Half a butterfly

by Ellen van Neerven

THE FIRST FEW days I stayed in Dona Paula, I was having a really hard time finding the beaches I’d heard about. My companions and I would walk down the dusty streets, but the roads seemed to curve away from the water at the last minute. We walked for hours in the heat until we reached the end. It wasn’t a beach. There was a jetty, a juice store and plenty of people, but it seemed to be a site used for commercial fishing, unsightly and uninspiring. We stood at the water and looked back the way we came; there were two beautiful-looking beaches in the direction of our accommodation. But they remained elusive, slipping out of sight on our return.

I was in India as part of literary commons!, a cultural-exchange program between Aboriginal Australian writers and Dalit writers. My companions were Jared Thomas, Nicole Watson and Mridula Nath Chakraborty. We were guests at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival. There were creative types from all over staying at the International Centre and the place was buzzing.

I’ve noticed Australians like to hang out with the Canadians, and that’s what seemed to be happening again when Jared and I met Ulrike Rodrigues, the Vancouver writer of a blog Girl Gone Goa: Travel, sex, magic and cycling in an Indian state.

It was Ulrike who took us to the beach, via a resort. That beach had been under our noses. All we had to do was enter big white gates and walk down a driveway. Guards greeted us as we entered the building and we went through a security screen. Outside there was the beach and a swimming pool and a bar. I was eager to walk along the beach, and peered into the ocean, noticing prominent structures of coloured rock.

‘Laterite,’ said Ulrike. ‘Rich in iron ore. That’s why they’re mining so much around here.’

Ulrike often blogged about the love-hate relationship the villagers of Goa have with mining. ‘It provides jobs, but it takes away arable land. Mining also requires a great deal of fresh water – water that is taken away from villagers’ wells and crops.’

I was taken by the colour of the rock, a deep red. For the first time since I’d arrived in the country, I felt a deep sense of home; laterite is widespread in Australia. Laterite was first named here in Southern India in 1807 by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton from the Latin word ‘later’ meaning ‘brick’.

We sat under the palm trees and watched the sunset with drinks in hand. Ulrike’s paternal grandparents were from here, but her father never spoke of it much, and then he passed away. Growing up in Canada, she denied her Indian heritage. The need for secrecy came from observing schoolyard hatred of South Asians and she grew self-conscious of her tanned skin and dark features. Just a few years ago, Ulrike – who is in her fifties – made contact with a relative who invited her to visit. She felt an instant connection to Goa and travelled the state on her bicycle. The white stripe in her hair had locals comparing her to Indira Gandhi. A self-proclaimed ‘free spirit’, she was not looking forward to going back to a ‘normal life’ in Canada. We looked across the ocean at the lowering sun, thinking of home.


AUSTRALIA AND INDIA once cuddled close on the super continent of Gondwana. India drifted so far north it collided with Asia, and we eventually broke it off with Antarctica. Once side by side, what do we retain of each other, in geography and flora and fauna? This was something that perhaps interested me more than comparisons of our peoples and cultures. There are similarities between the Indian rainforest and Australian rainforest that suggest this common ancestry. A survey conducted by Dr Leonard J Webb at the University of Queensland found that Australian and Indian rainforests shared forty-seven species but only forty-one with Papua New Guinea, which was attached to Australia until relatively recently. Australia and New Guinea were a single land mass thirty-five thousand years ago.

In 2011 a discovery was made off the coast of Perth by the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences. Two landmasses the size of Tasmania were found deep below the ocean’s surface. It wasn’t straightforward, collecting rocks from the abyss more than 1.5 kilometres underwater, though the rocks retrieved unveiled a startling fact. The islands had flat tops, indicating they were once at sea level before gradually being submerged, and the tests showed the rock hadn’t always been underwater. The location of these sunken islands is important; in the Cretaceous when dinosaurs walked the Earth (more than 130 million years ago), India was adjacent to Western Australia. The make-up of the rocks suggests how the islands might have fitted into the break-up of Gondwana. When India began to break away from Australia, the discovered islands formed part of the last link between the two continents. Eventually these islands, referred to as ‘micro-continents’ by the geologists, were separated from both landmasses and stranded in the Indian Ocean.


THE NEXT MORNING I was up early, standing outside our accommodation, slightly cold in my T-shirt and loose pants. It was Mridula, our dear ‘chaperone’, the organiser of the trip, who suggested the birdwatching tour. None of my companions had woken to join me. On the drive from Goa airport Mridula had asked ‘What do you want to see?’ While Nicole and Jared talked about shopping for their relatives and surfing, I said ‘birds’.

