India overwhelmed me. Her colours are the stuff of fantasy, shining in the fabrics and costumes of women, even the poorest. Wild lavish purples and reds and oranges swirl together on one sari, with emeralds and magical midnight blues. India, now as then, bombards my eyes and ears; she gets up my nostrils and under my finger nails and adds her special masala – spice mixture – to my taste buds. I become mindful of my skin in a new way: its sweatiness, saltiness, clothes clinging, dust between my toes in my sandals. I began to understand for the first time the gospel story about washing feet.
Saffron and Silk opens with a wedding between two unlikely lovers: a handsome thirty-something Indian-born development worker and a thirty-something Catholic academic from Sydney. Out of character with her background and normal demeanour, the bride has left the predictability of her life in Australia to marry and live in the South Indian city of Chennai. Throughout Saffron and Silk, readers enter into the bride’s new family and their Kerala origins and into some of the rich culture of Tamil legends and history. She shares her struggles and frustrations as a ‘foreign wife’ and her insights into both the domestic minutiae of everyday life and the macro challenges of poverty.
These stories are all set within the annual cycle of religious feasts and festivals around which life in India turns. The author discovers a famous relative who was close to Mahatma Gandhi during the important years of emerging Indian nationalism. The death in custody of a former member of parliament, just a few months after the author had met him, hints at some of the darker elements of India.
At the heart of the story is the pogrom sparked by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984. The horrors of this time are re-lived and the author’s perspective reveals much about the complexity of modern India. This is set against another story of tension when the accidental death of one of the author’s colleagues results in threats to her and her husband. Saffron and Silk gives an insight into poverty through the lens of the horrific industrial explosion at the Bhopal Union Carbide factory, the experience of a little girl making cigarettes in a rural village and a tribal woman in a remote village.
As if to reassure herself, the author concludes the book with stories of more domestic matters – motherhood, women and travel. The author has a direct connection with every story in this book and she uses her personal experience to explore larger issues of India’s culture and history, making Saffron and Silk a personal insider story of some of the treasures and dilemmas of a country that is increasingly significant to contemporary Australia.
Dr Anne Benjamin is a Sydney-based writer and educator with roots in the Hunter Valley of NSW and strong links with South India. Her writing includes tanka, tanka prose, poems and fiction published in journals and anthologies in Australia, Japan, UK, New Zealand, USA and Canada, including anthologies from the Montreal Poetry Prize (2011) and the ACU Literary Prize (2014). Anne is an Honorary Professor at Australian Catholic University and an Honorary Fellow of the University of Western Sydney. She has been recognised for her principled and visionary contribution to education in Australia and India, and in particular to Catholic education in Western Sydney. Since concluding nine years as Executive Director of Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta, she returned to her love of writing and has published widely.