Indian Melbourne is taxi drivers and students and tandoori restaurants. That’s the stereotype anyway. But it’s a great deal more than that. It’s Melbourne Talam, a play by an Indian-Australian playwright about the trials of three Indians who discover coming to Melbourne does not mean that their futures are secure. It’s Sukhjit Kaur Kalsa’s impassioned spoken word piece on Australia’s Got Talent about good old-fashioned Aussie racism, coming from a Sikh girl bullied as a child in Perth. It’s Parandeep Ghumman, whose Pinot Noir 2015 vintage from the Mornington Peninsula won the People’s Choice award out of more than 500 wines entered in the 2017 International Cool Climate Wine Show. It’s the Indian student, Avi, I met at a friend’s beer tasting party who’d come along as someone’s Air BnB guest. “I’m studying IT masters – such a cliché,” he laughs.
It’s International Student Education and Migration Expos, famous stand-up comedian Amit Tandon touring from Delhi – “Known as The Married Guy – after two kids and one marriage he realized it couldn’t get any worse and took to comedy” – sell-out shows at Rod Laver by Bollywood star Salman Khan. Newspapers like G’Day India full of ads by business brokers, selling franchises for Degani bakery, Crust Pizza, juice bars, IGA, cafés, articles on changes to the 457 visa, ads for home tandoori ovens, social media competitions – post a pic of your best Yoga Asana – run by the Consul General. Bollywood mandap rental businesses – the elaborate furnishings and drapes required for Indian weddings. Indian return-home cargo shippers: “Wouldn’t it be nice to take all the luxuries you’ve been using rather than starting from scratch?” Remittances, catering services, wedding planners. A document printing specialist offers $480 in restaurant vouchers if he can’t save your business money.
Indian Melbourne is strongman Roney Singh’s bid for Mr Universe. It’s HR specialist and mother Kamini Saberwal winning Mrs India Australia and offering the amazing quote: “My USP [Unique Selling Position] was definitely my confidence which came across in my walk and answers on stage.” It’s Raju Omlet Centre in Werribee, specialising in egg-related dishes. It’s how to select your diamond for marriage carefully. It’s ads for the Most Powerful Spiritual Healers, World Famous Astrologer from India with 11 Generations Experience, with 100% guarantee of bringing back loved ones, a man who can remove “Black Magic, Jadoo, Evil Spirits, Zin, Voodoo, Obeya and Any Kind of Negative Energy.” It’s the Hindu temples hidden away in industrial estates. And it’s my Indian colleague regaling me about her passively racist European mother in law, who assured her with a tone of distinct condescension that she “wouldn’t treat their children any differently” from her other son, who had an Anglo partner. “Who does she think she is?” my colleague said, indignantly. “My mother has a PhD. I’m from an aristocratic caste. She never finished high school. But because she’s got white skin, she’s automatically superior?”
Indians are flocking to Melbourne, putting down roots in the fast-growing western and south-eastern suburbs. The city now has close to 170,000 Indian and Indian-Australians living here. At the start of 2017, I set about exploring Indian Melbourne. And my question was simple: How do you break into this city? Though many come highly skilled or highly educated, the path to success is rarely straightforward.
I get my first glimpse at this from my Uber driver who I’ll call Pradesh. He tells me that he’s celebrating. After ten hard years of trying, he’s finally got his residency. He’s legitimate at last. Without that, he had no chance of getting a company to sponsor him for his first job in accounting. So for a decade he has driven taxis and shifted boxes in warehouses and sold petrol, all the while getting more and more frustrated. Should he cut his losses and go home to the Punjab? Impossible: his parents had sunk their savings into his very expensive accounting degree. But the government kept changing the residency laws, making it harder and harder to get, setting the standard of English higher and higher. His English is perfectly understandable. But he couldn’t pass the expensive tests. “Italians built this country in the 1950s and they did it without a word of English,” he says, shaking his head. And the cost of a partner visa to bring his wife across was astronomical – close to $7000.Here he was, earning just enough to stay afloat. “It took two years for me to save that money for her visa,” Pradesh tells me. “I gave up my hobbies ten years ago. I have been working and that’s it, just to survive.” The strain of it all sent him deep into depression. He was qualified, willing to work, but unable to get his foot on the ladder. Without residency, he could not make plans. Could not get a proper job. Could not afford to bring out his wife, let alone have children. “I was 22 when I came to this country and I’m 33 now. It’s a precious time,” he says. “But now – now that I have my residency, all my sorrows vanished.” He glances at me. “You know, refugees can earn half a million a year by sending their ten kids out to work, cash in hand, and living in commission houses. They get special treatment. But the man who leaves his comfort zone and works hard with no support – he will boost the economy. Why is the government not more supportive? This is still a very good country. But…” He trails off. I do not have the heart to challenge him over the supposedly charmed life of a refugee. We arrive at my destination and he waves farewell. “Have a good day,” he says. “You too,” I say, uselessly.
Pradesh’s experience is hardly an anomaly. It’s common. Indians arriving in Melbourne often have to break in the hard way. It’s generally men who come first, who pay for expensive degrees in the hope of getting a secure high status job. But it’s not that easy. And then there are more costs. Residency, partnership visas. And even with a degree, you may end up working two jobs, three, trying to gather enough money to buy a house to make yourself appealing to a prospective wife. But despite the difficulties, many Indians are breaking through, moving into the media, business, and trying (without success) to crack politics.
To begin, I need a guide. I’m a total neophyte in all matters Indian. The country seems like a mirage. How does a country comprised of such wildly different creeds and castes and religions and cultures even work? And what is it like to come from there to Melbourne?
I ride through autumn fog one morning to be instructed in a secret history of my own country. I pass the offices of one of my old part time jobs, where I massaged the CVs of international students into Australian format, to help them stand a chance against locals. Down the long incline of Swanston Street to the Yarra River to meet Dr Amit Sarwal.
“You’ll ask questions – or should I just talk?” Spoken like a true academic, I say, and he grins. We’re at a deserted café at Federation Square, downstairs from SBS where he moonlights as a presenter on the Hindi program when he’s not researching the Indian diaspora in Australia at Deakin University. Dr Sarwal has sharp brown eyes, the glint of steely grey in black hair, a round face, and a magpie’s mind. He talks about everything from the Indianisation of Clayton (“In 2004, three Indian shops. In 2013, dozens”), to the challenge for Sri Lankan white collar workers who could only get work driving taxis while their wives did nursing degrees and brought in more money, to Australia’s little-known Bollywood villain, Bob Cristo, who went from Sydney civil engineer to craggy-faced henchman in over 200 movies, often starring opposite hugely famous leading man Amitabh Bachchan. He tells me that many of the fabled Afghan cameleers were actually Hindi-speakers from what was then Pakistan, that in the 1890s, many Muslim hawkers and quacks roamed the countryside, selling everything from silk to eye checkups to stomach surgery, moving frequently to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
Dr Sarawal tells me of Australia’s first Sikh town. Twenty minutes north of Coffs Harbour is a banana kingdom, Woolgoolga. Here, the steep hills are lined with banana plantations and blueberry bushes. In the 19th century, risk-taking Punjabi Sikh farmers heard of the need for labour in Australia. They went first to Queensland and then south, ending up in Woolgoolga. Many more came in the 1940s. There, they perfected the art of temperate banana growing, turning out smaller, sweeter Cavendish bananas. In recent years, they have turned instead to the more lucrative blueberry. In Woolgoolga, Australia’s first gurdwara – Sikh temple – was built.