‘Should we wait for anyone else?’ Rajiv D’Silva from the Goa Bird Conservation Network asked. I was with a group of bird enthusiasts from different parts of India; we shared two sets of binoculars between the eight of us. We walked first on the main road and Rajiv pointed out kingfishers and drongos on the telephone poles and the eagles circling the coast. ‘It’s usually the same pair,’ he said. I was impressed by how many birds we saw before we reached the side street, which promised to lead to some good old bush. In this lusher area, we saw a tiny purple sunbird. The bird, otherwise black-looking, glinted like metal in the light.

A birder in the group said he had seen someone coming down the road, possibly trying to catch up with us. We voted to check, and the birder walked quickly towards the stranger. The rest of us stood impatiently in a circle while Rajiv told stories of birdwatching fortune.

A short young Indian woman appeared, dressed all in black, wearing a nose ring. ‘Sorry!’ This was Suneeta. She fell in step beside me. A few minutes into the trail I paused at the sound of a familiar bird, much like I stopped on the beach to look at the rock. Suneeta had also stopped. Rajiv gave us a knowing smile, ‘You have the myna in Australia?’

‘Yes. The noisy miner.’ This was how I got to know Suneeta as Australian – born in Sydney, but staying with family in Goa.

She was good friends with Mridula, also Sydney-based, and that afternoon we went to the town to have lunch and to do some shoe shopping. I was affronted by what I saw there, not yet used to the rules and sights of Indian cities, but Suneeta knew her way around. ‘I don’t see her like this in Sydney,’ Mridula whispered to me while Suneeta asked directions for lunch. ‘She’s shy. But in India, it’s funny, because she wasn’t born here, she’s in her element. She’s full of energy.’

Mridula’s observation of Suneeta looking natural in her ancestral environment stayed with me as we made our way to the restaurant. A dog was in front of us, lean and muscular, powerful limbs and a prominent spine. There were almost more dogs than people on the streets of Goa. Humans and dogs walked past each other mostly with no exchange. I felt they were spirit dogs, and no matter their colour (some are white, some grey, some yellow, some brown, some black), we agreed they were like dingos. I couldn’t stop looking at them and feeling they were more aware than any of us.

Marie Munkara, another Australian writer participating in the exchange, told me of her time in Bangalore where a dog embraced her like a friend. His paws on her arms. He knows you, the locals said. He knows you. And when she had to leave, the dog stared at her until she was out of sight.

To Mridula they are ‘pi dogs’, the name of the indigenous class of primitive dogs of India, but she concedes those in urban areas are usually a mixture of modern breeds. They roam their territories cautiously, the fear of an ambush by tigers or leopards in their limb extension and head positioning.

Recent research suggests Indian migrants might have brought these wild dogs with them into Australia. Genetic history indicates that contact with Indians occurred four thousand years ago, which coincides with the arrival of the dingo. Much is unknown about the arrival and impact of the dingo. First Nations’ groups became fond of these dogs, and perhaps they acclimatised at the expense of the once mainland-spread thylacine. Some researchers believe the dingo hunted and killed the female thylacines, which were much smaller than the male, while others suggest it was competition for food that favoured the more versatile hunter. However, these incidents are not usually a simple case of one animal wipes out another, or dingo vs. thylacine. Perhaps the answer is more complex. Aboriginal people formed a special bond, dingos became pets, pups plucked from their dens. There are some old stories that report dingos were hunting companions, but the idea that dingos perform the same duties as a retriever or another breed of domesticated hunting dog does not fit. Dingos are too wild, motivated and distracted by their own needs, and their noisy excitement would jeopardise the hunt. Either way, when Marie sent me photographs of paintings of the thylacine in Arnhem Land, I was struck by how much we have lost in, what is for Aboriginal people, a short time.


WE WENT BACK to the hotel and prepared for the seminal evening of the festival at the Governor’s house. When I met the others in the lobby, freshly showered and dressed, Mridula had a huge smile, but was definite in tone. ‘You can’t wear jeans.’

I went hastily back to my room and pulled on a pair of colourful feminine trousers, blushing more at the way she had said it. I was still getting used to what I saw as a very direct style of communication.

From a distance I was easily mistaken for Indian and was told I could ‘get away with it in the North, where the women are lighter-skinned’. And Jared was decoded as a ‘Mark Waugh lookalike; a Waugh brother’, hinting also at the tendency for conversations between us and the locals to begin with cricket. At the chance to explain our background, Jared would eagerly repeat the story about his aunty marrying an Indian man: ‘We used to cook roo tails in the coals, now we have roo curry,’ explaining the Aboriginal–Indian connections in his family. Indian people were thirsty for knowledge about our culture and easily grasped narratives of colonisation.

