The girls were uncharacteristically subdued as we waited to collect our cases. Then, finding their second wind out of nowhere, they yelled in unison, ‘There’s my bag!’, ‘No, that’s mine!’ I raised a hand to my tired brow. Some things never change, it would seem.
I remember, as if it were yesterday, the day I arrived in Australia. The year was 1970, the date 13 May. My husband and I had first met on 13 May, 1961; and now, nine years later to the day, we were due to reunite after a four-month separation. This time I was accompanied by our two little girls, aged four-and-a-half and three. My husband had laid the groundwork for our migration by coming ahead, and was fortunate to find employment in his field of IT within a day of his arrival. In those days, the Indian Government did not permit us to leave the country with more than 7.50 USD (I’m serious!); but he rose to the challenge, worked hard, saved, and furnished a rented home for our family in the few months before we joined him.
Our decision to pull up roots and migrate to Australia had not been taken lightly. We had debated the pros and cons, one moment convinced that this was the right move, the next, wondering why we were even considering giving up our very comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle—family home, well-paid jobs, and cocooned from everyday drudgery thanks to live-in help to cook, clean and do our laundry. But the bottom line was that we’d long been beneficiaries of an inequitable social system, and the harsh reality was that our privileged status couldn’t last forever.
The emergence of a dynamic and articulate new middle class with a higher discretionary income imposed an even greater strain on already limited university placements, employment opportunities and accommodation, and we worried how this would impact our children by the time they were adults. The times they were a-changin’—and we had to deal with it.
To migrate or not to migrate, that was the question—and this is where Australia entered the equation. With a strong vested interest in boosting her sparse population and labour force, Australia was touted as the ‘Lucky Country’ (despite the negative connotation Donald Horne had himself intended). The Economist ranked Australia as the best country to live in, based on life expectancy, education, gender equality and financial wealth, providing enough incentive to tempt us to pack our bags and leave on the next available flight. Then more reasoned argument took over. The 1970s era was not the melting pot of cultures it is today—nor, from all accounts, had Australia yet totally dismantled her White Australia policy. Would it be fair to our children to subject them to possible racism, however covert? And so on and on we mulled and vacillated, until the pros seemed to outweigh the cons.
As our aircraft prepared for landing, a wave of panic engulfed me as lingering doubts resurfaced. We had left our homeland to start anew in a country thousands of kilometres away, and a lifestyle in many respects light years away…had we miscalculated the odds?
My concerns were momentarily set aside, of course, in the overwhelming joy of being reunited as a family after what seemed like an eternity of separation. There was so much to talk about when we arrived at our new dwelling, and we let the girls prattle on. Our four-year-old took delight in informing her father that her sibling had behaved disgracefully on the flight over, refusing to keep her seatbelt buckled and generally making a nuisance of herself. Her sibling retorted that her big sister was a mean bully and had deliberately spilled orange juice over her colouring book. Their father smiled indulgently as the volley of charge and countercharge intensified, the jibes growing more creative by the minute. Then, at the very instant when Daughter One started describing with graphic detail how her sister had brought up the entire contents of her lunch, and Daughter Two searched desperately for an appropriate comeback, we were interrupted by the strident shrill of the doorbell. ‘Not now, please God’, I thought, ‘I can’t face a stranger now’. Who on earth would want to visit at this late hour?
It didn’t take us long to find out. There on our doorstep stood Mrs A, a parishioner who lived down our street. I was not really in the mood for polite conversation but I needn’t have worried. Mrs A, exuding unimaginable warmth, stopped by only long enough to drop off a piping hot roast dinner for our family on our first night in our new home, letting us know she was only a phone call away if there was anything we needed. My eyes filled with tears—tears of joy and relief and immense gratitude. I knew in that one instant that my husband had found us the perfect community in which to raise our young family.
When we peeped in on our girls later that night, we found them both fast asleep in one bed, cheeks brushing, arms entwined but still managing to tightly clutch their new toy koalas. I turned to my husband and smiled. We were truly ‘home’. Here I had been agonising over whether we might face discrimination based on the colour of our skin, or cause sniggers with our Indian mannerisms, and all my misgivings were erased in an instant, thanks to the kindness of our good Samaritan!
The next morning, we attended Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Nativity and gave thanks. Parishioners gathered around to meet and greet us, making us feel incredibly welcome. From that first day to this, we’ve never looked back. Our then parish priest, Fr Wall, proved a tower of support. Sister Annette, the nun in charge of the kindergarten, was kindness itself. Nothing could impair our sense of inclusion, of bonding and belonging. We made lifelong friends. When we lost an infant child two years later, they lent us every assistance. And when my husband passed away of a sudden heart attack at the age of 49, they were there to support us every inch of the way.
We were fortunate. English was our mother tongue and our culture was largely western-based. Of course, there were still differences in customs and conventions, but these were minor. Faced with traffic signals that directed us ‘Don’t Walk’—and mindful of the chaotic non-observance of traffic rules in Bombay, where you play Russian roulette daily with blaring taxis, speeding limousines, and reckless rickshaws—we assumed we must dash across the street at full pelt. When asked to ‘bring a plate’, was that because our hosts were short of crockery, we speculated. And ‘How’re you going?’ was quite likely to be answered with a factual answer of bus, car or train. Still, we didn’t do too badly, and we always received an understanding smile from our new friends.
We in turn have done our best to repay our debt of gratitude by providing support to newcomers in our own small ways. It takes so little—a quiet offer of help to the diffident new-migrant shopper bewildered by the array of items on a supermarket shelf, a smile and friendly wave to the differently dressed jogger at the local park, or a few welcoming words to the anxious new face at Sunday Mass, looking for nothing more than acceptance. Always, in the back of my mind, even today, is the memory of that kind parishioner who rang our doorbell to drop off a hot roast dinner on our first night in our new country.
[Click here to read more from Melbourne Catholic magazine