Second thoughts: Barricade of red banners: Janette Turner Hospital reflects on The Ivory Swing (Virago, pounds 5.99)

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The Independent Culture
IN south India there's an interesting variant of the Sisyphus myth. The toiling figure rolls his rock up the hill, then dances, laughs, claps as it lumbers to the bottom again. I lean fondly on this story when I try to account for how I turned into a novelist.

I remember a moment of surreal calm in September 1977. I was in the back of a ramshackle taxi, somewhere between the village of Pongumoodu and the city of Trivandrum, about 8 north of the equator. I had a young child on either side (my son, my daughter), my arms around them. I did not know where my husband was, except vaguely: he would be in one of the villages, with his tape recorder, safely stowing away oral variants of the Mahabali legend.

I remember feeling annoyed with our taxi driver, Hari, because he was trembling and I was afraid he would alarm the children. Hari, whom I thought of as an old friend, lived in his taxi at Ulloor Junction, where our village road met the Trivandrum road. He had no English, and I had about five sentences in Malayalam that had to serve for all our negotiations. Once a week, Hari took us into Palayam Market and to the British Council library, an air-conditioned oasis where the children could get William books, and where I could read the delicate onion-skinned Guardian world edition, only three weeks late.

But now, thronging around the taxi, banging on its roof, were hundreds of demonstrators waving red banners that bore the logo of the Soviet sickle crossed with a stalk of rice: the Communist Party of India. Mrs Gandhi had been arrested in Delhi, and Trivandrum was in convulsion. For weeks, we had watched market stalls set afire, buses overturned, peopIe killed in the streets.

Nevertheless, at this moment of being engulfed, I felt light-headed. I could not quite believe that a workingclass rebel from Brisbane, Australia, who had recently washed up (to her own confusion) as a faculty wife in a small Canadian town, a town dedicated to decorum and nostalgia for the imperium, a town where she was perceived as a trouble-making radical . . . how absurd that she should now figure as token imperialist in a village riot.

'Mem sahib, mem sahib,' the demonstrators chanted. I could see nothing beyond the ocean of red banners. I could hear Hari's teeth keeping staccato time. I remember thinking calmly: no one will ever know what happened to us. Then - I've never known why - as suddenly and mysteriously as the parting of the Red Sea, the banners let us through.

In the British Council library, badly infected now by Hari's shakes, I read Gandhi's London diaries of the 1890s. Gandhi barely noticed London, which only impinged as it affected his obsession with Hindu dietary habits. Nothing is so strange, I thought, as our inner world projected onto a foreign stage.

That week, in our house in the coconut grove, I tapped out a story on a portable typewriter (soon to be stolen), of parallel strangenesses, especially of the strangeness of the West when viewed from 8 north and 77 east of Greenwich. There was a mailbox at Ulloor Junction from which I sent the monsoon-damp pages to the Atlantic Monthly in Boston. It was my first published story - it won an Atlantic First citation - but it kept growing, and mutated into The Ivory Swing, which won Canada's dollars 50,000 Seal First Novel Award - all pleasantly bewildering for someone who never really expected to be anything other than a bush schoolteacher in Queensland; though no stranger than Sisyphus clapping delighted hands, noisy on his peak above the south Arabian Sea.

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