For most of Australia’s European period, India and Australia were part of the same empire. Why was there so little traffic? Or was it rather that it is little known? Dr Sarwal believes that will change. He’s acutely interested in Australia’s booming Indian population, now half a million strong. What will that mean for them? For Australia more broadly?
One thing is clear – it will take time for the caste and class structures of home to give way to Australia’s (relative) egalitarianism. “Here, you can talk to your boss like ‘John how are you doing’ and you’re cleaning the toilets,” he says. Caste and class still shape Indian lives in Melbourne – from who you can marry to who protests. During the so-called ‘curry bashing’ period in 2009 and 2010, the Indians who took to Melbourne’s streets to protest came from lower classes. Their parents had nearly bankrupted themselves sending them from the Punjab or other rural areas to Australia. They had already found that Australian streets were paved not with gold but with migrant sweat. And now, they believed, with migrant blood. Conspicuous by their absence were the wealthier Indians – many who had already bought their permanent residency, who had already suffered the odd racist gibe, and who believed it to be a small price to pay. And who had the wealth to feel secure and thus immune.
Melbourne’s future, Dr Sarwal says, will embrace Indian-dense suburbs emerging from arid farmland in the west, in once-nameless places like Tarneit, where I met Emmanuel, and exurbs like the aptly named Rockbank and developments hopefully named on variations of trees and water, and the new suburbs to come, named Northern Quarries, Quandong, Plumpton, Kororoit. “From here to Geelong, it’s becoming Indian suburbs and Indian temples,” Dr Sarwal says. “It’s the cheaper properties.” And that comes with its own challenges – especially if Indians settle in low-infrastructure, long-commute areas. That’s to say nothing of Anglo pushback.
Take the resistance to Indian Junction, a development proposed for Tarneit with houses, Indian shops and temples. After an outcry – sample Anglo Facebook comment: “If a developer made an ‘Australian Village’ they’d be called racist!’ – the developer Sunil Kumar changed the name to Tarneit Junction.
Melbourne’s Indian population is starting to make their presence felt. Melbourne is on the map for touring Bollywood stars. Salman Khan headlined Da Bang, a Bollywood concert at Rod Laver. And at more intimate gatherings, you can pay extra for a selfie with the stars. For $5000, they’ll even visit your business for half an hour.
In politics, too, Indian Australians are becoming vocal. “It’s like – look, we did our hard yakka, now we need to have a space in politics,” Dr Sarwal says. He points to the unexpected success of Lisa Singh in Tasmania, elected despite being demoted to the seemingly unwinnable sixth Senate spot, to the Indian and South Asian councilors who have aspirations of higher office. “Many are taking the charity route to get on the ballot,” he says. “But most of the time, that doesn’t work here.”
To go deeper, I seek out Siddharth Suresh, the editor of the Indian Sun. He goes by Sid in Australia. We meet in a café in Williamstown. The first telegraph line in Australia connected this port town with the swelling city of Melbourne as it gorged on gold and migrants. For a few decades, it had an independent life as the major cargo port of Melbourne, and the white, bright houses and long verges keep a seaside town feel. On a wet weekday it’s deserted but for a brightly coloured squad of schoolkids on bikes along the sea trail. The café is textbook Melbourne: whitewashed walls, industrial chic, $18 smashed avo. Sid is self-deprecating, subversive, instantly likeable. His phone constantly lights up. Every three minutes or so, another notification from his digital media operation.
When Sid arrived in Sydney in 2004, he found a growing diaspora with a need for news. He funded his first newspaper, the Indus Age, with his credit card and made a profit within a year. For ten years, he made handsome profits from advertising. But then came Google and Facebook and soon, his advertising dropped. In 2014, he left the paper in the hands of his co-founder. She still believed in print. Sid thought the writing was on the wall. His new Melbourne paper, the Indian Sun, would move away from print into digital. But even online, he found it far harder than the glory years. It wasn’t just the money. It was journalism itself.
Sid came from traditional journalism, reporting for the national Indian Express in New Delhi. Then he started branching out, putting together a paper for the New York Indian diaspora. So it was natural he wanted to write proper journalism, covering issues critically but fairly. And that, he says, is almost impossible. If he writes a piece with a critical angle, it will take only hours till he gets the angry phone call. “The moment I say something, they can pick up the phone and say why did you do that? But they can’t do that if Fairfax write about it.”
In 2012, Sid wrote an opinion piece with muted criticism of the Indian Film Festival Victoria. The issue, he felt, was that the money was simply being used to screen already-popular Bollywood movies while local filmmakers or lesser-known films were passed over. (He wasn’t alone – Dr Sarwal made similar criticisms, and the topic had been covered in the state parliament and in The Age). But the response, Sid says, was striking.
Long time advertisers started pulling out, one after the other. When Sid called to find out why, he claims one admitted that the festival director, Mitu Bhowmick Lange, one of Melbourne’s most prominent Indian Australians, had told him not to work with the Indian Sun any more.
That, Sid claims, pushed his business to the edge. “We lost a lot of business because of that,” he says. “[Mitu] doesn’t like criticism so she hits back. All she wanted was smiling photos in a sari in front of a tram.” The curious thing is that the criticism worked. Later iterations of the festival featured regional films and local Indian-Australian films.
(When I put this later to Mitu Bhowmick Lange, she makes an astonished face. “I don’t do things like that. If I did that then I’d tell you and I would be very proud of that. I’m very impressed [Sid] thinks I have that much clout. But what an odd thing to say.” She says many people were unhappy with his criticism of the festival – including many she doesn’t know personally.)
The issue, Sid says, became quickly politicised. Why were successful Indian women in Australia being criticised by one of their own? Was it that Indian men – and one Indian man in particular – hated to see them succeed?
Regardless – it taught Sid a key lesson: ethnic media in Australia is dependent on the goodwill of a small community. It’s a lot like one paper towns – you criticise the major employer at your peril. The Age was too big to touch. But a small Indian paper that dared bite the hand that fed it might be fair game.
“It’s a big problem,” Sid sighs. “We can’t represent our own community unless it’s only good stories.”
And so Sid invented a new model. Journalism was dead. What people wanted, it seemed, was to be told they were great. So he switched to writing upbeat stories. “If you do a good story, take a good photo and publish it online, they’ll share it with family and friends and they look humble because they’re not talking about themselves. So everyone goes ‘congrats’ and ‘you look great’.” There’s laughter in his voice, but it’s bittersweet. “You’ve got to stick to that line and do nothing else,” he says. “You just can’t deviate. If you do anything else besides what they want, then you lose business.”
Once he figured out that Indians in Melbourne wanted praise and recognition, he set about making that happen. Now he writes profile puff pieces shareable on Facebook. And in 2015, he went a step further. The future, he realised, was in events – an industry immune to digital disruption or content theft. This was it – tailor upbeat events to the community, charge handsomely, and add a vanity press component at the end. That’s the new model. And it’s working.
