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Acclaimed author, journalist, diplomat, researcher, tour guide—ANU alumnus John Zubrzycki has worn multiple hats in life. In the realm of academia, too he was multifaceted and studied South Asian history—under the mentorship of the celebrated AL Basham—as well as the Hindi language at ANU. Today, he’s a renowned author with bestsellers such as The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback, The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy, Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic, and The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India's Most Glamorous Royal Family to his credit. The best-selling writer recently spoke with us about his journey at ANU and beyond.
1. How was your journey studying at ANU?
I was born in Canberra and studied South Asian History and Hindi at ANU. I had the fortune to be taught by none other than the great AL Basham himself. He has a god-like stature in India and mentioning that I was one of his last students has opened all sorts of doors. Additionally, I was very drawn to India and the Hindi language. Taught by Richard Barz, Hindi was enjoyed by a large cohort back then. We had a very collegiate atmosphere, with many like me—passionate about India and the language as well. It was an exciting time. I knew as far back as then, I had this instinct; that India would evolve to play a significant role globally, as well as for Australia. There was going to be a need for expertise in this region.
2. What was your favourite thing about the language you studied at ANU?
The great thing about studying at ANU was the calibre of the teachers and the passion they had for the subjects they taught – it was infectious. Equally, the students were so driven by India and what it had to offer in terms of the language, history and culture that defined it.
It is one thing to study the history of a country, but studying an associated language of that country adds a whole new dimension altogether. It makes a huge difference when it comes to engaging with the local community, especially if you’re going deep into the countryside and villages or traveling there independently. You earn the respect of the locals because they sense your genuine interest in their country. It was great to know some colloquial phrases such as koi bat nahin ('it doesn’t matter’). It would always elicit a smile. Hindi was great for bargaining, and I have always had a weak spot for junkyards and the treasures they conceal.
3. Tell us about your India connection. What’s your take, as a former journalist, on the state of India’s political and social environment today?
I’ve done a lot of travelling, but of all the places I’ve been, I enjoyed India the most. I was instantly drawn to it because of its culture, history, art and architecture. I recall when I first visited, I was armed with a Lonely Planet guidebook, but also Murray's Handbook India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon. This guidebook was terrific, packed with information on some of the most obscure places, and it allowed me to really go off the beaten track and discover some hidden gems.
After completing my degree, I worked as a journalist with The Age and Radio Australia. Later, I got a job with the DFAT, and my first posting was to India as the First Secretary of Press and Culture. This was a dream come true, as I got to return to India. I lived in Delhi for two years and had the opportunity to meet and work with Indian people, travel, meet different media persons and interact with people of different cultures across this diverse country. I subsequently had another posting in Jakarta, but I left the service soon after and returned to India—this time as a foreign correspondent, freelancing for The Australian, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and Christian Science Monitor based in Boston.
I covered all kinds of stories, and it was terrific to watch India open up to the world in the mid-1990s. And yes, since I’ve seen the country evolve through the years, it’s sad to see what’s happening at present. India is becoming undoubtedly less secular and less tolerant, which has been India’s greatest strength; the press is under more pressure than ever before, and even politically neutral academic institutions and cultural bodies are under pressure to toe the majoritarian line.
That said, although there are disturbing trends, compounded by the failure of governance and COVID, the positives are that India is a dynamic society with an increasingly globalised population. The Indian people are incredibly resilient, the democracy still very strong, and the country has a remarkable track record in free and fair elections despite some imperfections. The Indian diaspora is playing a really important role around the world, and that’s heartening to see.
4. Tell us about your journey as an author so far.
During my four years in India as a foreign correspondent, I started toying with the idea of writing a book; and not just a collection of anecdotes about life as experienced by me as a journalist.
A few years after I returned from India, I thought it would be nice to give something back to India, as the country has given so much to me. During my time in the country, I had stumbled across a story–the Nizam of Hyderabad. One morning, as I was sitting on my veranda, sipping on chai, I opened the Times of India and saw a little news brief about an auction in Perth, of the belongings of the 8th Nizam of Hyderabad, who had moved to Australia.
In 1997, I went to Hyderabad and interviewed lots of people, tried to find out about him, as well as his colleagues and acquaintances and wrote a magazine feature for The Australian. A few years later, someone mentioned this feature to me, which got me thinking–why don’t I write a book on the Nizam and what happened to him? There was this connection of Australia, and Hyderabad was the greatest of the princely states. The Nizam was the last in line of this extraordinary dynasty, having inherited the largest estate in the world; yet, he turned his back on it all and moved to Australia to live on a remote sheep farm and ultimately lost everything. It was the ultimate riches to rags story.
I received a Grant from Asia link, tracked down the Nizam’s whereabouts (he was in southern Turkey), and interviewed him. I then went to India, combed through the archives at the British Library as well as in Delhi and Hyderabad, to find out more about his life, his lineage, as well as Hyderabad’s history.
The book was published in 2007 by Pan Macmillan and did well. It was later picked up by an Indian publisher, and the book is still in print.
I followed this up with another book, The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy. This is a biography of Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a diamond and gemstone trader in Shimla. And based on this book, I developed an interest in Indian magic, which led me to my next book, Empire of Enchantment, which was published as Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns in India. Around this time I decided to do my PhD at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), because it was perhaps the best way to write my book. My PhD was on transnational links between India and the West in the field of performance magic. It delved into how Indian magic colonised the West and influenced western perceptions of India. Magic was one of the mainstays of popular culture, and Indian magic had a huge influence on western magic at the time.
Funnily enough, I finished the book before I finished my PhD!
At the Magic Circle, London
More recently, Indian publisher Juggernaut approached me to do a book on the royal family of Jaipur, which I jumped at. This book came out last year and is being published in the UK this month.
5. Tell us something about yourself and/or your writing profession that people would be surprised to know!
Researching Indian magic involved meeting a lot of magicians, watching them perform their tricks and even getting them to teach me a few of their tricks and reveal some of their secrets! I saw things while researching that book that I simply cannot explain–I know people say there is no such thing as real magic and that there’s always a scientific explanation, but I cannot for the life of me understand how they did what they did!
Renowned Kolkata magician Raj Kumar, performing in the 1950s
John with magician Raj Kumar earlier this month (July 2021)
6. What are your future plans?
My writing projects will certainly keep me busy for the foreseeable future. I’m writing a biography of the celebrated Indian magician Gogia Pasha. I’ve also started a book on the integration of Indian princes in newly independent India, and this book is scheduled for release next year. In the meantime, I am in the final stages of editing a short history of India I wrote for Melbourne publisher Black Ink as part of their shortest history series. This, too, will be published next year.
And all four of my books have all been auctioned for TV or film, so they might be coming to a screen near you at some point in the future!
Thank you, John Zubrzycki, for weaving your magic with words, and for sharing your story with us. Someday, perhaps you will revisit ANU and the South Asian History and Hindi-language faculty!