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Prem Phakey was walking down a street accompanied by his wife clad in a colourful sari in a suburb in Melbourne when an Australian couple walking by asked where they were from. It was a warm exchange. Phakey told them they were Indians at which the couple quipped ‘Oh plenty of food here’. The year was 1966. Australia still had its white policy, not many Indian faces were visible in the streets of Melbourne, and an image of India probably conjured one of starvation and poverty.

Dr Jasbir Bedi, an orthopaedic surgeon, was doing his rounds of patients at a hospital in Perth, when his 88-year old patient asked him who he was. When he told her he was the doctor who had fixed her hip, she asked him if he was educated. He explained to her that he was indeed a specialist who had studied in India but was met with more questions. “Did you have any books or anything to write on?” That was in the early ‘70s.

Thirty or more years later, the curiosity about Indians in Australia has more or less been satiated as Indians now make up the fourth largest immigrants in Australia. Today, Bollywood and butter chicken are synonymous to Indian life. But for the early small settlers it has been an interesting journey.

Assimilation into mainstream Australian life was easy but there were a few stray incidences that stay in memory, reflects Dr Dharam Singh, a Punjabi whose grandfather migrated to Fiji from India.  Having studied obstetrics and gynaecology in New Zealand and England after bagging the Colonial Development and Welfare Scholarship for medicine set up by Britain in 1943, he joined the public service commission in Fiji. “I had a varied life, I was going to go into mining but my father said ‘go for medicine to look after the family’. The independence was coming on in Fiji when I finished my studies, so I worked with the government. To uplift any society you have to work at the base,” he says. After retiring as chief secretary of health, Singh migrated to Melbourne and joined a humble medical clinic in Bendigo. “There were 11 Indian families in Bendigo then. There were four-five of us non-white and the medical association in Bendigo was quite against the clinic. But we built the clinic up. After a while, the attitudes changed,” says Singh. 

“We survived and did not face a great deal of discrimination because of the profession we were in,” says Bedi. “Patients didn’t care what kind or type of doctor they went to. Fortunately, the patients loved the Indian doctors.” But Bedi did have to put up a fight to get into the specialist cadre. “They did not let me enter into the orthopaedic society for 7-8 years. Not that it mattered because it didn’t matter in my job but when one of the most senior persons threatened the inner cabinet that the issue would be taken to a discriminatory board, they allowed me,” he says.

When Phakey came to Australia, the White Policy was in force. Armed with a doctorate in Physics, he was offered a job at a university in Melbourne. “They wrote to me saying we will look after you, we will arrange everything. I didn’t feel any discrimination even once in the country. My colleagues never discriminated me. People in general did not show any animosity, they would ask me what I was doing and once I explained my profession there was respect. We were in a different category. We were not competing with the locals for the job. These were jobs which the local could not fit into; there was demand for such jobs.”

Overall it was a happy environment to be in for most of them. With so few Indian groceries or restaurants, the few Indian families were a cohesive lot. “We ordered our groceries together from one particular place in Sydney,” recalls Shashi Kochhar, who migrated to Australia in the ‘70s. And if there was one new Indian face on the street everyone reached out to him, he adds.

Perhaps it was the essence of being an Indian that was so central to their cohesiveness. Phakey says that though he was born in Kenya after his father migrated there from India in 1905, he spent the best ten years of his life living in Punjab with grandparents and studying in Ludhiana. “If I am asked who are you, I say I am an Indian living in Australia.”

For Singh, living in Australia has been a learning curve, picking up the good points of the system. “But in our hearts we are all Indians, the janam bhoomi is there, I was born in Fiji - that fact will remain, and that will change with generations as I look at my grandchildren and children who are more Australian than Indian or Fijian. To resist that change is ignorance.”

In the same vein Bedi says, “You cannot deny your Indian identity having been born there and having spent your childhood there.” He, however, adds, “It is a bit disappointing the way the country has evolved. After Independence, one thought the country would progress, it has progressed financially but morally it has degraded. I still love India but at the same time I think it is equally important that we have an obligation for the country that has given us a future.”

Kochhar feels patriotism is more ingrained in the people who migrated from India. “The people who live there now don’t think so much. We are more Indian than the ones there, especially in terms of values.”Bedi rues the fact that for the next generation even if they do have a lot of love and respect for being an Indian they will identify less with India. For the third generation, India will just be a name.

Reflecting on the crop of new Indian immigrants and the stories of racial bias, these senior residents feel that while the new migrants are a hardworking lot, they need to shed some of the cultural barriers they come with and stop building ghettos. Says Kochhar, “When we came here we were able to communicate, but most of the new migrants cannot communicate and that is the first start to the problem. Thus they stick to their small group to feel comfortable. Their sole purpose is making money. When we came, we mingled with everybody. ” 

Bedi cites the example at a hospital at Richmond. The security guard was an Indian and when asked where the entrance to the third floor was he was unable to explain in English. “When I asked him in Punjabi, he answered it well. I told him son if you want to be successful in this country, you need to learn the language, and he replied he will try his best.” Unfortunately, there are so many people like that and he suspects they are probably hired by a company set up by an Indian who is employing these people at very low wages. 

Of course they all agree that this is a passing phase and the next generation would assimilate well because of the education they would have received. The horde of student migration happened because Australian migration was linked to education, says Phakey, adding, “That opened the floodgates and the exploitation happened.”

It is a life well lived for most of these senior citizens. Most are actively involved in charitable work. As Kochhar sums up, “It is a way of saying thank you to Australia for the good life we have had in this country.” Humility is something that easily comes to them.


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