So Sid started the Indian Executives Club to fill the endless human need for praise. He now publishes the annual Who’s Who of Melbourne’s Indian Community, a glossy vanity publishing project that all but guarantees sales.
Really? “Really,” he says. “I’ll give you a copy. Come with me.” He walks me through the back streets of Williamstown – wide, grassy verges – away from the ostentatious floor to ceiling glass and showoff houses of The Strand, facing the bay. Large telescopes, large inflatable Santas. He takes me to his house. A neighbour greets him affably. We step over his children’s toys to the garage where thousands of copies of the 2016 Who’s Who are stored. This is media in the social age – only good news please. Affirming stuff, no criticism. Those featured pay for copies for themselves, friends and family. And his Indian Executive Club extends this, offering a set of social gatherings for successful Indian migrants culminating in an annual glitzy awards night held at a good function centre. Sid gives away advertising as part of the cost of the ticket. He makes it the type of event where people hire limos to get there, to find out who will be featured in the Who’s Who.
He shows me a Facebook post as proof. It’s a humblebrag post of one of the Who’s Who. I flip through the book. Amongst entrepreneurs and multimillionaire exporters are also comparatively ordinary middle class types – real estate agents, bankers, and beauticians.
Sid is 40 but looks younger. His voice has that easy warmth of good radio hosts. What I find so likeable about him is that he gently mocks himself and what he’s had to do to survive, maintain his humour even as his business is buffered by Silicon Valley winds, and remarkably, even as his marriage is ending.
“I didn’t want to break up,” he sighs. “But she had had enough.” Did the stress play a role? He nods. “The business took its toll.” He looks around the house which was once home to his family. They will stay, but soon he will not live here any more.
Do you ever wonder, I ask, what life would have been like if you were still in India? He shakes his head. He’s cast his lot, given up his Indian citizenship. And his network of contacts in India have withered through disuse. His parents are still there, so he visits. But going back feels odd – a mixture of familiar and newly foreign. “You feel like you’ve lost all connection,” he says. “Now I feel like a total outsider. I don’t even remember how to cross a busy road there. I can’t wear jeans in the humidity – I have to wear shorts. You act like a white man there.” At home in Australia, he inhabits that liminal world so many migrants enter – neither one nor the other. But his kids are totally Australian, he says. And Australia has changed, even in the 14 years he’s been here. “You can feel it – people are more open,” he says. “ I feel comfortable.”
With that comfort has come a change for him. Sid will no longer employ first generation Indians. The problem, he says, is that it’s like Silicon Valley – seemingly every migrant has their own startup business, their hustle, their side gig. Indian employees aren’t loyal – they’re out for their own interests, he claims.
I raise an eyebrow. Isn’t that millennial culture more broadly, that as companies abandon loyalty to employees, employees abandon loyalty to their companies? Sid smiles. “Sure, it’s a broad problem. But it’s real. You know Indians are not going to stay too long because they want to build their own thing. Punjabis are very much like this – they take a risk, sell their land in India and move here.” As I leave, I think that Sid himself is very much like this – entrepreneurial, a plastic man able to reinvent himself and his businesses.
Mitu Bhowmick-Lange is telling me a story of how an Indian entertainment reporter, television producer, documentary maker got married to the son of a Kiwi prime minister and arrived in Melbourne, all hopes and dreams. And she tells me of the time she was lowest. It was 2002, and she was clearing tables at Crown Casino – the only job she could get – and a sweet old woman playing her favourite pokie machine made conversation. “Where are you from,” she asked, and Mitu told her. “And what did you do there?” Mitu threw on a brave face. “I was a film producer.” The woman blinked owlishly. “I’m sure you were dear,” she said, and turned back to her machine.
After her shift, Mitu went home and cried for what felt like hours. This city. How – how did you crack it? How do you pry open a closed city, built on private school networks, where people end up in the same tiny circle, unwilling to let newcomers through, in, up, anywhere at all. Her husband, Roy, had said she’d love it, that the city was multicultural, friendly. He’d moved first, to take a good job. But she was jobless and miserable. Where was the intensity? There was no personal space in India – but there were always people around. When she locked herself out of home in Delhi, there was a neighbour to help. Here, houses were like castles, walled away from each other. She had no friends, no connections other than her husband. She used to sit at home, waiting for him to return. Then they’d argue. And her pampered, protected life – as she puts it – with servants and hired help – that, too was gone. Australia meant chores for the first time. And worst of all, her promising career – sunk without a trace.
When Mitu was growing up, Indian TV was dry as dust by comparison to Bollywood. One government-owned channel pumped out social-realist fare and boring political stump speeches. And then, the gates opened and satellite TV arrived. By the time she was in uni, The Bold and the Beautiful was in every home, dubbed into Hindi. And new Indian TV channels were looking for gold. Mitu finished her degree in English and threw herself into the burgeoning industry. It was a time when ratings didn’t matter as much, and there was experimentation. But what to make? Mitu had a good friend from trouble-wracked Kashmir, and he told her of the toll taken by the Indian-Pakistani clashes. Together, they went to Kashmir with a camera in 1995, the peak of the troubles, and filmed how the area’s children had been affected.
“That was my first big gig – and you know, ignorance is bliss. If I was in my thirties, I would have been like no we can’t do this. Because we were so ready to change the world, we just did it,” she says, eyes distant with the memory. She didn’t even tell her parents – just bought a ticket. As she arrived, a woman walked into the BBC offices in Srinagar and handed over a parcel bomb, which wounded three journalists. The Kashmiri children they interviewed could recite the ABCs of war. A is for Army, B is for bombs, C is for Curfew. Others were training to be terrorists, and showed off their mastery of AK-47s, those light weapons easy for children to handle. Her film, Watch without Prejudice, won several awards.
But what did that mean in Melbourne? Zero. Mitu sat with the Yellow Pages and her phone for hours, calling every TV channel, every production house, everyone she could think of. “Looking back, I find it amazing no-one called me. If I was at a TV channel and got a resume from, say, Harare, I’d at least be curious to see what kind of shows they’re doing,” she says. But nobody called, and she had to take whatever work she could get.
14 years later, as she stepped up to the stage at the Melbourne Town Hall to receive the Melbourne Award for the work her Indian film festival had done to promote multiculturalism, she noted another finalist. It was Crown Melbourne, her starting point. “Life is so funny,” she says. “Back when I was sitting and sobbing, I would never have imagined it would happen. And I think it is a testament to Melbourne. Nothing landed in my lap easily. But I worked really really hard for it, and there is that opportunity.”
Her first connection here wasn’t work – it was the Hare Krishna temple in Albert Park. It was close by, and though she’s not a believer, she found the people friendly. She helped make meals. “That was the first place I had a sense of belonging,” she said. “Until then, I was very lost.”
Her path in, she realised, would have to be leveraging her network back home. That was what she’s brought with her. When she finally got a job at a production house, that was her pitch: Let me connect Australia with Indian films. In the early noughties, Indian films in Australia were hard to come by.
