So there was Hamisha Rewal, sitting awkwardly in the living room of her home in East Brighton. Her parents, her brother, her grandparents. And a young Indian-Australian man, his parents, brother and sister-in-law. All sitting awkwardly, picking at afternoon tea, talking about small things, looking for common ground, looking for bedrock on which to found a possible alliance, a marriage. “My one rule when this all started was that I didn’t want any of these group meetings,” Hamisha says, laughing. “Just give the guy my number and we’ll go for a drink.” But Indian parents have their own ideas. Hamisha’s parents had posted an ad in the matrimonial section of Indian Voice, and suitors had responded.
“Oh, it was so awkward. Sooo awkward,” she says. We’re sitting outside at a Southbank café on a bright morning. She’s watching cyclists weave through pedestrian crowds. I’m watching her. She has that lemon-eating look of Deep Cringe. Because dear god it was awkward. She felt like a bird on display. And almost from the moment her suitor came through the door, she knew that this was not The One. Her gut instinct was accurate – afterwards, in the family debrief, everyone was in agreement. Nice guy, but not well suited.
Three more family-brokered matches followed, all unsuccessful, all replete with cringe. And when the original suitor made a sideways contact via Instagram, and they tried to talk without Being Observed, she found he was lovely but there was absolutely no chemistry. The family-brokered approach hadn’t worked, and the clock was still ticking. Hamish was in her late 20s, which meant it was most definitely time to get married. She’d gone to university at Monash Clayton, where there’s a big Indian presence. But she hadn’t found the one there. “I’m not racist or anything, I just didn’t socialise,” she laughs. Now that she was steadily employed in marketing, her parents and grandparents were fretting. Time was a wasting and there were no children on the horizon.
Her Anglo friends don’t really get the pressure. Why does it matter when you get married, they ask. Just say no when your parents try to broker a marriage. “They love the stories of awkward family dating. But they don’t understand that it’s not that easy to just say no,” Hamisha says. But the Indian-Australian men she’s dated know the deal. Family Is Everything. And that means family opinions matter. Her grandparents – from the fiercely traditional Kenyan Indian community – already find it hard enough that people now get married in their late 20s.
But family opinions weren’t translating into a groom waiting at the altar. The failure of the traditional approach led Hamisha to consider a radically different route: running Indian-Australian dating nights.
Hamisha wasn’t alone in struggling to find love. The Indian community is still small and the city is sprawling. Family connections aren’t as deep rooted. Random meetings at clubs or bars have low success rates. And apps like Tinder and Bumble can find you nice men. But you always have that wariness – are you here for a good time or a long time? Plus, you could waste weeks flirting online only to realise there was No Chemistry Whatsoever when you finally meet in person. And time was running out.
For her first Ready To Mingle dating night, Hamisha rented a private room at a bar and put the word out. Her Indian social network isn’t huge, as she was raised in the Anglo enclave of Brighton. But she had enough cousins and acquaintances to get the word out. Forty people came. Hamisha gave each attendee a piece of a paper with a name – Aladdin, Princess Jasmine and other Disney pairings – and told everyone to go find their Disney partner. The formula worked, and people started pairing off. Hamisha found herself several dates but so far, not a partner.
Over time, as she ran more and more events, Hamisha realised there was quite a difference between Australian-born Indians, and newer arrivals born in India. So she started hosting events for each group separately. On her website, she defines the groups as: ‘Australian Born Confused Desi (ABCD)’ and ‘Indian Born Confused Australian’. Why is that? She answers with care: “From personal experience, there is a difference in the ways of thinking. Different values, different upbringing. People here do want to go for someone brought up here.” Recent migrants, she says, don’t mind much. But Aussie-born Indians tend to seek out similar backgrounds. That’s not least because of a desire to meet your partner yourself.
“Everyone wants to meet someone on their own. They want their fairytale,” she says. “It’s not a requirement to be Indian, but it will make life a bit easier down the track, having that understanding.” So she’s an ABCD? She laughs. “I guess. When someone asks you where are you from, with the subtext meaning why are you brown – I say Indian. But the Australian side is very strong. So I’m confused.” She eats vegetarian on Tuesdays in keeping with Hindu tradition. But if she misses a week, no biggie. Culture is important and tradition too. But much of the time, it’s not all important. “I’m not that deadset on doing it. I’m flexible,” she laughs.
How did you meet your wife, she asks suddenly, and drills down to the precise detail (friend of a friend, serendipity). She sits back, satisfied. I’ve given the answer she expected. It’s who you know, after all.
The lunch hour is ending, and corporate runner-types spring past, heading for showers and desks. Hamisha readies herself to leave. “You know,” she says by way of parting words, “my parents are proud that this has turned into something. But they do have concern about what the community might think. They’re worried about my reputation. My attitude is – I don’t care. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
I’m late to meet the founder of Melbourne’s first marriage bureau. On my way to Mill Park, I hit far worse traffic than I expected. Too many cars funnelling into roundabouts and single lane streets, Melbourne’s bulge of population pressing down. For all the lovely parts of Melbourne, there are the unloved parts – that make-do feel. Broken concrete, thistly ledges, low effort graffiti, creeks in culverts, poorly designed roads, unpretentious hedges – this is the lie of the land before the gentry arrive. And it’s the unloved cheaper parts that migrants must move to. I pass Indians, Africans Asians, Anglos – schoolkids texting on kerbs, tired mums pushing prams to get outside. Suburbia being remade.
