During six years in India I grew accustomed to hearing the word ‘wallah’, whether it be a chai wallah, rickshaw wallah, or one of dozens of other trades, specialties or locations that wallah denotes. It was one of those Indian words that had seamlessly slipped into English and everyone understood it.
When I embarked on writing and publishing some years ago and was searching for a suitable name for my business, Wordswallah immediately came to mind. I was delighted when my graphic designer created a logo that not only captured the word beautifully but linked it stylistically to its Indian origins.
Throughout my life I’ve found myself drawn to places with a western orientation.
Growing up in Perth on Australia’s west coast I would gaze out across the Indian Ocean and dream about places like Mauritius and Madagascar far to the west. Years later I would stand on that ocean’s other shore in Mumbai on India’s west coast, where I viewed the world and myself from a radically different perspective. Following that, I lived and worked in Brussels, Belgium, headquarters of the European Community, on the western edge of a vast continent.
In 1988 I moved from Brussels to Seattle, Washington, a west-looking city spread-eagled around waterways of Puget Sound. After 13 years in Seattle, my husband and I moved to the San Juan Islands just south of the Canadian border, in what is affectionately called ‘the upper left-hand corner’. We built our first home on a small, west-facing island, where the last light of day glistened through the madrona trees and pranced around on our living room wall.
After 20 years we traded this island for Molokai, Hawaii, known for its staggering beauty, contrasting landscapes, and a once-infamous leprosy colony. We were drawn to its warmer climate, slower pace, and strong sense of community. We bought a condominium on the western end of the island, facing the much bigger and congested island of O’ahu to the west.
One day it dawned on me that there was a thread running through my life that I hadn’t noticed before. I was an unrepentant, unapologetic, irrepressible westwallah! It may have been when I was writing my biography of Western Australian author Gerald Glaskin and was looking for a suitable quote for the opening chapter. I was captured by one from the book Land’s Edge, by the celebrated Perth writer Tim Winton. It read:
There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I would prefer to be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings.
A few years later, I was visiting the Western Australian Maritime Museum in the port city of Fremantle and was astonished to find the exact quote on the wall of its entry foyer. For a brief moment, I wondered if the museum had consulted the Fremantle Arts Centre Press — to whom I had submitted my manuscript — and who maybe had offered the above quote from my work. Or perhaps I wasn’t the only one who identified strongly with Winton’s compelling words.
I’ve often pondered what it is about a western orientation that has me in its grasp, but I come up short. Has it something to do with the setting sun, a sense of completion to the day and the transition to night? Or is it something less tangible, much deeper, and harder to name?
Whatever its roots, I sense I’m not alone in being a westwallah. Every evening on our little island, people are drawn out of their homes and make their way down to the shore to watch the sun disappear over the western horizon. Some chat, others prefer not to. But either way, there is a pervading sense that, despite so much turmoil in the world, we can return tomorrow to face another day. We have our bearings.