If Jasvinder has bowed out of politics, what about the other great hope of Melbourne’s Indian belt? The so-called King of Bling, the Ferrari-driving, swashbuckling private college owner, Intaj Khan, whose proposed $10 million mansion in Tarneit was instantly dubbed the Intaj Mahal. He, too, had been talked about (often by himself) as a likely Labor MP, inheritor of a safe seat, forger of pathways for new cultural groupings. His $70 million fortune stems from a private training institute, the Western Institute of Technology.
I have to negotiate with Intaj for weeks before we can meet. He’s been given a number of stinging public drubbings by The Age. Allegations of feeder tickets in council elections, undeclared ownership of large swathes of farmland bought strategically just ahead of the westward tide of suburbs, his position on Wyndham council’s planning committee, negative reports of teaching standards at his institute. Enough bad press to sink a fledgling political campaign, you might think.
But Intaj is nothing if not resilient. After probing to see if I’m a reporter, he warms up when I say I’m an author. We meet in late March, 2017. My first glimpse of the man himself is pure Hollywood. The lift doors of the Western Institute of Technology open, and from a sea of moving students, one dapper man stands still. Intaj has a strong face, a grey suit, gold rolex, mother of pearl cufflinks, pointed Italian leather shoes, grey-white hair with black tips. The unflattering picture The Age keeps running of him shows his hair askew, resembling an angry echidna. Today is a better hair day. He shakes my hand.
We sit at a nearby café, looking out over Albert Park. The Grand Prix has just finished and workers are taking down track markers. He asks me about ghostwriting. Do I know much about it? What does it involve? He flatters me more than my minor career deserves, talking about articles I’ve written, sounding me out. He tells me he likes short books, laid out like magazines – like Donald Trump’s Think Like A Billionaire.
A bit taken aback, I try to steer the conversation to Indian success. Intaj drinks his latte and lets me redirect him. He details on his fingers where, exactly, Indian coal-mining giant Adani went wrong with the proposed Carmichael megamine. They didn’t think enough about local conditions, he says. They didn’t anticipate the reaction. They aimed too big, drew too much notice. And they treated Australia like India – they wooed Tony Abbott, thinking he would make all else run smooth. He shakes his head at their naiveté. He runs through others who burned bright and flamed out, Indian Icaruses like Panaj and Radhika Oswal, who left Western Australia and their massive mansion on the Swan River amidst a titanic legal battle with ANZ over control of their fertiliser business. The message is clear: Intaj won’t cut and run. He’s here for the long term. With a square jaw, flattened nose, a smile pulled to one side, he seems to fit the part of the stubborn boxer, bloodied but unbowed. But there is something faintly tragicomic to him.
And then, as we’re still sounding each other out, a small still life disaster. He reaches to answer his phone and knocks over his weak latte, spilling coffee all over expensive pants and my phone, which promptly stops recording. I do battle with my phone, he escapes to the bathroom. We have to record the remainder of the interview on his phone, which inexplicably stops recording 40 minutes in. Later, he almost drops his lunch in his lap. To add a final insult, a team of European wasps circle his head, attracted by the sweet smell of his hair gel. It’s as if a minor demon is cursing him with every inch of its pint-sized body.
But then – it might just feel like that. In his eyes, the inexorable rise upwards of Intaj Khan – what a name, what a destiny – has been stopped dead by pettiness. Internal enemies within Labor. And a pestering Age reporter, Royce Millar, seeing improprieties everywhere. Plagued on all sides.
The thing I find interesting about Intaj Khan is how his version of success has run directly afoul of Australian tall-poppy-lopping, our only true national sport. He is confounded by it.
To give you a sense, I tender two Facebook comments on Intaj’s proud announcement of plans for his $10 million mansion in Tarneit, the largest in all of the growing west, which he dubbed “a living breathing postcard of Tarneit … built by Khan family of Mewat, Rajasthan, India.” It would have 16 bedrooms, a thirty seat movie theatre, a helipad, majestic gates, and a driveway long enough to allow awed guests time to take it all in.
Below, friends and supporters from South Asia celebrated his success. “Very best wishes. It looks like a Maharaja Palace. Fit for a King,” wrote Mustafa Hasan Yusuf, a Commonwealth bank manager originally from Bangladesh. But from an Anglo former ALP-linked councillor, Marie Brittan: “Omg Intaj, I thought you had only five children! Who is going to live in this house? I would like you to donate it to the community as a Crisis Accommodation centre lol.”
As Intaj reaped South Asian praise, he also took in a bitter harvest of Anglo disdain. Too big, too showy, too much, too much, too much. A McMansion, a megahouse. And yet, as he says, if he’d built it in Toorak, no-one would have batted an eye. But showing you are rich – that is the original western suburbs sin, the thing forever separating you from The People.
It still baffles Intaj. “My intention was to be someone who came with nothing and built, to say what a great country, to tell stories about the west. But it went difficult. The tall poppy culture – I didn’t know about that. They said he’s just showing off. They said he’s got Ferrari, a $10 million house. No-one was saying it’s great he builds where he lives rather than join the rich club. I didn’t understand the culture. My mistake.” He pauses thoughtfully. “But if my Ferrari can’t ride on the roads because they’re bad, and I’m whinging about it, maybe the government will pay attention.”
I almost choke on my coffee at this. That, uh, might come across wrong, I say. He purses his lips again and frowns. This Australian thing is hard. To succeed without visibly showing it with status symbols – what is this? Intaj breaths out, hard, and laughs at his own predicament. “I thought it was good to have a helipad. I thought people would look at me and say he’s the Trump of Wyndham. But then I realised – the area where I live, people didn’t have a good education, no good schools, everyone a low socioeconomy. They think how come he got that, how come I didn’t have that. They pull you back down.” Then he takes their point of view, as he’d like it to be: “But hang on – how can I do what he did? How can I build those businesses?”
Australia remains, he admits, a mystery. “If you’re not born here, it takes years and years. In America, people would have praised me. But [a friend] told me – Australians came from labour backgrounds – even if you work hard, it’s hard to make money. So if someone is doing extraordinarily, it’s different to us. They might be right.”
The nastiest backlash came from the tiny populist Australia First party. Their candidate for Wyndham Council Susan Jakobi wrote a venomous blog post in late September 2016, a month before the elections, trying to harness the frustrations of poorer white voters. She took aim at the Intaj Mahal: “Intaj Khan, pull the other one. This is struggling class Werribee, not silver spoon Toorak or someone’s idea of neo-Bollywood.” Why did she dislike Khan so much? His background combined with his wealth. “Cr Khan owns a lucrative private education facility … amongst his burgeoning personal wealth and extensive local land holdings.” Later, she claimed Khan would “insinuate Indian culture as the dominant culture in Wyndham” and dubbed Indian and Chinese culture “our new colonial master-races”.
