Inside the Outsider

Bem Le Hunte's experiences would fill a dozen novels. She's just released the first

By Murray Waldren
IN HER SILKS OF MANY COLOURS and with hair cascading down her back to mid-thigh, she manifests in the inner-city coffee shop like an exotic whirlwind. For a twice-daily meditator and yoga practitioner, Bem Le Hunte emanates an electricity that is doubly disconcerting, given her precise English accent and serene politeness. In many ways, this adoptive Sydneysider epitomes our cross-cultural aspirations: born in Calcutta to a Punjabi mother and a part-Welsh English father of Norman descent; early childhood in an India of affluence; youth in an England of middle-class prejudice; an accidental ťmigrť as an adult to Australia. Yet while her appearance and championing of non-mainstream medical and spiritual theories might suggest an ethereal eccentricity, only a fool would posit any flakiness there - thereís a core of achievement and a steely determination within her. As there is within, and behind, her first novel, The Seduction of Silence (HarperCollins, 460pp, $27.50).

The Seduction of Silence cover Touted by her publishers as "the publishing sensation of the year", itís getting  bells-and-whistles promotion. Such hyperbole usually whets critical appetites but this  time the PR seems close to the mark. Le Hunteís trans-continental, generational saga is  a complex of ambition, esoterica, spiritual questing and down-home realities. Part family  history, part Hindu chronicle, itís rambunctious, eccentric, otherworldly and carnal;  literary with a potentially wider audience, it explores diverse spiritual and cultural values  with a knowing humour.

 To encounter Le Hunte is to enter a world of agile anecdote. Her parents met at  Cambridge, studying English literature, and after graduation became subsumed into the  family business: her mother was the only daughter of a self-made magnate who "owned  most of the iron ore mines in India when that was the subcontinent's biggest export."  But her father, an eight-language linguist, resisted benign pressure to take over the business, returning to London's up-market Richmond when Le Hunte was five to establish his own management career. The youngest of four, she received a "traditional young ladies" education at Godolphin Latimer School, flying every summer to India for six weeks of "little princess privilege".

That only exacerbated cultural confusions. "We hadn't ever been fully Indian in India, and we certainly weren't British in England - there was a gap we occupied that in those days not many did. Consequently I still feel somehow on the outside in wider society, if not with my friends. And I must have had quite a strong Indian accent then because I got teased lots, and came across the racism prevalent in the late 60s."

After a year in journalism college ("I wanted to be a writer so this was the sensible push - all it did was put me off journalism"), she studied social anthropology, "learning about love, death and witchcraft, hanging out in the Anthropology Museum studying shrunken skulls." Cambridge had family resonance, of course, and a personal attraction since she had first visited it at five and was impressed by a girl in a white mini-skirt with laces on her sandals done up to above her knees. "I knew then that nowhere would be more fun to study". And nobody, she says, could have enjoyed university more, although matters of the mind took a low priority behind "falling in love and enjoying freedom when it's new and lush." A "hopeless actor", she starred in a student movie, befriended controversial artist Marc Quinn, lived with the octogenarian Doctor Alice Roughton in a house filled with people from around the world where "we ate food she rescued from school dinner leftover bins".

On graduation, her contemporaries were being lured into power positions in the City (it was the mid-80s) but her father "advised me to postpone full-time work as long as possible". She took his advice, "sloping around the peripheries of the music industry", living in Chicago, working in Indian TV writing scripts for women's development programs, then "fluking" a copywriting gig where she worked on the Labour Party's Euro election account. A year later, after the "only really serious full-time job I've had in my life", she went freelance. And promptly headed to Sydney "to get away from the oppressive yuppie attitude in England ... I wanted to feel some freedom in my wings, and meet somebody I'd always want to be with."

From a backpackers hostel in Kings Cross she rang a number recommended by a friend who had taught an Australian expat family in PNG. (Donít ask ... itís complex.) The daughter, Nadia Goldski, invited her to dinner, and "within a few minutes of my arrival suggested I move in. A few days later she said, ĎWhy don't you fall in love with my brother Jan?í It was virtually an arranged marriage, although I was quite open to the idea. By the time the date was set, I had to point out that I'd never had a proposal."

A month after a ceremony in Australia, "25 of us from Australia, London, Poland and Greece went to India for a ceremonial three-day wedding. Jan rode a horse through Delhi accompanied by light bearers and musicians, with this horde of foreigners dancing behind him." Then they all went on a communal honeymoon, taking camel safaris and camping under the stars around Rajasthan.