Solar on rooftops, hulking McMansions next to low rise blink-and-miss it houses, satellite dishes aimed at the skies to pick up programming in Greek or Hindi, those low maintenance yards with coloured tanbark, cheap gravel and those horrific purplish yucca plants that squat like immortal toads in the yards of people who live on screens. And near a park, a curve of the road, down a driveway, through jingling doorway strings, lies Munish Bansal’s Sai Marriage Bureau.
Munish invites me in, calm despite my late arrival. Here is his marriage bureau: a small room, comfortable chairs, a round table, a vertical banner picturing a guru with his business name. Munish has a friendly, affable face, a V-neck red sweater, jangly bracelets on one arm. His phone rings. He makes a ‘sorry’ face and answers. “You’re near? Yes I will see you then.” He hangs up. “She is coming to secure a marriage for her brother,” he says.
Munish Bansal is in a very particular line of work – he brokers marriages. In India, marriage is a vast industry. There are love marriages, of course, and directly arranged marriages are common, especially in the villages. In the Westernised IT cities of Chennai and Bangalore, there is even dating and cohabiting. But in many cities, a new iteration has emerged – marriage sites where you post your biodata, your matrimonial resume – listing your income, your caste, your complexion, your family bona-fides, whether you possess a car or house. And in Australia, as the Indian population has boomed, there is now a need for brokers. What Munish does is help nervous would-be brides and grooms prep their biodata, and sends it out to his vetted group of Indian-Australian families. He is the go-between. And this system is a hybrid. Relying on impersonal websites might work for some – but many prefer to have a human involved in such human affairs. This, Munish believes, is the future.
“Love marriages do not work,” he says, a calm confidence, as if stating that gravity makes things fall. I’m in a love marriage, I say. He’s unfazed. “I’m not saying they’re all unsuccessful but the rate is very low. If you get married through your parents and through families, you have a lot of support. If there’s an issue, they will help sort it out.” He raises expressive eyebrows. “If you get a love marriage, no-one is helping you. There’s no family binding. My father and I chose my brother in law for my sister, and everybody is supporting. But if she got a love marriage, the community would not support. They’d have Facebook friends, not real friends.” I open my mouth and then close it.
An arranged marriage, Munish says, is a melding of two families. Both sides scrutinise the other. Does he have a black sheep uncle who was once in jail? Is her work history accurate? Do the families like each other? Is there caste compatibility? It reminds me of older European marriages between royals, where a marriage was a key alliance tool. Personal compatibility is secondary. That can be built. Munish and his wife are polar opposites, he says – he’s into fun, travelling and clubbing. His wife is religious, studious and deeply respectful her parents. “Slowly I adopt her good things and she adopts mine,” he says.
Even though Munish frames it as love versus arranged marriages, there’s a new generation nuance emerging. In Munish’s village back in the Punjab, his own parents were the product of arranged marriage where they had no input – they’d just had to make it work. But Munish was determined to have some say. He’d been to a good university and now he wanted the best spouse he could get. So he put together his own biodata and started getting very good offers. One was his future wife.
It was then Munish realised he had something to offer. He had a knack for presenting biodata. Next, he married off his cousin – “he got really good offers” – to a doctor, and then married off other cousins. He was building a reputation. When he moved to Australia, he saw there was a need for a service. “In India, our parents speak for us, but here, no-one is doing it, people are just working,” he says. And marriage, Munish says, is time critical. In Indian society, you need to get married between 25-30 for men, and 20-25 for women. In Australia, he gets men in their late 30s. “I tell them – your best marriage age is gone. They tell me they’ve been buying homes, cars, settling down.” He shrugs. It’s still possible to get married late – just harder.
I’ve spent several enjoyable hours noodling around on Shaadi, the biggest Indian matrimonial site, which boasts over 5 million marriages. What I found interesting was that you could select by caste, by religion, by mother tongue, and by ethnicity – you could drill down to a remarkable level of specificity. Munish nods when I mention it. Even in Australia, he says, caste still matters. He shows me a previous client’s biodata. “See here – that’s why we put a note saying Shudras – low caste people – please don’t apply.” There aren’t many low caste Indians in Australia – the prohibitive cost of getting here means our population skews heavily towards business (Vaishyas) and bureaucratic/intelligentsia (Brahmin) castes. Even so, the low-caste Indians and South Asians who do make it report discrimination just like this. Bhutanese man Bhanu Adhikari lodged Australia’s first case of caste discrimination in Adelaide, claiming Hindu priests told him they will not minister to low caste people like himself.
When clients come to Munish without their parent’s knowledge – he turns them away. “If you can’t give me your parents number, I won’t work for you. Your sister, your brother, your parents – someone should be involved in your marriage. If you’re giving me your matrimonial resume, someone should be involved.”
Involved is one thing. But the other side of family-backed marriage is dowry, the bride payment of huge sums of money to the husband’s family. This is one reason female foetuses are aborted en masse in India, why families bemoan their girl children. The dowry – meant, in the beginning to fund the new couple’s startup costs – has metastasised into a hard-edged expectation, a millstone. Munish hates the practice. “It’s like a drug in your blood,” he says. “You can’t take it out.”
