Avanti Sinha was a professional table tennis player in India before she decided to start life anew in Australia. An immigration story from a female perspective
In 2006, Avanti Sinha decided to give up everything she had built of her career in India and move to Australia to experience a new life. It was a decision her family was not very pleased with. She was, after all, a professional table tennis player representing India at events such as the Commonwealth Games and Asian Junior Table Tennis Championships. And here she was about to chuck her permanent job acquired through her sports quota, quite the nightmare for parents in a country where a secure job means fulfilment of aspirations.
But Sinha felt her life in India had begun to exacerbate a sense of boredom. She wanted a new adventure, which the highs of table tennis wins could not give anymore. She was ready to start her life from scratch in anonymity.
For a start, she called herself ‘Avan’. “Avanti was left in India, I am Avan now, I am a new person,” she begins the interview.
Sinha insists she just took the decision to move because of her innate sense of adventure. And in her 14 years in this country, she has had the best of adventures while still waiting for more. Importantly, she has revived parts of her tennis career after intermittent breaks, even managing to enter the rankings (more on that later).
So, she packed her bags and came to Melbourne in 2006 to study study hair dressing and cosmetology for two years and worked in the industry which eventually gave her permanent residency (PR). “I liked Australia from the start,” Sinha says, dismissing the notions of loneliness and homesickness that most new migrants allude to. She was used to travelling as a sportsperson, even living for a year in Spain prior to moving here.
However, life as a student was tough, recalls Sinha. “But I enjoyed my time including the struggles.” After she got her PR, her brother also decided to join her in 2010, after which Sinha contends Australia began to feel like home in many ways.
By this time, she was also ready for more adventures. When in 2013, she got an opportunity to work in Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre as a Security Officer, she couldn’t get over it for a while. For one, she had little hope, the process of recruitment being competitive and tough, and two, her dream of working with refugees was about to come true.
Life in Christmas Island was a challenge but definitely ‘not scary’. “The more challenging the role, the more interesting it becomes for me,” says Sinha.
She was introduced to groups disparate and far-flung to experience normal life and progress. As the Security Officer, she interacted with women and children who looked up to her as a safety net in a world full of strangers because of the languages she spoke—Bengali, Hindi and Urdu.
“There were refugees from the borders of Bangladesh and Myanmar. There were also Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis and they felt comfortable talking to me. I was supportive and popular with them,” she says.
As the authorities realised her ability to communicate with the different groups, she was soon posted as an Activities Officer in the family area where she would work as counsellor and also conduct art classes for the refugees. She reckons the art classes were one of the most motivational periods for these people who came from disturbed backgrounds as they needed to feel engaged.
For a little over two years, Sinha remained in the Island. She worked mainly night shifts for five days followed by two days’ off during which time she would explore the island—swimming, snorkelling. Sometimes she taught sports such as basketball to young children. “I really enjoyed my job. Working with the refugees felt rewarding, at least my time with them was appreciated, that was important for me.”
When her contract got over and she got back to Melbourne, Sinha next set her eyes for a job in the Australian Navy. While she did go through the process of interviews, an ankle injury set her back. Her next best option then was to apply for the post of Prison Officer with the Department of Justice and Community Safety, a job she has held since.
If her different callings made her warier of herself, Sinha made a consequential reconnection with table tennis after a gap of nearly 10 years. “That was probably the best thing I did. I started off as recreation, but I saw that if I was training well I was getting results.”
With her work located at Deer Park, a club in Sunshine was the nearest place for her to go to play. She took part in inter-club tournaments. She admits a lot of people did not know she had a sports background and were mainly curious ‘about this Indian woman coming to play’. But because she was showing results, she was invited to play in tournaments that would lead to a spot in the rankings.
What’s remarkable is that Sinha, who took up the sport after a long break, managed to win the Auckland 2017 World Master Games title in table tennis in the over-30 age category. “The players who were playing there knew each other but they had never played with me and didn’t know my game. I just went there thinking I haven’t been to New Zealand. It was a surprise when I won. The Australian team members, the Australians and the Indian community living there showed great support. It was a good feeling.” It would be her highest profile moment since coming to Australia.
With this win, she grabbed the No 6 ranking in Victoria and No 12 countrywide for the year 2018-19. Now with COVID-19, she has not been able to train consistently but hopes to get back. “It’s not like I want to keep chasing medals, but more for fitness and recreation.”
Much of Sinha’s value system revolves around her focus, embracing opportunities and looking at life as one great adventure with a very positive attitude.
A multifaceted woman, she has a creative side to her as well and admits to enjoying her social media presence on Instagram. A glance of it will tell you she has also acted in a short film, loves animals and regularly volunteers at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
“I am sure my life is not very interesting. However, I try not to be a boring person. You have one life, you need to do different things for growth, and to keep life interesting,” she says at the end of the interview.
“I don’t believe when people say Australia does not give you opportunity if ‘you are like this’ or don’t fit into a certain bracket. If you have talent, you do get the right opportunity. You have to persevere too,” she reflects.
Sinha changed her name, her country and accent, to a degree. And as a female Indian immigrant to Australia, she embodies resilience.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas
Connect with Indira Laisram on Twitter
Avanti Sinha was a professional #tabletennis player in India before she decided to start life anew in Australia. An immigration story from a female perspective. #TheIndianSun @a4avan @indira_laisram https://t.co/9JqAXaNDg6
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) August 28, 2020