Strong nativist stuff that Jakobi no doubt thought would resonate in the struggletown suburbs. Rich and foreign-born? Easy target. She finished with a call to action: “Resist your dispossession, take back control of your community.” And channelling Pauline circa 1997: “What hope and opportunity is there in all of this for local Aussies swamped by ethnics?” But Jakobi sank without trace in the election with 1.64% of the vote. Intaj took a seat with 7.25%, taking preference flows from eight feeder candidates.
Council is one thing. But to get into parliament as the MP for Tarneit is proving quite another. As we talk, I get the sense of deep frustration. He balls up a leaf, carefully, using both hands to smush it, an oddly childlike gesture. He talks of business as a pure realm – where you can enact your will, make progress, see clear advances – framing it against internal party politics, where you never know your true friends, where a promise is not a promise at all, where a smile may hide a dagger. He makes displays of earnestness – hands clasped, pulled close to chest, speaking freely and with passion. A long lunch, a sideways grin. I didn’t expect to like him, but I do. He’s in a reflective mood, after a defeat. His Facebook profile picture is of a lion, with a caption: “No matter the economy of the jungle, I cannot eat grass.” But this carnivore has had to learn to adapt. He went up against the machine men of Labor. He made donations, applied strategic charm. But it didn’t work.
An upwardly mobile Indian-born businessman joining the ALP might have been a clash of cultures, I suggest. Why didn’t you join the Libs? He laughs ruefully. “So many times, people say I’m in the wrong party. Go to the Libs – they’d respect you.” Then he gives me his stock answer. Labor is health and education – two things that matter to him. “In India, if you have money, you get treated. You can jump the queue if you know someone. Here, it’s all equal. You don’t need to know an MP to get treatment. And that’s Labor. So I thought – that’s a good party.”
But then, he switches again. This country, he says, has too much social security. “I’m worried my kids will think the same – if you don’t do anything, doesn’t matter because the dole is there. My personal view is that those people should be cleaning the parks. If you take money from government, you should be doing something. Not working is dangerous. A lot of Australians don’t do hard jobs – they want to jump straight to good jobs.” You sound, I say, laughing, like a natural Lib. Perhaps you should have built in Toorak and aimed for a Liberal seat there. Intaj smiles and admits it’s not a natural fit, to be a businessman in Labor. But he believes Labor will become more business minded, more balanced between demands of unions and business.
“If it was a soccer match, I was playing cricket,” he says, ruefully. “I was a left-faction guy in a right-faction seat. But people let me do it. They should have told me to stay away. I put in one and a half years of hard work. If I was doing business, colleagues would have warned me.” He sighs. And the donations you made? It must feel like your return on investment was zero. He stiffens and offers a stock answer – that he still feels like part of the ALP. It’s a hard game, right? He nods. “Colleagues in politics let you down. If you’re drowning in a pool, they won’t give you a hand up.” He feels his character has been assassinated.
This is a low point for him, a major blow to his rags to riches fairytale. It’s not as if he hadn’t done the hard yards of a new migrant. He’d come here and studied engineering, graduating in 2001. Then he worked every job he could find in Sydney, everything from telecom technician to installing security alarms and CCTV, as an IT subcontractor to a security firm, to starting his own company to sell Hudson Telecom mobile phones to businesses. That company did well, and he became interested in training his staff. But then Hudson pulled the contract to do sales in-house. It was a serious blow. When business was booming, he and his wife had bought a property in Dural, the playground of the upcoming rich in Sydney. Now it was an albatross. At one point in 2005, he was using credit cards to pay his mortgage. Desperate, he sold mobile phones from market stalls in Penrith. The money wasn’t enough. He had to find a more durable industry. Then Intaj remembered training. He found out that opening new colleges had become easier in Victoria, part of a decade long trend to deregulate the vocational industry sector, across both state and federal governments. The gold rush was on, and new institutes were opening up weekly.
You can look back now and wonder what the governments were thinking. Labor’s education spokesman Kim Carr, admitted as much in 2015: “Good intentions have produced unintended consequences,” he told The Age. Quality assurance was low, approval was easy, and there were government subsidies on offer. Many shonky operators plunged in. The most notorious, like Phoenix Institute, preyed on the intellectually disabled, or people with little English, offering them free laptops if they signed up to very expensive course – that the government would part-fund. WIT wasn’t like that. But it did fly close to the wind.
Intaj started the WIT in 2007 with 20 students. He hustled migration agents, asking for them to give him an opportunity. His point of difference was a unique course teaching graphic pre-press at a time when other colleges were offering hairdressing or cooking courses for international students looking for a cheap way to earn points for their permanent residency. When the first wave of backlash came, colleges operating as what Intaj calls a “PR shop” lost students. He sought them out and some came to him.
In 2010, he brought in a painting and decorating course, on the advice of an Indian Canadian entrepreneur and friend. His friend told him – look, Australia is good at four things. Mining, health, education and construction. So train for those and you’ll be okay. Intaj thought on it and figured it was good advice. “New migrants were coming and everyone need a house. That means paint,” he says. His college now has around 1000 students, with 400 of those from India, and the rest from Vietnam, China, Nepal, Pakistan. His college earned a critical report from the regulator in 2014, slamming the lack of safety instruction in a building course and a lack of qualified staff. Intaj signed a statutory declaration that these would be addressed.
As we leave the café and the post-interview freedom kicks in, I see Intaj relax. He asks once again about ghostwriting. It sounds like you’ve got a book in you, I say, and he nods. It will be about the transition from business to politics. A warning. Called “The Councillor.”
“People perceive me as powerful and look where that led. What could I have done differently? How could I have got elected?” he says. It would be designed to help ambitious South Asians, to avoid the pitfalls that have claimed him. “I would talk about how they should work with proper factions – don’t be lulled like I was. Don’t treat politics like business. It’s different. Very different. My mistake.”
His thoughts are fleeting, clouds in a cold sky. He shifts tack. “I’ll tell any South Asian – now is not the right time to get into politics. And if you’re going to build a mansion, don’t say you will. Just do it.”
The book, then, would be his grappling with an unexpected loss, a blow to his self-talk of him as migrant-done-good. It would be about bitterness, the taste of being denied something that you could almost grasp. About whisper campaigns, a possible leak to The Age. But it would also be about snatching success where possible – about how, despite critical media coverage on the eve of the council poll, he got elected again to Wyndham Council. How he was investigated for conflicts of interest, and nothing came of it.
He talks of the possible sales, and his eyes brighten. “South Asian migrants would read it. I’d put a billboard on the Western Highway, of me and the book. I’d put it out in India too. I have enough followers to make it sell. And I’d do the biggest marketing job ever done in Australia. I’ve bought lots of books like this – the Trumps, the Bransons.”
We stand outside the doors of his education business, the Western Institute of Technology and he points upwards. “I was doing so well, but this has affected my business. When you Google me – the first thing you see is those articles.”
He turns to me. “Give me a price to write it, properly,” he says. I buy myself time – let me think about it.