He himself refused to marry for three years during his prime years – because he would not ask for money. Again and again, the woman’s family would reject him. Why wouldn’t he take the money? Was something wrong with him? Was he unhealthy? Had he been to jail? It raised suspicions. And the money – who would it turn down? “This,” Munish says,” is why people hate having girls, why they’re killed in the washrooms.” The sheer, staggering, cost of marrying off a daughter.
Eventually, Munish found a good match without a dowry. And when he found his sister a husband, he and his father chose the groom in part because he did not ask for money. (Eventually, they did gift him a car).
Munish shakes his head, as if to wave away unhappy thoughts, and swings his iPhone around. This is how he runs his business. He shows me Facebook messages and texts from happily wed clients. And then he flicks through and shows me how many likes he got from a picture of him posing in a marigold garland. This is his triumphant return – the Overseas Indian done good – and in his poor Punjabi town, he became temporary royalty. He tells me he donates almost every spare dollar from his marriage bureau and his day job at an IGA to the school that educated him. Now he shows me a video of him delivering an impassioned speech about hard work and reward. He directly funds the education of three girls from a poor family, who would not otherwise gain an education, buys laptops for the school. “This video is me telling the students I was one of you,” he says. “Now people love me, they click selfies with me in the city.”
What Munish told me about dowries stayed with me. So when I come across Dr Manjula O’Connor’s efforts to ban the practice in Australia, I arrange a meeting.
Dr O’Connor has her offices on Collin St, in an office tower across the road from the Sofitel Hotel. Her psychiatry practice is dimly lit. Flyers are tacked to the wall promoting her NGO, the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health, which targets dowries in the Indian and African communities as well as domestic violence.
She emerges from her room and shakes my hand. Dr O’Connor is a precise woman with a nimbus of black hair, high eyebrows, and a psychiatrist’s calm. She speaks slowly and with care.
Dr O’Connor gained her last name courtesy of her first husband, an Australian. They’d met in Delhi, and she moved to Melbourne in 1989. Here, she built her own successful psychiatry practice. In 2000, she was asked to give a speech on suicide in the Indian community. She looked into it, and was horrified. “I found that Indian women have some of the highest suicide rates in the world,” she says. And she delved deeper into the dark side of her first culture.
For Dr O’Connor, it was a bleak awakening. Her own existence had been coddled, protected and privileged. She came from a high-class family in Delhi where daughters were educated well and given everything. Her family was free of violence. But she realised that she’d never really been curious about the lives of her servants. “The maids come, they do their work, the driver comes, he takes you places – but in India, they belong to a different world, they don’t belong to yours,” she says. “You never talk to them and ask what’s going on.” And so she read story after story of how women are kept contained or deprived or killed – from female foeticide to infanticide to domestic violence to dowry death to the mistreatment of widows – the more she read, the more appalled she became. And an acute sense of shame and embarrassment overtook her. How had she not known? How was it possible to insulate yourself from all that pain?
In 2006, Dr O’Connor returned to do penance, to try to make amends for being wealthy and oblivious, to try to talk to her countrywomen. And she worked in slums, she taught students at a university for lower and middle classes in Haridwar, near Rishikesh. “It was part of India I never knew,” she says. After four years, she returned to Melbourne with a new purpose.
Now she turned herself to the problems bedevilling the growing Indian community in Melbourne. Domestic violence, maltreatment of wives by mother in laws, dowry dishonesty and even deaths. A spate of killings rocked the Indian community in Melbourne – nine in 2012 alone. In most cases the murders came after years of domestic violence. And often, the women killed had come from India to marry an Indian-Australian man, an arranged marriage. But here, away from their family and friends, they were isolated. Money pressures began mounting. Where could they turn?
Indian society is still patriarchal, Dr O’Connor says. It’s especially so in the rural areas, as it is the world over. In villages, men control the money. And dowries – which began as an innocent gesture of goodwill to help the new couple – had grown out of control. It became almost like extortion, she says. Had the Indian government not banned it in 1961 because of this exact reason? But the law is one thing, and what people do is another. So dowries became instead “gifts” – huge gifts, often multiple times the wealth of the family. And the men feel entitled to take this. “It’s a dirty secret of Indian culture,” she says.
Dr O’Connor sees a direct link between dowry payments, financial stress, domestic violence and even the killings. Her female clients tell her variations of the same story. “They get married, she comes here, and he’s not happy. He abuses her and dumps her out of the house – you didn’t bring enough money. A girl told me that yesterday – her husband told her to get out of the house or he’d kill her.”
Here, young women – often educated and capable – are cut adrift from their support networks. They are at the mercy of their men. But surprisingly, O’Connor has some sympathy for the men. “They went through hell to get PR. Sometimes, it was ten years of hard hard work. Many paid their student fees from credit cards, so most are in debt. And if you’re in debt, you don’t want another person in the house who is financially dependent.”