Soon after, she was struck down with hepatitis A and a subsequent post-viral syndrome. Critically ill, she was flown to London and rushed in a wheelchair to an isolation ward. "After several weeks Jan was panicking because I was fading away and scheduled for a spinal tap. He recruited Stephan Schorr-Kon, a healer who believed he could help. So I escaped to his house after signing papers acknowledging I would die if I left hospital."

Schorr-Konís polarity therapy was effective within a month, and this miracle cure provoked what has since become a dedicated interest in alternative therapies. Her illness, she says, also taught her to "handle fears of the unknown - I was as close as you could come to dying, trapped in a nightmare with my eyes open."

As is one of the characters in her book. "I don't waste any experience," she laughs, "Iím a collector of experience, and many of the bizarre episodes in my book are true stories, even though they are magical and mystical. Often what seems the most mysterious is actually true," she says mysteriously.

She also believes generational patterns recur. They haunt her novel, as they have her life. As has coincidence: both her children "were conceived on December 3 - I don't know why but last December 3 Jan and I spent the night in different bedrooms, just in case ..." Then thereís the pregnancy pattern: when she was 4 Ĺ months pregnant with her son, she was offered responsibility for the launch of Windows 95 in Australia. "The launch had the same due date as my baby and it became a race to see which came out first ... (Windows, by four days). When I was pregnant again, Windows 98 was to be launched, again on the same due date as my baby." This time, however, she declined the contract because she wanted "serious time off ... I really wanted to write. So Jan said, 'why don't we sack our clients and take off? I'll paint, you can write your book.' "

The Himalayan foothills were the vision, and they were soon ensconced in Thuri, a remote mountain-cradled village on the road between Dharampur and Solan. "I started writing in this inspiring landscape, awestruck by the hillsí majesty and the beauty of the plants and people." (Itís in the book ...) The plan was to hang out in India for two or three years but fate intervened: first the birth of her child (donít ask ... itís complicated), then a day or so later Jan contracted jaundice.

"He was desperately unwell because it was combined with typhoid, he couldn't even lift his new-born for more than three months. The family cook kept telling us there was a cure for the yellow disease, just go and see this man who runs a fabric chop in the Delhi suburbs. Eventually we were so despairing that Jan did so. He was given a bowl of white limey liquid with a mystery leaf in it, they chanted mantras over it, then dunked his hands in it and massaged his wrists. And this yellow substance started to come out of his wrists and he felt immediately a lot better ..." Thatís also in the book.

Back in Australia, she was introduced to agent Fiona Inglis by her mother-in-law, the artist Kathy Goldski who had recently published Watched by Angels. Inglis was encouraging "but what with babies and illnesses I'd only got about a third done. But I sat down and let it happen. When I concentrate on something, nothing distracts me and in the end I had a manuscript that had so much of myself in it I thought it could be something."

When she left it with Inglis, "she had a pile of manuscripts to read that was taller than her. Needless to say, the much awaited phone call never came ... in the meantime, my doctor asked to read it, really liked it and gave it to a friend at Penguin, publisher Julie Gibb. A week later I got an enthusiastic phone call asking who my agent was. I said I didn't have one ... but very soon after I did. From that moment on, it's been like a fairytale."

The manuscript was auctioned and after much negotiation (and help, she giggles, "from the tarot"), Le Hunte went with HarperCollins. And they certainly went all out to get her - no figures, of course, but sources admit the final package was a record. International rights interest must have assuaged any publisher misgivings: the book is to be released in India next year, and American and European publishers are reportedly jockeying for acquisition.

At 36, Le Hunte feels, she says, "fulfilled - I always yearned to write fiction but I was continually hijacked by copywriting commitments. Yet I am glad I waited until I did to write because I'm sure the novel has more insight and depth because of it." And people can believe what they like in it, although she feels Australia "more than most societies will be open to it. It's got depth, spirituality, a good story. I didn't want to write some spiritual treatise and bore people ..."

It also has a certain cynicism, I suggest. "But that's me too, I'm quite a cynical person, in an optimistic way." She eyes my cynical doubt. "I certainly believe lots of things you mightn't," she laughs, "but I don't swallow everything hook, line and sinker - I have to make discoveries for myself. My own beliefs are very fluid, very experientially based ... I am inspired by the ayurvedic sages but basically I find myself combining my own instincts and feelings to form something quite holistic personally."

And for all its spiritual questing, Seduction is a very sensual book. "Sexuality and sensuality are important to me," Le Hunte agrees. "As a woman, I need a man. I have a sensual and material life as well as a spiritual and for me it's more about integrating everyday life with spirituality, sexuality, children, growth. The concerns of women in this book are the concerns of women throughout the ages."

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 28/10/2000

Copyright © 2000 Murray Waldren

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