Previously in Refuge #22 Blue flowerpots and Pink Champagne: After Suthan’s release from Baxter Immigration Detention, he moves into the Brown family home. Barbara Brown and Professor Barrett help him in his battle with depression. I learn about all this through Barbara’s thesis – Suthan’s Story – jointly authored by Barbara and Suthan.
The sky outside has darkened to inky purple. From my window, which affords me a view of the city, the logical layout of Adelaide becomes apparent – yellow lights twinkling in long neat lines. It is as if I get to peek into the mind of the 19th century town-planner – this will be a well-planned city, a city of free settlers, moving forward with purpose, building better things into existence.
I then try calling Suthan again. It’s September 2016 and I’ve been trying to speak to him since July when he said that I could write his story. He hadn’t responded to my calls until a few days ago when he said I could call him tonight at 5:30pm, but then he was busy, so that was pushed back to 6:30, then 7:30. Finally I get through.
‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘Life is very busy with the kids and work.’
‘No problem. How are you?’
‘Good, thank you.’
‘Have you had dinner?’ I ask.
‘Yes, we had dinner.’
‘I managed to call Barbara. I am going to see her on Tuesday,’ I say.
‘I hope to write a bit more about your story, about the next part of your story, if you’re happy with that.’
‘Um… you’re good to talk now?’ I ask, since he is not volunteering anything.
‘Yeah. Next part you mean from how long?’
And so our feeble exchanges hobble along. It is still 400km from Adelaide to Whyalla. The phone connection is still poor and it’s incredibly hard to forge a human connection. I ask if he has any questions about the book. No, no, no, but he pauses.
Finally he says, ‘You know, when before, when I said yes and then you probably waited and then I had very bad depression. You know, it automatically started coming. That’s why I just stayed quiet, but luckily I told Barbara everything. She knows me. She is the one who saved me. Always she helps me and she said, “Ah, you don’t need to do this, just give this book, you know”.’
I finally understand his three-sentence email with the ten-thousand-word attachment. Barbara had asked him to send me Suthan’s Story as way of helping him and helping me.
‘After I called the depression came back again?’ I’m horrified.
‘Yeah, because I started to think about the very horrible things I went through. Also, I lost my job. Things went down, lots of things, you know. The depression always comes and goes. I got over it now.’
‘I’m so sorry my questions made the depression come back.’
‘That’s normal,’ he says,
He goes on to tell me about friends from camp – people who have moved on: one earned a degree in Criminology, another married and built a six hundred thousand dollar house. But eleven years after detention, they still struggle with depression. The criminologist won’t leave his room and the man who built the house cannot sleep at night. That’s depression.
‘So I won’t go back to detention and all my other disasters. Problem. Because the flashbacks come and it’s too much.’
Unexpectedly he laughs, an unusual laugh, notes rising in pitch, like a fairy footsteps on a piano. Barbara later tells me that this is his embarrassed laugh.
‘No, no, no,’ I say, ‘we don’t want to talk about that. That’s why I’m seeing Barbara. She is happy for me to use her writing and I will make sure that I will say in my book that this part is written by you and Barbara. But we don’t have to talk about any of that. You can talk about happy things.’
‘I can help you,’ he continues. ‘I can tell from when the book finishes. Even I don’t want to read Barbara’s book because when I read it, I got a problem.’ That embarrassed laugh again. ‘Last time, I had a psychiatrist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. I can go and see him any time, any day. I don’t need an appointment. He has time to talk to me. He passed away. Is that in my book?’
‘Yes, I read about it.’
Professor Robert Barrett passed away in January 2007. Over one thousand three hundred people attended the celebration of his life at Bonython Hall in the University of Adelaide, a life devoted to the service of others, a life driven by curiosity and scholarship.
‘After that I refused to go to any psychiatry,’ he continues. ‘Then one time, Barbara forced me to go. I went to see a lady. She was really good and she said to me,
“When you touch a hot plate, you burn your finger, don’t touch it.” So if anything burns me, I won’t touch it. Always stay away from things that make me think.’
‘I think that’s very wise.’
‘It’s sad. Depression never goes from your mind or your body. That’s part of my story.’ A wry laugh escapes.
‘Do you want to talk about your sons and your wife?’ I suggest.
‘When did Barbara’s story finish? Which year?’ he asks.
‘2007. I think. Around that time.’
Having spoken openly about depression is like removing a frosted glass barrier between us. Now he speaks freely and tells me that between 2007 and 2009, he studied on weekdays and worked on weekends.
His first job was at Malacca Corner near the Central Market, and later at an Indian restaurant in Brighton. He made about $200 per week, less than what he could have received in Austudy – government help for students that was tested against income. But he wanted to keep his mind busy, and he wanted to learn on the job.
In 2009, wedding plans were underway for his sister, Kagenthas. Her future husband lived in London. As it was unsafe for him, a Tamil, to return to Sri Lanka, the wedding would be held in India.
By this time, Suthan had become a permanent resident of Australia. Unlike holders of Temporary Protection Visas, he was allowed to travel in and out of Australia, but he did not hold an Australian passport. Yearning to see his family again, he bought a plane ticket to India and applied for an Indian visa.
With these mounting travel costs, Suthan discontinued his studies even though he had enrolled in Year 12. He moved to Whyalla, where wages were higher and where his friends from camp had helped him secure a job.
As his flight date approached, Warren and Barbara began calling the Indian embassy every day on Suthan’s behalf, enquiring about his visa. Finally, Suthan received a phone call at around one o’clock in the afternoon asking him to present himself at the Indian embassy in Sydney the following morning for an interview. Suthan immediately took leave from work, drove from Whyalla to Adelaide, and flew to Sydney.
In Sydney, he met the son of one of Barbara’s friends, a lawyer. Together, they went to the Indian embassy. Embassy staff asked Suthan many questions: why was the groom’s name the same as your family name, why did you use Barbara’s credit card number on your application. The lawyer was not allowed to speak. At the end of the interview, Suthan’s visa application was denied.
‘I lost all,’ he says – studies, future prospects, money –‘because I am Tamil and Tamil Tiger killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, you know that? That time was a war, very bad war, and they don’t want any Sri Lankan go there. But they don’t want to tell you straight.’
What can a person do when life does not progress in a long neat line? You invest time and money, but your plans are scuttled by wars and violence. Political dramas might be played out in distant places, but the resulting suspicions bear directly down on you and rob you of so very much.