At Bairnsdale, ‘charity man’ Kamaljit Rai navigates the pandemic

By Indira Laisram

At Bairnsdale, a regional town in East Gippsland some 281 km from Melbourne, Kamaljit Rai Singh humbly acknowledges that people know him now. He enjoys greetings from every random strangers at shopping centres. But by his own telling, it his wife Kamaljit Kaur who is more the popular one.

The Singhs, at the beginning of the year, became the centre of charity work when multiple fires burnt large areas of Victoria.

Having settled in Bairnsdale since 2009, Kamaljit worked as a chef for many years before opening his restaurant Desi Grill in 2016. And when the bushfire struck this regional town, the Singhs put their restaurant kitchen to best use feeding daily hundreds of people who were directly and indirectly affected by the tragedy.

“We offered free langar (community meal) in the restaurant for one month. We did about 500 meals and takeaways including water every day,” says Kamaljit. “The people who received these services called us God, but we are not, we are just doing our basic duty of helping those in need of help especially when we are blessed to be in a position to do so.”

Kamaljit and his team’s charity work was instantly recognised by Premier Daniel Andrews who shared a Facebook post on the couple’s efforts, which received an overwhelming response.

The coronavirus, is in some ways, cruelly familiar and Kamaljit rues he has not been able to do much to help others. However, he has donated bags of frozen chips to a local church.

The virus has made life hard for everyone including himself. Things got quieter in his 100-seater restaurant from the start of the pandemic, he says. With dining out banned and Bairnsdale still under stage three lockdown, they know they are not going to get to anything near the amount of business they would normally do.

However, Desi Grill has not been shut even once. They started with takeaways when the pandemic struck but there has obviously been a deep decline in revenue. “It’s been seven months now, we are running at a loss,” he says.

Unfortunately, even restaurant owners who may care about their workers have to take a sad call during such crisis. Kamaljit says he had to cut down on staff, which meant he and his wife had to work harder to compensate the work of those no more on the payroll.

It seems increasingly untenable to expect restaurants to stay afloat, but Kamaljit is not willing to give it all up just yet. He built his business through a lot of hard work. Initially, he and his wife lived on the top floor of the restaurant but when the children were born, they moved to a house in the town on rent.

Gradually, they built up the business even making the huge sacrifice of leaving their children in India with their families there for two years so they could earn more money. They went on to acquire two restaurants but sold the other to open a factory in Melbourne manufacturing potato chips.

“I run the factory with two of my partners and that helps sustain the other business. But things are quiet on every front, although the factory is running OK and things are picking up a bit at the restaurant,” says Kamaljit.

For now, Kamaljit is shuttling between Melbourne and Bairnsdale, while his wife mainly mans the restaurant at Bairnsdale. “I have to keep coming to Melbourne and stay put here for few days a week for my business but I will never leave Bairnsdale. It is a lovely place with some of the best people there,” he says.

Kamaljit came to Australia in 2005 on a 457 visa as a chef. Coming from a village in Barnala, Punjab, in India, he recalls how he instantly fell in love with Bairnsdale, the green quiet vastness of the place reminding him of his verdant village in many respects.

It’s also a town that has given them a lot of love and respect and the family has has never faced any racism or unfriendliness at all.  “Now, people recognise us because it is a small place. They are also very helpful. It feels so good.”

Asked how he got involved with the bushfire relief work which put him on the spotlight, Kamaljit thinks it is due to the values he learnt in life being a Sikh. “When I go to the Gurudwara, people donate whatever they can, I feel the need to do the same. Everyone is blessed with everything, some with more. Not everybody has the heart to spend on others, but when people are going through bad times and you do your bit to help, it reverberates a certain feeling of happiness.”

Kamaljit is aware the current pandemic poses risks to life and business but he has learnt the ropes of struggle and survival.

“I have struggled a lot in Australia in a way no one has, I believe. Before I got my permanent residency and even after, I struggled. My wife and I have worked 18 hours every day for five year at a stretch,” he reflects, adding, “Now God has given us everything. I am very happy.”

Kamaljit knows the goal is to weather the storm. And he is in the right country to be able to do that. “Australia makes me happy because what I have earned here, I would never have been able to do that in India. I am able to drive a big car with my job as a chef. But I got it all because I worked hard. If you work hard in this country, you always reap the benefits.”

Clearly, there is a lot to despair for but the Singhs appreciate what they have now. And they hope to make a splash again once the tide is low.

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

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