06 Aug 2022  |   04:59am IST

Tambde Roza in Australia

Tambde Roza in Australia

Vivek Menezes


n unexpectedly stirring debut riveted attention in the Australian Parliament last week, when Zaneta Mascarenhas made her inaugural speech as the newly elected MP for Swan (it’s part of Perth in Western Australia). We have become accustomed to associating “down under” with crude anti-Indian racism, but here was the first woman to represent her constituency in 101yearsstanding resplendently confident in her lovely red sari, and speaking with great pride about her family roots. Our impressions of Australia will never be the same again.

Make no mistake: Mascarenhas has all the ingredients to be a powerhouse politician in the Obama mould. The 42-year-oldis whip-smart, but also effortlessly congenial (which she rather charmingly credits to being Goan). She studied science and engineering – which only adds to her evidently formidable capacity for problem-solving – and has always been singled out to lead: college guild, regional chapter of the national union of students, and her various workspaces. This year there were 26 candidates of Indian origin in the Australian federal elections, and she was the only winner.

Mascarenhas has an irresistible backstory that is profoundly rooted in the mythos of Australian identity. The new MP told her colleagues that “building cubby houses in the bush and chasing lizards in the red dirt—that’s how I grew up. I was born in Kalgoorlie and grew up in Kambalda, a nickel mining town. My dad, Joe, was a metalworker. My mum, Ethel, was a lollipop lady and kindergarten cleaner. Kambalda had the best of everything.”

Her parents were born in Goa, but grew up, met and married in Kenya before migrating to Australia in 1975. Mascarenhas says “steelcap boots on a mine site: that’s how I started [and] I relished the opportunity to work with operators and tradies—though times have changed. My dad is from a generation of tradies who have fewer than 10 fingers; my dad has 9½.” But “as a graduate engineer on a construction site, I remember calling out an unsafe practice. The maintenance manager backed me and supported my concerns. At another time, this would not have been the norm. This culture shift took decades, and the mining industry still has more work to do, but I have all my fingers, unlike my dad.”

These are highly unusual credentials, which add up to formidable political capital. On the one hand this delightfully personable young woman speaks the language of the future –STEM, climate change, decarbonisation – but all the while fluently code-switching to paleo- Aussie: “politics is a blood sport, and a Kalgoorlie girl who has made it in mining should be able to make it in parliament.” She has a gift for making the impossible turn inevitable: “who would guess that someone like me would be elected as the member for Swan? I stand here as the child of Goan parents, a Kalgoorlie girl, a Swan local, a mum, a lady with an unusual first name and a long surname, a climate change specialist, an engineer.”

Of course, the X-factor in politics is timing. Here too, Mascarenhas has emerged in the vanguard because, long after the rest of the west – and many other countries – Australian politics is now purposefully inching towards adequate demographic representation. The new MP is among 58 women in the house of representatives, which is a new record, but still under 40%, and the percentages reflecting ethnicity are even more skewed: just over 4% MPs of Asian descent in contrast to 18% of the general population, and only 15 of 227 (6.6%) MPs of non-European heritage representing 25% of Australians.

These numbers reflect the dark side of Australia’s settler colonial history. As the very fine Goan Australian writer Roanna Gonsalves once put it, “We are not the perpetrators, the ones who wielded the guns in the forgotten wars between invading white settlers and Indigenous Peoples. We are not the victims. However, as mainly economic migrants from South Asia (I acknowledge the many South Asian refugees from the conflict zones of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka), we are not absolved of complicity. We are beneficiaries of the genocide of Aboriginal people, the dispossession of their land, the loss of their homes, their families, their cultural values, their tongues, their songs. It is such soil that we step on when we first step into Australia, soaked not just with the promise of a ‘first world lifestyle’, but squelchy with the memory of massacre.”

Gonsalves, who migrated to Australia in 1998, has an award-winning collection of stories (The Permanent Resident was launched at the 2016 Goa Arts + Literature Festival) that illuminates the interior lives of Goan migrants to Australia. Via email from her home in Sydney, she told me “Zaneta made such a moving speech, our very own tambde roza. She provided a visual and symbolic representation of a different way of being Indian Australian in noting her Goan roots. While it is refreshing and affirming to see an MP with a name and a history like mine, here’s hoping that the work that she and others like her do represents not just the cultural diversity of contemporary Australia but the desire and will of the Australian people to end the detention of refugees and asylum seekers, rebuild the education, health and arts sectors, and work more responsibly in the area of climate change. This is one way to rewrite the second line of that iconic song, from “Dukhanim bhorleai muje dolle” to ”Sukhanim bhorleai muje dolle”.

I asked Gonsalves whether she shared my feeling that this debutante Goan Australian politician is truly special, and could go all the way to the top. My friend responded: “it would be wonderful to see someone like Zaneta Mascarenhas rise to become Prime Minister one day, but before that happens we need to see a First Nations Prime Minister simply because we are still on unceded First Nations land. We remain in hope. To Zaneta, I would say - thank you for putting yourself out there, for showing the next generation what is possible, for all your work. May you (and all of us) move from the red sari to the green light for treaties with First Nations, for policies that make a positive difference to the most vulnerable in our communities. Mog Asundi!”