Mitu remembers seeing a film in Chinatown where an usher sat on a cardboard box and stamped your hand and gave you a samosa. You’d go in and sit down – and wait, as you would on an Indian bus, until the theatre was full. And sometimes, the films would stop half way – because the other reel of film hadn’t arrived yet from a community centre. “It was so ad hoc,” she laughs.
The first film she brought to Australia took in a princely $30,000 – and Mitu was thrilled. More than a decade later, a film she brought took in $2.6 million. She founded Mind Blowing Films to distribute Indian films here, New Zealand and Fiji (which has a high Indian population), and to produce or co-produce Indian films made in Australia, like Salaam Namaste.
Her office in St Kilda still has a startup feel. It’s run by women – what Mitu says is her de facto extended family, in lieu of the large Indian families. Now she runs two film festivals – one based in Sydney, and another, the Indian Film Festival Melbourne, which has become the largest in Australia with more than 30,000 patrons. Most attendees are Indian background, but around 10% are Anglo. “Bollywood is becoming cool,” she says. “Ten years ago it wasn’t.”
For Anglo viewers, it’s always a shock to the system to sit in Hoyts at Melbourne Central and hear the crowd boo the villain on screen, or cheer as Shar Rukh Khan comes on screen for the first time. “People are cheering and clapping so loudly you can’t hear the dialogue,” she says. “But that energy is infectious and soon they get over that don’t-make-noise thing.” And when her festival brings out someone of godlike fame like Amitabh Bachchan, the grand old man of Bollywood and Star of the Millennium, who has appeared in almost 200 films over five decades in the industry – then, Anglo-Aussies are stunned by the joyous mob, the screaming, waving, the desire to touch their idol.
But Bachchan provokes other emotions. Standing outside the Princess Theatre in May 2014 were dozens of Sikh protestors, furious about the legend’s alleged but unproven links to anti-Sikh pogroms that killed tens of thousands across India in 1984, after two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The star chose the back entrance to avoid a confrontation. It wasn’t the first time Sikhs have targeted him– in 2011, a US based group, Sikhs for Justice, filed a criminal complaint against him in the Australian legal system, coinciding with a visit to Sydney.
Mitu finds it curious that the Australian film and TV industries aren’t more interested in India. Producers and directors still look east, to Hollywood, rather than west, to Bollywood or the other huge regional cinema industries in India. “Do you know what the number one English language show is in India,” she asks. I look baffled. “MasterChef Australia.” Really? She nods with a hint of glee.
Here, MasterChef might get 1.5 million viewers. But in India, the audience is vastly larger. When Gary Mehigan visits India, they’re up there with cricketers and actors – mobbed, chased down streets, fawned upon. But in Australia, Bollywood – and Indian cinema more broadly – is often still seen as a cinematic world apart. “I find it very odd that we’re not engaging with India more,” she says. “It’s a bit patronising.” What about the success of crossover films like Lion? She smiles. “We don’t look at those as Indian films. Lion is an Australian film, a crossover. I was worried – I thought, please don’t let this be a white man’s take on India. But it wasn’t. I cried. It was a beautiful film.”
The India Mitu describes is almost like the EU – dozens of nations coexisting under one roof. What she sees in Australia reflects that mix. There are plenty of wealthy migrants – but also a tranche of poorer migrants from rural areas, with less education, whose parents mortgaged their farms to send their son to find a golden city of opportunity. These, Mitu feels, are often taken advantage of by unscrupulous migration agents in India, who paint an unrealistic picture of a foreign land. Jobs for the taking, they whisper, jobs with high wages – but they never mention the vast cost of living.
And when they come, some fall afoul of the dodgy vocational training colleges. “I can’t believe a country so strict on parking fines can be like this on education,” Mitu says. “These colleges are so dodgy. It’s not doing brand Australia any favours.”
As the second generation comes through, the changes are apparent. “They have that confidence – that it’s their country, that they’re entitled to be here. When you’re a new migrant, you’re always cautious because you’re unsure of your rights, what you should do. All of that.”
For her, keeping a foot in both worlds has its challenges. Her Australian partners want certainty. When will the films arrive? Are the flagship Bollywood stars locked in to come? Her Indian connections are fluid. The big stars say next week, we’ll decide next week, and then next week it’s tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow. “It’s so disorganised in India, but there’s method in the madness. And Australia is super organised. When I do productions, I’d find the Australian crews working minute by minute, very systematic. But the Indian filmmakers would be spontaneous – let’s shoot there now, because the light is so good. And the film will still come out great.”
As the summer trails to a close, I explore more and more of Indian Melbourne. At the outset, I’d thought I’d focus on politics, business, and the media. But there was so much beneath the surface. Take Gumtree. Every now and again, I find myself lost in the outer wilds of the site. Stray from the second hand sofas and BBQs and you can find the most interesting things. Ads for $130 “bags of ice” – meaning meth. Ads for live-in help, for polyamorous lovers – and for tiffin dinners.
Mumbai’s tiffin industry must rank amongst the most remarkable feats of coordination on the planet. Every morning, hundreds of thousands of wives carefully make lunches for their working husbands, who travel far from their home in the dormitory areas outside the city. Then tiffin-wallahs on bicycles pick up the lunches of dhal, rice and palak paneer, colour code them, and stack them into dizzyingly high stacks. And then, they transport them to the correct workplace and correct husband while the meal is still warm. The system – run by men with limited education – has an extraordinarily low error rate of one per six million deliveries – and has been studied by logistics firms like DHL.
And in Melbourne, a tiffin industry has sprouted with local characteristics – Indian food, often made by Pakistanis, and driven rather than ridden. Here, tiffins are often bought by male students who don’t have the time or knowledge to cook for themselves or by double income couples with no time. And so women have sprung into action, cooking for dozens or hundreds of students and young professionals each day. There is a bike-delivery tiffin service for the CBD, but in the far-flung suburbs where most of the services operate, delivery is by car.
I email one of the most professional tiffin makers. A day later, I’m waiting at a chocolatier in Melbourne Central for Marish and Ahmad, a couple from Lahore, the number one food obsessed city in Pakistan. They arrive in a whirl of smiles. A trimmed beard frames his round warm face. She doesn’t speak much, and her husband often speaks for her. Ahmad tells me he works at ANZ doing business loans. He wears a vest, shirt and showy watch. She trained as a fashion designer, but while their children are very young, she’s started up a tiffin service, cooking for Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankan’s. Warm rich hot chocolate arrives and Ahmad, a foodie, drinks with evident relish.
The service works like so: Marish cooks three days worth of meals, with six different dishes. Then their deliveryman drops the homemade meals to their customers, ready for freezing or immediate use. Their eventual plan is to build up a base of customers and then open a restaurant. With a commercial kitchen at hand, they can serve people in house and keep their delivery chain going. They advertise on Facebook and hope for word of mouth recommendations – it’s like the social media path to a restaurant.
Pakistan doesn’t have a tiffin culture. But they do have biryanis, and their dry curry has proven reliably popular. Their point of difference is that they deliver late. “In India and Pakistan, people have time to find food till 11pm at night. In Melbourne, you can get that in the CBD. But as you go into the suburbs, you haven’t had that. Yet,” Ahmad says.
