The ashes of Indian hawker Pooran Singh going back to India after 63 years made headlines and opened Indians to a world hitherto unknown, that hawkers from the late 1800s and early 1900, were part of the social fabric of Australian life. Recently, another significant gesture on part of the Australian community spearheaded by historian and playwright Len Kenna and his research partner Crystal Jordan, shows the continuing effort on the part of Australians to keep the history that connects Indians to this country alive. The occasion was the unveiling of a plaque of hawker, Pollah Singh in Corryong, who died on 21 June 1923.
Len Kenna unveiled the plaque on the 7 December 2010, he was invited by the Upper Murray Historical Society who decided to have a plaque erected in memory of Pollah Singh, so that his story could be incorporated into their folklore.
Pollah Singh, said Len, was a successful and well respected Hawker. Pollah came to Australia in his early fifties from Jallandhar in Punjab and was in the country for about 13 years when he met with an unfortunate incident that took his life. “Everybody knew of Pollah Singh, because he visited farms as he went from one settlement to the next hawking his wares.”
It was on one such journey to Corryong when he was delayed by weather. He put his four-horse team onto the Whiteheads property to rest till the weather calmed down. When the rains and storm persist in the area, everything just washes down the mountains and one cannot move, he said.
After four-five days, the horses were restive and hard to control. So when Pollah, along with his Uncle Isar, resumed their journey, with Uncle Isar driving the cart and Pollah walking in front of the tea, the horses took fright, Pollah tried to calm them and in the process became tangled up with the horses and went underneath them, said Len. The Whiteheads and other neighbours rushed him to the Corryong hospital and he lasted a couple of days before he breathed his last.
The death of Pollah Singh was significant for a few reasons. One, a book of well wishes of the people was compiled. Two, Indians from all over turned up and assembled in Corryong, said Len. “There was a long procession to the cremation; and most of the men of the town were there, the women according to Methodist traditions did not attend church services for funerals. After he was cremated, the Sikhs who were present took some of the ashes and scattered them over the Murray River. The remaining bones were sent to the Ganges, and the ash that was left was interned in a burial plot in the Methodist Section of the cemetery in respect to Pollah who worshipped with the Methodist Community.”
It was evident that Pollah Singh was very wealthy, but not much is known about his family except that he had two sons in India. His solicitor had even remarked that he was “of a superior type”, and could speak fluent English but could not sign or write the language.
The unveiling of Pollah Singh’s plaque was also attended by Archie Whitehead, who was the last surviving member of the Corryong Community who had witnessed the cremation. “It was very emotional for him to be there,” said Crystal Jordan. When Archie dies there is no one left to record what had happened many years ago in the interiors of Australia.”