As it was a warm day in spring, on Saturday my wife and I were walking along the Parramatta River, Sydney in the evening. Suddenly we came across a large gathering of Indian immigrants celebrating a national holy day i.e. Ganesh Puja. Majority of them were newly arrived young immigrants accompanied by their parents and small children. Most of them are professionals such as IT workers. On both sides of the river there are apartments that they rent. The gathered crowd had come well dressed in their sarees, and a line of people was moving towards a Hindu priest to obtain blessings. Closely on stage were a few young girls enacting a dance to the tune of music. Makeshift stalls had Indian food for sale. Obviously, the atmosphere was electric. The lights were on, loud music being played and passers by were treated to a glimpse of Indian culture and community on the riverbank
Such events are not uncommon in cities such as Sydney, which has been undergoing a significant transformation as a result of Australia’s recent immigration policy. Along with the growth of population due to immigration, measures have been taken by the private sector developers to build more apartments for renting. On an average weekday, one can observe Indian immigrants leaving for work in the morning and returning in the evening around 6.00pm after a train ride from the city CBD and other locations. Their parents look after the children during the day. Elderly parents go for a walk along the river to break the routine and get fresh air. Some go to the play ground with grand children and children. A few gather together with others who have come from India, Pakistan etc.for a yarn during warmer months. Women who are not employed take their children (and neighbour’s children as a favour) to the primary school in the morning and bring them back in the afternoon.
One could see Indian workers in places like Dubai, Singapore also. The difference here in Australia is that they are able to obtain permanent residence after completing their temporary residence period. Some, in fact, come as permanent residents in the first place. A migration industry has sprung up in India and elsewhere to assist prospective immigrants for a fee. Often success is not guaranteed. Once the immigrants become permanent residents, the process of acquiring Australian identity begins.
It is a long process for many but a few move on the fast lane. For all intents and purposes, these are Indian people. Nonetheless they have to work in a multicultural environment in the cities resembling a melting pot. They also have to deal with a range of government departments during their time here in relation to tax, medical, transport, education or professional and other matters. In these circumstances these new immigrants come across other Australians including those with British, European, American, African, Asian backgrounds. However, looking at the Indian community living around Parramatta, it seems that they are primarily depending on each other for support at least at this stage. Some of the Indians are serving as counsellors in the city council.
Small children who come back from school in the afternoon chat among themselves in English –not in Hindi or any other regional language. They seem to be trying to sort out life here and newfound freedoms in their own way through such conversations. Mothers help the children by carrying the school bags. In time to come, most of these children will lose their Indian language skills while acquiring English language, as the latter is the language of business and education in Australia. Along with this process, they will acquire features of Australian identity defined by the society without any doubt.
A major component of this identity is the range of rights one possess and the respect each and every one of them command by virtue of being an Australian. This includes the respect one receives from law enforcement agencies and government service providers while returning the favour by obeying laws and norms of behaviour in public places. However, a significant number of these young immigrants and their children will be employed in the corporate sector –the engine of globalised workplace. Their soft skills in information technology will be of a high quality as are the skills in handling managerial, professional and technical duties in the work place.
However, at least for the recently arrived immigrant Indians, juggling the two worlds between Australia and India will not be an easy task. Their parents have to leave after six months or a year as they are on temporary visas. Sooner or later these immigrants have to buy an apartment or a small house with a heavy bank loan for a 30-year term for which they will pay a mortgage each month. Life will be subjected to pressures from work and utility companies charging monthly or quarterly for electricity, water and gas bills etc. Local Councils will charge fees for garbage collection and other services. On the top of these, there will be insurance premiums for cars, home and contents, health and any international travel. Children going to private schools will incur further expenses. If there is any money left, they may be able to visit home in India at the end of the year to see the family and friends and catch up. Such trips incur more expenses by way of gifts for the extended family.
These immigrants –not only from India but other Asian countries as well – are fulfilling an important role in terms of Australia’s overall national trajectory for the future. As the population is ageing, Australia requires young, enterprising, hard working residents to compensate. In the global corporate sector or economy, there is a circulation of skilled migrants also that Australia is seeking to capitalise on. Higher education as full fee paying students has become an avenue for the skilled young people seeking temporary and permanent residency.
In cities like Sydney, there are Indian and other immigrants who came 30-40 years ago and almost completed their migratory journey in terms of raising a family, working in the government or corporate sector, paid off their home mortgages, and seen the children become adults with their own families. Most of them consider themselves as Australians and in fact behave like Australians also. There is excess money in their hands, comfortable place to live, frequent travel, knowledge of the place and Australian friends. However, apart from a very few, I am not sure how many of these established Indians are involved in community organisations that involve newly arrived immigrants? Most have been absorbed by the cosmopolitan, consumer culture. Visiting glamorous shopping centres, coffee shops, textile shops, hairdressers, nail cleaners/polishers, theatre etc. is part and parcel of this culture. If they attend any Indian social functions, they may be the ones reserved for their own kind who have adopted Australian identity.
One aspect common to both these categories of Indian immigrants however is the strength they receive from the re-constituted Indian community in Australia. Though as diverse it is as in India in terms of language, provincial cultures and customs, such communities serve as a venue for mutual support, identity preservation, reinforcement of cultural practices, and recognition from the local and political authorities and more. Unlike in the broader population with a Western heritage equally subjected to global consumerist culture and way of life, most Indians are not Individuals though. They are part of a family and a vibrant community.
When such communities in regional areas in Australia are breaking down due to factors not explained here, continuation of immigrant communities like the Indians with all their cultural inclinations, practices, music, food, and artistic performances can certainly add flavour to not only their own life but also to those onlookers such as us who take a daily stroll along the river oblivious to the presence of such a community or do not understand their language. If we did understand their language, we may be able to comprehend the different and deeper meanings attached to the Indian way of life –including the spiritual. In that sense, like many other Sri Lankans, I am compelled to observe and understand the community in action superficially – as an onlooker.