It sounds like you’re the one actually making the food, I say. Marish smiles. She’s quieter, but at this, she sparks. “He’s the one who’s more passionate about food,” she says. “I’ve learned from him.” The couple watch cooking shows on TV – nothing else. Soon after they arrived, they started on an eating spree, moving through hundreds of Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Most, Marish says, weren’t up to scratch. “It didn’t taste like what we eat in Pakistan,” she says. Ahmad jumps in. “The only two restaurants I think are worth eating at are Aangan and Sweet and Spice,” he says. “I love my food – I take my clients from work to restaurants, but I need to know they’re good enough.”
Before Ahmad got his job in banking, he was toying with a future as a chef. But the security of banking beckoned. When the two hit upon the tiffin idea, it resonated – here was a way for Marish to work from home, and to aim for a future based around food. “I gave my passion to my wife,” Ahmad laughs. “She can now cook chicken better than me.” Marish taps her watch and Ahmad sits bolt upright. “Apologies – we must go get the kids from childcare,” he says. And they’re into the car, through the thickening traffic, out to the far west.
For other tiffin makers, though, it is not the love of food that drives them – it is necessity. If you can’t find a job, you have to make your own. Sadia is frazzled when I reach her by phone. I can hear her 10 month old grizzling in the background, the sound of kitchenwork, babywork. It is not what she expected when she moved with her husband. Australia – the land of promise, the land of opportunity. And with her qualifications – an MBA, a MA in Information Systems – surely she would waltz into a role. Educated, experienced, worldly – she and her husband had worked in Pakistan, in their home city of Karachi, and had moved to London for her MBA.
But then came children. I can hear the three year old now, banging on pots and pans. Worse – her husband was taken ill. Now he could only work one job. Working two, as many Indian migrants do, was impossible in his state. And that, in Melbourne, meant real financial peril. “It is very expensive here. So I thought, I must do something – or else it will get dangerous for us,” she says. The baby quiets abruptly, and I can hear him sucking on a bottle. She breathes a short sigh – temporary relief.
What to do? She was a month out from giving birth to her second child when she started her tiffin service. It wouldn’t have occurred to her – tiffins are an Indian thing, after all. But a friend, seeing her plight, told her it was a way to make a living, that there was huge demand from students and homesick South Asians. “I’d never heard of tiffin services,” she admits. “But my friend told me I was very good at cooking. And I had worked for a chef in Pakistan.”
So she started a tiffin service and advertised on Gumtree and Facebook. She took a little bit of time off when the baby came. But not too long. She needed to build her business. A lot depended on it. Slowly, she built up a loyal following. Her husband started doing the deliveries, to expand her reach out from their home of Preston as far as Glenroy, Broadmeadows, Coolaroo, Oak Park. She cooks for an old Indian couple, who can no longer cook for themselves. She cooks for three families who rely on her for every main meal.
Sadia’s business means a respite from financial woes. She has to juggle her three year old and baby while she cooks. But it means huge savings in daycare fees. “Having kids is very difficult,” she says. “They always get sick in daycare, and I can’t afford the fees or the doctor or the sleepless nights.”
The future? Sadia pauses. A restaurant, she says, a restaurant. “I’m getting better at this,” she says. “ I can take care of kids and my husband, that’s easy now for me. Next is a restaurant.” Do you miss your professional life? She pauses. “Yes. I really want to do a job. But it’s just too difficult,” she says. The baby starts up his crying again. Good luck, I say, and she’s gone.
It’s a dreary day, and driving the ring road only makes it worse. Powerlines, jostling trucks, saltbush plains, basalt cuttings. But then I come to the only real point of interest – the EJ Whitten Bridge, where the road falls away abruptly as you drive fifty metres over the Maribyrnong and its scrub-lined canyon, dusty dirt bike trails and debris trails from illegal rubbish dumping straight over the side of the canyon. And there – over the far side, a huge billboard advertising Manhari Metals and its Best Prices for Scrap Metal.
Here in the Sunshine North industrial park, a small slice of post-apocalypse. Trucks lined upside, piled high with car carcasses. And inside, a glittering pile of rent metal, a pyramid of compressed cars towering twenty metres in the air. It feels like Mad Max. Battered cranes black with grease chug as they lift cars high. Bars across the driver’s cage make them look like a robotic villain. Forklifts whir by, tines loaded with wire.
I walk in quiet awe. It satisfies some deep itch – a place where real objects are crushed and torn and bought and sold, far from offices and document revisions and white-collar paper empires. I watch as a Terex Fuchs crane lifts a denuded red sports car – piled high with its own innards, like a stuffed capsicum – and the Indian driver expertly plops the car in an enormous crusher. Clam-lips press hard and the car crumples. Petrol gushes out unnoticed.
Now the crane clatters forward. The gripper reminds me of an octopus embrace – many-fingered grip. The driver gingerly picks up an old green boiler that must weigh tons and deposits it on the mountain of scrap. He deftly manoeuvres the huge machine, like a long-necked dinosaur, building the pyramid higher than I think possible. I wince as hundreds of metal pipes clang to the ground behind me as a truck dumps its load.
An African worker sweeps up shattered glass from the oily ground. Indian crane drivers, Afghan forklift drivers, Anglo truckies, all in fluoro workwear, steel-capped boots. Battery piles, brightly coloured cans in a dump truck, copper wiring at $3 a kilo if still in plastic, $7 a kilo for shining and bare.
The drivers arriving are sunleathered westies who toss me gday mates. Trucks line up five deep outside. One – crinkled eyes, deep tan, laconic – puts his reading glasses on in the cab to fill out the paperwork. Dust, rust, grime. The old economy, running parallel. And fluttering through, dozens of cabbage white butterflies, floating on eddies and dust.
The office is a hole in mesh in a converted shipping container. I lean in and see a businesslike woman, who doesn’t make eye contact. She nods to her husband, who opens the door and invites me in. Manhari Gupta has scruffy black hair, a no-nonsense handshake, fluoro vest, stubble, a jaunty gold earring that reminds me of pirates, and a gold ring featuring a wolf.
Manhari Gupta did not expect to found a scrap metal empire when they migrated to Australia. He’d had done his engineering degree, and then a MA in Business in Australia. But climbing the corporate ladder never appealed. What Manhari wanted was his own business. He’d come from a self-made business family in Delhi. Surely it must be possible here? So he set out in 2003, walking the streets of Melbourne door to door, selling whatever needed to be sold. Then he started looking for connections between India and Australia. He exported wool bales and carpets, imported fine rugs and marble from India. But there was precious little money in it. The margins were too tight. There had to be something else. And then, one day, he bought his first car engine – and the world opened up. He’d heard that scrap metal in India was booming. So he and his wife took a risk and ploughed their savings into renting a small factory, buying a truck and forklift, and working hard. “Long hours, blood sweat and tears have made us what we are today,” he says. Soon, he and his wife were exporting to Pakistan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea and China. Everyone wanted high quality scrap metal. And Australia had a great deal of scrap. Steel, aluminium, copper, brass. Later, he saw an opportunity and expanded into the regional town of Horsham.
