51 Days in Suburban Australia

Castle Hill, Sydney - A street view (Photo: Courtesy: Avni Vaid)

Suman K Sharma
7 April. We landed at the Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport around 7 in the morning. Things went smoothly for me and my wife Indraat the Immigration. Pushing towards the exit a trolley carrying our 30-kg suitcases and two hand bags – all packed to bursting – I felt a mounting anxiety. Half an hour before landing, the cabin crew had distributed those pinkish cards to each of us passengers to declare if we carried any contraband or objectionable materials. A few of the eleven card-entries proved tricky. I did not know whether our shoes still carried Delhi’s soil on their soles. Or, whether the ghee used in mithai we were carrying for our granddaughter could be considered an ‘animal product’. To be on the safe side, I had ticked ‘yes’ to all such items. At the worst, we could discard anything found objectionable. Our worry lay elsewhere. Having the luggage x-rayed, we were told to go through the Red Channel. Standing there were three tall, sturdy looking officials-all alert and agile. My fears proved justified. One of the officials asked me to open the bag nearest him. I did, but not before telling him that he would have to help me close it after inspection. We had stuffed that bag with blankets, bed sheets, besides my own winter clothing. It also contained something very delicate and precious that Vinayak, our son-in-law, had sought from Delhi – an old-school vinyl record of the popular qawwal is of the Pakistani singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Though cushioned between layers and layers of clothing, it could have cracked at the slightest jerk. The Australian official was helpful though. We exited the airport with all our belongings intact.Vinayak and Pema, our daughter, were there to receive us. The 30-odd km drive was uneventful. Together, we savoured the warmth of a long-awaited family reunion.
The overnight non-stop 12-hour Air India flight and the piquancy of arrival had taken their toll of our mental and physical faculties. We spent the day and night sleeping fitfully.
It was a cheerful Saturday morning to which we woke up. Pema took us on a walk; her playful dog, Benny, pulling at the leash. The air was snappy outside. It reminded us that we were in the ‘Down Under’, where winter was setting in. Castle Hill is a suburb located in the north-west of Sydney. Averitable hill, it has no castle. The houses here are generally squat rather than tall. A few high-rises that stand adjacent to the metro station and the bus terminus appear to be new constructions. The roads are wider, traffic scarcer and curves more curvaceous than those we are accustomed to, back home. Australians seem to be a people of taste with a strong civic sense. Their houses are hedged in with flowering bushes. Blossoms of white, pink, purple and yellow colours impart a festive look to the neighbourhood. The footpaths are kept scrupulously clean and suitably bevelled at all the entry points for the convenience of the disabled. There are no discarded plastic bags and bottles in sight on the pavements. The problem of dust is dealt with effectively. They cover the bare soil with bits of tree bark, which is in abundant supply here. As we walked past a row of houses, Pema stopped abruptly. Benny was showing an urge to ease himself. When the dog was done, she took out a small black plastic bag from a container attached to the leash, carefully removed the poop from the pavement, wrapped it up, and put the thing into another bag that she carried in her free hand. Later, she deposited it in a trash bin kept outside her house for such refuse.
It did not take me or my wife long to go out by ourselves. Castle Hill has well laid out roads that carry helpful signages. We had our mobiles too with us. There was hardly any chance of getting lost. Though thinly populated compared to our own urban places, the area boasts of nearly all the urban amenities – a metro station, bus terminus, shopping malls, schools, a medical centre, a dog clinic and even a small-sized park. The presence of half a dozen churches of various denominations bear witness to the religious inclinations of the locals. The people are foodies. In the shopping area are restaurants catering to the French, Belgian, Thai, Malaysian, Lebanese, and of course, Indian tastes. ‘The Khalsa Restaurant’, ‘The Andaaz’ and ‘The Castle Taj’ are some of the eating places that provide solace to the homesick by way of their food and ambience.
On one of my walks, I noticed two buildings on the road that seemed to be out of place. They had the facade of a bygone era. A carved commemorative stone declared the larger building to be ‘The Caste Hill School, Estd. 1933’. The adjoining structure, smaller in size, identified itself as a ‘Public School’ bore a plaque dating back to 1879. I learnt that the ‘public schools’ here teach children up to class VI, while the ‘High Schools’ admit children of higher classes. The two venerable buildings have long outlived their purpose, yet they continue to stand with all the grace and dignity of grandmothers looking on serenely at the hubbub of everyday life around them.
It was a Friday evening. At the dinner,Vinayak proposed that we two would be going on a short trek the following morning. A trek in a thoroughly citified place like Castle Hill? But does not any town worth its name need such a breathing place? The ‘Platypus Track’ of the Bidjigal Reserve did measure up to my expectations, except that we didn’t see a single platypus there. As we all know, this platypus is a peculiar creature of Australia. A square bill gives it the looks of a duck and it lays eggs as well. But one has to be wary of it. The four-legged mammal is poisonous, and if ruffled, it can leave one squirming in pain. The Platypus Track is just over a mile long (1.7 km)but it boasts of all the features of the Australian ‘bushwalk’ – a craggy terrain, exotic flora and fauna, as also a creek. Hardly two and a half centuries ago, I thought, the explorers must have wandered through such idiosyncrasies of the ‘bush’ before they could realise their dream of Australia.
Some eleven kilometres from Castle Hill is another suburb of Sydney, called Parramatta. The bustling township has its own significance. It is here that the Old Government House – the hub of British colonisation of Australia – is located. For us, Indians, Parramatta promises home-like ambience. The aroma wafting from the numerous eateries of Harris Park transport the clientele back to busy bazars of Amritsar, Ahmedabad or Amaravati. There is even a weekly langar, organised by the local Sikh community, which serves free meals every Tuesday. No wonder that coinciding with PM Modi’s recent visit to Australia, the locality has been named ‘Little India’.
Australia is a large country, nearly two-and-a-half times as large as India, with diverse ecosystems ranging from the most inviting habitations to stark deserts. Castle Hill and Parramatta are but minuscule parts of this vast land. Yet, those suburbs gave us a feel of the wonderful country.