He tells me his political career is over, that he wants to get into start-ups. But moments later, he’s talking enthusiastically about how he could topple Ellen Sandell, the Greens MP representing Melbourne. “The Greens spent $500,000 to have all the phone booths with her picture. ALP is never going to win if they don’t match it,” he says. And who has the money? He does. Melbourne is business, he says. Cut taxes for businesses, and you’ll win the election.
The criticism, he says, is all a matter of perception. He claims to have done everything within the law. Dummy candidates who happen to be former employees from his institute, buying land within the council he represents, donating to the party he wants to represent – these are not illegal. “What corruption? People think I have secret info from the council. But there’s nothing. Did I buy council properties? No – I bought those with a for sale sign out the front. 100 acres I saw advertised. Can I do that or not?”
And the suggestions he was stacking branches with Indians? He scoffs. “I’d be happy if I’d done it. Then I’d have the reward, have the seat. It’s heartbreaking. I didn’t do it, didn’t get the benefits, and got stung for it.” He returns to a particular Age journo he reckons has it in for him. Royce Millar. “Royce wants people to think I’m like [controversial former NSW councillor and developer] Salim Mehajer. Yes, I’ve got the Ferrari, I’m a councillor, and I own properties. But I’m not like that. I told Royce – look, you want to get rich? Buy land outside the city and wait.” When fellow Indians come to him seeking advice on wealth, he gives similar tips. Invest your money in growth areas to the west and north. Melton, Sunbury – and the new suburbs, only recently given names. You’ll double and triple your money.
I leave, wondering at him. The boxer licking his wounds, trying to rebound. Perhaps he’d bounce back like he had before. But then, later in 2017, Intaj takes a series of larger blows. In August, he is charged with nine offences of breaching the Local Government Act – specifically, disclosure of interests. He had allegedly not disclosed the extent of his estimated $40 million of property holdings in Wyndham. And worse, his WIT institute is stripped of its registration. That revenue stream is gone. In mid-2018, he is convicted of failing to disclose his interests and fined $23,000. But he still has property. And he is nothing if not resilient. The Intaj Mahal may yet be built.
I haven’t been to the unloved Docklands in years. I’m impressed – it’s almost come of age. Gone are the wind tunnels and empty shops and depressing office parks. It feels almost European. Trees have grown in the small parks, narrow streets, a tram and bike lane, few cars, water and cafes. It’s still quiet at night-time, but by day, it’s actually pleasant. As always – everyone called it a failure, ten years too early to tell.
Mira D’Silva’s building in Collins St is all light and natural air – an elevated roof and open to the sky at one point. Metal walkways, high bamboo growing, honeycomb hexagon cubbies for sitting/talking built into a downstairs wall. From the third floor, I can see the remaking of the city’s western end. It’s like a wholly new place – dense towers, the footprint of Matthew Guy’s reign as planning minister, the place dubbed denser than Hong Kong. It’s not entirely ugly, but it is a step change.
The office of Delivery Centric is almost empty. Most employees are out at client’s offices, building new security systems. Many are across the road at ANZ’s head office. It’s an open office, facing outwards. Mira’s husband Pani Kersarla stands tall, a patrician stance, in the CEO’s corner office – glass on all four sides.
Mira arrives. She looks the part – the human skills to her husband’s engineering chops, the manager and HR specialist. And she’s hard to miss – red streaks in her hair, corporate style makeup, pink jacket, bright red lipstick, chunky lipstick, fuschia nails. We sit in the Vietnamese bakery downstairs as workers file in for their banh mi and meat pies. I drink bittersweet Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Outside, Euro backpackers, a sporty African-American in a US flag singlet, young bankers in natty blue suits, creatives in intensely nerdy debate.
Mira was her husband’s ninth employee in his IT firm in Bangalore, and worked in HR and talent acquisition as the company, Recruit Beyond, grew to 200 employees. But then came the dot com bust in 2000, and India’s IT outsourcing industry was stricken. US companies couldn’t pay their bills. Then Pani and Mira ran out of money to pay their staff.
The move to Australia in 2004 came out of desperation, a desire for a new start. They had extended family here. Mira’s cousins were here first. After they arrived, her brothers, sisters and maternal cousins came. Now, there are more than 50 members of her extended family. “If we want a party, we don’t need to call anyone from outside. It’s enough,” she laughs. Everyone settled in Melbourne’s north-west. Mira and her husband live in Cairnlea with their son, now 11.
When they came, her husband took programming jobs but chafed as an employee. Taking direction did not come naturally. “He’s an entrepreneur, and doesn’t like working under others,” she says, laughing. But both of them worked as employees for two years, making connections, figuring out the Australian IT sector.
Her husband grew impatient. He asked his wife – why don’t we just start our own business again? Mira was sceptical. The cost of rent was too much in the city. Her husband thought on it, and then installed a transformer in their car, so they could charge their laptops and phones during the day. And for months they sat in the car, facing Victoria Harbour in the Docklands, and made calls and visits to clients. “We used to laugh and say – why can’t we have an office with water views in the first day of business?” she says. But it was a long, boring and hard slog, as for any new business. The need to prove yourself, what you can do. They had seen their opportunity in IT security – and specifically, for internet banking, which was just starting to become mainstream. But no-one would take a chance on unknowns.
Melbourne, Mira says, is close-knit. “Everybody knows everybody, so it’s about who you know. We had our struggles because no-one knew us,” she says. And so, their first break came through informal contact. Her husband went out for a drink with an old manager from ANZ, where he’d worked. And over a beer, the manager talked about a problem they were having. “Let me have a go,” said her husband. “Our company does exactly that.” And the rest is business fairytale – regular contracts, growth, a permanent office in the Docklands near the banks, specialisation, dozens of employees. Delivery Centric was in. And so were Mira and Pani.
Why didn’t you settle in the US, as many Indians do, I ask. America is #1 for Indians, right? Mira’s lips quirk. “When we visited the US after being here, I just felt Australia was so much better. The US is great for how quickly they invest in their technology. But the quality of life, the infrastructure, the cleanliness, the beauty – it’s better here. In India people talk about the US like, wow, there must be something special in that country. But I didn’t feel it.”
Tell me about breaking into Melbourne, I say. How did you do it. She toys with her hair. “Footy,” she says. “Footy is very useful. And My Kitchen Rules. I go through the newspaper, watch TV – so I have ice breakers. Very useful when you talk to Australian clients.” Mira has been strategic in other ways, making Australian friends through their son’s love of golf. And now that their son has left his public school in the west for the expense and cachet of a top tier private school, they’ve found themselves moving in upper-middle class waters. Mira has made an effort to get involved, joining the committees. New business opportunities have emerged. “We saw there was a totally different kind of parent there,” she says. Doctors, bankers, lawyers. Wealth, in short. There are only a few Indian parents there.