Metal was far easier to sell than rugs or marble. But it was much harder to buy. Competition was intense. So Manhari pinned his hopes on export – and on cutting out middlemen. He had direct connections with metal recycling plants in India. No need for go-betweens. And he spoke the language. With those savings, he started paying a premium for scrap. And the sellers came. “We get a hundred cars a day,” he says, matter of fact. He tells me he employs 38 people – “Indians, Africans, Jamaicans, Italians, Turks, Australians – everyone.”
Are there other Indians in the industry, I ask. “No. It’s all white,” he says. So was it hard to break in, as a migrant? A slight nod. “When you come to a new country, it’s very tough. There’s no one who knows you, no one going to help you, no one will give you money. You have to make your own decisions to survive.” Now he employs dozens of people. Turnover is now $15 million and growing. While other Indians moved into IT or real estate or white collar jobs – almost no-one went into business or industrial areas. Why not manufacturing? He scoffs. “Manufacturing in Australia is dying. But not scrap metal.”
How, I ask, did you learn the art of dealing with Australians. He smiles. “Door to door.” That, he says, was his rite of passage, as it was for so many Indians. Walking the streets of the suburbs of a foreign city, alone. Trying to turn sceptical or hostile faces into sales. The dropout rate was huge. “Of 100 people, 95 would drop out,” he says. Not him. Soon, he was making $2000 a week selling mobile phone plans for Telstra and Orange. “Very good money at that time.” Show me, I say, interested. Say you open the door and it’s a white guy, how do you establish common ground? He chuckles. “Don’t start with selling. That’s bad. Ask their name, how life is – make a bit of effort. And then the product. If the product is good, they might buy.”
He looks out the window and harrumphs. More trucks are arriving, and there’s a squabble over who’s first in the queue.
I leave Manhari Metals and drive through the industrial park. It’s a stink hot day and there’s almost no-one around. The city has changed again and I hadn’t noticed, cloistered in my small village-within-a-city. I pass Punjabi Motors, a tallow works, a mussel wholesaler, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple and cultural heritage centre with the red and yellow flag of the South Vietnamese, a memento of a war lost and of a time when Australia welcomed boat people and refugees fleeing from a war we fought in. Above it, a “Thank You Australia” sign faces the canyon, where no one will see it.
I pass brickyards, an untended pear tree, empty streets. The industrial park backs onto a trainline, lined by dumped rubbish. An old tip, a broken fence, a car body in the street and a broken baby stroller, a guard dog sign. It feels oddly deserted – that post-apocalyptic feel that has me scanning the roadside. This is the bit where the driver gets ambushed by men in leather and spikes. There’s another scrap metal business with few customers. A faded sign on a pioneer-style building with verandah – the Stained Glass Shed, Largest Decorative Glass Business in Australia. But it stands empty, an old wooden wagon decaying quietly on the grass outside. Down another street lies the Muruyan temple where Sri Lankan Tamils come to venerate a vel (spear) made of gold, iron, copper, lead and silver from Jaffna. Devotees can ask the priest for blessings for everything from newborns to new cars. Enormous wooden doors stand tall, covered in ornate carvings. Across the road, a hydroponics store. Next door – a riot of oleander, overgrown plum trees, a lichen-encrusted train carriage, an apple tree weighted down by fruit. An African man moves slowly in the heat – the unhurried gait you see across that continent, designed to produce a minimum of sweat. Nearby, the tinny sound of FM radio hiphop.
I’m hungry, and Google Maps tells me the only place to eat is named McIntyre Lunchbox. I take my life in my hands as I sprint across the road, braving the B-doubles. As I enter, I’m overtaken by a sense of timelessness. Australiana lines the walls and the tops of food cabinets. Arnott’s tins, a faded picture of the 12 Apostles from back when there were 12, an archway leading to the deep-fryer. A salad bar, drinks fridge stocked with Big M, Solo and Coke, dim sims, blokes in fluoro talking engines and sport. Two matrons behind the counter swap gossip while a pouty Anglo girl with a lip-ring serves me. I feast on an $8.90 chicken schnitzel roll and can of drink combo and read the Herald Sun. Andrew Bolt has nailed the trifecta today, getting stuck into Muslims, the Racial Discrimination Act, and Labor in a single column.
I take the Ring Road home, inexplicably happy. In that one industrial park in Sunshine North, Australia remade. Indian entrepreneurs, small-scale production, the end of old manufacturing, the last echoes of the Cold War running hot, and new religions.
I’m driving southeast to the car suburbs, down a seemingly endless 80kmh road planted with lemon-scented gums. You forget how big Melbourne really is until you drive across town. Through the gums, I can see my first glimpse of the festival. Monash Uni’s Clayton campus is hosting the Festival of Colours, better known as Holi. People stream in from the carpark, Indian families, young couples, students, alongside everyone else – Anglos, Asian. As I arrive, the local MP is talking about a recent trip to the subcontinent. “Now I’ve come from Big India to Small India,” he says, beaming. He’s gotten into the spirit – a red dot on his forehead. “Welcome to Australia,” he says.
It’s beat-down hot, under that searing dry sun Melbourne turns on in late summer – the desert wind. The festival seems at first familiar. People fanning themselves, food trucks lined around the oval in a nod to the trend. But then, camel rides – “You must be this high to ride the camels” – stalls serving paneer, sugarcane juice, biryanis, iddlies, dosas, a stall about respectful relationships, a stall selling saris. And the colours – of course. Vivid paint powder spattering faces, clothes – ultramarine, lurid greens, hot pinks, canary yellow, crimsons.
At first, people are still recognisable – faces, culture. But as the afternoon presses on, as we hit the panting-dog hours of a late February day, everything blends. The colours and sweat mingle, covering everyone’s skin – and all you have is that festival feeling, that temporary unity. There’s an Indian mum with a supersoaker spraying her offspring, Anglos covered in colour, their kids screaming delight – at last, the mayhem they’ve dreamed of. Traditional women in saris, others in jeans and tshirts – and all peppered in powder. This is release – and also a layered performance. A traditional Hindu festival celebrating good’s victory over evil, a coming together of friends after the (northern) winter, and in Victoria, a symbolism, a blurring of colours, a lessening of skins.
To make that point, an African woman takes the stage. She’s a VIP from the Multicultural Commission – imposing height, authoritative gaze. “Victoria is multicultural,” she says. “That means not just tolerance – but embracing it.” Multiculturalism must be performed, life blown into it continuously. But there is something more to it than that, I think, as I wander through the crowd. Here are not preserved microsocieties living in parallel, as in, say, Quebec and Canada. Here, there is bleed between. Asian-Indian friendship groups, Anglo families trying something unfamiliar, Westernised Indian students partying. And cultural difference, for a short while, leeched out. All with green-brown skin, by the end.
A dozen six year old girls file on stage – all dressed in homage to beauty pageant real-life barbie dolls from the States – jeanshorts, pink neckerchiefs, starlet glasses. And then the music kicks in – one of those pounding Bollywood beats, and enormously loud. The girls dance in formation, proud parents cheering from below, and all the way the incongruously loud music pounding. Next to me, a young woman tips startling crimson on her boyfriends head, making the spikes on his GI haircut stand out. Sweat streams cut through colour as people dance. A distinguished Indian man in shirt and pants festooned head to toe in crimson, a sober executive figure permitted, for a moment, to be not-himself, to be anew.
