Once upon a time in Sydney
Sydney was a great, vibrant city at the turn of the century. After all, when the machines would built the Matrix, the pinnacle of our civilisation, they would choose Sydney as the setting. And for good reasons. The inner city suburbs got a facelift thanks to the Olympics. Outskirts were about to start a massive housing boom. There was a sense in the air that this sprawling conurbation was destined to become the New York or Calcutta of the 21st century. More broadly, there was sense that Australia was going become the next California, only better, sunnier — no one would ever write Hotel Australia.
But by the time I watched Dil Chahta Hai ten years ago, things had already started to change.
I had already left Sydney by then. Like most my friends, I was transitioning from university to a career. We had ambitions — to discover the truth, improve the public welfare, make money. We had confidence — in our abilities, in love, about the future. As the song went, হাম হ্যায় নয়ে, আন্দাজ কিউ হো পুরানা?
Change would have to come, we knew it all along. But changes that did come in the decade, they were not what we had dreamt of in the city depicted in the movie. Sydney may be on the other side of the world from New York, but 9/11 shook this city too. And not in a good way.
In fact, it was happening already. MV Tampa was already on its way before the plains hit. And well before George W Bush hijacked the collapsing towers for his political gains, John W Howard lied and deceived to win an election in the late 2001 climate of fear.
And it is this climate of fear, the war without end, the Orwellian construction of ‘news’, that is the setting for Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist. The novel is essentially about someone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place — having really hot sex with a Middle Eastern guy who may or may not be a jihadi — at the wrong time — when bombs are found in the Olympics Park. Without giving away anything that cannot be googled right away, the protagonist faces the full might of the establishment.
Not just the national security establishment. Unlike Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson, Flanagan’s protagonist is persecuted by the sensationalist media. And unlike Larsson’s heroine, the Sydneysider is someone you would not necessarily sympathise with (except of course, for the injustice she faces) given her racism and crass consumerist ways.
Given what happened to Dr Muhamed Haneef, Flanagan’s plot doesn’t seem all that far fetched. It could have happened once upon a time in Sydney. Perhaps it could still happen. But it hasn’t happened yet. And the probability has probably lessened.
But it is Flanagan’s depiction of Sydney — the subtle bigotry, the vapid materialism, the empty pursuit of macmansions, the sprawl — that has definitely been happening over the past decade. If no one has written Hotel Australia yet, it’s not because this great southern land is avoiding the Californian nightmare, but because it is too barren for such lyrics.
Larsson blows up the Swedish welfare state, but leaves us hopeful for redemption. Flanagan leaves us on a depressing note, because he lays bare the reality.