“I didn’t know about how hard it is to get a seat in a good school,” Mira admits. Soon after her son was born, her first boss in Australia asked which waiting list she’d put him on. She was baffled. Waiting list? He was three months old. And India wasn’t like this – you have the money, you get in. Her boss laughed and walked her through the Melbourne private school system. Then he listed his top three. And that was enough. “Indian parents are crazy over education – don’t ask me why,” she says. “My parents would sell property to get us educated – I was convent educated. So I don’t want to have a situation where my son says I haven’t given him a good education.” Pani, for his part, wants their son to study computer engineering at Stanford – the Ivy League college he himself would have loved to go to, had he the money.
Do you notice any difference in your son in a private school, I ask. She nods. “I think the way he’s getting molded is what I like. The way he can talk and express himself.” Her son is shy, but good with technical information. “My husband is very similar – if it’s a technical topic, he’ll talk. But if it’s relationships and networking, he slows down. That’s my job. So my son is now happier to talk and participate. We don’t think about the money when you see your child actually growing.”
Mira and Pani’s relationship began as a workplace romance and became a love marriage, going against the wishes of both sets of parents. For Pani was a Hindu and Mira a Catholic with Portuguese and Indian heritage. There were aunts in the convent, and uncles who were priests. They knew that their marriage would upset everyone around them. But they did it anyway. “There was no way I could tell my parents this is the guy I wanted to get married to – they wouldn’t allow it,” Mira says. Her smile becomes set. What they did was simple – they eloped and told their parents after the fact. “It was very Bollywood,” she says with sudden laughter. “The drama!” Eventually, both sets of parents came around.
Despite their reservations around cross-religious marriage, Mira’s parents are progressive. Her father never gave his two daughters less opportunity than his son. “My brother has always been the family oriented one, and he is more mum’s boy, and we are dad’s girls. He gave us equal opportunities – it’s how we use that to get ahead.”
Mira kept her surname and set about learning how to live with a vegetarian Hindu who doesn’t believe in god (well, gods). Coming to Australia gave them freedom from any residual family pressure. Their marriage, in short, has been fire-tested, surviving the pressure of rival religions, of starting up a business, of having a son born very premature, of moving country. “We are done with the family commitments and all of that, and we are happy,” Mira says. “And besides, we are literally married more to our business than to each other, and that’s what we say – we work very well as colleagues because that’s how I met him – he was my boss – and he’s the decisions person, I’m the operations person. My headache is people and operations, his is technical and business.”
It does strike me as a collegiate marriage – both work in the same office but often don’t speak during the day. “Different headaches,” she says, smiling. They work 9-6pm, see their son and help him with homework. When he goes to bed, they both hit Skype to talk to their Indian team and work around the time difference. “We usually work till midnight,” she says. “The best time we have to talk to each other is driving to and from work.” Half of every Saturday is spent in the office too. Their goal – hitting 10 million in turnover – is in sight. In five years time, they want to go public. They’ve turned away business suitors. They want to do it all themselves. To reward themselves for their success, Mira and Pani have just bought a Lamborghini.
Do you fight, I ask. “Only about work, not family,” she says. Their employees have seen them fight in the open-plan office. They must wonder how we sleep in the same bed, how we live together, says Mira. “But it’s only work. We keep family and work separate.”
To run a business like this means that they’ve had to outsource almost everything else. They have a man who tends their garden in Cairnlea, and who picks up and drops off their son at school. They buy in every meal with tiffin services. But most importantly, they have Doris.
Doris is an 80-year-old Maltese woman. Mira, Pani and her son all call her nonna, for she mothers them all. For her son, he is a second mother in every way. When he arrived, very premature, Mira was at a loss. Childrearing was totally out of her experience. But an acquaintance recommended Doris – she knows everything, she said. Doris had four daughters, and 12 grandchildren. Mira’s son would be her de-facto 13th.
Doris soon became indispensable. When her son cried in the night and could not be settled, Mira would call in distress – even at 1am. “I had no clue what to do, and she said bring him here right now. And I would take him to her house in Sunshine, she’d hold him for two minutes and he was okay,” Mira says. She shakes her head in wonder. “That’s it. I don’t know what she does. You know, sometimes when he’s sick, I bring him her apron from the kitchen. He just needs her smell. The kind of attachment they have, I don’t want to break it. They feel so much for each other. He bonded more with her and her late husband than his own grandparents.”
Mira kept him out of childcare for fear of him getting sick. So his early life was Doris. Even now, every day after school, their son goes to her house. When bills pile up for Doris and the pension is not enough, Mira chips in over and above her weekly stipend. “She puts the heater on throughout the day so my son doesn’t get sick – and the bills are big. So I take care of her – pay her house insurance, buy a new microwave.” When the family went to India for a visit in 2015, Doris came too. “There are some people who you just cannot thank enough,” Mira says. “She’s been a blessing.”
In India, Mira and her husband – who come from money – had drivers, domestic help, cooks. It is no surprise that they’ve recreated that, in a new form. “My husband is very fond of outsourcing – and I believe the best person for the job should do it. So I don’t cook at home – I get tiffin services.” She pauses. “It wasn’t that we can’t do the [domestic] work, it’s just it is too time consuming. I could be sitting at home taking off cobwebs, but then I wouldn’t be doing my work where I can feed other people,” she says.
I’ve been asked to come to the food court in Altona Gardens, an unremarkable shopping centre just off the Westgate Freeway. It seems at odds with what I know of Hari Yellina, a successful businessman, whose LinkedIn profile pic features him as a leisured raja, in robes and finery after his wedding, and who posts albums of luxe tours of Europe. But Altona is his home – the evolving west. Powerlines, graffiti, four-lane-roads with no cyclists, factories, refineries, wetlands and river redgums, tuckshops serving workers.
I watch people stream past while I wait for him. I’m taken by the working men. What I like about the Aussie working class is that there’s no chip on their shoulder as there is in the UK. Theirs is a quieter power – singlets and ropey muscle, tossing their laughing children over their shoulders with ease, a casual confidence. Australia’s luck, for the working man, was scarcity of labour, the root of our egalitarianism. I come from middle-class white collar stock and plunged into poverty during my years as a struggling writer / low-paid casual lecturer. And yet as the mining boom took off, as tradies outearned me many times, I was that tosser who didn’t think himself the new working class.
Altona Gate is two dollar shops, Pay Less Shoes, old Greeks and Italians sitting at a middle-eastern sweet store, eating lurid green pistachio slices, a stunning, well-lit greengrocer with polished fruit and veg piled high – many grown, no doubt, in Werribee’s rich alluvial soils.
And here, from the crowd, Hari. Warm eyes, broad smile. He dresses well, but skips flashiness. A black coat, jeans, linen shirt, Rolex, large iPhone – upper-middle accoutrements, without bling. He’s learned that Australia does not reward visible success. Do well without talking about it – that’s the key. He’s slim, pale-skinned, Westernised. If you didn’t know, he could be from one of fifty countries. And that’s what he has sought to do – learn, adapt, excel.