On stage, the tiny dancers have gone and now stately women in their 40s dance, arms whirling, twisting. Older women, too, file on stage, and begin dancing to the music of their youth – that high-pitched, sinuous singing of mid-20th century India.
I meet a DJ, Ash Kumar, in the crowd. He’s clean cut, swarthy, and looks more Southern Euro than India. He takes me behind the stage where it’s a little bit quieter, and we talk behind his van. His tagline: “DJ Ash: Unleash the Desibeast.” Desi, I ask – that’s slang for Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, right? He nods. “It’s also like the N word,” he says. “It’s affectionate for those in the group.” I ask when he’s playing, and get the same answer repeatedly – when the crowd is big enough. DJ Ash likes to time his entrance.
Ash tells me he moved here in 2004 to study hospitality, which he didn’t like. Then he did business management and got work at a council. But he was always thinking about music. The popular stuff, not the traditional. His old life back in the Punjab was as a traditional drummer. “We would play all that praying stuff, all that worshipping,” he says, somewhat vaguely.
I have to shout to make myself heard. The music seems to have gone up another notch. Even though the stage speakers are pointing the other way, the deafening bass overwhelms everything. It’s hypnotic – that beat, deep, low and somehow bouncy.
Ash tells me that when he moved, he started casting around for a way to crack the music scene here. His timing was good. Melbourne’s Indian community was growing fast – and young students turn into young graduates who get married. He hit upon DJing Bollywood and Punjabi bhangra tracks, and started small, at Indian house parties and clubbing nights to build his client base. “It’s all word of mouth,” he says. Then he started getting wedding gigs – and that meant real money. Indian weddings are spectacular multi-day affairs – and Bollywood and bhangra are guaranteed dance-floor fillers, the way 1980s pop magically animates everyone from grandma to miss three at Anglo weddings. “My target is weddings,” he says. He lives for the sight of crowds of 400 people moving as one. “You know how Indian weddings are,” he says, with a quirk of his lips. “I can do non-Indian weddings too – I can handle a crowd with 40 per cent English and 60 per cent Indian, but if it’s 100 percent English, I would have other DJs helping me.”
Playing Indian weddings is where DJ Ash wants to be – not least because he’s recently married. Weddings finish round midnight, a respectable hour, but clubbing goes till dawn.
Are Indian weddings the same here as India, I ask. DJ Ash shakes his head. “I come from a small village and our weddings are more traditional – we have around 1000 people. It’s supersized – it goes for five days. People here do follow traditions, but they’re only two days and they don’t do the spiritual stuff.”
Ash checks his watch, checks the crowd size, and nods. It’s time. Before he goes, he introduces me to Dr RnB. “He’s the organiser,” Ash says. Dr RnB is unloading a van while fielding calls. He looks the part: rakish hat, aviator glasses, coloured paint spattered on his shirt, gold chain, trimmed beard.
Dr RnB gestures to his workers and they take his spot while we talk. Why is a man named Dr RnB running Holi festival, I ask. He laughs. “Any festival where I see a smile on people’s face, that’s a payoff for me. I love to do festivals. I’m never tired. I’ve never said no to any festival.”
A Hyderabadi boy from India’s south, Raj Yadav grew up surrounded by music. He hosted clubbing nights in Hyderabad, each bringing in DJs playing dancefloor hits from a different region of India. When he came to Australia in 2008 as a student, he tried something new. He mixed study with organising reggae festivals in Cairns and Byron Bay, and Bollywood nights and festival days in Melbourne.
I’m having trouble hearing him over the Bollywood bass. “I’ve, ah, never been to a local festival quite this loud,” I shout. He grins. “I’ve been told many times to turn it down but I can’t compromise on this,” he says. “If we have a setup like this and start playing music, within half an hour there will be plenty of people, believe me. What drags them? Music,” he says.
Australia has rapidly become home for Raj. He sounds surprised when he talks about it. “I used to say, if I die, cremate me in Hyderabad. But I’ve changed that now – I want to be cremated here. I love Australia so much,” he says.
In part, his gratitude comes from something very concrete. The year after he arrived, Raj was diagnosed with leukaemia. He’s still fighting it now. Alone and fearful, he didn’t want to fell his mother. “Indian mums are very weak in the heart, like any mother. I thought she might die over the phone if she hears that,” he says. “But cancer is now treatable – no cure, but it can be treated. And the way Australia took care of me – I have no words to express that feeling, I will never be able to express that. And that was a time I wasn’t detached from India.”
Raj describes himself as someone afflicted with emotions. They plague him, weaken him. “I suffered a lot when I arrived because I’m a bit emotional,” he says. He’s understating things. The high cost of living, steep international student fees, cancer, chemo nausea, and homesickness made him deeply miserable. What was he doing here? If he had to die, shouldn’t it be on home soil? But people stepped up. Soon, Raj had a mother figure, Aussie mates, Indian friends. And once he had beaten back the cancer to a manageable level, others in strife came to him too. “My childhood memories are in India, and so are my parents,” he says. “But Australia is my second home. I married last year.”
So let me get this straight, I say – you’re still fighting cancer, but you got married, and you run a festival business. What are you made of?
He smiles. “I couldn’t do a nine to five job which I didn’t like. I have to do something I love, not just like. I love this. At times it’s difficult – the bone pain, the muscle pain, the nausea, the stiffness in my body. But I don’t feel anything when I’m truly involved in my job.” As if to demonstrate, he throws arms out wide – look, no pain.
I head back to the thrum of the festival. Here’s what he’s created – that carnival feel, where you sense the rules are temporarily suspended, and you can be free from the confines of your self. “Is Holi like this at home?” I ask a young Indian couple. Sairam Kannan, carpeted in orange, nods. “Usually there is water,” he says. His girlfriend Shrikaavya Karthik smiles through purple paint. “It’s been ten years since I played Holi,” she says. She purses her lips and examines me. “Can I?” she says, holding up orange powder. I nod and they daub my forehead in vivid orange.
As I walk back to my car, I see an Indian woman in a Colour Run tshirt and think of the parallels, the borrowings going on. And as I drive up Blackburn Road, heading back to my normal programming, I realise what stood out. So many newcomers I see are careful tentative – international students, migrants, refugees. That sense of not-quite-my-place. But the festival felt different. There, I saw an open joy – that type where you let your guard down, you feel you have a sense of purchase, ownership.
On a quiet weekday, I drive out of the city, heading north-east. I grew up out here in Eltham – a place where the bush has engulfed the suburbs, covered it. If you climb a tree and look out, you’ll see a few buildings and dense forest. All regrowth, for when this was Aboriginal territory, they kept it close cropped with fire to encourage new shoots and clearings and venturesome kangaroos. Beyond Eltham is Kangaroo Ground, named for exactly this practice. Kangaroo Ground is the city limits – wineries, hobby farms, and open space.