That’s why dowries present themselves as a solution. Get married, get the money, pay off the debts. To get married, however, you have to present yourself as a catch. So you lie. You say you have no debts, that you have a house paid off, that you have a great education, job or business. And the woman and her family believe this – they have no way of checking from India – and she comes to Melbourne and finds nothing but a great pile of debt. This, Dr O’Connor says, is where the violence is happening – between these couples under great strain. “Men exaggerate their status in life and then continue to live that lie and not let her know,” she says. “Most women say they’d be happy to support their husbands if they knew there was such a debt – because they’re often working. But often their husbands take money out of their accounts without telling them why. And if you transfer money back to parents in India – that’s a hanging offence. All money has to go to him.”
It is a story that wounds through its repetition – each story of woe so particular, and collectively so similar. There, the young woman given as divine gift to him, as relatives watch the handover. The stories of her as princess, in a new land. And she flies to Australia – the shock of the new, the dislocation, the unmooring. And those who Dr O’Connor sees are those where the fairytale has swollen, gone rotten. Why was your dowry so small? You must be worthless. I’ll smash your face, I’ll kill you. “You were so high and then dropped into a black hole,” the doctor says. She sees them in the throes of this – alone, in a bad place, desperate, anxious.
And so the psychiatrist has become activist. She moves away from tackling problems with the talking cure, heads into direct action. Where can you move to? Would you be better back in India? How can we make you safe? It is an unusual coupling of roles. “I’m the therapist, guide, mother figure, I speak their language,” she says. “They can tell me things they can’t tell others. The community is tightly knit. You don’t want to be gossiped about by other women.” To learn to live apart, to make a life without backup – that is hard. But again – this, too, Dr O’Connor can talk about. She, too, divorced in a new country, and she, too, built a new life, financially independent. And that is real independence.
Often, the wife only finds out their true financial situation when she goes to court to ask for spousal maintenance, to find somewhere to live. Then, her husband produces his credit card statements showing $50,000 of debt. In some cases, the women who come to Dr O’Connor simply stop coming. They’ve been deported – because if their estranged husbands withdraw their visa sponsorship, they have to leave within four weeks. You can counter this by saying that there was domestic violence in the relationship – but you have to know that this is possible.
To say these things of her own people in a new society is to invite strong criticism. Should she not present a better face? Who is Dr O’Connor to embarrass this new community? Who is she to claim that this microcosm of India needs reform? It’s something she is acutely aware of. When he was Premier, Ted Baillieu reached out to the Indian community. He promised to include dowry as a form of economic abuse. But then the community split. Prominent male Indian leaders called for it to be removed. And the wording softened – now it was out for “community consultation.” Years later, a new government – still, the dowry issue seems to be Too Hard.
Dr O’Connor does not hate Indian culture. She praises the arranged marriage system, by and large. Most of the time, she says, it works great – if the wife is welcomed into the extended family with open arms, if she is treated as a special member of the family. But if it goes wrong – if a husband or a mother in law thinks she can’t cook, doesn’t speak right, isn’t pretty enough, doesn’t have fair enough skin – then she is trapped.
The culture is very strong. And for first generation migrants, little change is likely. “That 12 hour flight from Delhi to Melbourne doesn’t change people very much,” she says, acerbic. Thousands of years of history, an original religion that has survived. Older than Christianity, older than Islam. And at the heart – the strength of a strongly bonded family system. These are the right ingredients, she says. Most of the time, it works. But it can go badly wrong. And for the future? Second generation couples do still get into trouble, but the dowry pressure often lessens. Most second gen men no longer ask for dowry.
While some Indian leaders believe that there is a real issue here, many disagree on how widespread it is. Lecturer and community worker Jasvinder Sidhu started up an organisation, Jagriti, to help Indian victims of domestic violence. But even he doesn’t believe it’s an epidemic. Others are less equivocal. In the pushback against proposed dowry laws – Dr O’Connor describes it as a “community uprising” – the most vocal was leader Vasan Srinivasan, who argues that education is more important than law. There is, he is on record as saying, no need for a ban on dowries. “No-one takes dowry in this country,” he tells me when we meet. “My two daughters were brought up here – no dowry. It happens only in India. We have enough laws to protect women. We don’t need another one just for one ethnic community.”
I’ve heard from Sid at the Indian Sun that Srinivasan was also active during the alleged spate of curry-bashings, the bashings of Indian students between 2009 and 2010. Then, he was on record as saying that these attacks were not racially motivated. “We want to show the Melbourne community is not fragmented on racial lines,” he told Sid’s paper. Sid tells me it is also no secret he harbours political ambitions. But – like many aspirational migrants – Srinivasan has found that breaking into the way things are done here is no easy thing. His calculus, then, seems to be: present a unified Indian front and downplay conflict or issues presenting this new community in a bad light. Present Indians – and himself – in the best possible way.
To meet Srinivasan, I drive down Eastlink on a startlingly blue day in late summer. The Dandenongs shimmer in the heat. And Dandenong singular is a surprise – a long tree-lined avenue, Lonsdale Street, low cubes of hedge, African hair salons, English butchers. Dandenong is Little India, but also Little Afghanistan. And the gentry are arriving – shaped metal and glass apartment towers and offices. Old Dandenong is still there, an underlay. V-Line diesel chugging along old tracks, broken factories, metal and concrete. I’m greeted by one of those aggressively friendly bogans who snaps howyagoingmategood in a way impossible to know if he’s friend or foe. African teens with a boombox sit near the shiny new station, greeting their Islander friends fresh from school. And an Indian bride-to-be inspects saris in a wedding store.