Hari looks tired. He’s only 38, but the huge distances in Australia are taking their toll. He drove six hours from Mildura – where his labour hire business is based – and got in at 3am. He buys me a coffee and we sit next to Coles.
Hari’s father died when he was two. His mother didn’t remarry – it was taboo, back then. But because his grandfather was very wealthy, they avoided the plunge into poverty. And that inheritance gave him the ability to come here and study. Why Australia? Indians talk about their desired countries to migrate to as the five fingers – US, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ – in that order. “We don’t want to come to ‘Australia’ – we want a country where they speak English and have Western culture,” he says. “Once we come, we apply for PR.”
Hari came on the strength of his IT qualifications – that was what Australia needed then, back in 2001. He came with $400, with no friends, for a job at SBS in their IT division. After a year there, he decided to switch course. “I still like my computers, I don’t deny it – but I thought, why don’t I think like a Westerner?” he says. “That’s when I broke my shackles as a migrant.” What he means is that it’s easy to get stuck in the Indian rut, the taxi/service station trap, earning just enough to survive if you bunk down with six others in a run down rental in Craigieburn, saving just enough to send money back to India. Even for the middle class, it’s easy to get Aussie-complacent. Do your IT job, go home, raise kids.
“As a migrant, most opportunity is in taxis or service stations,” Hari says. “And it’s not what Australia is throwing at you – it’s the discussion in your home. You say – what’s the easiest way to get a job?” In India, you might apply for a job and start work that week. Here, for a career job, everything drags out. Selection criteria, two page CVs, referee checks, second-round interviews, start next month. And if you don’t know anyone, if your strong accent marks you out – you’ll be out of luck. “Take me – 17 years ago, I had a strong accent. No chance you would have understood me,” he says.
Like many other Indians, Hari worked shifts in servos. He hated the tedium. But it was reliable. When a friend suggested opening a car yard, he jumped at it. But this, too, palled. Then he bought two servo franchises with another friend. He worked there a year and still didn’t like it – even though it was his own business. It felt like a long, boring path to success. There had to be a better way.
He spent the long hours pondering one thing: why were Australians rich – amongst the richest in the world? “I wanted to learn how Australians had so much money,” he says with a smile. What were they doing differently? How had they gotten ahead? And why – why were so many Indians stuck on the second rung? He read the business papers, watched investment shows, went to real estate seminars. Then it struck him. It was about street smarts. “A lot of Indians say – Aussies don’t like to go to school as much, but even a 15 year old understands real estate, how to drive a car, follow the rules, how to invest. They might not be bookish, but they are worldly. Indians are bookish, but not worldly.”
I barely stifle a chuckle. “I’m not sure I was like that at 15,” I say. Hari smiles. “But you would have known how many points you get on a license. How much you can drink and still drive. How to pay tax.” I raise an eyebrow.
Hari rolls on. “It was about real estate, trading, commodities. And most people in the mid-range don’t get richer – they stick to what they’re comfortable with. They buy a service station and get stuck there.”
Hari traces the evolution of Indian Melbourne for me. Dandenong, Wyndham Vale, Glen Waverley – that’s the earlier wave of migrants. 2010 onwards are Point Cook, Williams Landing, Tarneit. And Laverton is now 20% Indian, he says – people drawn by the factories and spin-off jobs. Cleaning, deliveries, factory hand. Many people ask – why don’t Indians buy closer, buy in West Footscray – closer to the city and not too pricy yet? Hari waggles a finger. “Our mentality – we come here, a new country, and we want to show our parents a new house, new car – might only be a Toyota Corolla, $17K new, but it’s new. And when they come to visit, the parents don’t know the difference between Toorak, Footscray, and Wyndham Vale. They see that their son bought a four bedroom house.”
He taps his chest. “Edison created electricity in the 1900s, but we didn’t have it until recently. When I was born, electricity came four days later. The first time I opened my eyes, there was a fridge. But others didn’t know fridges, didn’t know toilets. India still has 300 million with no electricity.” He smiles obliquely. “When you come with the mentality of scarcity – four to a bedroom –you buy a four bedroom house, you send pictures to your parents so they can show their friends – look, my son is prosperous.”
Hari has indeed become prosperous. It helps, of course, that he started with money – not a vast sum, but enough to get a jump-start. But he says thinking differently, educating himself about the novelties and peculiarities of this place – that was his secret weapon. He went to free real estate seminars – not to get taken by the snake-oil, but to learn the vocab, to learn how to move. By day he read internet forums and talked about investment with his wife, Sari, and by night, he partied at clubs.
Together, Hari and Sari went to auctions for townhouses and farmland, feeling out the market. Then they bought – in the south-east, in the CBD – and started developing, too, knocking down a house on a large block in Bentleigh and subdividing – the classic approach. Now he and his wife own eight investment properties and are building seven more to keep. They live in a rental house in Altona. Is he wealthy? He pauses. “Compared to a lot – yeah. There are only 14,000 people with more than five investment properties in Australia, and I’m one of them.
Then he became curious about the rest of Australia – the 99% outside the major cities, the sparsely populated regions – farms, mines, towns, bush, mountain and desert. He heard that farmers found it hard to get workers – and he knew there were many Indians wanting work. Come harvest time, there was a scramble for short-term workers. Few Australians would do the work – backbreaking labour, having to move from farm to farm, state to state. It was Vietnamese migrants, seasonal Islander workers, European backpackers. So Hari moved into labour hire, using his contacts in the Indian student community. He started employing Indians. But as they rose up the ladder, it became harder and harder to find countrymen.
Where are they, Hari asks? He already knows the answer. “900 restaurants have opened up in the last five years. There are new Indian supermarkets. Indian women become nurses and aged care workers, men are drifting into bookkeeping. They’re trying different jobs, moving up rapidly. We need 200 people right now – but we just can’t find them. So we use European backpackers and Islanders.” He sips his coffee, relaxes into expansive mode.
Hari runs me through Australia’s harvest trail at speed. He makes a crude picture of Australia with one hand, points at Darwin. This is where you start – mangoes in Katherine in September, then Tennant Creek, then Darwin, Cairns, Townsville, then different crops in NSW, Victoria. Backpackers (most aiming for their second year working holiday visa) and workers follow the work.
But for all that, I say, the labour hire industry has been racked by controversy – underpayment are exploitation are rife. I mention the Islander worker who returned home $150 saved from six months work. Hari nods. “It’s expensive to get labour hire, and some small farmers can’t sustain huge numbers of workers. But if you do the right thing, you don’t have a problem.”
Around 2010, Hari started his fifth business in Australia. He began buying pulses, the unsexy crops of chickpeas, lentils, beans, and also bought almonds. For India and its 40% vegetarian population, nuts and pulses are life. He bought and exported, bought and exported, building a bridge. “I saw how big the farm sector here was, and I knew India needed certain products. So I connected the two,” he says. Now he drives all over the continent, seeking new foodstuffs to buy and export.