The Australian Indians, Mridula and Suneeta, were able to look at us from sometimes surprising angles. As we waited for the bus to take us to the Governor’s house, Mridula jested that Murri time is ‘about the same, maybe better’ than Indian Stretch Time (‘dinner at seven’ means ‘starting at ten’).

The Governor’s house, Raj Bhavan, was at the end of a slender cape overhanging the Arabian Sea. Before the poetry readings started, while the others were admiring the historic Portuguese architecture, I was looking at the butterflies.

I had surely never seen any of these butterflies before, and they moved quickly in the vines and trees planted alongside the garden edge with the ocean below. I was hoping to see a southern birdwing, the largest butterfly in India and one of the thirty-six species of birdwings (the largest in the world) native to the Indian subcontinent, mainland and archipelagic South-East Asia and Australasia. We have four birdwing species, but there’s one in particular that’s important to me. The Richmond birdwing once held terrific numbers across Queensland and New South Wales but is now endangered. Stories from my own people, the Yugambeh and the Bundjalung – meaning place of butterfly – tell that before settlement the sky over the Pacific Ocean was black with them. And there are reports the streets of Brisbane were once crawling with birdwing butterflies. Now, they are seen only in two areas, the Gold Coast hinterland and on the Sunshine Coast, from Nambour to Eudlo. My friend has planted the Richmond birdwing vine on her Eudlo property and sees small numbers.

I saw the southern birdwings there at the Governor’s house. They were much larger than the Richmond, with yellow and white marking. Males and females floated unhurried above the gardens. I moved out of the way of guests and knelt to see the butterflies below the railing. It was a warm winter night, though it felt like summer. I felt the cloud of mosquitoes and the scent of mussaenda and above me was the cadenced circling of kites.

I wondered why Goa’s birdwings had fared better than mine. South-East Queensland is as much a biodiversity hotspot as Goa, still a paradise to the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians who live there now.

Though our continents once lay cheek by jowl, the animals in Australia have evolved very differently to those in India. India has retained some of its great beasts – the elephant and the tiger – but our megafauna disappeared around fifteen thousand years ago.

Evidence is sparse about whether Australian First Nations killed off large populations of giant marsupials and flightless birds. Many believe, as I do, that these animals became extinct gradually by a combination of climate, firestick farming and hunting. I believe that Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and methods of hunting, like those of the ancient Indian people, would have prevented such a mass kill-off.

Thylacine rock paintings in Arnhem Land show the marsupial once lived much further north than Tassie and, indeed, rock paintings and Aboriginal stories serve as great markers for the megafauna history of this country. The importance of such discoveries is less understood in India, where the significance of early rock art is not yet celebrated.

The Hindu Times reported that Australian rock art experts are encouraging India to take up more of a role in the scientific dating of Indian rock art, to investigate the people of Lower Palaeolithic times who used art as a means of communication and expression. ‘Indian art is at least two hundred thousand years old, which is an educated guess and it could be much more,’ said Robert Bednarik, part of the Early Indian Petroglyphs Project, a joint venture by Australian and Indian rock research institutes. The Bhimbetka rock shelters exhibit some of these early traces of human life; paintings depict religious rites and burials, as well as huge figures of animals such as bison, rhinoceros, tigers and elephants in green or dark red paint. Bednarik feels it’s time for India to move away from its British-centric, colonial model of archaeology to develop its own approach.

A genetic study of Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory and subcontinental Indians shows there was a significant gene flow from India to Australia approximately four thousand years ago, and most likely from the genetic diversity there were several waves of migration. The first influx of Indian genes coincides with the appearance of stone tools, changes in plant processing and the arrival of the dingo. Aboriginal people share up to 11 per cent of DNA with modern Indian people, though the study is not representative of Australia because testing didn’t occur outside of the Northern Territory. The Indian immigrants arrived in boats, lugged tools and dogs, integrated into communities and stayed here to become what we know today as Aboriginal Australian.

I saw the dog of my past curled up on the stairs of a drug store. It was reddish-brown and had a long stiff tail. The dog was busy. I can’t say how, but that was the impression I got. The dog wouldn’t look out of place in the Great Victoria Desert, in the sand dunes of Fraser Island, where a dingo fence controls movements and minimises human and dingo interaction. I wanted to feel this dog’s beating skull with the palm of my hand. I had traveller’s bewilderment; I was asking myself – no, demanding – why I was here.

But what I meant was I didn’t know how we had ended up like this, pi dogs and dingos, southern and Richmond butterflies, and we all must wonder more when we think of those two now sunken islands that, once, were between us.

 

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.