Vasan has invited me to Dandenong for a reason. The south-eastern suburb has become an Indian hub, in part due to his work. In the 1990s, Foster St near the station was rough as guts – empty shops, motorbike stores, junkies, the type of street you hurry past. Dirt cheap rent drew entrepreneurs, though, and a prominent sari and bridal wear store opened there in 1995, drawing Indians from across the state. Indian sweetmakers and restaurants followed. Now, it’s officially Melbourne’s Little India, and 2.5 million people walk down the street annually.
Vasan is five minutes late – enough to impress on me his importance as a Prominent Indian Member of Society. As he arrives, he’s fielding a call from ZTV, an Indian TV channel with offices in Sydney and Singapore, who will soon tour his Museum of India. He unlocks the Museum and takes me on a personal tour. “I spent $50,000 on this personally,” he says. What was an abandoned building is now a gallery hosting art from an Indian doctor’s private collection. The art is luridly coloured – a technicolour image of Shiva bending a waterfall as it cascades downwards over his hair, Alexander the Great looking regal. Photos of Gandhi’s assassination, a painting of a famous seduction of a guru by an apsara, a celestial being.
We head outside. He gestures down Foster Street. “Welcome to Little India,” he says. Sweet stores, biryani specialists, five different regional restaurants, a Bollywood DVD store and bazaar selling 2kg mixes of ginger and garlic, a poster on the wall for the self-proclaimed King of Punjabi rap and Desi hip-hop, touring Melbourne. Passing through – Anglo middle-class woman, African woman in kente cloth, her friend in jeans, an Islander young woman in fluro and workboots, getting a beer to go with lunch. Old white bloke smoking durries, hipster student, a solitary syringe in the gutter.
Vasan takes me to Sweet and Curry, where he is well known. He orders a butter chicken and saag thali set meal for me. I take him in properly. He’s about 60, sporting a combover, grey suit, white shirt, shiny gold and black pin promoting Mental Health Week. His phone rings constantly and he ignores it. Calls stream in from the Multicultural Commission, from his Bollywood Dancers business, from friends. The burst of ego I anticipate fails to arrive.
Srinivasan was born in a tiny village. A five kilometre walk to school, a 10km walk to the nearest train station. Paddy fields and mango farms. And his father, a village officer, did the rounds of 14 villages. That, he says, is why he got involved in the community here in Melbourne.
He arrived here almost by accident. He’d been working in Singapore and his company asked him to come set up a factory. But within months, the parent company got cold feet and bailed out, leaving Vasan alone in Melbourne, a place he’d grown fond of. Jobless, he tried the front door – CVs, applications, letters, formal suits, interviews – and nothing came. It was the mid 1990s and Victoria’s economy was sputtering along, back before international events and international students resuscitated it. The front door wasn’t working. So he tried the back.
He joined Rotary and the Freemasons to meet active locals. Eventually, a Rotary bloke asked him how the job search was going. “I’ll give it a hundred applications before I quit,” he said. The bloke looked at him. “Why wait that long? My distributor has cancer and can’t work. Come and have a look. All you need is a truck.” So Vasan bought a truck and started distributing pizza boxes, tens of thousands of them. Pizza, it seemed, was recession resistant. Later came a printing business, a Bollywood dance franchise, and an international student services operation. Politically, Vasan was forging forwards – joining the Liberals (“after the trouble I had been through with unions in Singapore and Melbourne”), angling for preselection.
He adopted a distinctively Indian approach to politics: demonstrate your worth and credibility by being a man of the people. That meant pooling funds to organise the building of a Hindu temple, flying in 24 master masons from India to do the intricate stonework. It meant working for the Federation of Indian Associations Victoria and the Indian government to arrange the elaborate Indian-themed closing ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne as a baton pass to the 2010 Delhi games. He rattles off figures with pleasure: 1100 dancers, 49 days of rehearsals, one famous Bollywood choreographer (Shiamak Davar).
In 2009, Vasan Srinivasan became president of FIAV – and was promptly thrown into a political storm. Between 2009 and 2010, a spate of alleged curry bashings rocked Melbourne. Indian students were being mugged, bashed, and even killed, like Nitin Garg, knifed by a 15 year old. In India, the spate of violence caused a nationwide outcry. Thousands marched on the streets, calling for action. Hindu extremists burned effigies of Kevin Rudd outside the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. Australian politicians insisted the violence was opportunistic. Was it racism that Indian students were being mugged after they left their jobs at service stations in the wee hours? Or was it rather that they were alone, vulnerable, and easy targets? An Indian government investigation later found just 23 of 152 attacks on Indian students had racist links. But nearly all of the attacks took place in Victoria.
In mid 2009, the atmosphere grew more and more tense. The spark came on May 23rd 2009, a Saturday night. Gatecrashers at a party in Hadfield, in Melbourne’s north, attacked four Indian students. One, Sravan Kumar Theerthala, was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver and only narrowly survived.