As he drove, he found that India was late to the party. Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan companies had already secured rights to 80% of Australia’s pulse exports, and China’s middle class wanted Australian beef and fruits and vegetables. Our first private airport in 50 years had just been built outside Toowoomba, in part to fly fresh high-end produce from the region direct to Hong Kong. But India was growing fast, and at last rising up the income scale. And that meant the hunger for protein was growing fast, too. The time was right. Nuts and pulses had another advantage: they didn’t go off as quickly during inevitable delays at Indian ports.
In the future, Hari believes the Indian public will want grapes. “American TV has come into a lot of houses – and now they want sugars, natural sugars, grapes. India is the number one producer of grapes in the world, but they don’t want Indian grapes. They like Levi jeans, Swiss watches, American credit cards, and Australian grapes.” He plans to export grapes to Hong Kong, too, and Bangladesh.
His export company’s name, Suvarnabhoomi, means Land of Gold – the name of a semi-mythical land named in many ancient texts from the subcontinent, believed to lie to the east of India. In the first century Greco-Roman Periplus of the Red Sea, a book of trading opportunities, the land of gold is described as “an island in the ocean, the furthest extremity towards the east of the inhabited world.” And while modern scholars believe the real Suvarnabhoomi might have been a kingdom in Sumatra, for Hari, it might as well have been Australia.
Australians are notoriously lazy when it comes to learning a language other than English – my mangled Bahasa is testament to that. And many big Australian companies founder when trying to break into overseas markets, as big banks, law firms and even Wesfarmers have found. But for migrants – who come with language, local contacts and know-how – it’s a key advantage. Hari is not short on confidence. “Only 1-2% of Indians think differently about how to get rich, like me.”
But first, he had to win the trust of Australian farmers and Australian councils. How’d he do it? He grins. “My colour and accent don’t matter when I’m buying. If I or the Chinese are throwing money at you – it doesn’t matter. 80% of Australian almonds are packed for India – but no-one knows, it’s like a hidden thing. But if I’m going for a farm job – then it matters. It’s like can he do it, he’s a migrant. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t want to employ you. But it is a barrier. So what I say is you’ve got to be a Roman in Rome. I can’t be white, can’t change my skin. But I can hire one.”
Through his company, Hari employs Anglo go-betweens. How do they help? He smiles. His Bentleigh development has been helped by the familiarity that white names and faces bring, he says. “I’ve never met the councillors. Because they might think that you’ll do dodgy work. So I hire someone with the name ‘Smith’ in the back, or a completely white company to do construction. And everything falls into place.” I must look astonished, because Hari breaks into laughter. “It’s true! When the Chinese buy farms here, they don’t buy direct. They have go-betweens too. If I want to sell to a Chinese buyer, they’re much more likely to buy from a white Australian than an Indian. Look – we judge a book by its cover in three seconds. That’s why politicians wear suits. It works.”
It was 2005 when Hari met Sari (yes, I made that joke, and yes he groaned.) They married in a lavish wedding – Bollywood dancers and fine dining – in 2014. It was a love marriage, and Hari would not accept dowry money. (“All my cousins still give dowry”). His wife is second gen – she has a distinct Aussie accent. I watch a YouTube video of his surprise proposal – his hand in marriage is the first prize in a raffle she wins. Another, titled Sari and Hari Yellina spending time off after wedding is a walkthrough of their hotel room at Crown. Sari takes us through – oh my god, the bathroom! – lays down the law – this sink is mine, she says, slyly, don’t touch that one – and the camera lingers on a couple of hundred dollar notes – ‘we need to do some banking soon’.
The couple now run a Holi festival in Werribee, attracting 10,000 people a year. To boost connections, preserve your culture? He cocks his head. Yeeeesss, he says slowly. But it’s also a ploy, he says, to boost his community’s knowledge of health. He stumbled across a study showing South Asians have much higher chance of dying from a heart attack. Obesity and metabolic syndrome were running rife. Diabetes would follow. Why was that, he wondered? His people ate plenty of vegetables, lentils, rice. White Australians were fat – but they could still make 80.
“You just have to go to Target out here, sit for two hours and see that Indians are becoming overweight. And with our heart conditions and diabetes, we are going to be a strain in the future. We will be despised for bringing the economy down, bringing the health care system down. We were all brought here 15 years ago, when we were in our twenties. When we’re in our 50s, we are going to be a drain,” he says. That’s why he started the festival – to get people to come en masse, and then see his information banners, his volunteer booths.
I must look sceptical, because Hari laughs. Why, he asks, is St Vincents Private Hospital building a new campus in Werribee? Why not Bentleigh or Brighton? It’s to deal with the migrant health problems of the future. And that’s what he wants to tackle. Even the secret issues – caste and domestic violence.
“We have so many Hindu goddesses, but our real women are still second class citizens,” he says. “In the house, the man is the kingmaker – and even when the woman is working, he still gets all the money. When women come from overseas, they think it’s like a movie star life – Ferraris, big mansions and black suits. But the mentality hasn’t changed. When they got married, they had to pay their husbands dowry and bear the burden of everything else.”
Like many of the other Indian-Australians I’ve met, Hari has a mixed view of his homeland. He comes from money, which let him live the good life. But he is free with his criticism of his former home, and free with his praise of Australia. It’s interesting, but I wonder how much of this is the act we’re playing out – member of the ethnomajority interviewing newly arrived migrant, scouting for praise for plucky little Straya.
What chafed for Hari in India was the power of society to compel. You can’t get divorced because of the shame of it – so couples mentally divorce, but live in the same house. You can’t publicly show off your boyfriend or girlfriend – romance must be arranged, and love relationships left underground. “Rapes happen every day in India and every man talks about how they’re taking care of the modesty of women,” he says.
Here, he says, his wife will go out by herself – and he won’t worry about her safety. Here is economic stability, here there are no beggars. “Because you guys have never been hungry, you’ve no idea what it’s like,” he says. Though, I think, it’s unlikely Hari has been either. He rolls on through, warming up to his topic. Here, he says, workers have rights – they have meal breaks, work cover, occupational health. Australia is the lucky continent, Hari says. “Everyone uses the word lucky. But why? You want to come here, you have to pass a million points of checks and tests. You’re getting the cream of the cream here – and that’s what Australia does, always gets the cream.”
The curious thing is that in a former life, when he was a spokesman for the Federation of Indian Students, he gave voice to the frustration of many. “Students have no voting rights, so they have been ignored. They have no choice about jobs – it’s hard to find work other than taxis and cleaning,” he said in 2008. Safety, too, was a concern for him and his friends – he himself had been beaten three times, and the police had, he claimed, done little. But since then, Hari has risen in wealth and stature, and these concerns – the dangerous, dirty, depressing jobs the lot of migrants the world over – are no longer his.
