Torquay couple committed to community service

By Indira Laisram
Arvind Shrivastava and Dr Sunila

From their home in Torquay, every evening Arvind Shrivastava and his wife Dr Sunila appear live on Facebook dedicating an hour in prayers and singing. Called Bhakti Tarang or literally transcribed as devotional waves, their aim is to give some succour to anyone during this pandemic.

“People are very stressed and if we can give them an hour everyday where they can forget everything and absorb the spiritual vibrations, it’s a wonderful feeling,” says Arvind.

Dr Sunila is excited that the live streaming is garnering more than 3.3k views. She rues about having an immature set up right now with the iPhone and wants to “get the proper technology for it” as people sometimes have sound or vision issues. But as videos replaces social life, the Bhakti Tarang is helping them stay connected with the community and world at large.

Community service is not new to the Shrivastavas. Like many early immigrants, they came to Australia and were eager for connectedness. Between fulling their dreams here and expanding their world view, they were circumscribed by the culture and tradition that came with their background and identity.

Arvind came to Australia in 1968 when the White Australia Policy, that stopped all non-European immigration into the country, was still in place. After completing his Master of Engineering from the Institute of Science Bangalore (now Bengaluru), Arvind got a research scholarship at Monash University, which was still new then.

“It was time when you could count Indians in your fingers; Australia only allowed people that were needed such as doctors, teachers or nurses,” says Arvind.

Sunila with Steve Dimopoulous performing puja

After completing his research project, Arvind went on to complete another Master’s by Research and worked as a lecturer at the then Caulfield Institute of Technology that eventually became a part of Monash University. He would continue his career in academic and research for the next 30 years before retiring in 1999 as executive director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centre, Monash University.

Hi wife Dr Sunila, who joined him in 1973 following their marriage in India, also had a successful career. A physicist who initially worked with Swinburne University, she would switch into a career in IT industry working for companies such as Telstra and IBM. “There was nothing like fundamental physics here. It was only a subject for engineering,” she says of her career change.

The social realities of being part of a minority were felt differently by them at the beginning. For Arvind, it was the death of one of his friends in the early years that made him realise there was hardly anyone they knew who could perform the last rituals. For Dr Sunila, it was the inability to understand and to be understood despite being educated in English. “At the time, they also didn’t have any idea about India, so that was the social isolation for me,” she says.

The incident proved an eye-opener for Arvind who came to know there were quite a few Australians who knew more about Hinduism and India than him. This encouraged him to learn more about his own culture.

As few more Indians started coming to Australia, two associations—The Australia India Society and Indian club of Victoria—came into being of which he became the secretary for both.

“From there, we started working towards supporting the Indian community,” says Arvind.

Arvind & Sunila welcoming Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria

By the early 2000s, the Indian community had consolidated in Victoria. One evening in 2008, the Shrivastavas organised a recitation of the Sunderkand Paath (a recitation of one of the seven segments of Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic) and Hanuman Chalisa Path (devotional hymn addressed to Lord Hanuman), which saw about 500 people, a big number at that time, in attendance.

Encouraged by the event, that year they founded the Sankat Mochan Samiti, a not for profit organisation with the aim to provide physical, spiritual and moral support to people.

In addition to the religious functions, they became involved in the social welfare program of the Indian community, specifically supporting family violence victims and and in areas of primary prevention of family violence.

“In 2011, there were more than 10 murders reported in Melbourne and that really opened our eyes,” says Dr Sunila, adding, “In the Indian community, nobody says anything to anybody because of the social stigma and there were no facilities available to help these victims.”

Arvind Shrivastava and Dr Sunila

With time, the Sankat Mochan Samiti secured a place in Hungtingvale in 2014 from where they conducted their various activities. With heavy migration from India, the membership grew and so did the activities. “We had cultural education and kids camps during school holidays where children learn about their culture and philosophy apart from discourses of prominent gurus coming to Australia,” says Dr Sunila.

The dream to own their own premises was fulfilled when Premier Daniel Andrew, on a surprise visit to the Sankat Mochan Samiti, promised an infrastructure grant of $550,000 and another $500,000 as part of election promise.

The resilient trajectory of the Shrivastavas mean that the community will now have their own place to work from. “We have already bought the property in South Oakleigh and work would have been completed but for the coronavirus,” says Dr Sunila. They are hoping that by next year it will be up and running.

With this, Arvind and Dr Sunila have both relinquished their positions from the Sankat giving way to “young minds and new energy” to take over. “It’s our baby that has grown up now and we have to detach, but nobody can take over our baby from us,” says Dr Sunila.

It has always been Arvind’s dream to establish a building of this sort. “You can make so many temples but to have a temple with a social welfare infrastructure with some educational capability and nursing home is great. Ours will be the first generation of Indians spending the last phase of their life here. And what are we leaving for the coming generation? This is not the responsibility of the community but of every individual.”

Arvind singing at an event

The Shrivastavas have always pushed boundaries. From organising the first Diwali festival in 2008 at Sandown Racecourse to establishing Rang Barse, an annual Holi celebration in conjunction with the City of Monash and Monash University, they have leveraged their backgrounds in ways that make their passion to serve the community inevitable.

Arvind received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the Indian community of Melbourne in 2018. His service includes a stint as the City of Greater Dandenong Interfaith Network president from 2004 to 2006. He still holds a position in the Victorian Police Multi Faith Council.

While much of their work is in Melbourne, they have been embracing regional life in Torquay for the past ten years enjoying the friendships of the local community and making an impact among them too. Dr Sunila was awarded the Surf Coast Shire Award for resilience on Australia Day.

Now, at the passionate urging of everyone, they started Bhakti Tarang, an experience they find rewarding. “We are doing for humanity… but, no, for our selfish reason too, we enjoy it,” laughs Dr Sunila.

It is a transition that is full of gratification with the challenge to remain connected always!

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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