Sunday, May 31, 2009

The fall of the larrikin

Gloria Manuel. Abdon Johnson. Grenville Fernandes. Veronica Fitzgerald…I’m leafing through the tacky yearbook of my undergraduate class of 1987 at my alma mater: St Joseph’s College of Commerce, Bangalore. I estimate nearly half the class is now Aussie, settled into suburban lives in the far suburbs of Melbourne, the city where Indian students are being attacked.

I am as horrified at the vicious attacks, now on our television screens and in our consciousness. This is happening in Australia? Down Under? The land of Andrew Symonds and Brett Lee, those beer-swilling, cheerful larrikins who play hard but fair? Unfortunately, as this paper first pointed out, Indians have gradually become easy targets for young toughs: At least 60 attacks had been reported till March, before last week’s round of violence.

This, I believe, is the reason. After enjoying one of the biggest booms in its history — starting in the late 1990s — Australia is facing hard, unprecedented times:

l The economy has been contracting since late last year and its central bank predicts it will keep shrinking till the middle of next year.

l An unprecedented drought, the worst in a century, has dried Australia’s sparse rivers and brought thousands of farmers to their knees.

l Nervous of China’s rise (ironically, its biggest trading partner), Australia now plans an unprecedented military build-up over the next 20 years.

l And on city streets, some of its rowdy — but formerly always cheerful — larrikins are draping themselves in the flag and evolving an ugly nationalism reminiscent of Mumbai’s Shiv Sena.

Hate was never a factor for my classmates. Many were a part of the great Anglo-Indian migration to their promised land. Some went for economic reasons. Others went because they felt it was part of their destiny as Indians who were a part of a Western blood legacy. All went to find a better life, and Australia welcomed them.

The Indian economic boom was a blip in the 1990s, and for many of my classmates, it was a time of uncertainty.

As the sun set over the British empire, their grandfathers worked in the railways or the defence forces; many were sportsmen. Those opportunities and privileges fell away for their fathers, some of whom looked towards the oil-rich Arabian states.

My classmates struggled. They were secretaries, clerks, accountants, restaurant managers. They lived in Bangalore’s leafy inner suburbs, or “towns”: Benson town, McIver town, Tasker town, Frazer town. Most lived in tiny but independent homes, their simple, cosy living rooms adorned with extracts from the bible, colourful bless-our-home signs, a cross - and photos of family who had migrated to Australia.

They were cheerful and party happy; everyone knew to jive and do the birdie dance.

No one knew the local language, Kannada — save for some street lingo — but they all managed just fine with Tamil.

No one officially tracked the Anglo-Indian exodus to Australia. But many families, at the back of their minds, quietly prepared for migration.

Last year, I was in Melbourne, visiting one of my closest friends and classmate, Roger Christopher Galway. He told me how he had given his children names - Sean and Jeanette — that would be easy to pronounce in foreign lands, if he ever migrated.

Roger’s story illustrates how thousands of Indians became a part of Aussie society, integrated comfortably into local communities. These are the Indians whose stories you will never hear in the growing hysteria over the attacks on Indian students.

Roger was an impish, cheerful cricketer who nearly made it to the Karnataka Ranji team. His left arm spin was vicious, and on a good day he was unplayable. But, as he said ruefully, he wasn’t ever going to make it as a cricketer.

Roger had — and has — a sharp mind. He taught me the little I managed to grasp of advanced accountancy. But, like many in his community, he joined the Railways (Roger Railway, we joked) on a sports quota. Officially, he was a clerk of some description, roaming the south on his railway pass, playing cricket and dashing around town in his Lambretta. I was unemployed then and thought he led quite a grand life.

As you can tell, we weren’t exactly Indian achievers and St Joseph’s Commerce was no St Stephen’s.

Today, Roger is a true-blue Aussie, living in a three-bedroom, park-facing house with a family van, a car, and yes, that national symbol, a barbie (barbeque). He is a team leader at an Aussie telecom company, but presently on sabbatical, during which he’s also become a realtor. He says about half the kids at the local school are now Indians, many who knew each other back in Bangalore.

Most of their parents were sponsored by brothers, uncles, aunts or cousins already Down Under. This chain was endless, emptying entire lanes in Bangalore. When sons and daughters finally made it to that home and car in the Melbourne suburbs, they sponsored their parents.

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