europe had to stop in India so it became part of a vibrant and globalised entertainment circuit that took in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean rim. Australia’s greatest magician Les Cole whose stage name was Levante, spent several months in India in the early 1930s performing Houdini-like routines including jumping off the Apollo Bunder in Bombay handcuffed and in chains.

RD: The Indian diaspora is increasingly prominent in Australia - your thoughts on the growing status and work of Indians in Australia.

JZ: This has been in my view the greatest contributor to the deepening of the Australia-India relationship over the past decade. Indians migrating tend to be well-educated, highly motivated, entrepreneurial and adapt extremely well to Australian society while keeping their own cultural heritage alive. More and more people of Indian heritage are being elected to state and federal parliaments, are leading professional bodies and are making a name for themselves in a wide sphere of activities from the arts through to science, in the media and in business. I hope Australia keeps welcoming growing numbers of Indians to our shores.

RD: Australia and India are going through one of their most active periods of cooperation which is growing exponentially. What are your thoughts about cooperation between the two countries?

JZ: For too long Australia-India relations were stuck in the doldrums. There was a complacency built into the relationship with our ties through the ‘three C’s’ cricket, curry and the Commonwealth seen as an adequate expression of where we could go. Today, trade is booming, the Indian diaspora is growing and the business relationship continues to expand. Australia has increased its trade and diplomatic presence in India and state governments are following suite. The QUAD is an expression of our joint security concerns. Military cooperation is deepening and student numbers are slowing coming back to pre-COVID 2020 levels. A free trade agreement is due to come into force later this year which is expected to double bilateral commerce before the end of the decade. They are the positives. The negatives include the dearth of universities in Australia offering Indian studies and languages. This has dropped alarmingly since I did my undergraduate studies. When I was a foreign correspondent in Delhi, there were half a dozen journalists from Australia based there, now there is one. The Australian public is not well-informed when it comes to India and that makes it hard to shake off old stereotypes. Australia is similarly poorly understood in India and more could be done to encourage Australian studies there and build closer ties in cultural and academic links between the two countries.

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