That was it. Indian students were furious. Messages shot around internet forums and messaging apps. Days later, on May 31st, they were ready. Their angry protest blocked city streets overnight, as more than 2000 students set up camp outside Flinders St Station. And Vasan Srinivasan was there too – not stoking the fires, but trying to douse the protest. It was the night of the 31st May 2009 – he remembers the date clearly. At around 9pm, he walked through the protest, his phone on speaker, dialled to the highest volume, so that the Indian High Commissioner Sujatha Singh could speak to the students safely. The students stopped to listen to her calm voice. “This is not good for our community,” she said. “You are trying to make this into a mountain. It’s not worth it.” Some left, but a hardcore rump – mainly taxi drivers, the most frustrated of all Melbourne’s Indians – could not be swayed. That took police lines and force. And that same show of force drew huge coverage in India. The Times of India – circulation 3.14 million – ran with it on the front page.
For Vasan, the attacks presented a particular conundrum. He was a Liberal, and his party was doing well – they were soon to win their first election in 12 years. Indian students were crucial to Victoria’s number one industry – higher education. Should he make political hay out of these crimes? Others were already rabble rousing – first amongst them Gautam Gupta, a spokesman for Indian students prone to sweeping claims. Gupta – a self proclaimed “discontent manager” – said the killing of Nitin Garg could have “no other motivation than race,” claimed that the violence was evidence a section of Australia had embraced “curry bashing,” followed up by claiming the police were ill-equipped to deal with the issue due to institutional racism, and finished by saying then-Premier John Brumby had personal responsibility for one Indian man’s death.
“If Gautam Gupta doesn’t like it here, he doesn’t need to be here,” snorts Srinivasan. “I told the media back then we better give him a one way ticket to go back where he came from.” I can’t help but laugh at this. Nothing more Australian than a rousing cheer of bugger-off-home.
Vasan Srinivasan took a placatory approach. Some said, too placatory. He flew to India, where he talked to government ministers, talked on TV panel shows, gave interviews to newspapers and radio. And his message was simple. “I said Australians are lovely and we are living there in peace and harmony. I said we don’t accept this is racism. This is opportunistic – wrong place, wrong time.” He was echoing comments by state and federal politicians – nothing to see here, no ugly streak exposed. And it was proved correct, too, by the Indian government’s own report.
But for all this – this community work, this bridge-building, the names of state and federal pollies he drops into conversation, his efforts in Rotary, for the Mental Health Foundation, his work organising temples to be built, helping after Black Saturday, the gallery in Dandenong, the Little India Precinct – despite everything he’s had a hand in, there has been no plum political position eventuating. He was preselected for the safe Liberal seat of Forest Hill in 2002 – but the massive landslide to Labor swept his dreams away. Not only that, but his quiet work couldn’t compete against the star power of Kirstie Marshall – Winter Olympic champion. Srinivasan mulls his loss 15 years ago. It’s still fresh, to him. “Skier, gold medallist, blonde, big smile, lovely looking lady, pregnant – I couldn’t cross that. I wasn’t pregnant, not a gold medallist, not blonde, so I lost with a small margin.” (It was actually a 12% swing.)
So how, I ask, is it possible to win as a migrant from a newly arrived community? You can get Indian support, presumably – but how do you crack Anglos? It’s clearly a topic Vasan has thought about at length. “We have to live with the mainstream, otherwise we’re not achieving anything,” he says. This is why he did not stay in the safe Indian enclaves – it is why he immediately sought out locals. “You have to connect to the community you belong to – you can’t live in a small circle. You need to open up. The Indian community is a dot in the ocean.”
And to gain access to real power – rather than the small sway of, say, a councillor position, which Gautam Gupta, and another would-be politician, wealthy Labor councillor Intaj Khan – have done – that means getting wide appeal. “You cannot win a seat based on one community,” Vasan says. “The Indian community is my background, but I’m Australian.”
And, unprompted, he gives aspiring Indian politicians some advice: Even though Australia too is a democracy, this is not like politics from back home. You cannot simply apply the same approach. It’s something he’s had to learn – that unlike India, community work and a public profile and connections aren’t enough to get you started. Here, power is hidden. You have to manoeuvre through the party’s ranks, play the factions, personalities, build your own personal power base. The voters out there don’t really care.
“This country,” he says, “is something you need to learn from the bottom.” What do you mean by that, I ask? He takes a long sip of tea. “You need to know who is who. It takes a long time to understand how it is done – preselection. People from India think if you work for a minister or a politician, you can be one of them. Some can do that. But many don’t get there.” He’s thinking of Jasvinder Singh, an adviser to Dan Andrews, or of Nitin Gupta, adviser to Ted Baillieu. To other would-be Indian politicians, he gives this advice: look at Peter Costello – successful treasurer, thwarted prime minister. Success is never guaranteed. “People think you can bring 500 people here and 500 people there and you are going to make it. But you won’t. You need to come from the grassroots,” he says. It’s a sly dig at the well-reported issues around Indian branch stacking in Melbourne’s western Labor branches.
Do you think Indians will get representation soon, I ask. He shrugs. “When the same thing you see on the streets is the same you see in parliament, that’s 100% success. But it takes time. But I see there is a future. I believe in this country, in the constitution, and the flag.”
