• Published by Penguin Books India
• Published: March 2006
• Pages: 336
• Classification: Fiction/Immigration
I have read a lot of East-Indian fiction and through those books I have been introduced to some delightful characters from the various different communities of India, but one community that remains elusive in Indian fiction is the Anglo-Indian community, so when I saw David McMahon's book "Vegemite Vindaloo" which features an Anglo-Indian family , I knew I just had to read it! Before I go on to give you a synopsis of the story perhaps I should tell you who the Anglo-Indians are:
The term "Anglo-Indian" is commonly used to describe people who have mixed Indian and English ancestry (not to be confused with Indo-Anglians an adjective applied to literature in English produced by Indian authors.) When Britain ruled India they imposed a hierarchical racial order, one that favored people with European heritage and lighter skin, so the Anglo-Indian community (with their fair skin, English manners and education) did very well for themselves during the British Raj. When the British left India in 1947, many Anglo-Indians followed suit (most went to Britain but many also left for Canada and Australia), the ones that were left behind felt out of place in the new nationalistic India because they were more aligned with a western way of life, and over the years they have learned to embrace local customs and traditions. However, Anglo-Indians continue to immigrate to the west and their numbers in India have dwindled over time.
David McMahon's entertaining first novel "Vegemite Vindaloo" chronicles the immigration to Australia of one such Anglo-Indian family. Steve and Hilary Cooper are a well-to-do couple living in Calcutta with their son Clive. When they decide to make the move to Australia, in an altruistic gesture they legally adopt, Azam, their house help's son so that he can avail of the opportunity for a better life. Anyone familiar with the caste system in India will be aware that such a thing is almost unheard of. Adopting kids is fine, but most Indians would draw the line at adopting a maid's child (because maids are much lower down on the hierarchical ladder) Despite the odds, the Coopers persist with the adoption and their dream of a better life in Australia is realized.
While a chunk of the story revolves around the Cooper family, they are just 4 people in an ensemble of very fine characters in David McMahon's story. Also blended in is the story of Ismael (Azam's father) who had to run away from his village in Bihar after he stole money to buy medicine for his sickly son and due to a lack of funds was forced to become a pavement dweller on Calcutta's busy and dirty streets until in a happy synchronicity, he meets Steve who employs Ismael and his wife to work in the Cooper house.
David McMahon is a very fine storyteller and although Steve Cooper struck me as a little naive and his wife Hilary a little vain, I would say David crafts some delightful and interesting characters... what makes the story really moving is that he places them in situations that make it necessary for them to abandon all that is familiar to them and to courageously take on the challenges of a brand new world.
This book held many charms for me. As I have mentioned before, I loved the story and the characters, I loved learning about Calcutta a city I know so little about, the cultural assimilation of the Cooper family in Australia, but best of all I loved learning about the Anglo-Indians and their way of life. So, if, like me, you love discovering another culture with its different rhythms, tastes, smells, lingo and ways of being human, allow the Coopers and friends to be your guide.
David is a Melbourne-based journalist who's as adept with images as he is with words. Check out some of his photographs at:
The Scotiabank Giller Prize long list was announced today. I'm thrilled to see that Michael Ondaatje ("Dividsadero"), M.G. Vassanji ("The Assassin's Song") and Richard B. Wright"October" are among the authors that have made it to the list.
In addition to Ondaatje, Vassanji and Wright, the authors on this year's longlist are:
- David Chariandy for his novel Soucouyant (Arsenal Pulp Press)
- Sharon English for her short-story collection Zero Gravity (The Porcupine's Quill)
- Barbara Gowdy for Helpless (HarperCollins Canada)
- Elizabeth Hay for Late Nights on Air (McClelland & Stewart)
- Lawrence Hill for The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins Canada)
- Paulette Jiles for her novel Stormy Weather (HarperCollins Canada)
- D.R. MacDonald for his novel Lauchlin of the Bad Heart (HarperCollins Canada)
- Claire Mulligan for The Reckoning of Boston Jim (Brindle & Glass Publishing)
- Mary Novik for her novel Conceit (Doubleday Canada)
- Daniel Poliquin for A Secret Between Us, translated by Donald Winkler (Douglas & McIntyre)
- Michael Winter for his novel The Architects Are Here (Penguin Books Canada)
- Alissa York for Effigy (Random House Canada)
I have a copy of Richard B. Wright's "October" (courtesy Harper Collins, Canada) to give away, so if you are interested and if you think you can read and write up a review for it before Oct 30th, please leave me a comment, thanks! The draw is on Thursday. Next week I might have another book by a Giller Prize nominee to give away so please stay tuned!