Hari has made the jump. He’s Australianised – and like every new convert to a cause, has embraced it without reservation. The Australia he sees is a land without rape or domestic violence – a place where the police will patrol a suburb to ensure the safety of women, a land where workers are treated like humans. And like every convert, he looks down on those not yet risen to his level of understanding. “It’ll take two generations – we’re talking 2080, by the time Indians become Australian. We’re still doing honour killings, killing depending on race, still taking dowries. Do you think we’re going to change it, when someone will give me free money for getting married to a girl? When I get the girl and the money as well, and the parents say – why do you want to love someone, when you can get money from India?”
As we part, Hari tells me he’s got to go home and fit a bullbar to his RAV4. Oh? “Kangaroos,” he says. He hit a small one recently, en route to Adelaide, driving at dusk. “They’re small in Victoria – but the size of them in South Australia!”
It’s a crisp blue day in Brunswick. At the Royal Nut Company’s warehouse and store, just off Sydney Road, shoppers inch past each other, buying kilogram bags of walnuts, sugared almonds, dry roasted macadamias. There are 800 variations on nuts and fruit and 24 different ways to buy almonds – raw, lemon, tamari, smoked, chilli, flaked, blanched, meal, slivered, halves, and so on. “Australian almonds – the best in the world.” I turn, and there at the cashier is the owner, Prakash Mirchandani, every inch the successful merchant figure of yore. Suit, gleaming grin, neat wings of hair flanking bald dome, a fine 19th century style twirlable moustache.
He ushers me up to a meeting room, from where he can watch over the attached warehouse.
Prakash farewelled India in 1969. There were, he felt, few prospects at home. His parents had been forced to leave their land in Sindhi province in what is now Pakistan. In the tumult of partition, Sindhi Hindus fled east en masse, while Sindhi Muslims stayed. In India, his family was suddenly poor. All twelve of them lived in a rented house, living off one wage. Prakash hated school. Book learning – what a waste of time, he thought. Sindhis were meant to be risk-takers, entrepreneurs. His older cousins were returning from work overseas with silver watches on their wrists, striding down the village streets in fashionable clothes. But one cousin did not return. He had found a profitable niche running a mixed business in Laos. And when he heard of the dire plight of the Mirchandanis, he placed an expensive international call.
In Laos, Prakash earned 300 rupees a month. He sent it all home. Now, his siblings did not go hungry. Later, another cousin working as a tailor in Hong Kong called him. “Come,” he said. “I will send you a ticket.”
In Hong Kong, Prakash warmed to his new job. He would take up residence in an expensive hotel, and wait for customers to knock. Tailored suits, jackets and shirts made for a fraction of the cost of London suits – the proposition appealed to many. And Prakash would measure up businessman after businessman.
Then his cousin came with another offer. How about a three-month tour of Australia? So Prakash stayed at luxury hotels in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane. Over the next four years, he circumnavigated Australia thirty times. He lived out of a suitcase, but made sure he presented himself as a polished, urbane young man.
But then, he fell in love. He and his wife married in 1975. He gave up the travelling job, and applied for a position at Myers on Bourke St.
At 28, Prakash was the youngest salesman by far. But four years of primping and flattering businessmen had given him an unmatched skill at selling. At a glance, he could see how much someone might be willing to pay. “I can look at a face, see the expression, see how they’re dressed, look at the shoes. And you know he’s wearing a $400 suit – so you know you can upgrade him,” he says. Prakash could sense ambition. Was this young banker dressing for his next job? Or did he just want to fit in? Prakash would offer up a fine suit, knowing it would be too expensive – and then be ready with a slightly-less expensive suit. The trick worked, almost every time.
“I had the knack. I was fast, I stayed focussed till the end. And my name is still there in Myers,” he says. Soon, he was making $600 a week commission. “That was unheard of for the 70s,” he says with obvious pride. He remembers his pay packet in every job he’s ever had, regardless of whether it came in Indian rupees, Lao kip, or Hong Kong, Singaporean or Australian dollars.
Every week, the managing director would emerge from his office for the staff meeting. There, he would declare the top salesman. Almost invariably, it would be Prakash Mirchandani. “He used to come onto the floor personally to shake my hand,” he says with a chuckle.
It was Myers that took Prakash into the nut industry. A well-dressed Lebanese man used to come in regularly for new suits. Prakash formed a friendship with him, and eventually started inviting him to Tandoori Den, an Indian restaurant he owned in Camberwell.
When his friend told him he wanted to sell his nut business, Prakash knew, instantly, that this was his big opportunity. It took him two years to put the finance together. Banks wouldn’t fund him. So he borrowed from friends and family and even loan sharks to get $1.2 million. And though friends said – why, Prakash? You don’t know a brazil nut from a pistachio – he thought the fundamentals were great. “I took a risk – and it paid off,” he says.
2017 marks fifteen years after he bought the business. Fifty employees (up from eight), a new factory in Rowville, an outlet in Malvern. Prakash says his point of difference from the other wholesalers, who are mainly Lebanese, is value adding – making nuts spicy, sweet, salty, sour. He exports to Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam – but not India. The bureaucracy and sclerotic infrastructure mean long waits. The nuts might be stuck in containers in a stifling hot port for five weeks – long enough for weevils to hatch.
He’s 66 now, and looking to hand over to his daughters and son. It’s that legacy stage, where you lean back in your chair and allow yourself a sense of satisfaction. “We Sindhis don’t work for others, and we do not study,” he says, with heavy emphasis. Not for them the security of education and white collar jobs. Sindhis, he says, prosper through risk. “You will find them in every corner of the world,” he says.
If you met Varun Joshi, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was second-generation. It’s his accent – broad Strine, peppered with mate-mate-mates. But he only moved here from the Punjab in 2004. His first job was a door-to-door salesman, selling gas and electricity – that thankless job, where you know you will be hated from the moment you raise your hand to knock. Then he became a chugger, a charity-mugger, just to really ensure he was hated. It didn’t take long for him to realise his accent had a direct correlation on whether or not he made a living. So he spent his nights perfecting his English accents. He got good, fast. For outer suburban estates, dial up the twang. For the wealthier suburbs, use the polished British-Indian accent. “It was a trick to do more sales, emulating the accent,” he says. Now it’s just who he is. He’s put on broad-Australian for me.
Joshi is the team captain of the Darebin Chargers, one of the only Indian cricket clubs in Melbourne. He lives in Tarneit and drives through the Saturday peak to get to games. When I meet Joshi at the teams grounds in Lalor, it’s early evening on a worknight, balmy summer giving way to the spring edge in the air. “It took me 90 minutes to get here tonight from work,” he says, shaking his head. He’d left his IT project management job at 5pm on the dot. But the commute is worth it. Cricket, to Joshi, is life. “I’m a one dimensional person,” he says, laughing. “But I do have to put it to my missus every week – I’ve got two kids under six, and if I miss time with them, that’s when she gets upset. And sometimes it’s twice a week training and both days on weekend, so it’s her right to be upset.” He rubs his chin. “But it’s meaningful.”