With his early job at a multinational as a manufacturing manager, he travelled and lived in 16 countries. Australia, he says, stood out. It’s why he stayed. The freedom of expression, freedom of living. The sense that the place was open – that you could start a business and it could succeed. Indians are marrying out, he says – to Italians, Greeks, Anglos. Indians came for a reason – for a better life. Bribes aren’t needed, and personal connections matter – but they don’t mean everything. How do you get into a good school in Australia, he asks? You do well in exams, or you pay for a private education. You don’t need to make large “gifts,” as is common in India. “My brother in Chennai had to give a well known school a 200,000 rupee donation [$4000] to get his child admitted,” he says.
And the high wages – that, he says, is something he still marvels at. “You can deliver pamphlets into letterboxes for a couple of hours – and make $80! Where else in the world can you do that,” he says. In India – population giant, intense competition – someone would undercut you in seconds, and someone else undercut them. Australia is a walled garden, I say, smiling – low population, high wages. The luck of the country. And he nods and returns to his phone. The day calls.
Jasvinder Sidhu strides into RMIT’s Academic Building, and I trail behind him like a lost duckling. He waltzes into an office to cadge a staff card and a meeting room from a friend, even though he’s no longer on the books here. He jumped ship to Federation Uni after six years, in search of a less intense version of the fabled university admin/bureaucracy nexus.
Bustling, eyes elsewhere, much on the mind. A jacket over a shirt, pointed leather shoes, he strides rather than walk. He looks a little like Joaquin Phoenix, and carries himself like the chosen one.
Hard to avoid, really. When you come from a humble upbringing, when your parents live ultra-frugally, to save every spare rupee and plough it back into your education. Everything else was secondary. They ate cheaply at home and didn’t buy new clothes. Jasvinder didn’t eat at a restaurant until he was 24. There were no family holidays. His parents were driven, dedicated, their eyes wholly on the future of Jasvinder and his brother.
And so, Jasvinder was one of the top ten graduands in the state of Punjab when he finished his MA degree. His parents were ecstatic. He allowed himself to feel his achievement. This, he thought, was it. A working class kid who studied like a demon, and who would surely earn his reward – a job as a lecturer, a position of authority and power. But it did not come, and still it did not come. Go overseas, his father said, go to a place you can climb – not like here. His father had received three promotions in forty years as a policeman. So Jasvinder came to Australia to do a double masters in Accounting and Commerce, to add to his Indian MA in accounting.
With a triple MA – surely that was enough. And it was. Kind of. He got casual lecturing work at Central Queensland University’s Melbourne campus, supplementing casual wages with call centre work. Eventually, he landed more secure work. And with his youth – he was lecturing at the tender age of 26 – Indian students mistook him as one of them. When they realised he was young and had authority, they came to him and asked for help. Rent was too much and jobs were too hard to get, they said. They were living six to a room, sleeping in shifts. They did not know how to move in this society. So he decided to help them. “Soon,” he says, “I became very popular in the community.”
This is Jasvinder Sidhu’s origin story. It matters, because Jasvinder has widely known political aspirations. He would like to become a state Labor MP, the first of Indian background.
He is, he says, naturally drawn to community work. He works with family violence victims, the hungry, the poor, the lonely elderly. It is part of being a good Sikh, he says. But he is also enacting a man-of-the-people approach to politics that works in India – and by extension, Melbourne’s Indian community. But does it work for everyone else?
He is on the committee of a Sikh temple in Tarneit. He set up a social contact program for isolated Indian migrants, organising volunteers to drive 40 elderly Indians to the temple so they could talk. The elderly had come with their working age children – but during the week, they were alone, with little English, little knowledge of where to go or what to do. Then he set up breakfast clubs for the hungry. And he decided too, to act on domestic violence. He was horrified by the spate of killings of Indian women in 2012. But it really struck home when a Sikh man, Avjit Singh, used a private investigator to track down his estranged wife Sargun Ragi, who had fled his violence. He broke into her house in Kew East, slit her throat, burned her body. The fire spread so quickly that it burned him before he could escape, and he died later in hospital. Grim justice? For the community, there was no such relief. Jasvinder and the others at the temple raised funds to fly out her mother and grandmother for her funeral. In Melbourne, her grandmother wept and blamed herself for pushing Sargun to marry a man ten years her senior who she had never met, who lived in Australia. Her calculus was simple: marry, succeed overseas, send money home to keep us afloat. But the man was a bad one. He made Sargun’s life hell, and then took even that from her.
And women kept getting murdered. Jasvinder personally knew two of the perpetrators – ordinary-seeming men, he says, with no hint of what they were capable of. So Jasvinder set up Jagriti, which means ‘a social awakening’. Family violence, he says, is a blight. He tells me of cases of young mothers fleeing with nothing but the baby and the clothes on her back. His approach is to help the victims directly. Food, safe accommodation, a new life.
Why did he take this approach, rather than naming and shaming as Dr O’Connor has done? He sighs. “The amount of work Manjula [O’Connor] has done compared to the amount of respect she receives from the community – it doesn’t match. She is being blocked by a lot of people.”
By Indian men? He nods. “The resentment is from powerful men in the Indian community. They resent her because they see her as powerful, intelligent, influential, resourceful. They want to stop her.”
