Clearing the air on India

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Jospephs Gate

Radio host Preetinder Singh Grewel believes in exploring stories of honesty and harmony within the Indian community in Australia

From India to Australia, scientist to radio star, Preetinder Singh Grewel’s life is a story of new beginnings.

Today he’s best known as the voice for Australia’s Indian community, broadcast loud and clear around the country on SBS Punjabi.

Since joining the station in 2013, Grewal challenged negative narratives about multicultural Australia– telling stories of incredible honesty and cultural harmony, while also tackling the hard stuff like student suicides.

But why does a PhD-packing medical researcher studying cancer suddenly decide he wants to be in a radio studio; changing the world with words, rather than scientific breakthroughs?

“I always wanted to pay my community back for the love and support they showered at me during my early days in Australia,” explained Grewal, to the Indian Sun. (Note, Grewal didn’t quit researching to join SBS, he simply waved a sweet goodbye to the concept of free time.)

Born into a middle class family in Ludhiana, Punjab in 1981, Grewal attended a government primary and high school. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a doctor. “But destiny and hard work took me to scientific research,” he said.

After completing a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Biotechnology at Punjab University, Grewal scored a job as a microbiologist at a multinational company in New Delhi. He was in the big smoke, earning more than he’d ever imagined possible coming from his “middle standard” life in Ludhiana, yet Grewal wasn’t truly happy. “Salary wise, it was a good job but I always felt a bit lonely and found it hard to adjust to the ‘work-life balance’ in New Delhi,” he said.

One day an old university friend asked if Grewal was happy. Hearing that he wasn’t, he posed a life changing suggestion: “Ok, let’s go to study abroad.” Grewal’s friend had family in Sydney, and so Australia it was.

“Of course, I was nervous,” Grewal said. “It was a big decision, I was earning what I never expected. But at the same time I wanted to happy doing what I am doing.”

“In terms of expectations Australia gave me more than what I could ever deserve — lovely families and friends to look after me, a scholarship to study medicine, a strong vibrant Punjabi community who never let me feel lonely, I mean almost everything that I desired.”

Grewal completed his PhD in Cancer Research at the University of New South Wales in 2005. Two years later he received the Merck Sharpe Dohme Award, and he went on to work for some of Australia’s top research centres and laboratories, including: the Australian Red Cross Blood Bank in Sydney, Griffith Institute of Health and Medical Research at Griffith University, the Children Cancer Research Institute, and Monash Institute of Medical Research.

When he wasn’t in the lab, Grewal was involving himself in Australia’s Indian community – making friends, celebrating festivals and learning how to captivate audiences while emceeing events around the country and New Zealand, from Punjabi concerts to beauty pageants. It was this community that inspired Grewal to give back, he said, by fostering “cultural cohesion and positive reporting about multiculturalism”. In 2013, a programming reschedule at SBS gave him the opportunity to do so, with Punjabi programming jumping 500% to five hours per week; the airwaves needed a new voice.

“I had no prior journalism experience but I knew that I am a quick learner,” he said. “With an initial encouragement from SBS Punjabi team in-charge multi-award winner Manpreet K Singh I took this broadcasting challenge.”

Adopting the motto “Socially aware and politically unattached” for his new life behind the microphone, Grewal set about telling stories challenging the status quo.

He recalled one tale that inspires him to this day. “Super-honest” Sikh cab driver Lakhwinder Singh Dhillon returned $110,000 to its rightful owners after they left the money in his taxi. Grewal said: “I still remember Mr Dhillon’s words, ‘Honesty is the best policy, now and forever’.”

Other stories Grewal’s told have snowballed into controversy, including that of “self-styled godman” Baba Rampal. “In this segment I also talked about other so-called ‘Babas’ who are running their shows by misleading people,” Grewal explained. “After listening some people were not as pleased as they thought the fingers were indirectly raised on their ‘mentor babas’.

“In public broadcast one can’t please everyone. I am a student of science and Sikh religion (still learning) and I try to give people scientific and religious doses in the same run. I believe ‘blind faith’ is a dangerous thing!”

When it comes to reporting the big issues for Australian Indians, Grewal believes mainstream media still lags behind. “Most of the coverage creates negativity,” he said, adding that scrolling through reader comments after such articles on social media “is even disheartening”.

That said, while Grewal has no plans to stop plugging the gap for multicultural news, he’s optimistic the media landscape will change as the community matures. “Our community is relatively young and they need a bit of time to settle before they can generate a big spark at the national level,” he said, and added that there are plenty of second generation Indian Australian role models, including NSW Labor politician Daniel Mookhey, cricketer Gurinder Sandhu, actress Pallvi Sharda, cricketer Lisa Sthalekar, Tasmanian Labor politician Lisa Singh, and many more.

“Wait – I am optimistic, greater times are ahead.”

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