Ahead, fox halves bloating in the sun. The motorbike in front tries to dodge and clips the corpse, sending ichor flying. I get a whiff of the stench. Spindly gums growing from embankments, out of place cypresses casting heavy shade, clay-coloured dams, a shag on the pump buoy. As you enter Kangaroo Ground, you feel that the city is at last behind you. A green wedge – here, unlike the west, Melbourne’s creep has been stopped, more or less. Kangaroo Ground was settled by Scots, who used the Aboriginal firestick clearings as a start for pasture. It feels English, bar the weather. Hawthorn hedges in berry, hobby farms, crude wooden boxes full of lemons or boxes of horse poo, a trust system. Vineyards draped in nets like spider infestations, tiny churches built by the Scottish settlers who arrived in Victoria in 1939 on the sailing ship David Clark. Each family bought around 150 acres of what turned out to be rich volcanic soil. There, they grew wheat, oats and vegetables. Their market success made Kangaroo Ground the centre of the Shire of Eltham for almost 70 years.
These days, wheat and oats are out, and hobby farms, horse floats, hot rods, cyclist packs, olives, small orchards and vineyards are in. Blackberry snarls, CFA stations, constant thrum of traffic, kids training for the footy season on parched grass.
I’m going out here to meet Mohindar Dhillon, an 88 year old Indian-Australian man who lives in Panton Hill. Out here, only the main roads are tarmac. Mohindar lives down a gravel road with clay sides. His house sits atop a ridge, facing out towards the Yarra Valley. Solar panels, jacaranda, native cherry, round-leafed gums, the twittering of wrens, a few pines left from early attempts to Anglicise the bush. Space and air.
The house is a mix of English country house and Aussie adaptation. Verandah, mud-brick, climbing rose, a faded day bed. It feels like a hippie house – a throwback to the north-east’s hippie roots, back when it was the home of mudbrick building in Australia, back when an iconoclast German artist – Justus Jorgensen – could rope in artist friends to build Monsalvat, that stunning anachronism in Eltham, a European country estate, complete with peacocks, a Great Hall built of stone and wooden beams, and live-in artists.
The house is echoing and seems empty. I can see books everywhere. There’s the smell of ashes from last night’s fire. The furniture is striking – an old Chesterfield, a German hardwood dresser, a country-style kitchen dresser with hanging blue and white china cups. But only crow calls break the silence. And then, a young woman appears. Come in she says. And I take a seat and Mohindar emerges to shake my hand. A bald dome, a kirtan, a white ruff of a beard, bare feet, a weathered face. His mouth plum red.
Here he is, Mohindar Dhillon, who survived the great terror of Partition where a million died as Pakistan broke off from India, who met his English rose, Margaret, a striking, sharp academic and Russian language expert in Delhi when she was 50 and he 41, and married the great love of his life and followed her first to the UK and then to Melbourne, after being been headhunted by the Vice Chancellor of Monash. A cultured man, a lecturer in English literature, who for 30 years quietly paid for top Indian musicians and troupes of elegant, highly trained Kathakali dancers to fly to Australia to perform through his Nataraj Cultural Centre, and who, grieving after his wife’s death from Alzheimer’s in 2001, would bequeath the largest ever private donation to WOMADelaide, the world music festival, to bind India and Australia ever closer.
Mohindar takes a seat, interlaces his hands, crosses his legs, swami stance. He clears his throat in preparation. He’s a born armchair talker. The young woman sits quietly nearby.
“This is Harshi,” he says. “She and her husband look after me.” Harshi smiles. She has a face like a cherry – round and pink. A gold bracelet, startling white eyes, smooth skin, frequent laughter, a spray of hair in a pink clasp. “I was looking for a tenant and they turned up and it became a different relationship – like father and children,” Mohindar says. “They’re part of my household. I get so much love and affection, and at my age I need that. I have no family, and I’m alone at 88.” He pauses. “But I look younger.” He giggles, a sprightly sound.
Harshi Kumarge grins too. She left busy Colombo in Sri Lanka for the total quiet of Melbourne’s fringe. “I didn’t know the rules. In Sri Lanka, we don’t say hello to every person you meet, but here, you do.” This throws me – hang on, it’s friendlier here? She smiles and nods. “Much.” She met her now husband – a Sri Lankan here for a decade – on one of his visits home. Now, she has befriended the local mob of kangaroos and feeds them small apples.
Mohindar, too, came for love. “Margaret brought me here. She came from a well to do family, and she was also very beautiful. Have a look.” He picks up a picture of her at 18, and another of her at 50, when he met her through a friend in Delhi. Yes, I say. She was.
Australia was an early disappointment. The job Margaret came for was taken away by a rival. He, too, could not find an academic job. So both took high school teaching positions and devoted themselves to culture. They became friends with filmmaker Paul Cox, with noted landscape artist Neil Douglas, with Indian film festival director Mitu Bhowmick-Lange.
You prefer high Indian culture – why’s that, I ask. He snorts. “Bollywood and its music and dancing has no art in it. It’s cheap – men and women making monkeys of themselves on the stage.” It was for that reason he decided to introduce Australia to the refined ancient arts of India. When I ask Mitu about him later, she laughs. “Mohindar looks down on me because I’m pop culture and he thinks Bollywood is terrible, but I love him anyway. He’s majestic.”
And now – do you feel Australian, after half your life here. He nods. “My core is Indian, but a large part of me is Australian. I love Australia – a beautiful land – and I have very dear friends here. What more do you want?” He smiles.
Harshi laughs, a tinkling sound. “When Uncle gets back from India, he says there’s no place like home. He walks around the house, happy to be back.” Mohindar smiles. “I’ve been away from my extended family for so long now that they’ve developed in different directions. After a few days I get bored. My brother and wife have died, and I don’t know the younger generation enough to be bonded. And my two closest friends are now on their deathbeds – one is losing a kidney, the other has cancer of the colon. So when they go, there’ll be very little left.” A shadow crosses his face. But then he shrugs. “In India, there’s a phrase for people like me. The washerman’s dog belongs neither to his home or his washing place. He’s always going back and forth between the two.”
Time moves slowly in this room, but I can see the tracks of its passing in the dusty books, the medicine table stacked with pills. It reminds me of my grandmother’s room in her late life. She told me once that the first thing she did with the newspaper in the morning was turn to the obituaries, to see which of her friends had died. She made 90, outliving all her friends the same age. She took to befriending 60 year olds at her bridge club in Perth, hoping to find people who’d go the distance, who weren’t such early quitters. The perils of a long life.
Harshi is talking to Mohindar about her father in law, who has become a monk. I catch the tail end of it. A real monk? She nods. “He lives in a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple now, in Monbulk.” But he had a wife, a family – what happens there? Harshi nods. “He’s given up ordinary life and gone to that simple life. He brought his family here, sold his property in Sri Lanka.”
Does becoming a monk dissolve the marriage? She nods. “Married life is over now. His wife consented. We can still go and see him and give him food, but we can’t talk about ordinary things.”
Do you know why he felt the call, I ask. She shrugs. “No. But you know – maybe you feel like you’re always in a competition, finding jobs, losing jobs, losing money. Maybe you’re crying, you feel depressed. And the Lord Buddha says all things are temporary. So the path to getting freedom of your mind is to give up all interest in the external world.” She beams.