With the deafening sound of the crickets from our mid-morning walk in Botany Bay National Park ringing in our ears, we edged closer to the city. The sun was bright in the outskirts of Sydney (Cronulla bay and the inner suburb of Sutherland) and the air-conditioning in the car kept things at an even keel. The cricket on the radio got better, with the Indian batting side proving to be masters of the flat pitch. Until now, Sydney’s streets were mostly boring bungalows with regulation front yards interspersed with car showrooms, supermarkets and out-of-town shopping areas that kept appearing with monotonous regularity. When the scenery suddenly changed to elegant houses with wraparound verandas with giant trees providing shade, I felt I was in leafy Sneyd Park in Bristol or Lal Bagh in Bangalore – with the more tropical plants and flowers. Woollhara, where our hotel was, by the majestic Centennial Park was one such haven.
We visited friends by the glamorous harbour front where the water shone a brilliant blue and the waves splashed below. There are numerous bays in this city, where the sea comes in and much coveted apartments and houses built all along it. There are picturesque coves where people climb the cliffs and enjoy the warmth of the sun in the middle of the city. On our walk we glimpsed the Opera House and the Harbour bridge for the very first time – it would be tomorrow when it properly took my breath away.
We were going to spend the days over New Year in the northern part of the city – in Cremorne where there is water, greenery and tranquil scenery around city houses. The tickets for a show at the Opera House (not New Year’s Eve but on the day before) had been booked from Bristol back in October – just because it felt mandatory. There was only one way to get there – and that was by ferry. I boarded the boat at Kurraba Point, heading for Circular Quay. As the boat powered through the waters, this defiant, spiky white lotus sprung in front of my eyes. The effect is all that it intends to be – graceful, elegant and stunningly flamboyant.
Even though I switch to Radio 3, the classical music station in the UK to keep calm while driving in deadly slow traffic, opera is something I haven’t embraced wholeheartedly. The erudite British presenters at the BBC need to take a lesson or two from Sydney Opera House, I reckon. Our show, “Great Opera Hits”, at the Joan Sutherland theatre, came with a compere (Jonathan Biggins) who guessed that the gathered crowd was not going to be moved by a performance of Tristan and Isolde. “Now,” he said, “there are a couple of things you need to know about opera – when the two main characters fall in love, there’s going to be tragedy round the corner. And, if they share anything resembling a kiss, you may be sure, they’ll be going home in a box!” This was a simply performed production – there was a pianist on stage and four artists who took turns to perform separately or together. There are better terms for all this – the sopranos for the female voices, the baritone and the tenor for the male who all sang solos and duets. One such piece was “Dome epas”, from the opera, Lakme (Leo Delibes, the composer), which is set in India. Lakme, is the daughter of a Brahmin priest and Mallika, her servant. The Flower Duet was performed by the two sopranos and two men who are good friends fall for the beautiful Lakme and the rest is inevitable opera history. This tune is quite popular as it is featured in the British Airways advertisement. It is probably the loveliest melody ever to listen to when waiting for someone to take your call at BA. We were kept entertained between the pieces by the compere and just loved his healthy disregard for the norms of high culture – a unique Aussie trait, for sure. As he reminded us, you wouldn’t ever see such a programme at the Met in New York or even in London, for that matter.
New York and London were cold distant places when New Year’s Eve came nice and early, hours before anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. On a crazy impulse, we headed back to Circular Quay and the Rocks to lay in wait for midnight from around four in the afternoon. Our position was a piece of tarmac with a strategic view of the semi-circular arch of the Harbour Bridge and the concrete waves of the Opera House. The ground was warm, the crowd gathered swiftly – sari-clad maamis took their places on camping chairs, the Chinese contingent unfurled their blanket and began to shuffle a pack of cards, the Spanish couple ate their packet of crisps and even picked a stray piece that had fallen down to pop into their mouths, the Turkish men started a debate that no one else could understand as a young Greek began to dance around his friends next to them. No glass bottles or alcohol were allowed in and this must be the most sober bunch of Aussies ever assembled that night. Their reputation abroad is one of raucous drunken partying, but back in Sydney, they were the most harmonious mass of humanity that watched the skies come ablaze with fireworks at the appointed hour.
Many unforgettable memories – of going to Bondi Beach and lying on the silky white sand, watching the golden bodies chasing the surf, of watching a Bollywood film after eating street-food in Sydney’s Chinatown, of picking up a book from a box left outside someone’s house in Darlinghurst and being transported to my country of origin (The Smile of Murugan, by Michael Wood, about a pilgrimage from Chidambaram to Tiruchendur), and signs like this that sadly reminded us that this land where there were trendy cafes and beautiful zoos (Taronga) were still sacred places to the Aboriginal people.