When Indian leaders here say there is no problem, what they mean is Dr O’Connor, please stop talking. A strong woman who is making waves – that’s the issue, Jasvinder says. It cuts to the heart of who can speak, who the leaders are. “I believe, like Manjula, that it’s a problem,” Jasvinder says. “Dowry is a problem. Arranged marriage is a problem.” But the question is – how do you change practices seemingly hardcoded into the culture? How?
Eventually, Jasvinder’s work attracted the attention of politicians. He came to work as a campaign manager for then-Speaker Telmo Languiller, before going to work for Premier Dan Andrews in 2015 as a multicultural adviser. Soon after, Labor adopted his breakfast club model, expanding it to 25,000 low-income students. And Jasvinder and other Indian leaders lobbied successfully to allow parents longer stays to visit their children in Australia – long a bugbear for families.
Soon, Jasvinder gave up the official position – and, he claims, his dreams of public political life. He wanted to finish his PhD and work on his new program, Let’s Feed – a food donation drive, which now gathers a ton of food a week. But there was another issue – the criticism that followed a branch stacking investigation in three Federal seats in Melbourne’s west. Indian migrants were joining up en masse – more than a thousand of them. And Jasvinder’s name was linked to them in 2016, despite his protestations. There was a factional battle – and Jasvinder’s right-wing faction, aligned to ex-senator Stephen Conroy – was under attack. He protested strongly, telling The Age: “Members of the Indian community who volunteer and hand out for Labor, support the fundraisers to elect Labor into government and vote Labor will naturally make the step of joining Labor as activists.” By the end of 2017, his tilt at gaining preselection for the seat of Tarneit had come to naught. Consumer Affairs Victoria launched an investigation into his Let’s Feed program after Liberals accused him of using the charity to pay for ALP memberships. And in the preselection, he won the local branches and lost at the central level.
The claims of branch stacking still rankled when I met him. “I confronted the journalist and asked him – on what basis did you write that? Because if you can engage hundreds of people and they join Labor, that’s not branch stacking. If I was Greens or Liberal, I’d have brought all that base with me.” He shakes his head. “People in Labor leak stories,” he says.
He’s still a Labor man, though. Why? The party aligns most closely with his parents – working class, living off a policeman’s meager income. His parents had been active in a workers party, pushing for poor farmer rights. And he, too, had seen first hand what family violence could do. His father would see the worst of his country, day in, day out, as a constable and later, sub-inspector overseeing police responses to crimes against women. Dowry killings, domestic violence, acid attacks, beatings, and plain old murder of women. The stories he brought home were a daily horror.
The time is ripe for Labor to evangelise Indians, he says. New migrants are concerned with immediate needs first. First cashflow, housing, schools for kids, and only then societal issues and politics. That, Jasvinder says, means Indians, like the Chinese, had been under the radar, unproselytised by Labor or Liberal.
He wants to demonstrate a key thing to the wider public: migrants can pay their own way, look after their own, support their own. They are not a drain – they are a boon. “We chose food because it’s a modern way a migrant community can show that this is the strength we bring with us – that we can create a self-funded model and feed thousands of people,” he says.
He understands the tensions that arise in couples here. Indians think overseas means instant success, money, everything coming easily. “I had that perception,” he says. Exaggerated hopes are common. What happens when the husband can’t find a good job? When he’s stuck driving taxis, and his educated wife works as a dentist, a physio, a psychologist? Resentment builds. “People who cannot get the jobs matching the skills they have – they get frustrated. And that is one of the reasons contributing to family violence.”
Men who had high hopes, and whose hopes have been dashed. That, he says, is why Indian taxi drivers have been amongst the most vocal, the most angry – protests, rallies. Because their anger goes deeper. They wanted to come here to rise the ladder, buy a house, car, splash cash on their children. But they’re stuck living hand to mouth. “The Indian community is not very happy right now,” he says. “There is a lot of stress. Trying to settle, high hopes, expectations from parents, trying to meet everything and send money home. They are overworking. Everyone is overworking.”
When his students or newly arrived Indians come to him, seeking help, he gives three pieces of brisk advice on fitting in to a more rigid society. First, be on time. A meeting at 2pm means 2pm. It’s not a flexible time, as at home. Second, rules matter more. At home, gifts and cash can help lubricate the bureaucracy – or even turn a failing mark into a pass. Not here. And third – present yourself as an equal in interviews. Ask questions, he says, rather than just nod to your interviewer’s wisdom. At home, deference to authority is vital. Here, it’s seen as passivity. “I tell new migrants – watch, observe your surroundings. You don’t have to give up Indian culture – but see how people behave, see their expectations,” he says.
His own adaptations are plain. Jasvinder Sidhu wants to make it as far as he can. He gave up the traditional turban and cut his hair at 17, when he was still in India despite severe backlash from the Sikh community around him. “It was only a symbol,” he says. “I still follow the religion, I’m still vegetarian. But I was outcast – people would not talk to me.”
But it might also have helped ease your entry here, I say. He nods. “My belief is – if anything you follow becomes an obstacle to other goals, why do you just keep following it?”
Jasvinder does not seek awards or recognition. He says it is meaningful in its own right. His involvement means he has no time for romance. And behind that lies a deeper grief. His older brother committed suicide in 2002. Now, the weight of his parent’s hopes rest entirely on him, their single remaining child.