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Chetna Prakash: Narrating her Melbourne

Chetna Prakash JLF Melbourne

Writer

"Melbourne leaves a lot of room for you to be what you want to be."

Chetna Prakash has arranged to meet us at the corner of Swanston and Bourke Streets - right in front of the Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle.

The life-sized bronze sculpture of Melbourne’s three pioneers is the creation of Alison Weaver and Paul Quin. It was commissioned as part of the Swanston Street Art Works Program and was a gift from the Republic of Nauru to the City of Melbourne on the city's 150th anniversary in 1994.

Chetna is both an art and history buff. But neither of her two loves are the reason we're standing under these towering landmarks. She has picked this meeting spot because it forms part of her short story, Searching For Saloni, which she wrote for the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) Melbourne.

The former Mumbai journalist is among three Melbourne-based Indian writers involved in Writing Our Melbourne, an interactive storytelling experience around city landmarks with a connection to India.

“I knew that the Myer Family Gallery at the NGV International has many beautiful Indian artifacts so my story is around those artifacts being stolen,” she said.

“I’ve managed to find so many connections between Melbourne and India which really surprised me because who would have thought?”

JLF Melbourne is India's biggest literary celebration. It is brought to Melbourne as part of Asia TOPA, a festival celebrating Australia's connections with contemporary Asia, and is held in collaboration with Melbourne Writer's Festival. The two-day event kicks off on 11 February at Fed Square.

Between leaving India and arriving in Melbourne, Chetna lived in Zambia, Europe and London. She and her Melburnian husband decided to put down roots here four years ago and raise their two children in a city that is “safer, slower and that gives us a sense of space”.

Today she heads communications for Ardoch Youth Foundation and writes regularly on art for The Big Smoke.

“I sometime also write on politics from the point of view of an Indian in Australia. I take politics seriously. A lot of people don’t and that’s why we’re in the state that we’re in in the world right now.”


After having lived in so many countries, you're now comfortable calling yourself a “global citizen”. What does that term mean to you?

When I first moved out of Mumbai, I craved familiarity and would often find myself talking to people around experiences that matched mine.

During our early travels, I would point out various things that reminded me of Mumbai, and at one point, my husband turned around and said, “Nothing looks like Mumbai! It’s all in your head!” It was true.

So now I look at a place and take it for what it is. That constant comparison doesn’t happen anymore. That’s what it means to be a global citizen.


What do see about Melbourne that a native Melburnian would take for granted?

Its multiculturalism. People don’t know how good they have it here compared to many other countries.

When I lived in Denmark and Germany, the idea of you living there without learning the language – and these are very hard languages – was not feasible. They expect you to speak Danish or German as fluently as they do if you want to get any kind of job.

Those countries have stricter rules about how you find your place there. It’s about becoming what they are. Melbourne isn’t like that. It leaves a lot of room for you to be what you want to be.


How did you discover your Melbourne?

I have two abiding interests - history and art. So those often become pathways to getting to know a city better. Reading up on Melbourne’s history and attending art shows gave me a sense of the city’s vibrations.


Can you draw any parallels between Mumbai and Melbourne?

Food is big one. Mumbaikers are passionate about food. It’s in our DNA. We live for food! None of the European cities I lived in were food cities. Not even London. The idea of food being integral to life wasn’t there.

Melburnians are passionate about their food. They’ll pick up the best quality produce at farmers’ markets, go to great lengths to experience food and they have a good understanding of good food.


What did you find easy to embrace about Melbourne?

The café culture. One of my afternoon rituals during my second pregnancy was reading at a cafe called Moth to a Flame on Swan Street. My daughter and the barista, a big tattooed man, would play together. That café helped me survive my pregnancy! We’re also all about weekend brunches. My kids are inner city café kids and they know all about babycinos!


What did you find hard to get your head around?

Driving. I’ve never lived in a city where I had to drive. Cabs are cheap in Mumbai and, we cycled everywhere in Europe. And London’s public transport is very well connected.

In Melbourne, there are many places you can’t get to if you’re dependent on public transport. And it’s difficult with a pram. But also I never experienced those other cities as a mother so I can’t really make a real comparison.

The other thing is that Melbourne is really far away from everywhere else in the world! I never understood physical distance until I moved to Australia. And because of that distance it's easy to live in our own little bubble.


What would you like Melburnian literary buffs to know about India’s literary culture?

That it's very vibrant at the moment. There are so many new Indian writers and authors who are exploring new ways of storytelling and writing. It’s also very rich because of the wealth of human experiences you get in India. It hits you with this force.



In A Snap

Favourite reading spot: Journal Café on Flinders Lane

Favourite spot for a wander: Invariably all paths will lead me to the NGV International

Favourite Australian writer: Christos Tsiolkas

Favourite Indian writer: Kiran Nagarkar

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