Across two worlds


UK-born but resident in Sydney for 50 years, diaspora writer Derek Mortimer says he is an immigrant in one country and an emigrant in another. Derek speaks to The Indian Sun on his recent visit to India and Meridian, a collection of short stories, set in Australia and the UK

A chance meeting at the Sydney Writers’ Festival created a moment of serendipity for author and journalist Derek Mortimer—and an invitation to visit India.

Derek told the Indian Sun that he got into conversation with a man who introduced himself as Dr R K Dhawan. “I invited him and his wife, Usha, home for dinner. At the end of the evening, Dr Dhawan said, ‘You must come to India and speak at one of our conferences.’

“I thought it was a polite way of saying, ‘Thanks,’ the way Sydney-siders say, ‘You must come over for dinner,’ but never invite you.”

But Dr Dhawan later emailed Derek and asked him to talk about his life as a writer at two university conferences: the 4th JGU International Literary Conference at O P Jindal Global University, near Delhi, one of India’s youngest universities, where he was guest of honour. The second was at Osmania University, Hyderabad, one of the country’s oldest, organised by Osmania University Centre for International Programmes & Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies.

Both conferences focused on writings of the diaspora, a subject of particular interest to India, which is said to have the biggest diaspora in the world, 25 million, the same as the Australia population. It also has some of the best known diaspora writers in the world, like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.

Derek, who was born in the UK, is a diaspora writer and has lived in Sydney almost 50 years. As he put it, “I am an immigrant in one country and an emigrant in another, and I write about both my countries.” Derek’s most recent book is, Meridian, a collection of short stories, set in Australia and the UK.

Surprisingly at the top of the list of those who influenced his decision to one day become a writer was his grandmother, Eleanor Parker, a woman, who he told the conferences, “never wrote anything longer than a Christmas card, but through her reading she opened my mind to a world of adventure; distant countries beyond the confines of narrow provincial life—to the wonders of storytelling.”

The first people of a diaspora that Derek met, although he admits he had never heard of the word at the time, were Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants in his home town of Bradford, in industrial Yorkshire, England. They were cheap labour for the woollen mill owners.

Derek said at the conference, “They were crammed into ‘warm bed’ houses, that is, they were shift workers; a man who had worked all day slept in a bed at night which had been occupied during the day by a man who had worked all night … I would see these immigrants walking in single file close to the centre of the city, huddled in long overcoats, woollen balaclavas covering their shiny black hair. They looked terribly sad and cold.”

He told Indian Sun, “I think that experience instilled in me a compassion for all immigrants. Bradford now has a large annual writers’ festival and I hope some of the descendant of those immigrants are telling their stories.

“My time in Indian was remarkable. I was often overwhelmed by the energy, the colour —and the openness of people, both in academia and on the streets. I am also now full of curiosity about Indian life in Australia.”

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