On the road leading into their home ground at Huskisson Reserve, I passed a roadside shrine – a cross, plastic flowers, and a name chalked on the street at the precise place where Nathan Knight was shot in the face on NYE 2015 as he sat in a car with his girlfriend and daughter, a casualty of the gun crime spike in Melbourne’s rough north-west. Knight was due to face court for threats to kill, for stealing a luxury car. He had a tattoo round his left eye: ‘No remorse for dogs’.
Lalor is a traditionally rough area, and rough means affordable. No wonder then, that Indian families are flocking there and beyond, to Epping and South Morang, as well as Tarneit and the ballooning west, where you can still buy a family home for under $600,000. In the car park, there’s a new lock installed. I can see why – fresh rubber from nighttime doughies, a time-honoured outer suburban pastime. But beyond it, there’s a practice match in full swing. What I love about suburban Melbourne is the sense of space, that big-sky feeling you get in low-rise burbs. The oval, elevated above a concreted creek, feels like it’s floating. High pink clouds frozen, looking like icing. Banter in rapid-fire Punjabi as batters tonk shots. I duck instinctively as the ball hurtles past. Cricket has always been foreign to me, along with almost all sport – one reason I’ve never felt particularly Australian myself. I flinch at each shot. But the players don’t even look.
It was 2008 when the Darebin Chargers came into being. They started in Preston, but have migrated north, following their members. For homesick, cricket-mad Punjabis, the club felt like a fragment of home. After games, the restaurant-owners of the team bring food, and for Diwali, the clubrooms host a weekend mini-festival. They’re not the only South Asian club in Melbourne – there’s a Fijian-Indian club, and a Nepalese club. But for Indians, the Chargers have become home base. For Joshi, it’s become a second home. “I live 50km away, but I come to every session and game,” he says. “We don’t just turn up for the cricket, but for the personal relationship we have with each other. It’s a pretty good feeling.”
Adapting to Australian cricket traditions – specifically, the art of sledging – has been a particular challenge. Varun Joshi says their club president and star batsman, Vikas Dhingra, cops it the worst. “This year, we played a team I don’t want to name and we were chasing 161 runs. Last time we played them, Vikas literally took them apart. So every time a batsman went in, they said where’s Vik? Tell him he’s a coward.” At this, Joshi widens his eyes. “A coward! It’s fine to sledge batsmen, but not to sledge the president of the club through another player. But when Vikas came in, he got us from 84 to 162 very quickly. That shut them up.” He laughs.
Even though Australia vs India matches are known for sledging, the game is played at a more genteel pace at the lower levels in India. Not so in Australia. Needling your opponent, trying to get inside their heads – that’s an Australian speciality. Sometimes, it even spills over into pushing and shoving.
“I’ve got a thick skin now,” Joshi says. “You get used to it, and you give it back to them. It brings us together more.” A thick skin, an Aussie accent – Joshi’s adaptations are clear. But others find it a rude awakening. Whenever new players arrive, fresh from India, Joshi has to take them aside before their first game. “For those coming from overseas, they don’t understand the culture, they don’t understand that the other player is just trying to put you off. They take it personally.” So Joshi takes the new players aside and tells them – react however you want to, but don’t take it to heart. Tell them you’re going to listen to them, but that you’re going to stick around here. There is an art to sledging that you will learn. You will do it too – try to upset the batsman, but never ever get personal.
What, I ask, has he found most effective as a response to Anglo sledging? Joshi chuckles. “If you answer them nicely, it really puts them off.”
Behind the stumps, the next batsman is strapping on his pads. Joshi introduces me. “This is Dushyant Baravkar,” he says. “He’s the sole non-Punjabi. He’s from near Mumbai.”
Before Melbourne, Baravkar was in banking in New York. He moved in part for the work-life balance. And cricket is a big part of that. “I was actually playing for north Balwyn, a very reputed club, and my father in law found an ad in a Punjabi newspaper in a grocery store,” he says. “Once I turned up for training, I found I liked the brand of cricket they play, aggressive, expressive, natural – and that’s my style,” he says. “We try to make as many runs as possible quickly. It means you’ll get an outcome – win quickly or lose quickly. In some other clubs, there’s a lot of technical emphasis of playing a long innings as batsman. It can get very monotonous.” So what happens when Indian flourish meets Australian grind-em-down? “Then it is like when India meets Australia,” he laughs. “Extra passion, and people take it very seriously. When we reach the finals, we get so many cheering for us – and against. Last time we won the championship, I recollect around 400 people being very vocal.” But now that you’re here to stay, won’t other clubs adjust? He pauses, cocks his head. “Yes – they’re starting to adjust accordingly.”
Baravkar strides away to take his turn before the stumps. A tall man comes across to meet me. This is Vikas Dhingra, the club president, star batsman and recipient of a great deal of sledging. At 40, he’s the oldest player. He wears Tony Abbott style gold sunnies, which makes him seem more reserved until he removes them to reveal warm, avuncular eyes. Dhingra is the club’s founder and totem – in 2016, he was by far the highest scorer in the club, and second across the whole Northern Metro Cricket Association competition. It’s clear the club is life to him. We walk around behind the players as dusk falls and the lights come on, as midges buzz above the grass. He talks about plans for women’s cricket, about the 15 kids in the junior pipeline. “Most people migrate here for a better life, to make some money for living. But we need cricket too. It’s in the blood of South Asian people. It’s like having three meals a day, simple as that.”
Players drive from the Indian suburbs across Melbourne to get here. From Epping, 5km north to Tarneit, 50km west, and even from Cranbourne, 70km south-east. Dhingra comes from Caroline Springs. Most played at other clubs first, but found the cultural and language barriers a challenge. Here, united, they can tackle the sledging. “When we started, it was a bloodbath of racial sledging,” Dhingra says, matter-of-fact. “Especially in this competition. But they’ve put a leash on it now. I’m a board member now and we put the perspective that nobody should sledge anybody but the batsman.”
The curious thing is that sledging is infectious. After 15 years of cricket here, Dhingra had gone native. When he went back to the Punjab to play club cricket, he came in fired up, tossing off sledges left and right. And then he looked at the stunned faces. Was this Australian-Indian guy really saying such things? Right there and then, he dialled it down.
“We look forward to it every week – we can’t wait for Saturday to come,” he says. During the week, as he runs his grocery stores in Thomastown and Reservoir, Dhingra keeps one eye on the fixture. It’s an obsession – and a responsibility. There’s always something needing doing – fixtures, juniors. “I’m first here and last home,” he says. “Thank goodness my wife is supportive. And next year, with women’s cricket, she’ll be the first to put her hand up. My kids are playing too.”
As I walk to my car, another player calls out to me. He’s got a cheeky smile, a round face, with Bluetooth earpiece in. “You’re interviewing good players? You have to interview me,” he laughs. He tosses his cricket bag into the back of his ute. What do you do, I ask. “I work with trucks, mate. Diesel mechanic in Campbellfield,” he says. Ute, locked silver tool crates in the back, mate, cricket, ‘Strine tang. Aussie-Indian – there it is. He’s gone local.